If you are one of those people who browse Tik Tok at every lunch break, enjoying the ‘sped up’ versions of forgotten hits and trying to reproduce some dance moves when nobody is watching, you may have heard about the feud between Millennials and Gen Z.
The feud is inoffensive, really, and mostly humorous. But it exists, shaping many jokes on social media, and fuelling a generational divide between kids of 90’s and kids post 9/11.
Among the recurring criticisms of Millennials made by Gen Z are the way they behave online :
— For a start, Millennials use emojis, complete far too many BuzzFeed quizzes, take ‘selfies’, and post photos with filters.
— Whenever they can, Millennials rave in their posts about their Tamagotchi, Game Boy and the beloved Nokia 3310, a technological wonder that had Snake and Tetris.
— Even Worse, Millennials can’t let go of Harry Potter and spam their captures with Hufflepuff and Slytherin references, choose a photo of Hedwig as a profile picture, or show up in an RPG with ‘Avada Kedavra’ for a pseudonym .
Are we seriously talking about the generation that prides itself on being the ‘first digital natives’?
And so the clash begins. Millennials want to look relevant on social media, but they are not according to Gen Z, who claim themselves to be the true digital natives.
Gen Z is both right and wrong on that matter.
The First Digital Natives:
Millennials represent earlier stages of digital development and have internalized all of its traits, which are alien to new generations. For most of the 1990’s and a good half of the 2000’s the internet was sold as a tool of freedom.
“a freedom frontier that by its nature could not be tamed: the Internet supposedly interpreted censorship as damage and routed around it. Further, by enabling anonymous communications, it allegedly freed users from the limitations of their bodies, particularly the limitations stemming from their race, class, and sex, and more ominously, from social responsibilities and conventions. The Internet also broke media monopolies by enabling the free flow of information, reinvigorating free speech and democracy. It supposedly proved that free markets—in a ‘‘friction-free’’ virtual environment—could solve social and political problems. Although some condemned the Internet for its excessive freedoms, for the ways in which it encouraged so-called deviant behaviour that put our future at risk, the majority (of the Supreme Court at least) viewed the Internet as empowering, as creating users rather than couch potatoes, as inspiring Martin Luther’s rather than channel surfers”(Chun: 2006).
For the user not afraid to wander in uncharted territories, the internet was a joyful alternative that offered a vast world of possibilities with its perks, and of course its risks.
Today, not only is the internet integrated with our daily lives, mediating most of our social interactions, it is a pretty much conquered land. Big tech companies have colonized cyberspace, benefiting from an initial absence of laws and competitors, to privatize the online world and monetize web browsing by inviting users to click, like, share, post, comment, tweet, tag and so on.
Without thinking twice, we juggle between WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Discord, Twitch and other social media. The untamed and aesthetically questionable cyberspace of the 1990’s/2000’s has disappeared for good to split into multiple networks, apps, and interfaces, meant to be user-friendly and intuitive in order to increase the level of engagement.
Millennials did not experience this when first navigating the virtual world, and this is why Gen Z are wrong to assume they are the first digital natives.
They are, however, the first ‘social media’ natives.
They grew up in the hands of an internet dominated by Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon; an internet full of hooks to convince the average user to engage online while sharing its data and giving up on its privacy to have access to information and services. Whenever you click on a link, you’ll have to agree to cookies and accept the terms and conditions. This was new to Millennials, but its normal for Gen-Z, who share sensitive information without a blink because that’s what you do if you want to benefit from all the functionalities of a tool or an app.
This politics of transparency is in fact part of the new economic model of the online world that generates income through tracking and the extraction of data. Pioneered by Google in early 2000’s when launching Google Maps and its street view feature, this economic model of surveillance became a common practice amongst tech companies at the turn of 2010’s (Zuboff 2019: 97-104).
And who started to populate the internet at that same time ?
Here you go, Gen Z.
Ten Points for Gryffindor !
