I remember when I first found out that there were subtitles on DVD. They were such a novelty and a novelty I insisted on indulging in. No rhyme or reason behind it. At the time (we’re talking late 90s to early 2000s), subtitles or closed captions were considered to be something only for people who were hard of hearing. I remember being told you’ll miss the movie if you’re reading the subtitles, but I was convinced this was the only way for me to consume content. Oh how far we’ve come since then.
Today, subtitles and captions are on almost every piece of video content out there, on social media and beyond. And Generation Z is leading the charge!
A recent survey by the captioning charity Stagetext found that four out of five people in the 18-25 age group use subtitles all or part of the time, despite having fewer hearing problems than older generations. By contrast, less than a quarter of those between the ages of 56 and 75 said they watch with captions on.
How did this happen? And why? All legit questions which we’ll be answering today as we take a walk on the young side with the generation that is quickly changing how we make and consume content.
Content consumption evolution: an influence on subtitles and captions
When Instagram first came out it was a platform aimed mostly at millennials looking to preserve a memory in time with images. Millennials were some of the first adopters of social media, and while we had started with status updates on Facebook, we were eventually tapped out of our words and looking for something else to tout.
Instagram came in with pictures, and we were off to the races. Everyone out there was uploading pictures of their lunch and their shoes.
Millennials left, right, and center, were commemorating every single occasion with a post in the beloved Clarendon filter. We were the curated image generation, putting so much thought and effort into every piece of content that went out there and Instagram was a huge influencer on our lives in that regard.
This curation extended into every aspect of our lives, from our food to our outfits, make-up, homes, and beyond.
And while we were busy curating every aspect of our existence, TikTok was shaping a new era in content creation and consumption - of the minute, unedited video content with all the handshakes and half-eaten and mumbled words, watched on a tiny screen in a public space without the luxury of audio always being heard out loud.
TikTok, the video content platform, has taken over from Instagram in the lives of Gen Zers. With the rise of TikTok, has come a new type of content, one that has been characterized by not just videos but by subtitles and captions.
While many like to attribute Gen Z’s love of subtitles to Netflix’s wide range of exceptional foreign language TV, which I do think did have something to do with the emerging use of subtitles, I don’t believe it to be the main contributor to the cause.
Before Squid Games took the world by storm, Gen Zers were already on TikTok, watching videos in the subway on the way to work, without the luxury of crisp clean audio, but rather with the background noise of a loud screeching train halting at every station stop accompanying the sound coming in through their headphones.
Why does Gen Z use captions?
Subtitles are almost an essential part of online content now as younger generations take in social media videos alongside seven other things that they’re doing. Subtitles give its audience easier access and a clearer picture of what they’re consuming as they go through the world.
No longer is watching videos on your phone something you do in your free time, but rather something that Gen Zers are doing while they watch Netflix, eat a sandwich, cook a meal, and/or make a smoothie all at the same time.
Generation Z is moving at a much faster pace than Gen X or baby boomers ever have, and subtitles are helping them zero in on one thing while also keeping up with everything happening around them.
The main reason Gen Zers use subtitles is that they usually consume different media all at once and want to be able to go between screens while still taking in as much information as possible. They can be on their phones with Netflix on a second screen, quickly flick their eyes up, read ahead, take in the whole scene all at once, and then look back down at their phone.
Closed captions help them speed-track their consumption, picking up just what they need and then going back to whatever else they were doing.
Content creators go global
Gen Zers are connecting with content creators down the road and across the globe through the tiny powerhouses in their pockets.
As younger generations have started to rely more and more on the device in their hands, the world has gone from being 6371 km wide to being 720x1280 pixels on a 6-inch screen.
Content creators from a range of countries, speaking in different languages and accents are having their content picked up by audiences in different countries and subtitles have become essential to make sure their audience can easily understand and consume their content.
The range of accents can impact viewing experiences and closed captions help bridge the gap between content creators and their diverse audience.
Subtitles on streaming services
The largest increase in subtitle usage can be seen across streaming services. Netflix’s user survey found that 80% of its members use subtitles or closed captions at least once a month. While subtitles have long been an often overlooked aspect of TV, they have become a necessity on most streaming platforms.
Reasons for this sudden increase in read-watching among young people can be attributed to international audiences watching shows with hard-to-understand accents, such as British accents that are heard in popular Netflix shows Peaky Blinders and Derry Girls.
US viewers have found it difficult to understand the accent of many British actors, with Tom Hardy from Peaky Blinders topping the list.
Some actors are also employing a more realistic diction, with murmuring and mumbling that is difficult for even perfect ears to pick up without some assistance.
On top of that, there has been a boom in foreign-language series on streaming services.
Netflix’s most popular show to date, Squid Game, is South Korean. That and many other foreign-language shows, such as the Colombian series Narcos or the French Lupin are enjoyed by audiences who can’t understand a word of what is being said on the screen.
The most interesting use of subtitles was seen in Season Four of Netflix’s Stranger Things which made a splash amongst its predominantly young viewers. The show took something that is typically bland and turned it into a creative art form of which the cultural impact will be felt for years to come.
The memes have made their way onto social media with screenshots from Stranger Things frozen with incredibly descriptive sound-effect captions at the bottom of the screen.
Some of the other more popular Stranger Things subtitles that now live as memes on “out-of-context” Twitter accounts include “Eldritch thrumming” “Wet footsteps squelch” and “Wet writhing.”
Netflix has revolutionised its captioning on English-language shows with an English Timed Text Style Guide, an ever-changing set of rules for subtitles.
According to its director of globalisation, Kathy Rockni, subtitlers are encouraged to “Describe sounds, music, and even silence. It’s important if it adds to the emotion.”
This shift in subtitle use has created a growth in demand in a long-undervalued industry, language service providers (LSPs) that provide subtitles, captions, and dubbing—just like here at LEXIGO.
On the flip side, diplomatic translation services are finding their translators are choosing to make their way into TV, creating a shortage of linguists in the industry.
Subtitles and captions are the future
We have entered a new era of captioning, an art form that began with intertitles in silent films and transformed into open captions in the 50s (captions burned onto the screen with no option to be turned off) before the BBC finally adopted closed captions for TV shows in 1979.
The new and improved captions of today provide so much more context, nuance, and creativity than ever before, allowing young viewers with short attention spans to easily come in and out of their multiple screens without skipping a beat.
Generation Z has changed the course of closed captions and subtitles in pop culture, making them more than just a way to deliver information but turning them into a creative art form that allows viewers to step into a new world of squeaky squelchy subtitles that can make anyone cringe, regardless of whether or not they can actually hear what is going on.