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Generations on the Internet: 2022 Update

Generations on the Internet: 2022 Update

On this blog I often write about generations, and when I do I often find myself writing specifically about the generations online. For example, I have posts about social media, where I’ve observed how different generations experienced social media at different life stages, thus having a different relationship with the technology. It’s like what I really blog about is the Internet, and that’s not surprising given that I spend almost of all of my waking life there, whether at my paying job or working on personal projects like this blog.

It’s nothing new; on my old blog, I had a background section about the generations, and it emphasized their presence on the Internet. For example, I noted that the GI generation did not have much Internet presence, and that it was members of the Silent generation who were typically portrayed as the older people just learning how to get online. Meanwhile, Boomers and Gen-Xers were the Internet entrepreneurs, and the Millennials had their own unique online portals. I was writing all of this in the early to mid-2000s, so a lot has changed. If you go to my old site, you will find that some of the external links still work, but many, if not most of them, are dead now.

Back then, I focused on “the web.” Web 2.0 was young, and social media was still evolving as a concept. You might note that in my background section, social media makes an appearance on the Millennial page, in scare quotes no less. Twenty years later, I think it’s natural to associate social media and the ubiquity of apps and crowdsharing with that generation; it goes hand in hand with their consensus-seeking peer personality. Now that social media apps, with their relatively closed platforms, are supplanting the more open world wide web, what has changed about the presence of the generations online?

Well, for one thing, everyone is on the Internet now. You can’t really talk about any particular”online generation” when the Internet is part of the background of everyday life. At best there’s the idea of “digital natives” to cover all the people so young that they can’t remember when there wasn’t an Internet. But I think all generations from Boomers on down are comfortable with life online.

I would say that, as a rule, different generations tend to congregate in different platforms. Facebook and Twitter, and what’s left of the old world wide web are where you find the older generations, while Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and TikTok are where the younger generations are. This assertion is based on no data at all; it’s just my impression. While all of the living generations are on the Internet, they have different reputations online and different presences as a generation. Let’s call the sum total of all that a generation’s Internet profile.

First, for the Boomer generation and older, I’d say their Internet profile doesn’t looks so great. There’s not much around specific to the Silent generation, except for pages that amount to encyclopedia entries. Boomers as a generation have a terrible social media presence, since they are mostly the butt of jokes. As I noted in an earlier blog post, there’s a Facebook group devoted to making fun of Boomers. And we all know about “OK boomer.” As individuals, plenty of Silents and Boomers are in command of their social media presence, particularly celebrities and prominent and powerful officials. I imagine that many elder leaders actually have teams of younger people managing their social media accounts.

The Millennial generation’s Internet profile is a bit of a muddle. For one thing, younger Millennials would prefer to disassociate themselves from their older generational peers and call themselves Generation Z. Articles about the gap between Millennials and Gen Z are generally silly fluff, but the real story here is that there is a reluctance among Millennials to embrace their generational moniker. Despite the fact that the term “Millennial” has become a commonplace and is ubiquitous in online discourse about the state of society, Millennial individuals are not keen on taking on their generational name as a brand.

This takes me to my generation, Generation X. Of all the generations, Gen X is the one which most willingly – eagerly, even – embraces its identity online. Gen X’s Internet profile is like a bold statement – don’t you forget about us! There are so many Gen X themed YouTube channels, podcasts, social media pages and accounts that I am not even going to list any here. Instead, I’ll pick that up in a future post. Suffice it to say that many Gen X individuals see themselves in terms of belonging to their generation, and a lot of what Gen Xers obsess on in their online content and sharing is nostalgia for their past. You know, that time before there was an Internet.

Life and Death on Social Media

Life and Death on Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2008. In the thirteen years since, I’ve “friended” a few hundred people, many of them people I know from social circles, but also extended family and old schoolmates that I haven’t seen in years or decades. In some cases reuniting with old friends has caused a new friendship to blossom, and in others it’s simply been a chance to catch up on what has happened in our lives since we graduated from school, so long ago.

In addition, in the thirteen years since I joined Facebook, some of the people in my friends list have died. Almost certainly, you have experienced, as I posted recently, learning about a friend’s death online. When a Facebook user dies, their profile will still be there online. Facebook, in fact, has developed a protocol for memorializing accounts. Because of the nature of the platform and its long term success, this protocol, like death itself, became an inevitability.