Millennials have been born into the politics of anonymity promoted by the internet of their time. They knew very well they could explore their ‘second self’ online and enjoy riding over unprecedented spaces of freedom. But the internet was also a ‘dark machine’ with many dangers lurking in the shadows. For Wendy Chun, this popular conception of the internet being full of deviant people, such as paedophiles, did encourage users to be cautious by 1) holding firmly on their privacy through the anonymity conveyed with avatars, pseudonyms and so on, 2) agreeing to procedures of control and systems of trackability to facilitate prosecution, these same procedures that will later strip them of their cherished privacy and favour the emergence of the culture of identity transparency that Gen Z is currently brewing in.
The Harry Potter mania having started in 1997 with the publication of the first book, The Philosopher’s Stone, and ended in 2011, with the release of the Deathly Hallows Part II in cinemas, it is fair to say that Millennials have grown up with the Wizarding World.
The timeline itself is all-telling. The Harry Potter era started only a year after the 1996 Telecommunications Act which opened access to the internet for everyone (Chun 2006: 77). It ended in 2011, with the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, sending the clear signal that the online world is now a battlefield where only giant tech companies survive.
And here is the thing: the internet being exciting but scary, users being warned not to share private details online such as name, age, location, nor show their face, they had to resort to other strategies to express themselves. What they like, who they are, what they value.
Reference to pop culture was one of them.
A whole generation knew at the time that being a Gryffindor meant to be brave, intelligent and kind. You are in for adventures, and loyal to your friends. Put a Gryffindor crest as your avatar in 2001, and this gives a fair idea to other users about who you are ( a Harry Potter fan, most likely to be in his last year of primary school or starting middle school, who considers that bravery and kindness are his/her most recognizable personality traits).
Should another user struggle to relate, this would simply mean he or she is not from that generation, hence perhaps not a person a teenager should talk to.
Harry Potter was a way to disclose one’s identity without compromising privacy. Not only did Millennials loved the books and films, they extensively used its iconography to build their online persona when surfing the waves of the anonymous internet. As you hide behind a Gryffindor crest, you also show yourself to those who share the same knowledge, and this creates a safety ring amongst those who ‘get it’.
Gen-Z could not care less about anonymity; they crave visibility: they want their profile to get followers, their videos to become viral. As Tik Tok says: it all starts with you.
All this is of course encouraged by surveillance capitalism and the economy of data.
“We are not surveillance capitalism’s “customers.” Although the saying tells us “If it’s free, then you are the product,” that is also incorrect. We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus: the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation. Surveillance capitalism’s actual customers are the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behavior” (Zuboff 2019: 15).
Companies capitalize on behaviour and the collection of information. To do so, they dress themselves in the fashions of advocacy and emancipation (Zuboff 2019: 16).
They present the user about to subscribe to a new service with a seemingly innocent bargain: share your data with us, disclose where you live, what you buy, what you eat and when you go to the cinema, and we will protect your privacy against hackers and malevolent people. You won’t be exposed to pornographic contents, viruses or malware. Besides, we will only expose you to contents that reflect your interests and your needs, to make your browsing even more pleasant.
Refuse, and your experience of the product will be degraded; your safety, limited.
A Gen-Z user shares data for the same reason a Millennial didn’t: for freedom, privacy and the promise of an enjoyable ride. Unless one has something to hide, there is no reason for a Gen-Z to cover their face and resort to a web of imagery and references to express themselves.
Millennials and Gen-Z grew up with different codes of identity performance due to the transformation of the digital environment and the shift from a politics of anonymity to an economy of transparency. This contributes to making these two generations alien to each other, despite both being children of the internet.
So if you see a Millennial adding tons of Harry Potter emojis to their captures, my dear Gen-Z friend, be kind and remember that’s how things were done at the time and that, after all, we are all a product of an economy.
Dr. Amélie Berger-Soraruff
Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (MIT Press 2006).
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff (Profile Books 2019)