by Jeff Gomez
In a New Yorker cartoon from 2006, a distraught-looking young man stands near the control panel of a crowded elevator, his hands near the glowing buttons representing the elevator’s floors. Turning to his fellow passengers, he says, “I’m sorry, I think I just pushed ‘shuffle.’” This cartoon wouldn’t have made much sense before the iPod’s ascendance as the ubiquitous way to listen to portable music—not to mention, for a new generation, pretty much the only way to listen to music.
In the same way that Napster did, Apple’s device changed the way millions listen to music. More interestingly, it altered how people buy and even think about music. Just as we now see the word shuffle in a new light, the word download has connotations it didn’t have ten years ago. At the same time, these new zeitgeist terms are replacing phrases and words such as “record store.” For the generation coming of age in the new millennium—let’s call them Generation Download—all of this is normal.
While every group besides this new generation is talking endlessly about paradigm shifts, changing habits, and new memes, for these kids it’s not just business as usual, it’s the only business they’ve known.
They are the first generation to come of age not knowing anything but an existence with the Web. They can hardly imagine a time when the Internet did not exist or a world in which everyone didn’t own a cell phone. These are kids who are wirelessly connected to each other at all times through text messaging, live blogging, or sharing videos and photos at social networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook. It’s an entire generation that has never known a classroom without a computer or a math class without a calculator, and can’t remember a day when they weren’t carrying around at least one electronic device at all times.
These aren’t just gadgets, and these changes aren’t superficial. An iPod hanging out of the pocket of a millennial youth is not the same as the slingshot that hung out of Dennis the Menace’s red overalls fifty years ago. These new devices are epoch-defining inventions rapidly transforming the way an entire generation engages with entertainment. This goes far beyond the standard argument of digital versus analog.
For these kids, the notions of space and time have been almost totally erased: all communication is instant and all information is just a click away. Even formerly physical objects, such as records and books—not to mention TV shows and movies—have been blasted apart and broken into minute digital slivers and chunks. And rather than try to put them back together again, Generation Download is sifting through the rubble, interacting with each piece of entertainment literally bit by bit.
The Music Model
One of the places we’re seeing the biggest differences in the way Generation Download thinks and acts—as well as where we’re witnessing the ripple effects this new behavior can have on society and economies—is in music. And what’s changing in this new culture is not just the style of music, but the form (or format) of music itself, with clear implications for books.
Throughout the last century, every time a new generation reached its teens, the sudden change in adolescent taste caused the engines of pop-culture production to stutter and stall. Then came a period of trial and error, as the entertainment industry churned uncertainly until a new musical style caught on and thrived.
This change is happening again. This time around it’s not merely one musical style that’s triumphing over another (as Punk was usurped by New Wave in the early 1980s). What we’re witnessing is a new way of learning about, buying and listening to music. In fact, the recent rise of mash-up culture—combining elements from disparate sources in order to create something new, such as laying down vocals from Destiny’s Child over the music of Nirvana—shows that, stylistically, Generation Download can’t be pinned down in terms of genre or sound. The various music scenes are instead amalgams of sounds, attitudes, and styles; less hip-hop than hodge-podge.
This has perhaps been best personified by producer Danger Mouse’s now legendary pairing of The White Album by the Beatles with The Black Album by Jay-Z, creating from these two works a new listening experience, the download-only release The Grey Album. This “record”—never available in stores, only on the Internet—was an instant sensation, and has been since downloaded well over a million times.
For Generation Download, the music they consume exists solely as the songs themselves. There’s no package, no sleeve, no liner notes (except what appears online). Song titles appear only in the window of their iPods, and the music itself blasts through white earbud headphones without passing first through a pair of speakers. When kids today bother with compact discs, it’s usually only so they can burn a bunch of downloaded files onto a CD in order to give it to a friend.
For an industry so used to selling a physical product, this has been incredibly hard to grasp. But some executives are finally beginning to face up to the fact that, whereas earlier generational shifts in musical consumption occurred from format to format (those raised on cassette versus those raised on eight track or vinyl), digital music has finally erased the need for a format at all.
All of this has revealed that Generation Download cares only about the content and the experience of the material; the songs themselves. This generation—which is already the most hustled and sought-after in terms of advertising dollars and disposable income—has discovered an important point: the music is all that matters. What this has meant to the music industry has been nothing short of monumental.
