The boom in micro-targeted social-media content — “Only ‘90s Kids Will Remember”; “23 Things Only New Yorkers Will Understand” — has been over for years, but the internet is still in many ways a machine designed to reconstruct individual experience into shared cultural identity. There is an odd vertigo to be generated when you realize that memories you imagined to be idiosyncratic are in fact common to thousands, if not millions, of people. Such as:
Yikes! I found these tweets chilling both because, like, ha ha, wow, right? Lost: Season One, anyone? but also because this particular reference is obsolete by a decade already. The first DVD players were available in the U.S. in 1997 and not widely adopted in dens and dorm rooms until a few years later. Hulu was introduced in 2006; Netflix began streaming movies a year later. The window for teenagers and 20-somethings to form, uh, complicated memories regarding the DVD menu for Lord of the Rings: The Extended Edition was narrower than ten years. Before that, your closest analogue is probably the automatic ejection of a VHS tape; afterward, it’s Netflix menus.
It’s a minor touchstone, but it’s a telling one. Among the most striking effects of the accelerated pace of technological change is the rapidity with which shared social experiences suddenly become obsolete. Remember what it was like to go to high school with a “dumb” cell phone? Unless you were one of the relatively few people born into that particular moment where cell phones were widespread but smartphones were not … probably not!
I mean, yes, right, I’m woke; I know that “generations” are nothing but loose schema used by corporations to market products. But even by those debased standards, “millennial” is meaningless. My experience of high school was hugely different from the experience of people just five or six years younger than I am, for whom the fraught social dynamic of adolescence was mediated not through AIM and text messages but through Facebook and smartphones. New Yorker writer Nathan Heller suggests that “millennials” be divided into “Builders” — who were adolescents on September 11 — and younger “Firebrands.” (New York Times Magazine editor Willy Staley proposes the more succinct, and possibly more accurate, “Good” and “Bad” millennials.)
But that’s not even enough, is it? As technology makes itself central to daily life, generational taxonomy stops being about your temporal relationship to defining world-historical events (Woodstock! The fall of the Berlin Wall! The launch of OK Soda!) and more about, well: When did you get on Facebook? When did you get on Snapchat? Did you steal music by shoplifting CDs, by torrenting album releases, or by listening to YouTube rips? Were the most fragile and hormonal moments of your psychological development ineluctably corrupted by the deleterious effects of the internet? Do you think “Dat Boi” is funny or baffling? Are you a Netflix-and-chill millennial, or a Fumbling-DVD-Menu-Sex millennial?