At this point in time, about 1% of my Facebook friends are deceased. I don’t bring this up to be macabre, but to point out that with the pervasiveness of digital life, we are witnesses online to every stage of the lives of the people to whom we are connected in our social networks, and that includes the final stage.

With respect to the very youngest generation, we begin to learn about them starting at the earliest life stage. Today’s children are online even before birth, in the form of ultrasound images posted by their expectant mothers. In childhood, before they have their own social media accounts, they appear in their parents’ profiles. Traditions have developed like the annual back to school snapshot, or the family Halloween group picture.

Today’s childhood generation is the first generation to exist fully on the Internet. It will encompass their lives from cradle to grave, like some device in a Black Mirror episode. For older generations, even early wave Millennials, there is some period of their lives before everyone was online. People my age and older experienced the rise of personal computing and then the Internet only as adults.

For early wave Gen Xers such as myself, joining social media has been kind of an enfolding into our youth, like getting into a hot tub time machine that takes us back to our connections and experiences from the 1980s. It’s as though the Internet, in its mission to envelop the world, is reaching into the past and pulling the pre-Internet timeline into the metaverse of digital memory. I’ve posted already about how, for me (and probably for other Xers as well) this has been an opportunity for reflection on our past and reevaluation of our future.

The Internet gives us an amazing power to connect with others and share our personal experience. It’s only to be expected that this would reach all the way to the end of life. I’ve seen posts from the terminally ill, announcing their remaining life expectancy, and I’ve found this off-putting. But upon serious consideration, I must conclude that if we are willing to engage with our social media connections as a daily custom, we should engage with them even as their days come to an end. Death, after all, is an experience we all share.

Social Capital on the Internet

Social Capital on the Internet

One day when I checked my social media feed I was met with shocking news. Someone I recognized had been killed in a terrible car crash, along with his wife. He wasn’t someone I had ever met personally, wasn’t someone I had known for very long, but he was a mutual follower and he was a really friendly guy online. He was always supportive and only said nice things, which you probably know isn’t how everyone behaves on social media. I felt sincere grief that this man had tragically died, and donated to the crowdsourced fund for his orphaned children.

I bring this up not to showcase my charitable nature, but to point out that even though this person was only an acquaintance on social media, I felt connected enough to want to help his family in need. Arguably, by being supportive on social media, simply by liking my posts, this man had created enough of a bond between us that I felt a social obligation to him. One might cynically say that he had “bought” my support with a few clicks and some brief comments. But that’s just a way of saying that, by being a decent guy and following the etiquette of social media, he was building social capital.

“Social capital” is a concept from sociology that I have looked at before, when reviewing the work of Robert Putnam. This succinctly can be defined as “the value of social networks in providing generalized reciprocity.” I think the example I have just given is undeniably a case of this principle at work. I would say that all of cases of crowdfunding to help those in need, are examples of how social media is helping to reknit our society and forge the bonds of social capital. The loose associations of people on social networks are acting like the kinds of civic organizations that past generations joined, but that then fell off in membership, as Putnam has documented.

They might not form the progressive ideal of a social safety net, but at least they are something.

The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

I see a lot of complaining about how evil Facebook is and how much they’ve abused their power. But how can this social media company have any power at all? It’s really simple and obvious how to destroy Facebook – all its users simply have to stop using it. Then it will vanish and never plague us again. What does this platform provide that is in any way essential, such that its users are compelled to use it? Where is its power coming from?

A couple years back I wrote a post about when I first joined Facebook, mentioning how it had connected me to people from my past, and how it continues to connect me to people in my present. This need to connect, to have a place of gathering and belonging, is what drives the demand for platforms like Facebook. In this crisis social era, that demand is high. It’s why we all can’t just quit social media.

Remember at the end of 2020 when, after the election went to Joe Biden, Red Staters were announcing on Facebook how they were leaving for a new platform? They weren’t quitting Facebook to go off and be by themselves. They wanted to have their own social media platform for people like them, who shared their view points.

