04 Aug

Me vs. We: The Sociological Ramifications of Being Raised by the Web

In recent years, along with increased talk of Web 2.0, there’s been talk of the “We Generation.” What does this mean? And is it a fair label?

First, a quick review. We’ve heard various appellations for recent generations: Generation X, Generation Y, the Millennials, Echo Boomers, Generation Z, Generation C. You can’t really get a straight answer on what’s what, but most sources I’ve looked at say that Generation X follows the Baby Boomers and includes those born between 1965 and 1981. It’s actually 1980, but everyone says give or take a few years, so I did (just to get my wife, born in ’81, in my generation). Us Generation Xers are relatively small (48 million in the US); Gen Y, which follows us and which we’ll say is from 1982 (exactly) to 1995 (give or take five years), numbers about 71 million. They’re sometimes called the Millennials, too. But when they end and the next generation starts is a little up-for-grabs.

It’s also a little up-for-grabs what to call this most recent generation. Some have, quite unimaginatively, dubbed them Generation Z, and there are plenty of other names floating around, but many of them center around the idea that these kids (born circa 1995, we’ll say — just to keep it simple) are products of the Digital Age. Hence names like “The Google Generation.”

My current high school students are straddling the fence between Generation Y and The Next One. They have had cell phones around their entire life; same with the internet and email; they’ve never had a rotary phone; the Soviet Union has never existed in their lifetime; they have only known two presidents; the Berlin wall hasn’t existed. The list goes on.

But in terms of media use, I’m seeing some very different trends in my current batch of students from those who were in high school a mere five years ago. Consider that YouTube was created in February of 2005. The blogging craze took off in 2004. The very first iPods came out in 2001. Google became a publicly traded company in 2004. MySpace was founded in 2003; Facebook was founded in 2004. Web 2.0 was labeled as such in 2005. Wikipedia was launched in 2001. The first commercial camera-phone in the U.S. was available in 2002.

Indeed, there’s no doubt that these kids are living in a very different media environment. And because they’re so connected to the vast network of social technology, this generation has earned another title: “The We Generation.”

A quick Google search of “we generation,” however, exposes an important fact: the phrase was coined by a research firm by the name of Iconoculture, which describes itself as follows: “Iconoculture is the leading consumer expert, helping marketing decision makers in corporations and agencies enable growth and innovation.” Blah, blah, blah. Not interested.

In short, the label “we generation” is all about marketing and demographics. And so it’s a term used not to explain the larger sociological motives (** self-important “ahem”**) of the generation, but rather to exploit their consuming patterns.

I call horseshit.

Horseshit on the marketers’ label and horseshit on the implications of it. The “we generation” is still as narcissistic and egocentric as the generations that came before it. Proof? Well, first off, your Facebook profile page. There’s not just an “About Me” section, there’s also large text boxes for you to fill with “Activities,” “Interests,” “Favorite Music,” “Favorite TV Shows,” “Favorite Movies,” “Favorite Quotations,” and “Favorite Books.” And then, if you’re really into yourself, you can post multiple pictures of you. And maybe some videos of you talking into the camera.

Which brings us to Exhibit B: vlogs. Nobody’s in your bedroom but you. But since you’re really interesting, why not record yourself saying inane things that you clearly didn’t think through before talking. Or, alternatively, you could just post a video of you doing nothing.

But if you don’t have a webcam, be sure to tell everyone what you’re doing. These are called “Status Updates.” You can maintain them not only on Facebook, but also through Twitter, where the “status updates” are referred to as “tweets.” I don’t fully understand Twitter; its only purpose is to allow people to publish their tweets. They call it micro-blogging; I call it low-effort blogging.

But maybe I’m being unfair. Twitter’s explanation for why anyone would use Twitter: “Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, or colleagues””especially when they’re timely.” And since I haven’t tried it, maybe I shouldn’t knock it.

As for vlogs, there are some that are quite clever. I find kevjumba, a YouTube vlogger who just graduated high school (class of 2008), to be pretty amusing sometimes.

And in my opinion, Ze Frank takes the cake as the best vlogger in the short history of vlogging even though he’s definitely a Gen Xer. Ze’s project was to produce a video every weekday for a full year. He started on March 17th, 2006 and produced some hilarious content. But it wasn’t just comedy. It also featured original music, clever re-enactments, dialogues with himself, insightful commentary, lots of self-deprecation, challenges and contests for his viewers (whom he dubbed “speed racers”), and some excellent writing. It was called simply “The Show” and it actually got popular enough to not only garner a huge following and community but also to bring in some revenue from sponsors. (One of my favorite episodes explains the Superbowl.)

The Show’s success demonstrates a key facet of the “new media” revolution: some user-created content is actually good. As Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, points out, “with access to a camera (a means of production) and a blog (a means of distribution)” anyone can create content that can compete with what established corporations produce.

Yes, much of it is utter crap, but that’s how all media works, isn’t it? I call it the “Mostly Bad” syndrome. Most of the movies available for public consumption are bad. Most books are bad. Most magazines, radio stations, and TV shows are bad. I mean, do you know what percentage of TV shows have ever ended up having a run of over five years? Only 7%.

Actually no. I just made that up. But I bet it’s pretty small.

And sure, only a small percentage of those narcissistic vlogs and blogs and tweets are any good, but when you’re dealing with millions, you only need small percentages to have a lot of quality.

So that’s one reason the media environment is changing.

Another reason is that hackers keep changing the rules of the game on the web so that stuff you’re supposed to pay for you can get for free. Napster ran from 1999 to 2001. In its wake, other sites like Audiogalaxy offered free music until they were shut down in 2002. But then bit torrent gained popularity. And though bit torrent requires a little more computer savvy than Napster did, the younger generations have that savvy.

