I don’t really know if I want to write about this.
Or maybe I know that I don’t really want to write about it, but I can’t help myself because I’m so self-absorbed (and because I want another excuse to think about Facebook! Because I’m under the age of 30 and therefore FACEBOOK IS THE ONLY THING THAT REALLY MATTERS, besides myself).
But here goes:
In March 3rd’s “Why Is This News?”, Sarah Lacy and Paul Carr address a recent study that shows that Facebook is helping to boost millennials’ self-esteem.
And yes, it’s a slightly ridiculous study and yes, there are probably better uses of the time and resources that went into conducting it (overthrowing corrupt governments, curing diseases, “helping organize protests for democracy”, which is obviously what all the hallowed entrepreneurs of the world are concerned with doing – solving “hard problems using technology” – though funnily enough, 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg is an entrepreneur, too). But it strikes me that any interesting analysis in this segment has been sadly buried beneath the glib jokes about how unemployable and narcissistic are people born after 1980.
Which makes me wonder: do they think that nobody born after 1980 knows about TechCrunch? (I guess they do think this, because it isn’t FACEBOOK!). Or that our self-esteem is so high that we’ll just shrug off the accusation that we’re becoming “more insufferable” and “more entitled” with a LOL and a quick profile update?
Lacy does make a few attempts at balance – “obviously we’re not saying everyone in this generation is like this” – but the overwhelming impression is that she and Carr are just enjoying taking the piss (“certainly the press release as far as I can tell is spelled correctly and uses the correct grammar, so, you know, there’s definitely a non-millenial hand at work here,” Carr quips). And it’s possible that what actually annoys me is not at all what they’re saying, but the fact that I admire Lacy’s work, and in that weird and irrational way that you want to think that all the famous people you admire would like you, as a person, I like to think she would like me, and now I’m worried that she never could because I was born in 1987. Which is obviously both stupid and self-absorbed.
For me, though, the most interesting point is not that young people have artificially high self-esteem and think it’s their right to spend all day at work on Facebook. It’s actually one that Carr brings up towards the end of the dialogue: “The way you used to get self-esteem was by achieving something, like, you would be the fastest runner, or the best entrepreneur, or the, you know, cleverest mathematician. Now you just have to tell people, you have to be the best at telling people those things.”
I have rarely heard a truer thing said, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a generational issue. I’ve been told by people young and old that the best way to get ahead (whatever that means) nowadays is to shout about yourself. I’ve been told, in fact, that I need to spend more time shouting, and less time doing (I think the commonly used phrase is, “put yourself out there!”). If you want to be a writer, for instance, you have to aggressively market yourself. You have to be the best at telling people about yourself, not necessarily the best at doing what you do. Because there’s so much noise already. Which makes sense, I guess? IT’S SO LOUD OUT THERE SO I’M JUST GOING TO KEEP RAISING MY VOICE UNTIL SOMEONE HEARS ME!!!!!!!! And people do, amazingly, get heard above the din. So it works, in a way.
But the idea that achievement has been devalued is an interesting one, and it’s perhaps supported by Carr’s suggestion that nobody can find any good millennial employees (“Mike [Arrington] was saying…the struggle he’s having to find a new executive assistant…the floods of resumes that come in, and it’s all like not good candidates, sub-par candidates. My parents, you know, recruit for their business, and they can’t find…in this entire generation…”).
Carr and Lacy joke that it’s because millennials can’t spell their own names correctly, but I wonder if it’s actually because all achievements look the same on paper, and if some are artificial, they may as well all be.
Take FACEBOOK!, which is really just a form of social resume-building, a record of relationships, interactions and social circles (“sets”, to use the archaic but still accurate terminology of Charles Ryder). Those of us who were at university when FACEBOOK! emerged learned (along with how to discuss politics with a hangover and the best places on campus for a midday nap) how to claim social achievement without necessarily having to feel it. At first it was a novelty – you could literally see how many people you were connected to! (A number which was not always, by the way, a self-esteem boost, especially when you compared yourself to the blonde sorority girls whose friend count always seemed to exceed the 1,000 mark). But the word “friend” set us up for failure; not every 1,071 of the sorority girl’s friends were actually friends, just like not every achievement listed on a millennial’s resume actually means anything. Plenty of us have a university degree (or two, or three). Plenty of us made photocopies and coffee for congresspeople or CEOs. Plenty of us played sports or starred in plays or started our own bands or our own companies or our own revolutions. And now it’s mostly just noise.
And this is a problem. Because while it may, as Lacy suggests, actually help clear the field for those hard-working millenials who can spell (“if you’re one of the people…who’s still working really hard…what an advantage you have in this workforce,” Lacy says), it also indicates that of all the things we generally are, as a generation – selfish, narcissistic, Facebook-obsessed, insufferable – what’s impacted us the most is our skill at and susceptibility to advertising. We’ve actually been seduced by our own spin, even if no one else has.
All of which leads me to believe that we need to reframe the discussion about millenials. I actually wrote about this once before, in response to another Paul Carr piece. I didn’t publish what I wrote, mostly because my rage subsided so quickly that I could hardly muster the energy to finish the last sentence. Over the course of writing about Carr’s suggestion that millennials are “the most obnoxious, self-entitled, lazy and willfully ignorant generation ever to pollute the surface of the earth,” I discovered that I wasn’t actually angry about this assertion because it was unfair (or even particularly untrue): I was angry because the piece never reached its full potential. The really good stuff – a citation of a study that showed how “millennials as a whole ‘have unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback’”, for instance – was left largely unexplored, stifled by all the accusations and funny little quips.
So I guess what bothers me most is not what’s said about millennials – it’s what isn’t said, it’s what’s not said because everyone is too busy being so damn funny. Yes, let’s talk about the fact that achievement has been redefined. Let’s talk about the fact that Facebook has basically ruined any chance my generation ever had of being taken seriously, because even though we’re not the only ones who use Facebook anymore, we made it what it is. Let’s talk about the idea of constructing identities online. But let’s talk about it in a different way.
Anyway, as Lacy says, “part of this is tongue-in-cheek, but this actually does really concern me.” I’m off to go post a link to this on my Facebook page.