by Rhian Sasseen on September 10, 2012
According to the media I am a “Millennial.” This means something along the lines of entitlement, attachment, obsession: I am addicted to my smartphone, I depend too much on my parents, I expect someday to have a job, and sooner rather than later. If you were born sometime in the years 1984 to 2000, chances are that you’re a Millennial, too.
I got a Facebook account in the early spring of 2007, my junior year of high school. This was big news in the halcyon early days of the post-Myspace era; previously, Facebook had been the domain of college kids, a rite of passage obtained as soon as the eager high school senior received his or her hotly-anticipated “.edu.” On behalf of my peers, sorry: with the influx of under-eighteens, Facebook became annoying in a whole new way. But there was still a level of privacy, a mark of secrecy that was extinguished as soon as it opened up to anyone over the age of thirteen, and the decidedly over-thirteens signed up in droves; suddenly, my peers and I were confronted with the peculiarly generational problem of etiquette in the face of the dreaded mom-request.
At first, I didn’t quite know what to do – accept? Deny? – And risk offense? My solution was to accept – first the “hip” relatives, then the teachers interested in how their former pupils were now doing, and then finally anyone who could prove any sort of personal connection to me – but I did this with the private caveat that I would not censor myself, that whoever was so desperate to connect with me over the digital ether would have to take me as I was, warts and all. But I didn’t have much to worry about; by the time I got to college, the purpose of Facebook had changed, and turned professional.
Gone was the youthful danger that Facebook once promised. “Isn’t it weird?” an old roommate asked early in the summer, reflecting back on this transition. “The stuff we’d post on each other’s walls – we’d just openly talk about drugs and alcohol and whatever. Everyone had a party album – that was what Facebook was for.” No one on my feed posts party albums, at least not the kind of 2 a.m. bacchanals that have since moved to other, less open social networks. Nowadays, Facebook maintains an air of best foot forward-optimism, an ambition-fueled innocence that leads to statuses filled with post-graduate humble brags and earnest political campaigning in the guise of AlterNet and Huffington Post link spam. (What are the trending stories for Republicans, I always wonder.) Save the dark moments, the late night moments, for the anonymity of Tumblr, that neurotic’s mirror of worried self-obsession. On Facebook, the narcissism has turned benign, even cheerful.
Enthusiasm, too, is the marker that divides the Facebook old from the Facebook young. Even in a post as mundanely informative as a simple news link, the difference between the Internet-native and the Internet-immigrant remains clear. The Millennial will pull a brief quote from the article in question and add a short affirmation at its end, a “YES,” a “good point,” a “fuck yeah!” Not true for their father, mother, grandparent: the pull-quotes are long, the commentary rambling. Sometimes when I look at my Facebook feed I feel like I’m looking at an onslaught of early-stage dementia: are these people really related to me? Do they blather on this much in real life, tacking on four paragraphs of opinion to a three-sentence news clip? And then I remember: oh, right. They don’t really get how the Internet works.
This might be the most salient realization, the sign that one either does or doesn’t really understand the function of an Internet persona: live-blogging on the Internet isn’t really live-blogging, unless the participant is in the midst of a nervous breakdown – and then it’s entertainment. I’m kidding, mostly; it’s true, though, that the self of the social media is the perfectly-crafted self. It is the product of editing: how many minutes have I passed in front of my computer screen, staring and re-reading each status, tweet, Tumblr post – is it witty enough, self-deprecating enough, wryly intelligent enough for my audience of liberal arts lit geeks? Know thy audience: unless the Millennial is drunk, everything that he or she writes will be self-edited.
The non-natives don’t always quite get this, and the results are the predictable mix of adorable and exasperating, overwrought and over-punctuated enough to truly earn our affectionate eye rolls and serious sighs of loving condescension. Perfectly respectable lawyers, journalists, and school teachers on my feed become wide-eyed innocents when faced with the challenge of a Facebook status update. “Is it just me, or…??” Yes, yes, it is always just you. Now let me introduce you to the first rule of the Internet…
Our parents’ reactions to the Internet are for the most part funny and for the most part harmless, except when they’re not. Since graduating, I’ve suddenly realized that most of my relatives tend to view our generation as essentially only good for updating Twitter. The self-service aspect of social media is indeed integral to the technology’s image of itself, but that’s certainly not all that it’s good for, and to believe that is to believe in a sadly-limited vision of the intellectual capabilities of the Internet era. My favorite Twitter, for instance, belongs to Open Culture, a website that links to free and open-source cultural and educational medias all day, every day. Open Culture, and sites like it, offer an alternative to the demurely capitalist image of success as self-interest promoted by so many of our elders’ thoughts concerning social media. No wonder industries such as journalism are supposedly dying if all they have to offer are top ten lists; the popularity of sites such as Longform and Longreads prove that what people want is information, not content.
Today we are entrenched in Web 2.0; what will Web 3.0 have to bring? Someday my own children will be laughing at me – but what will their Internet be? Anarchy and cat videos, I hope – and great ideas fermenting amidst the connective freedom of the Web. If we rely on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on whatever future iterations of social media that the Internet will bring as merely mirrors of our own achievements, rather than the means by which to educate ourselves and others, than by 2020 even Maru might have a LinkedIn.