Society is always in forward motion. Each new decade brings improvements across multiple facets of life, from medicine to standards of living, education to opportunities. That said, for every two steps forward is one step back. For Gen Z and Millennials in particular, with every advancement in technology comes a setback in Clothespin Communications.
What is Clothespin Communications?
At its simplest definition, “communication” means “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” In the modern-day era, communication has become flat: Screens are the primary vehicle of consumption and reception; emojis now serve as stand-ins for facial expressions; opinions are compressed into a single “like.” The advent of technology—with all the apps and smartphones that have come with it—has inarguably changed human-to-human interaction. Most noticeably, there are fewer humans involved.
This is where Clothespin Communications comes in. Similar to Clothespin Shopping, Clothespin Communications is the current predicament in which Gen Z and Millennials are forced to constantly communicate in a flat, faceless fashion and then endure the consequences. They hold their noses with few alternatives to the forward march of technology. Life for them is dominated by screens and social posts (Millennials average the most screen time at 205 minutes per day while second place goes to Gen Z, whose lack of in-person social interactions has created an uptick in loneliness). Recently, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, younger generations are increasingly looking for ways to regain genuine human-to-human interaction.
Clothespin Communications & COVID-19
One cannot dive into current communications trends without first digging through the effects of coronavirus. Worldwide lockdowns have shed new light on how we communicate as it pertains to our day-to-day lives, from work to dating, to casually chatting with loved ones. Work-wise, especially with initial studies, a surface-level observation would confirm how the majority of workers appeared to enjoy the work-from-home lifestyle. Indeed, the majority of Tylt audiences voted in favor of working from home indefinitely.
However, digging beneath the surface reveals a heightened sense of dissatisfaction and, in some cases, increased unhappiness. A recent article by Axios highlights that working from home may have more negative tradeoffs than previously assumed. Apart from the feeling as if they must be logged on for longer, Axios cited that 40 percent of employees surveyed felt a lack of focus and productivity while others felt an acute stress that negatively impacts their work; a further 40 percent admitted to feelings of isolation. In many ways, then, the COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated the Clothespin Communications phenomenon.
But in mulling over this revelation, is this much of a surprise? It’s true that one 38.2 percent of Tylt voters believe that reading on screens in bad for one’s health. However, when diving deeper into the demographics behind the votes, nearly 38 percent are ages 18 to 34, making them the majority vote for #ReadingScreensBad. And, surely, with regards to Axios’s mention productivity, 68.9 percent of Tylt voters believe feelings such as procrastination are contagious—one can only imagine how much more apparent this sentiment has become through quarantines and lockdowns. This golden work-from-home life, then, may have initially seemed ideal, but is now something that is directly affecting workers’ mental states. Being back in an office that’s safe, bouncing ideas and emotions off of coworkers, is what would appear to get the productivity juices flowing—not remaining inside one’s home in pajamas all day.
Most glaring is a side effect called Zoom fatigue, in which many of those who find themselves in back-to-back video chats feel worn out by the end of the day. This is not only caused by the aforementioned negative side effects staring at screens may have on the brain, but the inorganic way—primarily, the lack of an actual human presence—in which these video calls are configured. Concentrating on one person’s face so up close, for example, actually tires us out, making it more difficult for us to concentrate and, therefore, be more productive. That, while factoring in all the other setbacks video calls can bring—connection issues, picture and sound quality—should highlight the importance of in-office teams, as well as the other person-to-person socializing that used to happen.
“Technology can bring us together some of the way, but there’s really no direct substitute for in-person, face-to-face communications,” says Matt Johnson, professor of Consumer Neuroscience and Neuromarketing at Hult International Business School and author of “Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains. “Humans are deeply social creatures, and we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years interacting face-to-face…[body language] establishes warmth and connection between people, and is difficult to express if you’re not face-to-face with the person.”
Unsurprisingly, this sentiment—as well as the necessity to form meaningful relationship by interacting face-to-face first—loudly rings true in terms of online dating. Incorrectly viewed as the preferred way to meet the possible “one,” Gen Z and Millennials are tired of finding love in virtual places. Tylt data found that 83.8 percent of voters would much rather meet their significant others off of dating apps, a further 80 percent believing dating apps are solely for flings as opposed to meaningful relationships.
Most tellingly, voters told The Tylt they’re holding on to the hope of meeting their significant other in real life as opposed to an online environment (even the COVID-19 trend of FaceTime dating is barely favorable despite a mandated lack of human interaction). For Gen Z and Millennials, dating apps have mostly been the norm for romance. Love at first swipe appears to be nothing more than a clever pun, with most of the younger dating world waiting to lock eyes with The One across a crowded bar, not through their profile picture.
Being Human (Again)
This may be a strange concept to digest. Gen Z and Millennials are the first young adult demographics to have technology completely dominate their lives (born in 2010, the youngest members of Gen Z arrived when the iPhone had already become a key tool in peoples’ lives). This is the generation who grew up with technology, who revel in the lives it has made for them. Yet, The Tylt finds younger generations to be telling a different story in ways that, although not very obvious, remain indicative as to how they seek authentic human interaction without the use of a smartphone.
