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Gen Z and younger Millennials have been referred to as digital natives who grew up in front of screens, and the implications of that have been discussed ad nauseam. However, and more interesting, in my opinion, is the fact that this population has grown up in front of (and behind) the camera. This generation is like a group of child stars, surrounded by paparazzi in the form of their parents and peers. This unusual comfort being on camera has informed which products and apps get traction and which features resonate with users. Moreover, I believe it’s important to consider the implications of an entire generation that has such ease in front of and behind cameras.
For me, on the other hand, growing up in the ’90s and early ’00s, pictures were reserved almost exclusively for special occasions and distinct moments that were worthy of being captured. Quite simply, I could probably count on two hands the number of moments each year that were deemed picture-worthy—and that included school picture day.
With the rise of digital cameras, the cost of taking a photo and the marginal cost of each successive one decreased. A couple years ago, Benedict Evans wrote a great piece about this phenomenon and the subsequent virtual ubiquity of digital cameras that are part of the supercomputers that we carry around with us at all times. More recently, he wrote about this topic in the context of Snapchat and the camera as a sensor. Both of these posts serve as a worthy framework for beginning to understand the environment in which college-aged and younger people have grown up.
The list of products and apps that has either intentionally taken advantage of this group’s comfort with being on camera or inadvertently benefited from it is lengthy: Snapchat, Dubsmash, Musically, Lively, Periscope, Facebook Live, YouNow, Houseparty, Triller, FaceTime, Tribe, Marco Polo, Masquerade, Spectacles, and a whole host of others that haven’t reached as significant scale or raised as much venture funding. Moreover, this infatuation with being on camera has led to a host of other features, trends, and products.
For example, Wanelo launched a feature called “models” to allow users to share pictures of themselves wearing certain products. The selfie, in and of itself, is a manifestation of this behavior. My friend, Ellen DaSilva, was on to this back in 2013 when she created a blog called the “Year of the Selfie,” taking (at least) one every single day for a year. And it’s no coincidence that the selfie has persisted well beyond being a fad. It’s one of the most expressive, informative, and frictionless forms of communication—Apple even built a native selfie feature! The front facing camera and proliferation of imaging certainly augmented this trend, but it also takes feeling comfortable and generally predisposed to being on camera for this trend to take off with a particular segment of the population. Then, products like Facetune, AirBrush, Perfect365, and Facie emerged to let people smooth / touch up / “photoshop” their selfies on the fly. Even many Snapchat lenses have a “beautifying” effect. And during a trip to Tokyo earlier this year, I saw this taken to the next level in the form of Purikura, essentially a photo-booth version of these apps.
So, besides understanding the willingness to be on camera and how it informs first order products and features that get built, what are the other implications of this behavior? Ultimately, I think understanding these implications is what allows for creating second order products (e.g. apps for touching up selfies) and other social products that are underpinned by this behavior. For instance, I believe that constantly being on camera as well as taking pictures of yourself and others results in being comfortable with a lack of privacy (aside from an inflated level of vanity). When you’re always recording or expecting to be recorded, you grow accustomed to extreme transparency, as if you’re permanently on the Truman Show. And when users have that mindset from the get-go, there is more flexibility when it comes to the types of products you can build. Additionally, I believe that this “photo-centric” behavior leads to a lack of spontaneity or overall willingness to be spontaneous. Not only is there generally an over reliance on texting and the ability to perfect what you’re going to say before you send it, but also when you feel like you could be on camera at any time, you’re prone to behaving like you’re on stage. You don’t want to do anything that could portray you in a less than favorable light since you never know when cameras are rolling. However, one of the most interesting upshots of all this is that when cameras are away and moments are being captured, they are typically some of the most important ones. You are present and immersed in the moment. As the marginal cost of taking a picture has decreased to zero and the volume of photos has increased “exponentially,” the value or importance of a single photo or video to have for later has dropped precipitously, as well.
So, if you’re thinking about this topic, building something related to it, or generally enjoy discussing the future of social products, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.