Around 12 years ago I wrote the post The Next Generation Gap in response to reading the New York Magazine article “Say Everything”. The article was like nothing I had ever read before and it was a kind of wake-up call that reminded me that I was 34 and no longer in the drivers seat in terms of determining what was new and cool. My generations run at the front was over and we had been replaced with something that was so much different from everything that had ever come before.
The essence of the New York Magazine article was that the young people had always known the Internet and had come of age when broadband and the exceptionally low cost of storage had eliminated the need to be selective. Gone were times of film and chemical development that took time and money, replaced with digital cameras, unlimited pictures and the ability to store them online. Capturing a moment is just a matter of taking a bunch of pictures, switching to review, thumbing through what you got and keeping the ones that you want. It didn’t matter because there was no cost associated with taking a picture and you got to see it instantly to make sure your hair was right and that no one was blinking.
2007 was still very early days in whatever it is was we were going through and at the time of my post, the iPhone was about three months away from US release. Looking back on it now, it seems quaint to think about a world without the cloud, without instant access to Facebook, twitter or whatever social media applications matter right now. But 2007 was the calm before the explosion, and the younger people at the time were carving themselves a long lasting identify by capturing and posting large portions of their life online, for almost anyone to see, forever.
That was the essence of the article. With a no rules and no holds barred approach to making everything available, what the heck were these people doing to their future? There would be no secrets and anything they did would come back to haunt them. The article didn’t predict this of course, it was just so obvious that it would be the outcome given that no generation had ever existed so transparently before. They were young and naive. Actions have consequences, even for those who lack the foresight to predict them. Give it a few years, a decade at most, and the day of reckoning would hammer down on those too willing to share everything.
Except that isn’t what happened. The day of reckoning arrived, sure, but the hammer avoided those who shared so much. It turned out that living out loud and in constant public view served to immunize them from the fall that comes along with finally being outed as a closeted asshole. Except that wasn’t how it happened. People did simply not grow tired and immune to all things shocking – if that was the case, when the hammer dropped it wouldn’t have made a sound or crushed anyone. By growing up in a time when everything you say and do will be documented by someone, posted on line, and be instantly accessible forever, you learn to behave like a person who is one day going to have to account for your actions. Who you are is well known to anyone who is willing to take the time to find out. All of the bad things you have said or done are as accessible as all of good deeds you have bragged about or made public. Lives have been destroyed, but mostly those who are members of the older generations who managed to control the message and manipulate everyone’s point of view.
Smart phones were tools that young people knew how to use and they had potential consequences for bad behavior that were obvious to them at the time and have become obvious to the rest of us over the last decade. When you are in public, either physically or via broadcast, there are NO secrets and nothing will be forgotten. This isn’t brand new, it’s just that before powerful people were predictably able to shift opinion before by slut shaming, buying favors or silence, changing the subject completely, lying or controlling the narrative to such an extent that demonstrable facts didn’t matter. Powerful people are less able to do this now, so for a much larger portion of the population, there is no escaping the past.
Being held to account for your transgressions is a good thing, particularly when the fear of that account acts as the disincentive for transgressions in the first place, because the world is a better place when people behave and treat others as they want to be treated themselves.
There is a down side though, and it has to do with the volume or quantity of stuff that is being created. There is a devaluing that is going on, which paradoxically explains why making everything available to everyone all of the time has had the impact of causing people to feel like they don’t matter or that they cannot keep up. A quick comparison between social media streams clearly indicates that most people live a life that is way more exciting and just plain better. Envy is the more common response when we see the Instagram photos of an influencer who has been able to parlay their genetic lottery winnings into a life of unreasonable amounts of fame, fortune and fun. Our May “two-four” and “August long” weekends at a friends cottage are great experiences and fantastic memories until we see how the real The Weeknd or Kylie spend their time. Then we feel kind of crappy because our twice a year indulgences don’t keep up.
It’s everyone’s social media stream though. And when people notice the crappy feeling associated with being average, they share more and more stuff in an effort to lift their Klout Score or its current alternative. And in response to sharing more, other people feel worse and try to medicate the crappy feeling of being average by sharing more. This of course leads to billions of experiences being shared and made available to everyone which results in a reduction of the value of any individual experience. The joy is lower and it has a much shorter half-life. Whatever sense of elation we got from witnessing the solar eclipse evaporates the moment we see that Sally saw it from a cooler location when we look at the photos she posted. We may choose to not experience it all, instead opting to watch the HD video the next day on YouTube or watch people watching it.
Which gets us to the problems with sharing everything. The goal is no longer about having an experiences, it’s about sharing us having them, which is not the same thing. The result we might be seeking, although we won’t say it, is to trigger a negative emotional response in the people who consume our social media stream. The inevitable outcome is that everyone else is doing it. This results in most people having two types of experiences, those of documenting what they are doing and those of looking at the experiences that other people have documented. Neither of which is the same thing as being present and engaged in what you are doing from moment to moment.
The upside to sharing everything has probably been an improvement in civic behavior because we all know that we’re not going to get away with anything for very long. The down side is that there is a growing mood of collective melancholy as we are constantly reminded of how much better life can be but isn’t for us.
And that makes me a little curious about what the next generation will do to shift culture in response to living out loud and wide open. Time will tell, it always does….