I first heard about Generation C in September of this year, at eurofoo, from Nat. Nat had picked it up from a New Zealand magazine, Idealog, here, which I’ve since received in the post and would recommend. Idealog refer back to trendwatching.com, who first pick up on the meme.
Gen C is a generation of people defined not by age but by activity. The story of how I heard of it has involved two appropriate C-words already: Community; Connectedness.
There are more:
Gen C make their own content. Gen C form strong communities, and care about communication. They want to be connected. Gen C take on broadcast media on their own terms: They get involved, and are happy to make their own celebrities. Gen C control their own lives; they’re happy with complexity and continuous partial attention. Gen C work and live creativity: they work in creative industries, don’t look down on making and crafting, and want to adapt mass market products in acts of co-creation.
Okay, it’s a big game to see how many C-words you can find… but it doesn’t invalidate the observation of this growing group.
I mention Gen C because it’s a trend-watchers’ and marketing observation of a move which is closer to the territory with which I’m more familiar, the internet. The internet sensibility is infecting the world of physical stuff.
What is the internet sensibility? It’s what makes Web 2.0 successful: It’s the ideas of social software, responsive dev teams, niche services and openness. From a more person-centric point of view, we could call it simply empowerment.
There’s a growing community on the internet that realises it is able to easily create new services, and swap ideas and expertise. The realisation is spreading to physical things: Craft and microelectronics are growing in popularity; clothes and home furnishings can be home-made and look professional.
Just as Web 2.0 is built around communities and the peer relationship between content producers and the former audience, Make and Craft magazines are manifestations of the spread to stuff. They are representative not just of the home-made, but an appreciation of growth of (public) creativity and the sharing of expertise. In larger markets, YouTube and MySpace put garage bands and home production alongside much larger efforts; online communities help people learn expert skills, such as photography or car modification.
And products aside, Dan Hill’s analysis of Lost shows this pattern in media; RED at the Design Council put co-creation to use in civic service design.
Gen C or the internet sensibility, call it what you will. It’s an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is easy to see: products, media and services, online and off, that tap into this new world will do well. Take for instance the engine of mobile communication. It drives entire content and connection industries and shows no sign of slowing. Another example: Canon’s Welcome to the playground advert is the perfect brand response to the playful, learning communities at Flickr (thanks Ben for that observation).
But here’s the threat: Gen C isn’t merely about communities, creation and connectedness. It expects those things. Generation C expects:
- Co-creation. There is a growing constituency which is unhappy with shop-bought products being closed boxes. Adaptive design shows how products should allow themselves to be dissembled and augmented.
- Sharing. Media sharing isn’t just people getting something for free. As Disney says, piracy is a business model, and it’s popular because it re-orients content from that-which-is-broadcast to that which participates in recommendations, gifting and co-consumption.
- Sociality. I’ve talked before about how my printer should be a social letterbox. Sooner or later it’ll be frustrating that it’s not, not just an idea (though the Presto‘s getting there). I inhabit my overlapping social lives alongside my products; why do they ignore that context?
- Networks. Social networks, the internet, and the wireless network in my home. The network allows products to exist in my home instead of on my PC, as with the Availabot–not taking advantage of this potential seems absurd. Physical computing, and the tangible interactions which much accompany it, will soon be the norm.
If these expectations aren’t met, people won’t just be individually frustrated. The proliferation of products in the market means that consumers have become more discerning than ever, and the various networks mean that knowledge and opinions are disseminated widely.
Coupled with short-run manufacture and the shared expert knowledge – that internet sensibility again – this dissatisfaction will lead to rival products which do meet the needs of Generation C.
Existing products, media and services will either adapt or be replaced.
In the course of this essay I’ve touched on some responses to Generation C and the products they’ll demand, which here we’ve been referring to as 3C products:
- Participative and social media, shading from fan involvement in big media productions like Lost, to peer production like Ze Frank. There’s the middle ground of the disintermediated professional too, such as lonelygirl15 and Order Order. Phonetags is such an enabler too.
- The confluence of social software and physical computing, as a way of making products that exist in our sensory worlds, and can therefore be part of our social experience of the environment (think activities like giving and hiding, and abilities such as peripheral vision). I’d point at both Availabot and Jaiku here.
- Adaptive design, as an approach to making products that aren’t black boxes but involve the end user (ugh, a horrible world) as a peer contributor. Now my camera has a processor in it, why can’t it run a Java app that takes over the interface and gives me a custom interface, designed by me and perfectly appropriate for my purposes?
While the above concepts are useful in thinking in this area, I find more leverage in the shift from the product being something we own to something we live alongside. That takes us into activities, experience and interaction design, which I’ll discuss tomorrow.
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