Caragh Medlicott examines the many misrepresentations of the roles of social media in our lives, and how millennials are refusing to stand for the stereotype.
Some archetypal markers of studenthood are unchanging; the irresponsible drinking, ungodly study hours and pre-deadline all-nighters. There is, however, a common modern phenomenon that will be known to the vast majority of recent graduates and current students. It goes something like this; it’s a boring, likely hungover morning in your student existence. On the hunt for entertainment, one of your friends will decide to go back through your Facebook profile and start liking and commenting on all the embarrassing photos and posts you shared when you were 14. Generally, this is just a fun-spirited type of mocking, a laughing with and not at– how can there be malice in it when everyone was embarrassing on Facebook as a teenager? Of course, this didn’t happen among students 15 years ago, because Facebook didn’t exist. Launched in 2004, and not gaining significant public membership until 2006 Facebook is, itself, just a teenager. Yet, despite being in its infancy, we already know that our digital selves stretch far past who we are in the present moment. In fact, your online presence will likely outlive your short, mortal existence – research projects that Facebook will have more profiles for deceased users than alive ones by the end of the century.
In these terms, social media can seem scary to say the least. A looming digital graveyard, a virtual window into our lives. And this goes far beyond the realm of Facebook; this is Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, Flickr. Each site has millions – and in the case of the top runners, billions – of users. It is vast, expanding, and, in many ways, immeasurable. Try as we might, social media will not fit neatly into any moral framework. The Women’s March on Washington was one of the largest protests in American history; it sparked marches around the globe, and the catalyst?Social media. Harnessed in one way, social media provides an incomparable platform for social activism. It levels the playing field by offering a space for the marginalised, a voice for the oppressed. It perfectly facilitates citizen journalism as events no longer need to be covered by mainstream media channels to gain attention. #BlackLivesMatter was first used by Alicia Garza in a Facebook post in 2013; by 2016 it was one of the most used hashtags in Twitter’s history. But, as with everything digital, this gets complicated. Social Media may have been the making of the Women’s March, but how do you square that with the fact that the stolen Facebook data used by Cambridge Analytica probably put Trump in the White House?
This is where the conversation tends to gets confused and unproductive. It becomes a generation-centric discussion, often millennial-bashing; it simplifies people’s motivation for using social media and characterises the era before social media in a nostalgic haze of “fresh air” and naturally-flowing human interaction. From Joel Stein’s infamous Time article on the ‘Me Me Me Generation’, to older millenials who shun their generational label it seems that this caricature of phone-glued adolescents sends many running for the hills, screaming “I’m not like that!”
Social media is a prime target when it comes to dissecting societal issues – but to what end? In a battlefield of selective statistics and convenient quotes we could accept that social media is unwaveringly and objectively evil, it still doesn’t change the fact we don’t know what to do about it. When news first broke of Facebook’s data breach #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter. Many pointed out the complex nature of this, Facebook owns Instagram, so, better #DeleteFacebookAndInstagram. More to the point, social media is bigger than any single platform. It evolves and transforms – Instagram is currently ranked worse in terms of its impact on mental health. Leaving one platform doesn’t stop others from appearing.
There are innumerable variables to consider when discussing the general public’s use of social media. We have to consider how many individuals are on social media, how many accounts they each have and how active they are on each one. This invariably leads us into the world of averages. Despite the fact social media is used widely among all age groups, users are almost always characterised as young people. A dialogue drowning in references to relatively recent platforms such as Snapchat, or new tools such as Instagram stories can fool those not familiar with them into thinking they are untouched by the “scary” side of social networking. Being hit with block statistics, like that the average person spends 2 hours a day on social media might make your own use feel comparatively moderate. This is why when a report suggests Generation X are actually more addicted to social media than millenials, we’re all flabbergasted.
In 1945 we saw the ideological rise of the teenager, a generation of kids who were openly distinct from their parents. By the time the 60s rolled around, The Who weren’t the only ones talkin’ about their generation; punk spirit had become a hallmark of popular culture. Parents didn’t understand their children, and children didn’t understand their parents – why would they want to? Old people were a drag, anyway. This same spirit does not live on today. It’s interesting because the scope of technological advancements leaves more than enough room for young people to enjoy a world independent from their parents, and of course young people do utilise this realm – the change is, in fact, in attitude. In 2014, Gary Turks’ spoken word poem ‘Look Up From Anti-Social Network’ (quite ironically) went viral. The poem – accompanied with a somewhat emotionally manipulative mini-film – honed in on young people and the life which we’re all supposedly missing out on because of social media. This wasn’t penned by a baby boomer, but a young person, a millennial. It’s not the first piece of its kind, either, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s hard to say exactly why these artefacts register with a young audience, particularly when the vast majority won’t be giving up social media anytime soon. There is a strong possibility that, instead of fobbing off parental fears, millenials have bought into them – and now they’re scared too.
Just like our attention spans, the speed of digital advancement has fragmented kinship in generations. Millenials are a band of guinea pigs, and we have whiplash from the rate at which the digital world has exploded, just like everyone else. At 23, I have lived through the invention of every major social media network, I was 12 when the iPhone was released and I didn’t get a smartphone until I was 18. Even so, the world I grew up in looks staggeringly different to that of the oldest millenials who were born in 1981. Social panic about the new is not new, but young people have never before watched things develop at such a rate. When the older generation told the Gen X’ers they’d get square eyes for watching too much TV, it likely held little sway. But, when teens and twenty-somethings flooded to Snapchat upon its launch in 2011, not only were they entering something new – they were faced with a string of news stories bemoaning the platform’s potential side effects. It’s not that this fear stops teenagers and millenials using social media, because it doesn’t stop any of the generations from using it. It does, however, affect young people’s feeling towards social networking. There are undeniable reasons for concern around social media and its addictive nature, we know that, it’s been covered a million times. So now we know the problems, it’s time to start thinking of the solutions – and that’s something millenials are already beginning to do. From monitoring usage to being responsible with outputs, the generation born into social media are already starting to moderate it.
In autumn 2016, #HowToConfuseAMillenial trended on twitter. The hashtag was originally rooted in the mocking of the millennial stereotype – lazy, narcissistic kids who can’t survive without Wi-Fi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this quickly backfired. Millenials hit back, with many turning the conversation onto more serious issues, pointing out the world they were born into; a world recovering from the financial crash where graduates carry large amounts of student debt and compete for unpaid internships. Bleaker still, with an ever-growing population and dwindling fossil fuels, future sustainability looks tough. Considering this, it seems arrogant to link levels of unhappiness in millenials and teens solely to the rise of social media. In reality, it is part of a much broader and more nuanced issue. Millenials and teenagers may have grown up with the all the complexities of social media, but they’ve also grown up in an environment where users are trying to negate addiction and push honest content. A space where no voice is too small, and no person too far away. A globally-connected network of young people who are empathetic and empowered, from responding to natural disasters, to hashtags which rally support and break stigma, millenials have used social media to bring about genuine change. Maybe Trump wants to build a wall, but the social media born millenials are starting to knock them down. Social media, as a concept, is roughly 18 years old; and like any 18-year-old, it is growing, making mistakes and learning to be better.