Emojis & Hunger Strikes — Youth & the Internet

This is based on a talk I gave at UNICEF’s Global Innovation Meeting. Watch the talk here (with apologies for the low video quality).

Young people are spending increasing hours interacting with technology. The majority of this interaction growth is happening on social media, messaging and video platforms. What do we need to understand about the way young people are using these tools to be able to effectively engage them?

Digital natives & ICT usage

Credit: Pew Research

The diagram above shows that there is high variation in internet use across much of the developing world — from 76% of the population in Chile and 67% of the population in Venezuela to 11% in Bangladesh and 8% in Pakistan. Research shows that internet use is highly correlated with per capita income, so, in general, the richer the country the higher the internet use.

On an individual level, it was found that you are much more likely to use the internet if you are young, educated or speak English.

Vietnam shows how stark this can be. Pew Research reported that 70% of young Vietnamese (18–34) use the internet — compared to 21% of those aged 35 and older. Holding all other factors constant, 83% of Vietnamese who can speak or read at least some English use the internet vs. 20% of those who can’t. It is evident that young people drive internet use in developing nations.

Digital Native: a young person who has 5 or more years of experience using the Internet

According to the International Telecommunication Union, the population of digital natives is expected to more than double in the next 5 years — that’s huge! It is particularly interesting to study the ratios of youth internet usage to overall internet usage.

International Telecommunication Union
International Telecommunication Union

These graphs show that there’s almost double the internet penetration amongst young people than on average across the population in developing countries. This ratio is particularly high in Africa.

When isolating income, it can be seen that low-income countries had almost 2.5 times higher penetration amongst youth than on average across the population.

With the youth bulge in low-income / developing countries, digital natives are only going to continue to set the trend for internet usage.

Evolution of the Emoji

KPCB / Wired

Using visuals to communicate dates back to our neanderthal times, with cave paintings being the first format of an ‘emoji’.

Emojis have evolved rapidly from the early editions of the ‘punctuation emojis’ in the 90s. Emojis are becoming increasingly personalized and dynamic — with Bitstrips allowing users to make their own set of emojis. Bitstrips was recently acquired by Snapchat, the company behind the Lenses feature, which has turned young users’ faces to everything from cheerful dogs to exploding tomatoes.

Young people are increasingly using messaging not just as a tool for communication, but also as a tool for self-expression. Emojis add layers of meaning and nuance to text. Perhaps less obvious, but young people are also building a sort of ‘personal brand’ for themselves in their messaging style. For example, my hallmark has been my heavy use of the tears of joy emoji (😂) and exclamation marks! Perhaps it’s to build a ‘personal brand’ of optimism and energy?

Businesses that are listening to the preferences of their target audience have realized that young customers have a strong preference for engaging with brands via social media. Young people tend to tweet @ a brand to tell them they were dissatisfied with their service rather than call up customer service. Dimension Data also found that direct in-app or web chats are a preferred communication channel for young people.

In that nerve, conversational commerce is becoming a big deal. Automating or semi-automating customer service and purchasing through bots, for example, is increasing in popularity — and if you’ve seen Facebook’s plans for messaging there’s clearly huge revenue potential.

A young Thai shopper’s user journey

Looking at the user journey above, the shopping journey was initiated whilst browsing Instagram when the user found a dress they liked. They then decided to message the retailer on Line to ask about the product, and then payment details & confirmation was exchanged and the shipment was placed. This flow from visual search & discovery to messaging to close the deal is becoming the new norm.

Jad’s Three Profiles of Young Internet Users

Given the above, is it possible to characterize typical young internet users’ behaviour online? Here’s my attempt.

‘The Observer’: Listens to music online and watches lots of videos online, selective about which social networking sites they participate in, probably cares a lot about privacy, a ‘logged out user’, mainly uses the internet to maintain relationships, big on instant messaging.

‘The Butterfly’: On most social networking sites, engages in social content creation, actively shares content, potentially buying/selling online, writes reviews, also uses the internet to join online communities and develop relationships.

‘The Broadcaster’: Wants to build an online presence and following, experimental use of multiple platforms with favourites, active participant in the production of web content and digital culture, instigates new online communities, one of the new media players.

movements IRL → movements online → movements IRL…

This isn’t an attempt to group individuals, but rather a way to categorize behaviours. Observations indicate that there’s a clear flow between the profiles. For example, the major awakening across the Middle East in the last decade and the cultural/economic shifts caused an upward shift from Observers to Butterflies & Broadcasters as young people saw the need to speak up and take action or felt empowered to openly express themselves and found a space to do so online.

“Young people are more intelligent, more open, they use the internet, they have open skies…they are not prone to believe propaganda the way their parents fell for it.” — Bassem Youssef

Hunger Strikes & The Power of Video

Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese indie band, decided to get on a lifeboat and sail out into the Mediterranean to film a 360 video of them performing a song to raise awareness of the plight of refugees. Through the global reach of the platform and the highly immersive 360 video, they were able to take their audience on the journey with them & build emotion + raise awareness of the cause.

Omar Farooq, a young Bahraini creator that focusses his content around social good, live-streamed a 26-hour hunger-strike to raise funds for charity. The challenge was that he’d abstain from food or drink until he raises £120,000 for the charitable cause. He managed to hit the goal after an intense 26 hours, during which he also crossed the 200,000 subscriber mark.

Jay Sajer is #PuttingAFaceOnIt

Young Saudi women like Aljuhara Sajer (aka Jay) are changing the game for women in the Kingdom. Jay built a following on YouTube with beauty videos where she’d only show her hands. When she built up enough confidence she took a big step and #PutAFaceOnIt. She started showing her face in her videos, becoming one of the first Saudi women to do so. Beyond this, Jay uploads fun conversational videos with her father who is one of her biggest supporters! She has also built a sizable online business and has become a decorated online entrepreneur. This is one of many stories of women who are pushing society forward in the region!

Our asks.

From the above, we realized that today’s digital natives are the early adopters of technology and the agents of change instigating technological progress. We also saw how changes in technology have shaped how young people communicate, trade and build communities. We analyzed how today’s youth tend to behave online and observed that these behaviours are not fixed in time, but rather flow circumstantially. It is clear that young people today have the power to push society forward through their positive use of technology.

As a member of Generation Y, here are my asks to anyone who is looking to craft youth-targeted interventions:

  1. Listen to us more. We want to be heard — and we’re constantly looking for more and better ways to voice our thoughts.
  2. Talk to us directly — using our language and through our channels. And most importantly, be authentic.
  3. Let us lead the change. Because we can. Youth-led youth-focussed interventions are usually the most effective.
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