The mission statement of the Facebook company (now called “Meta”) is, in fact, to build community and togetherness. And a primary complaint people have about the Facebook company is the ways it has failed at this mission, and instead caused divisiveness. Or, if not caused the divisiveness, at least irresponsibly permitted its platform to be used by others to promote discord and even violence.

A related complaint about Facebook is that the platform allows the spread of misinformation. Never mind that different factions in our society have different ideas of what constitutes correct information. I wonder: is it more that people want the platforms they use to reinforce, rather than contradict, what they want to believe?

This complaint does raise the question of why the platform should have any obligation to be responsible for the veracity of its content. What I mean is, if such a site is simply a social gathering place, why shouldn’t people be free to post nonsense and lies? Not to say that harm hasn’t been done by misinformation on social media, but why is it the social media platform’s obligation to control the information? If I tell a lie on a street corner, does the town the street is on get blamed for it?

Now there is the argument that misinformation spreads much more rapidly on social media then it ever could by word of mouth. But even here, without some specific platform available, another could surely be found. If we did destroy Facebook in the way I suggested (on the count of three, everyone delete their account…1..2..), couldn’t people still spread their lies via, say, email chains? That’s how we did it back in the ’90s, and I’m pretty sure email providers are off the hook for whatever content is sent through their servers.

My point is that it’s not really the technology behind these phenomena, it’s the people. People are spreading the misinformation, as they always will, and just happen to be using the means that are available today. Putting the onus on a social media company for policing its content is understandable, and a popular stance, but it speaks as much to what people want from these platforms as it does to how they are run as businesses.

We want a way to gather safely, and we expect the providers of such places to exercise some authority in keeping those places safe. That’s the demand curve of this social era. The problem is, social media companies are profit-making enterprises that derive revenue from user engagement, however it can be acquired (“Attention Merchants” is what Tim Wu calls them). So long as this tension exists, where private enterprises maintain our public spaces, we will have reason to mistrust Big Tech and the platforms they provide us, even though we couldn’t conceive of leaving them.

The New Religious Wars Thread

The New Religious Wars Thread

This is a Twitter thread I posted comparing todays Culture Wars to the Religious Wars of the Reformation Era. I’ve only dabbled with posting Twitter threads (chains of linked Tweets) because I honestly don’t get much engagement on that site.

This post is meant to capture the same text onto my blog since whatever I tweet technically belongs to the Lord of Twitter, whoever he is – one of the lesser known of the Great Technocrats. The numbers followed by the slashes at the end of each block are to keep track of the order in which the tweets are meant to be read, since by the nature of the platform, that information can be lost. Here are the 6 tweets:


Reading up on the Tudor Era in England has me thinking about the Culture Wars today and the irrational beliefs people are willing to stake everything on, just as in the Reformation Era 500 years ago people were willing to kill and die over minor points of theology. 1/

To me it seems absurd that people were once martyred over their beliefs about the doctrine of transubstantiation. Will future generations think it absurd that people today are dying over their beliefs about COVID-19? 2/

People are keen to know The Truth and once a belief is formed it is cherished and hard to release. 500 years ago this was a matter of faith; today we describe the same stubborn clinging to belief in psychological terms like “cognitive dissonance.” 3/

We call today’s conflict Culture Wars, not Religious Wars, but either way at the heart of it is differences in belief about what values should define how we live. Where political power is concerned, it’s not germane that those beliefs may not make complete sense. 4/

Just as in the Reformation Era, the set of beliefs to which one is committed ties one to a faction in a political conflict, and to recant those beliefs is a dishonorable betrayal of one’s group and one’s identity. 5/

And so we’re stuck in these Religious Wars between the Church of Woke and the Cult of Maga, with people as fanatically committed to their sects as the Protestants and Catholics of half a millennium ago. 6/

Finding Yourself in the Internet Age

Finding Yourself in the Internet Age

Do you remember life before smart phones? I sometimes have a hard time imagining what it was like. I mean, I was there; I should know. We had to write down the directions to drive places, since we couldn’t just bring it up on our phones. We had to have our music collections in some sort of recorded format, like tapes or CDs, and keep them in the car. You couldn’t just look up any fact you wanted to know in an instant. But you did know a lot of other people’s telephone numbers.