Take the 65.9 percent of Tylt voters who said that book clubs are more about socializing than actual reading, with 35.9 percent of respondents falling between the ages of 25 and 44, right within the older and younger Millennial demographic. This makes sense considering that Millennials in particular have gravitated from eBooks to printed copies (and actually visit libraries the most out of any generation). Then there’s the overwhelming 81.8 percent who admit they still shop at department stores despite gravitating towards the ease of online shopping. As pointed out previously with Clothespin Shopping, the trend of Gen Z and Millennials to shop at department stores has been viewed as a way to escape technology, getting back to humanistic social time. Even COVID-19 hasn’t stopped a potential mall renaissance.
Let us remember, then, that humans are naturally social creatures. UC Berkeley points out how the need to be social is deeply ingrained into our biology and evolutionary history—survival in earlier eras was dependent upon forming communities that could provide food, shelter, protection and, eventually, company for one another. Although each new decade was marked by its own distinct changes, human interaction and in-person social gatherings remained a consistent part of life, particularly for younger people whose formative years depend on socializing.
“Teens need connections,” states Pam Schuller, program director of the Teen and Mental Health Leadership Program at The Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services. “When we started [our leadership program], we gave our high school students the option to either come into the city after a long day at school to eat pizza and work together or meet for a short time on video chat. They unanimously chose to come in person.”
Schuller further describes how the teens involved with the program created a separate group chat specifically catered to its initiatives and to keep in touch when they weren’t meeting for pizza. “[The meetings and texting] fill different needs,” she explains. “The group chat fills the need to stay connected, but, coming in in person creates the connection and meaningful bond that makes them want to keep in touch.”
Similar to Zoom fatigue, the position of being constantly surrounded by flashing screens and beeps has worn younger demographics out despite their having grown up in a predominantly digital environment. Much in the same way that one may purchase obsolete items such as record players for their nostalgia, Gen Z and Millennials are looking back to older pastimes in order to regain genuine communicative interactions. When attending live events, 44 percent claim to put their phones away, something mind-blowing for a generation that—while not the majority percentage—supposedly has to document every tiny moment with an Instagram story or Tweet. Even more impressively, of this 44 percent, 59 percent of respondents were ages 18 to 34. Additionally, while one would assume an attachment to their phones would beget a constant need for WiFi everywhere, a majority of 54.8 percent don’t even want the ability to use their phones on an airplane. Gen Z and Millennials are so worn down by a constant connection, they’re looking to the skies for some form of escape.
Resistance is Phygital: Brands & Combatting Clothespin Communications
So how do brands balance the desire for human interaction with the convenience of a digital world? The answer, to that, is phygital. The obvious portmanteau of the words “physical” and “digital,” phygital is a consumer experience venture that many companies have successfully implemented. It’s the marriage between the old and the new to create something, well, newer, eradicating the issue of Clothespin Communications while preserving technology’s progress.
Many industries that appeared to be stuck in either a solidly non-digital or all-digital experience have already started to adapt phygital ways, or adapt to their work environments in response to COVID-19. Many tech companies like Facebook are looking to make the work-from-home trend permanent. Others such as Salesforce are looking to implement certain social distancing measures—six feet of separation on line to the elevator, ridding the office of shared snacks—to prevent another outbreak.
On the consumer end of things, some brands have already gotten the phygital memo. One successful example is digital-first beauty brand, Glossier, which cultivated its consumer base and brand messaging entirely online before opening a brick-and-mortar store. An extension of their online presence, the store also allows for consumers to connect with the brand in a way that’s unavailable to them online, a venture so successful that Glossier is now valued at $1.2 billion as of EOY 2019.
Physical-first brands, too, are dipping their toes into the phygital sphere. The Wall Street Journal reports how many banks are looking to incorporate more digital channels to their overall ATM experience. BCG Digital Venture’s Agnieszka Zimolag details in a Medium post how although the majority of consumers believe banking should involve a seamless online experience, they’d prefer to go into a physical bank for services such as discussing loans. It’s the bigger things in life—like loans and mortgages—that human-to-human interactions excel at the most, providing not only authenticated information, but a calming sort of comfort that only another human presence can provide.
Therein lies the key to a brand’s phygital experience—keeping the big stuff human in order to reinforce camaraderie and a sense of trust. In a post-coronavirus world, brands would be wise to keep the faces to their organizations human while maintaining the convenience of a digital experience. However, this face must remain authentically human—social avatars don’t count, as 69.5 percent of Tylt voters find digitized influencers to be more creepy than anything else. Otherwise, companies will become as flat as the technology they rely on too much to reach consumers, and eventually will fall by the wayside.
It’s safe to say that technology isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it’s even safer to say that technology will only expand further, reaching deeper into many other aspects of our lives. It is yet unclear as to what lasting changes the coronavirus will bring, but this much is certain: months in isolation has stressed the importance of in-person human relationships.
It is up to brands, then—and the humans that run them—to keep users grounded in a reality that exists outside of the digital realm. Human experience can be mimicked, but not replicated. Bringing back a friendly face to communications can help set the stage for better interactions as a whole, for brands and beyond.