The internet community also encourages the viral spread of information. When I say “viral,” I’m not referring to computer viruses. Virals are ideas (sometimes called memes) that propagate via word of mouth (or word of cellphone/text messenging/chatting/blogs, as it were). So, for example, when John Stewart airs a video montage exposing Republican talking points in the most recent Washington scandal, lots of people see it. It will get posted on various blogs. It might survive on YouTube for several days or weeks before getting a takedown notice. It will make it onto iPods and other handheld devices. In short, not just those who have access to Comedy Central on their TVs will be able to see it. The viral web makes it free and abundant.

Considering, too, that the younger generations have some contempt for large media corporations, like the RIAA, which sued its potential customers, it really all comes back to the primary tenet of Web 2.0: decentralization. Quality content, available for free, and propagated over multiple “new media” media puts some power back into the hands of the people.

So perhaps there is some legitimacy (sociologically speaking) to the label “the We Generation.”

Fans of Harry Potter provide an instructive example. When Warner Bros. bought the rights to all things Potter (except the actual books) in 2001, they started patrolling the internet and shutting down the various sites that used copyrighted language. Most such sites were simply fan sites (again with the user-created content) created by tweens and teens. So some guy by the name of Alastair Alexander created a site called Potter War (now defunct but available via the internet archive). Potter War mobilized people to boycott Warner Bros. products, and ultimately, the little people won.

I heard of the Potter War while listening to an NPR interview with the aforementioned Clay Shirky, whose Here Comes Everything explores “what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.” In that interview, Shirky spoke of a blog called Gnarly Kitty run by a 22-year old woman living in Bangkok, Thailand. Normally, Gnarly Kitty’s concerns are mostly about pop culture. Recent posts include discussions of her MacBook, the iTunes music store, her cell phone, and Heath Ledger. It’s in many ways the quintessential personal blog.

But in September of 2006, there was a military coup in Bangkok. Though they shut down the traditional press, the military didn’t think about the blogosphere (and probably wouldn’t have had the capability to censor it anyhow). So Gnarly Kitty was one of the more prominent voices exposing the coup. As Shirky observes, “when ordinary citizens can produce the types of media that make the ruling party of their country look unfavorable,” there’s something pretty cool going on.

What’s interesting about the Gnarly Kitty story, though, is that a few days later, she went back to blogging about what she normally blogs about. In her own words: “Normalcy for me means resume to shopping so we did – at Suan Lum Night Bazaar. For the first time, though, I didn’t buy anything. Just didn’t feel like it after I busted out 4,500 off my wallet on a new pair of Nine West wedges Sunday.” And when people asked her to keep reporting on the coup, she basically said, “This is my personal blog, so lay off,” and went back to discussing clubbing with friends.

It’s a remarkable story. First, because it shows the power that a private citizen can have via the social network of the internet. But also because it shows how Gnarly Kitty managed to remain a narcissistic blogger (which I say with all due respect and with full awareness that I, too, am a narcissistic blogger).

Ultimately, though lots of user-created content is quite egocentric, collectively it puts power back into the hands of the people and promotes an aesthetic that values the “little person,” a.k.a. “us.” (It would have been much cooler to end with “we,” but that’s not how I roll.)

But is the “we generation” about more than just this generation’s ability to be seen by a lot of people, to revolutionize media, and to require marketers to get creative? Is it actually spurring a cultural shift toward empathy?

Three sites in particular indicate a strong MAYBE. First is We Feel Fine, which I’ve spoken about plenty already. And second is Twistori, which uses Twitter to create a WeFeelFine-esque aggregation of what people love, hate, think, believe, feel, and wish. Both of the above sites are relatively hands-off presentations of uncensored, multi-dimensional, messy people. Through aggregation, they actually enhance our view of the collective, giving us snippets that manage to be both narcissistic and universal.

And they get me thinking. Maybe the motive behind the all of the me-showcasing is to connect with the group. Isn’t that always how any sort of “look at me” has worked? You need others to do the looking. And if you’re all taking turns looking at each other, well then that’s not narcissism. That’s conversation.

Postsecret, the third site that makes me optimistic, indicates not just conversation potential, but also a growing comfort with people-as-they-are (as opposed to celebrities a.k.a. “people-as-they-aren’t.”). Developed in 2004 by Frank Warren, the site displays a collection of postcards sent to Frank from various people sharing some of their best-kept secrets. The rationale? It’s therapeutic to disclose these untold facets of our life, and it’s therapeutic to see that others have similar fears, insecurities, and comical idiosyncrasies.

The real message of Postsecret is, “You’re not alone.” And that message gives people hope. Frequently, at the bottom of the Postsecret page, there are links for various wellness resources like suicide/crisis hotlines. And sometimes Frank posts people’s heartwarming responses to the anonymous postcards.

Follow the site for a few months and you’ll see both hope and depravity, you’ll be both scared and inspired. It’s a poignant project — made all the more poignant by the fact that Frank has refused to place ads on his site. He has managed to make a career out of the project, having published a couple of books and touring the country for various speaking engagements. But you never have the sense that the whole thing is about him. It’s clearly about the secrets.

So is this a preview of how the “We Generation” could actually live up to its name? Personally, I’m not sure. The jury’s still out. Whatever you want to call this most recent generation, they’re too young for us to really be making widespread claims about how they’ll interact with each other politically, professionally, and creatively. But collectively they’ll be the ones to determine whether the shift toward we-ness will happen.

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