The Selfie(ish) Generation

Dec 31, 2014

“Britney Spears Instagrams Selfie With New Boyfriend”

That was the headline that caught my eye recently while scrolling through my Twitter feed. No, I’m not a fan of Britney Spears. I don’t follow her on Twitter (but I do follow The Huffington Post, which posted the story). I dislike her music. I find her stage apparel distasteful. I hate that we live in a world in which she has become wealthy and famous for being a solipsistic attention whore.

I find myself wondering: what does a generation of self-obsessed, ego-maniacs produce?

“Sharing the same photograph together on their Instagrams,” the news story read, “Britney Spears and new boyfriend, Charlie Ebersol, have legitimized their relationship with an emoji and a hashtag.”

Aw, that’s just so #cute. They announced and “legitimized” their relationship on social media with an emoji and a hashtag. The hashtag they used was “#happiness”. I’m so #happy for the happy couple. [insert heart-eyed smiley face]

The article caught my attention not because of its subject but because of what it represents. The rise of social media has enabled everyone to become an attention-whoring, selfie-snapping mini-celebrity.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Internet Project, 89 percent of Americans age 18–29 use social networking sites. There’s no data for the under-18 demographic, but as the father of two teenage daughters and a high school educator, I’m fairly certain that the percent for that group that use social networking sites is upwards of 99 percent. Anyone on the latter end of the Millennial Generation (born c. 1980–2000) who is not engaged in social networking is essentially non-existent. It’s as if they were unborn.

I find myself wondering: what does a generation of self-obsessed, ego-maniacs produce? The cure for cancer? The end of world hunger? Interstellar space travel?

The answer is yes, they very well might accomplish all of those things and much more. That’s right, they might be the most accomplished generation yet. #WTF?

This past Christmas Day was the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. At first, the Web was a novelty running on top of the old-fashioned Internet. It was used primarily by research scientists at Berners-Lee’s employer, CERN, as well as universities.

Five years after the Web’s launch it was not widely used with only 14 percent of adults in the U.S. accessing it, according to a Pew Research Center survey. It was that same year, 1995, that the first commercially popular web browser software was released: Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Use of the web more than tripled over the next 5 years. Today, 87 percent of adults in the U.S. access the Web on a daily basis. And for younger adults (ages 18–29), it’s 97 percent.

In 25 years, we’ve gone from the Web being a little-known technology to nearly full saturation. According to the Pew Internet Research Project, “Indeed, the invention of the Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was instrumental in turning the Internet from a geeky data-transfer system embraced by specialists and a small number of enthusiasts into a mass-adopted technology easily used by hundreds of millions around the world.”

In just 25 years, the number of websites has grown from the singular website developed by Berners-Lee to more than 1 billion. (BTW: that first website is still up and running. You can view it at: http://info.cern.ch/
hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html). Coupled with that is more than 3 billion users connected to the Web around the globe.

With the Web, we’ve constructed the world’s largest, most interconnected library in the history of human civilization. It is the wealth (and the detritus) of all human knowledge. The Millennial generation will be the first generation to have grown up with this gift. They are “digital natives”—the only generation that has grown up with these technologies already in place.

“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood...they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry—and optimistic about the future.”

At first, I thought that was a bit depressing. But as I thought about it more, I realized that there was a silver-lining in the dark cloud of this perfect storm that the Millennial generation is at the center of. They are optimistic. They are single. They’re in debt and hungry for fame and fortune. They will not be stifled by political allegiance nor fettered to religious dogma.

The Millennial generation is a collection of over-achieving, collaborative multi-taskers who are connected to everything. Through social networking, they’ve grown up at the center of their digital world and they will seek to remain there as they expand their existence out into the physical world and mature into adulthood. They will seek to do so by out-doing their latest accomplishments and shouting that out to the world via social media outlets. They’ve been hard-wired to do so.

Although I’ve never been accused of being an optimist, I am going to commit an act of optimism: as the youngest members of the Millennial generation head into early adulthood they are going to strive to save a planet that my generation has, quite fortunately, failed to destroy. They will do this because they’ve grown up in a culture that has indoctrinated them into believing that it is this that they must do. They will do it because they are insanely overconfident in their ability to do so. And, unlike the generations before them, they will have access to the knowledge and digital tools that will enable them to be successful.

But they’re not going to seek to do this for you nor are they going to do it for me. They’re going to do it for themselves. They’re going to do it for the fame so that they can Tweet, “Just discovered the cure for cancer! #FTW” They’re just that selfish.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.