Joe Hanson, 22, of Chicago likes to watch television, but rarely on his TV. A folder on his computer lists an inventory of downloaded cable and network programming -- the kind of thing that makes traditional media executives shudder.
"I've got Ali G, Arrested Development, Scrubs, The Sopranos," Hanson told a visitor recently at his apartment on the city's southwest side. "South Park, The Office, some Family Guy."
From the avalanche of Nintendo games alongside his TV to his very roommate -- acquired through the online classified site Craigslist -- Hanson channels the characteristics of a generation weaned on digital technology and media convergence.
He is an avid gamer. He tinkers comfortably with digital media -- from creating Web sites and blogs to mixing his own hip-hop music files -- and like most people his age, he has nearly constant access to his friends through instant messaging.
In addition to thumbing his nose at notions of "prime time" by downloading his favorite shows (without commercials), Hanson almost never buys newspapers or magazines, getting nearly all of his information from the Internet, or from his network of electronic contacts.
"Papers are so clunky and big," he says.
If those words are alarming to old media, they are only the beginning of a larger puzzle for today's marketers: how to make digital technology their ally as they try to understand and reach an emerging generation.
The eldest of the millennials, as those born between 1980 and 2000 are sometimes called, are now in their early to mid-20s. By 2010, they will outnumber both baby boomers and Gen-Xers among those 18 to 49 -- the crucial consumers for all kinds of businesses, from automakers and clothing companies to Hollywood, record labels and the news media.
The number of vehicles through which young people find entertainment and information (and one another) makes them a moving target for anyone hoping to capture their attention.
Advertisers and media and technology companies, mindful that young consumers have migrated away from the traditional carriers of their messages, have begun to find new ways to reach them. They are creating advertising and short videos for mobile phones, for instance, cell networks with dedicated game channels, and US$1.99 TV programs to download to iPods and PCs.
And while the emerging generation's deftness with technology is a given, researchers say the most potent byproduct may be the feedback factor, which only accelerates the cycles of what's hot and what's over.
"We think that the single largest differentiator in this generation from previous generations is the social network that is people's lives, the part of it that technology enables," said Jack McKenzie, a senior vice president at Frank N. Magid Associates, a market research and consulting firm specializing in the news media and entertainment industries.
"What's hard to measure, and what we're trying to measure," McKenzie said, "is the impact of groupthink, of group mentality, and the tendency of what we might call the democratization of social interaction and how that changes this generation's relationship with almost everything they come in contact with."
MILLENNIALS IN ACTION
Wen-Wen Lam, 23, a marketing representative at LinkedIn.com, a professional networking site, said a colleague was bewildered by her decision not to take her laptop home one evening.