Header image
Michael Sheen
| 3RD AUG 2023

Zeno Thinks: The Menace of social media

Gentle reader, brace yourself.

I am a member of a secret organisation dedicated to disobedience, anarchy and wanton destruction.

Fellow members include Olympic athletes, media figures and senior royals.

No, not Just Stop Oil. Or the Rotarians. Or, heaven forfend, the Bullingdon Club. But the real deal: The Beano’s Dennis the Menace Fan Club.

I raise this because The Beano celebrated its 85th anniversary last week, with a special edition featuring the likes of Harry Styles, Adele, Stormzy, Marcus Rashford, Jill Scott and David Attenborough.

The story was everywhere – as was the revelation that the ever-youthful comic still shifts more than 50,000 copies every single week, bucking the general dwindling of print circulations. (By comparison, The Guardian, the last time it published its circulation back in July 2021, was selling 105,000 copies.)

These numbers are particularly interesting in the wake of the previous week’s Ofcom news consumption report.

Its big headline was that light-hearted content on social media is drawing children and young people away from traditional news outlets. Cue much wringing of hands.

Now, The Beano isn’t news, and its readers are the age group below the youngest surveyed by Ofcom. But it casts some light on the nuance beneath the headlines.

Firstly, one in two 12-to-15-year-olds are in touch with news - and this figure has remained constant over the years.

Like teenagers since the 50s, they are most interested in sports and sports personalities (23%), music and singers (15%), and celebrities or famous people (11%). But also animals and the environment (9%), and serious UK news (8%). Compare that list of priorities with The Beano cover stars – not just famous for their day jobs for their wider, ‘newsy’ social roles, too.

Secondly, how younger people access news is complicated.

The Beano comic itself is just one outlet for its characters – the most famous, but reaching a fraction of its website, for instance. (Personally, I pray for the day we see a multi-million-dollar Beano Comic Universe film franchise.)

This is reflected in 54% of 12-15-year-olds accessing news via social media, with TikTok their most important channel. This caused some consternation: TikTok may now be accepted as a serious channel for news, but not as a channel for serious news.

But this is to confuse “news media” as in “publishers” (“news brands” as Ofcom has it) and “news media” as in “any medium that lets you access what’s happening in the world”.

Most people, of all ages, don’t follow lots of news brands on social media. They follow people – some of whom may also follow some news brands, and who may share content, or opinions shaped by what they’ve read. So, news brands do have influence … but one or two steps removed.

One generational difference is that young people use social primarily for entertainment. That means fewer traffic- (or revenue-) driving links being dutifully shared, and more meme-ified screen grabs, video clips and original content, informed by news brands.

Factor in the fact that people use several social apps, and for different purposes (TikTok for entertainment, Twitter for breaking sports news), and this creates a whole patchwork of overlapping channels – something The Beano grasps.

The anniversary edition was designed to spread beyond the physical comic.

The combination of a heritage brand, nostalgia and a time-hook appealed to traditional news, which filtered down through social channels.

That was helped by the celebrities featured, of interest both to The Beano’s direct audience and special interest media – sports outlets could lead with Rashford; Harry Styles stan accounts could also get in on the action.

And given that the heart of the story was shareable imagery, underpinned by an irreverent sense of humour, it satisfied the hunger for entertainment, not just information.

The Beano may be 85 years old, but it understands its readers and it understands modern media, which puts its future in a bright place.

Now, where’s my membership card and peashooter?