My BFF tells me I’m too dependent on my phone now. My little pocket assistant. I get lost driving without it. I’ve tried to navigate on my own; to challenge myself to get somewhere without using Google maps. Usually that doesn’t work, and out comes the smart phone to rescue me.

It wasn’t always like this, but through the fog of time it’s hard for me to remember those ways of life, from even just fifteen years ago.

One thing I do remember is that back in the mid-2000s, when Web 2.0 was still new, I had a pretty good Internet presence, if I do say so myself. Granted, it was a Web 1.0 presence: a static vanity web site, a blog. I did a little bit of manual search engine optimization, editing the metadata on my static HTML pages in my text editor. It was good enough for us back in those days. A Google search of my name ca. 2006 would have had my pages on the top of the search results; I kid you not!

Today, that’s not likely. My Internet presence is lost in a sea of like named people, because everyone has a smart phone and multiple social media accounts now. I’m no microinfluencer, not even a nanoinfluencer. I never realized how many people with my name there are out there; I thought it was kind of unique. I was used to being the only “Barrera” in whatever social milieu I was in, outside of my family. Now that my social milieu is all of humanity on the Internet, I’m discovering that my name isn’t so unique after all.

It’s the same with usernames. Technically, I was on the Internet as far back as the 1980s, since I had user accounts and email addresses at Virginia Tech, where I went to college. I remember my email address was “sbarrera@vt.edu.” For a long time after that, I was used to being “sbarrera” or “stevebarrera” whenever I signed up with a new account somewhere. But no more; those usernames are always taken on any major site. I have to come up with something clever, or settle for a username with a string of numbers at the end.

As the global population continues to soar and the Internet continues to gobble up civilization, how will we have usernames for everyone? We’ll all end up named with numbers at the end, like in a dystopian sci-fi society. Like THX 1138. The future is here, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Internet. I spend most of my waking time there. I’ve been fascinated by computers since I was a teenager, and chose computer work for my professional life. I’ve been on the world wide web since the beginning, and always had fun with it. The Internet is where I live; it’s surely where I’ll die. It’s always in our pockets, part of the background of life.

More on “Cancel Culture” as Consensus Building

More on “Cancel Culture” as Consensus Building

I’ve already brought up on this blog the idea that “cancel culture” is simply this era’s approach to building a social values consensus. I’ve tied it into Strauss-Howe generational theory, which describes a social cycle spanning four generations. In that cycle there is an era called an “Awakening,” which is a period when values are challenged and the social mood encourages moral transgression. Those who violate social norms are celebrated as visionaries. The last time we had such an era was during the “Consciousness Revolution” that started in the 1960s.

But we’re now at the other end of the cycle, in the “Crisis” era. Values are not being challenged but rather implanted, to guide the establishment of a new order. Those who violate the new social norms are condemned for backward thinking. That is what is happening to the prominent people who find themselves getting “cancelled” when they express views or engage in behaviors which go against the grain of the new values consensus. They can complain about “political correctness” all that they want, they are nonetheless going to run into the simple fact that violating social norms, at least in this social era, means being shunned by society.

Which is exactly the point made in this excellent opinion piece by Dr. Lora Burnett. She starts with an example from a movie, and then connects the movie scene with how appointees of the recent administration were treated in public. She then segues into her argument, that “there is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’ — there is only culture.” Meaning that this phenomenon of “cancelling” is simply the enforcement of cultural norms.

I couldn’t agree with her more. And I think that the problem that those who decry cancel culture have is that they are not happy with the new cultural norms that are forming. Which is their right, and it’s understandable to be concerned that the enforcement of norms can go too far. Is there a danger of a new McCarthy Era arising, where all dissent is suppressed? I think so, and that would take us to a new social era.

Although, truly, most targets of cancel culture don’t have their lives ruined, assuming they haven’t committed any crime. They simply face the scrutiny of the public when in the public space, which is to be expected. The video below from the channel “The Take” goes into all the angles of the phenomenon.

This video brings up the “letter on open debate” which was published in Harper’s magazine and signed by numerous authors and opinion makers. In it, the authors condemn “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Again, it’s understandable that, as purveyors of ideas, this would concern them. But they’re missing the zeitgeist.