Digital music sales topped $1.1 billion in 2005, which accounted for 6% of the overall industry. That may seem like a small number, but consider that just a few years ago digital sales were 0% of the industry and you can see in those figures just how quickly consumers adapt, and how quickly habits—many ingrained for years, some newly learned—can change.
Heading for the Era of AADD?
Which leads us to the inevitable question, Will the same pattern apply to books? Of course it will. In the same way that this new generation is eschewing traditional forms of media (not bothering to go the movies or watch television when shows are broadcast, and not buying CDs in stores), they will also be open to new methods of buying and consuming reading material.
The very nature of Generation Download shows us that readers will one day (and sooner than we think) be more than willing to forgo an ink-on-paper book, and will not mind cozying up to their computer screens (or the screen of some device) instead of a physical book. We can see this coming because we have already seen how an entire generation has traded in their stereos for computers, not to mention an assortment of other portable electronic devices that keep them in constant touch with their digital worlds.
During a temporary BlackBerry outage in 2007, Matt Richtel wrote an article in The New York Times entitled “It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Ping.” The article talked about how (and why) BlackBerry users felt so frustrated, stranded, and lonely without their BlackBerries (after all, there’s a reason that the devices are nicknamed CrackBerries). But the article also tied the BlackBerry outage, and its feelings of withdrawal-like symptoms, to a more fundamental need of humans to stay connected in an increasingly electronic age:
Experts who study computer use say the stated yearning to stay abreast of things may mask more visceral and powerful needs, as many self-aware users themselves will attest. Seductive, nearly inescapable needs. Some theorize that constant use becomes ritualistic physical behavior, even addiction, the absorption of nervous energy, like chomping gum.
Electronic content and networked books will undoubtedly help feed the “visceral and powerful” needs that digitally connected people are often feeling. In fact, the quest for new stories that once drove readers to devour mountains of books now manifests itself in the young technophiles who feel the ardent tug to constantly be in contact via their electronic gadgets.
But it doesn’t stop there; this drive has spilled over into content itself. Users also want to interact with what they’re reading, watching or listening to; they want to shuffle their playlists, remix their music, and alter how or when they watch movies and TV shows.
Richtel also discussed a condition known as acquired attention deficit disorder, a term used “to describe the condition of people who are accustomed to a constant stream of digital stimulation and feel bored in the absence of it.” Pretty much anyone under the age of thirty qualifies for being accustomed to a “constant stream of digital stimulation.” In our digital society, there’s no escaping it. Ten years from now this will be true for nearly everyone. And so to expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.
Generation Download starts out with reading skills and levels comparable to recent generations. A 2006 study, funded in part by Scholastic, showed that reading habits in kids declined sharply after the age of 8, and continued to drop as kids became adolescents. According to a Scholastic press release, “Almost half of the 15–17 year olds surveyed say they are low frequency readers.” So the generation who devoured Harry Potter has shown that they craved the content of those specific books rather than the act of sitting down with just any good, long book. Where they lose the love of reading is when they become teenagers, which is also when plugging into an iPod looks cooler than carrying around a paperback.
“Next to the new technologies, the scheme of things represented by print and the snail-paced linearity of the reading act looks stodgy and dull,” critic and author Sven Birkerts has said, while many educators report that students are less and less able to read, or analyze, or write with clarity and purpose. Who can blame the students? Everything they meet with in the world around them gives them the signal: That was then, and electronic communications are now.
This is how high the stakes are for book publishers. If you don’t adapt to the habits of this new generation, you can forget about selling much of anything to them and those who follow. Yet, so far, most publishers are reacting cautiously if not indifferently — the same way that the music industry discounted the invention and rise of the MP3.
Jeff Gomez, senior director of Online Consumer Sales and Marketing for Penguin Group USA, is the author of five books. This article is excerpted from his new book, Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan). To learn more, visit the book’s blog at www.printisdeadblog.com.
If you’re either chuckling or frowning as you read this, thinking that print can’t be that dead if—here you are—reading words on paper you can hold in your hands, this fact is not lost on either me or my publishers. It reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons from the mid-1990s in which the recurring character Sideshow Bob, upset at the cultural destruction caused by television, threatens to blow up Springfield if TV is not immediately taken off the air. To issue his threat, Sideshow Bob appears on a large television screen during an air show, warning the townspeople and elected officials that he’ll destroy the entire population if his demands aren’t met. Right after signing off, Bob reappears and grouchily touches upon the absurdity of the situation, telling the crowd, “By the way, I am aware of the irony of appearing on television in order to decry it. So don’t bother pointing that out.”