Defining a generation: social media and the Millennials

I wonder sometimes what will define my generation.  What will go down in the history books as having been the essence of our coming of age and the motivator for all our future behaviours?  Most of us ended our childhood in the shadow of September 11 and a global war on terror (which, I would argue, most of us understood intellectually but were not touched by personally in the way that previous generations were touched by Vietnam or World War II).  We have spent our early adulthood wrapping our heads around a rapidly changing world–nothing is now as it was when our parents were our age.  This includes an ongoing economic crisis, high unemployment, and government that has shifted by increments over the past 11 years to suddenly seem radically different than it did at the end of the last millennium.  I imagine that all of these things probably inform the way we see the world as a generation.

Evidence to support this seems to be out there already: I’ve read enough articles recently about how we are an apathetic generation living in our parents’ basements and not contributing meaningfully to society (nevermind that we’ve been saddled by debt from paying for educations we were told we needed and that many of us are unemployed as a result of the financial crisis created by the same generation that thinks we’re apathetic).  While I don’t think we are an apathetic generation, I can certainly see how a decade of instability and radical change (bearing in mind that the oldest members of my generation will hit the big 30 this year) could create an apathetic worldview.

But we are also the first generation that had some sort of relationship with computers and the internet in our childhoods.  And we are definitely the generation that launched the social media revolution.  And I hope that this, in the face of many other challenges, will be the mark we leave on the world.

My first year in university was also the first year of Facebook.  It was an exclusive club back then–you couldn’t sign up without a university email address and only certain universities were supported.  While it evolved rapidly to include just about everyone, my university friends and I were part of the experiment from the beginning.  We didn’t really know what it was about or where it was going or how it would revolutionize the way that people interact with each other–we just liked that we could find people in our classes (you used to be able to actually search by class because of the connection to our school email addresses) and share photos.  So we logged on and used it, figuring that it would go the way of other fads eventually but that we might as well enjoy it while it lasted.  Little did we know.

Obviously, Facebook took off.  And not only that, but it paved the way for many other similar services.  While Google may have launched the internet revolution, Facebook is responsible for the social media revolution.  And the social media revolution is responsible for having changed how people interact with each other–and one could make the argument that this has been for better or for worse, but the point remains that there has been a definite change.  So what is the impact of this sharing of everything all the time on the “real” world?

Another interesting quirk to Facebook at the beginning was that you automatically had one friend from the moment you signed up: Mark Zuckerberg.  And in his “About Me” was written, “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”  And while I have mixed feelings about Mark Zuckerberg as a public figure and a person (inasmuch as I can have feelings about someone I’ve never met), he was on to something.  The driving force to Facebook has been to make the world a more open place and much of how they operate now is based on the values of transparency, equality, and accessibility that derive from Zuckerberg’s original statement.

There was another article in the Toronto Star (which Mike informs me appeared in various incarnations elsewhere previously) about how Facebook trains their new engineers and their corporate culture in general.  Facebook now has 3,200 employees.  As part of their corporate structure, they eliminate hierarchical job titles as much as possible: there are no senior engineers or junior engineers, just engineers.  They also try never to have more than three layers of management between any employee and the CEO, Zuckerberg–and when someone wants to talk to Zuckerberg (or vice versa) they are encouraged to do it, regardless of title.  Essentially, Facebook has eliminated as much bureaucracy from their organization as possible by making their culture both open and flat.

Facebook also does some indoctrinating of their employees and one of the slogans they encourage their engineers to be guided by is “Move Fast and Break Things.”  Basically, innovate and take initiative.  Facebook wants its employees to be creative and not to wait for someone to tell them to do something–this, I imagine, is how they’ve managed to stay relevant over the last 8 or so years.  Part of being creative is taking risks and part of taking risks is that sometimes you fail.  Facebook encourages failure–the article in the Star has a great anecdote about how a new engineer accidentally crashed part of Facebook early on in the job and, instead of reacting negatively, the corporate response was basically “okay, what did you learn and how can we help you to fix this?”

And, while I don’t think Facebook is perfect, I do think it embodies some values that are core to my generation: transparency, accessibility, equality, and permission to fail.   As a generation, I think we feel we’ve been lied to, having been promised a future that doesn’t exist.  Many of us live in our parents’ basements not because we’re too lazy to find an apartment and move out, but because we can’t find a job to help us pay the rent.  And, strangely enough, while the generation that created many of the problems that helped to make us apathetic complains about us, they can’t be bothered to engage with us on how we might fix it.  I think my generation is a sleeping giant–we have creativity and talent and resourcefulness in spades, and I hope that we are going to find the guts to use it.  I think the Occupy movement is a testament to that–and while it failed in many ways, I think people learned from it and the next movement will be stronger for it.

Perhaps we spend too much time online and all this social media stuff is a waste of time.  The impact of social media in the “real” world is that you’re far more likely to know what a bunch of strangers had for breakfast today without ever having asked them.  But you’re also far more likely to know what’s happening in Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park or in parliament.  While the slogan for those coming of age in the sixties was “don’t trust anyone over 30,” I think that for the Millennials, the answer is “don’t trust anyone who won’t friend you on Facebook.”

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