I'm 29 now.

My school was one of the first 30 to get Facebook. I have my actual initials as my Twitter handle. I even remember pre YouTube video memes.

In other words, I was a part of the first generation of social media, and now I'm f*%^&$g ancient.

Millennials at Cannes Lions

There is a lot of conversation about Millennials and social media at this year's Cannes Lions, and for good reason.

We now, for example, make up the majority of the work force. And we have very different expectations from brands - both those we work for and those we buy from. Having grown up pummeled with advertisements, our bullshit meters are high.

It's good that brands are finally figuring out what it means to take us seriously - as consumers and employees.

And it will be immensely frustrating to realize that the group of people just 5-10 years before us are a whole new animal.

Social technology shapes social experience

The first generation of the internet was all about consuming. There was more information available more rapidly than ever before.

The next generation of the online experience was about creating. Blogger allowed people to write. Friendster then MySpace then Facebook allowed us to replicate our offline social graph online, and do the things we liked to do online, but with our real life friends.

But then an interesting thing happened. While at first technology mirrored offline social relationships, it soon came to shape them.

Facebook started humbly; a place to see who else was in your classes. And it soon evolved a set of very Facebook-particular behaviors such as "poking."

But as it moved to a place of cultural normalcy it started to influence the actual nature of our relationships. What it meant to "friend" someone took on new meaning ("well, they have 67 friends in common with me, so I guess I'll accept), as did how couples think about how they announce their relationships.

Indeed, as Facebook added photos and then timelines, it became a place not just to list your friends but to actively shape a story of ourselves. Zuckerberg famously said: "The question isn't, 'What do we want to know about people?', It's, 'What do people want to tell about themselves?''

Brands have had to adapt to the world Facebook, Twitter and other social media wrought. Rather than always talking at us, we expect our brands to talk with us, and join the global meta conversation about the things happening around us.

This has taken a half decade or more for advertisers to grok. Even today, brands and agencies are only slowly placing these social technologies at the center of their strategy and budgets.

Snapchat, Whisper, Secret: Welcome to Hyper Generational Divide

The dominant social technologies come to shape social norms and expectations. So when that technology shifts every few years, it accelerates and accentuates the difference in different age cohorts.

Millennials were the first social media native generation. But in many ways our experience with technology is radically different than those just a few years younger.

For one, teenagers today experience the world primarily through mobile devices. This always-on experience is different than the desktops and laptops we had. It makes every moment capture-able, and has led to a different idea of how we derive value from experiences.

It used to be that doing things was what created the value; now sharing it (and getting the validation and response of likes, hearts, and shares) is at the center of how we ascribe meaning to experience.

Another feature of the technology-wrought culture of whatever we're going to call the group after the Millennials? Conversations that never really start and never really end.

Millennials used social media to talk more; we help transitioned the normal way of connecting from talking to texting & typing. But the always on nature of mobile means that there is no distinct beginning and end of conversations. What's more, conversations aren't limited to a single medium, but a message in text might be answered in WhatsApp or Facebook or somewhere else entirely.

Even more, the group after the Millennials is in the midst of two social technology megatrends that will, inevitably, shape social behaviors, in ways we don't yet understand.

Snapchat has normalized expiring, ephemeral messages, and there is much more to how it could change culture than just a rise in sexting. On the negative side, could it increase the chances at bullying if people feel they can get away with saying meaner things? Or might it, on the other hand, help people be vulnerable and say things they would not have otherwise, because the repercussions of ill-received messages don't stare one in the face permanently? Is there any potential for positive cognitive impact by allowing us to distinguish between what's fun and enjoyable or informative in the moment and what deserves to be preserved for all time?

Similar questions arise from anonymous apps like Whisper and Secret where people can share what they're thinking and feeling without attaching their identity. Of course the fear is that it will increase bullying and digital cruelty. But it's not unreasonable to think that the opposite could happen, as well, and people could find support that they never knew existed.

If anonymous apps become a normal and fixed part of the social landscape, one thing that's for sure is that people will increasingly view themselves as a combination of public and private again, rather than just a persona shaped by the images they share on Facebook and Instagram.

Brands need to follow culture, not technology

Each of these changes has massive significance for advertising and brand messaging that go far beyond what channels to advertise and communicate within.

Ephemeral messages might mean that brands need to stop trying to be a part of every essential moment and just share inside jokes with their fans.

Anonymous messages might mean that brands participate in conversations that are much scarier and less controlled than they're normally used to.

The real reminder is that successful brands follow culture, not technology. It used to be that stars and celebrities were the exclusive shapers of culture. Today, it's the collective participation of people in new social technology that shapes cultural norms.

But it's changing faster than ever.

How to keep up? Hire a 16 year old. Hire a whole bunch.

The truth is that when it comes to real understanding of new technology and culture, the experts aren't the speakers on stage at Cannes but their teenagers at home.

Venture capitalists have realized this fundamental truth in recent years and are starting to respond. Some are hiring young associates. Alsop Louie, for example, hired Alex Banayan as a 20 year old, netting them a perspective fundamentally different than their middle aged partners (not to mention more than a few "meet the youngest VC in the world" posts).

Others are participating with college-run venture firms. First Round Capital, for example, backs the Dorm Room Fund, a student run firm that operates in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and the Bay Area.
Advertising agencies could take a page from this book. Why not hire a 16 year old (or better, a set of them) to be a part of strategic planning processes for brands that touch their demographic? Why not try new ideas and new campaigns on this group and see whether they respond or scoff?

Ultimately, agencies win by bridging the gap between brands and their audiences. When the audience changes as fast as today's young people, the only way to stay ahead is to bring them in the fold.