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This piece is largely referenced by my work and the outcomes of it over the last seven years working in South Africa’s digital advertising industry, and previous anthropological work I did for a number of companies in the African continent.
I would like for it to be a starting point to understand the current intersection between identity, digital technology and content production.
Content is key in creating a self-narrative
It is common amongst content creators in their early 20s, and across all ages, to build and transform their identity by publishing content populated by their real lives’ experiences on social platforms:
“I post all sorts of things, for instance here I was skydiving. This is something I wanted to do for a long time. It was very scary but I did it. Here, I went to Koi with my friends, I really like Asian food. I post all sorts of things I like, or things I do with my family, like holidays, etc”. (Political sciences student, 29 years, Gugulethu).
I spent over two hours at the house of the student who lives with her mother in Gugulethu — a township in the outskirts of Cape Town — , works part-time, and is studying to become active in politics.
During the immersion she expressed a lot of views on a number of topics, which was aligned with her social networks’ activity.
An avid Twitter user, she explained to me that the way she manages accounts varies as per the kind of people she interacts with, and the image of herself she wants to present to others. While her Facebook account is filled with experiences from her life, and activities she does with her close ones, her Twitter account is a space to voice opinions and follow those of influential people.
The key take out from my interaction with her and others in the same age group, was how their engagement with content has the power of transforming their narratives of themselves. This is an important reflection for content publishers that want to appeal to a younger audience.
Engagement with their own content is expected and reciprocated
Ayanda posting content about her real life produced a series of consecutive interactions, including those she had with brands answering complaints she posted on their Twitter accounts. The obvious conclusion is that her relationship with content, and the brands, was not static. There was a dialogue generated by what she posted and the other end of the platform, in this case the retailer’s social media team. Such an exchange gave place to a fluid relationship between her and the brand and/or product she criticised or loved.
In the context of current discussions around new media transforming the nature of communication, this finding seems relevant to better understanding the expectations customers have from the content brands publish. Brands should be aware of the possible implications of what they post subsequent to customers’ engagement with their products and their content.
Content validates human experiences and self-narrative
Snapchat founder, and one of the most influential people of 2014 according to Time magazine, Evan Spiegel, delivered a speech that referred to such a transformation and how the platform (Snapchat) is changing the way in which humans’ self- narrative is written at present:
“The selfie makes sense as the fundamental unit of communication on Snapchat because it marks the transition between digital media as self-expression and digital media as communication.”
Spiegel’s point opens up what, I believe, underlies engagement with content at present, especially amongst the youth. It consists of the constant validation of whatever is published. Content is powerful because besides reflecting experiences as they are lived, it has the ability to make them real, liked, emotional, engaging, and it claims ownership of them once they come to life in the online space.
If such is the case, brands should be finding ways to connect people’s identities, and the way they construct them on the digital realm to key calls to action on their various online properties. The message across platforms should be aligned to current constructions of the self –i.e. taking more risks by living on the edge- through content published in real-time.
Take outs for content publishers and brands
The consequences of the current relationship with content amongst the youth vary but there are a few key practical take outs that publishers and brands should consider:
1. Content that follows the flow of the relationship with the recipient and co-creator
Pages, sites, apps, blogs and forums must produce content that is fluid, exchangeable, and can easily be distributed from app to app, or website to app or social platform, (i.e. Buzzfeed).
2. Visual with a focus on identity
Easily distributed content tells a story. Users are more likely to engage with stories that concern themselves directly. Displaying visuals or graphics with which your user type can identify him/herself is effective (i.e. display of people’s profile types as opposed to generic images of content).
3. Content that focuses on active actions and experiences
Similar to current users’ content creation, curated communication should enhance people’s real-life experiences, and as much as possible facilitate the creation of them (i.e. Meerkat app).