In the social cycle, we’re turning away from openness and debate and towards resolution and conformity. It’s needed to address the vast political and economic problems that our society has failed to address over the past several decades. Older generations find this disconcerting after a long, free-wheeling period of everyone thinking for themselves. But to get any traction on achieving real world change, we need agreement. So younger generations are likely to say, “get with the program or shut the hell up.”

The Red-Blue Network-Centric Wars, or, Clash of the Media Bubbles

The Red-Blue Network-Centric Wars, or, Clash of the Media Bubbles

In the late 1990s, with the Cold War just ended and the United States as the world hegemonic “sole superpower”, a new doctrine of warfare called network-centric warfare emerged. The gist of it: “use information networks to get an advantage.” It was an acknowledgement of the growing power of densely networked computers, such as the Internet which we take for granted today.

Meanwhile, a constitutional lawyer named Philip Bobbitt was writing his seminal book The Shield of Achilles, in which he argued that the constitutional order of the industrial nation state was giving way to a new order, which he called the informational market state. Securing opportunity and choice were the new functions of government, over providing welfare and solidarity.

Fast forward to 2020, and we are in the midst of Cold Civil War II, the battle between the red zone and the blue zone that I’ve been blogging about lately. The United States has abandoned the world stage, and is focused internally. A pandemic undermines the legitimacy of the new market state order, by both reducing economic opportunity and creating a public welfare imperative. And the power of the world wide computer network is something to be feared now; it lets bad actors, even foreign powers, manipulate public consciousness. Information runs amok and the Internet is a battlefield in a domestic war, with each side using the network to spread agitprop promoting its particular version of reality.

For example, in the red zone reality bubble, millions of votes cast for Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential election were fraudulent. Personally, I think that’s BS – if it were true, Trump’s lawyers would explicitly make the claim in court instead of only in media statements. But I am a partisan of the blue zone in this war, so how could my words carry any weight with a partisan of the red zone? It seems we’re at an impasse – and it shows in the paralyzation of our government.

The problem is, with each side convinced of the veracity of its version of the truth, how is the consumer-citizen of the informational market state supposed to know which version is correct? If we are a really in a state, as Bobbitt argues, where we can choose from a menu of informational realities – will that be facebook, or parler, sir? – then how could we ever function as a polity? We need some common ground to stand on.

I am reminded of the time of the French Revolution, when rumors spread readily and people on either side easily believed the worst about the other faction. It was a mindset that pushed the people of that time to extremes of violence. I worried about this earlier in a book review. No, they didn’t have the Internet then, but that’s beside the point. An information network is there, regardless of the technology in use.

Ultimately, the chaos and violence of the French Revolution opened a path for an autocratic ruler to emerge and restore order. The people of the time were just glad for extremists on either side of the partisan divide to be put down. The moderates prevailed, but only because an authoritarian silenced the mobs. Trump might have been like Napolean and achieved this…but as it turned out, he didn’t.

I think the willingness of people to ensconce themselves in their media bubbles and stick with their partisan “zone” reflects a strong need for a consensus narrative, for a sense of collective purpose. We just need that purpose not to be at odds with the vision of a major segment of the populace within our same society. Maybe the United States is paying a price for becoming the sole superpower: there is no external power to unite us, as there was in the last crisis, so we’re left to fight each other. 9/11 might have been like Pearl Harbor…but as it turned out, it wasn’t.

So how will the center hold now? I honestly can’t say, but I suspect we’ll find out in the months to come. This will probably be my last red-vs-blue post for awhile, until some major change breaks. Meanwhile, I certainly will be watching my media bubble feeds with trepidation.

The Emojis of Our Discontent

The Emojis of Our Discontent

Recently, I posted about the DNC on Facebook and one of my Trump supporter friends (friend-in-the-Facebook-sense) responded with the Haha emoji. That’s the laughing face one, appropriate for silly videos and jokes but also available for mocking someone’s beliefs, which was the intent, I think, in this case. This person proceeded to respond to every subsequent comment with the same emoji, was scolded for behaving rudely, and subsequently unfriended me. However, their comments and reactions remain for posterity.

I bring this up not to hold a grudge but only to note how the Haha emoji is sometimes used to express dissent. I guess you could say it substitutes for a dislike or downvote, which Facebook does not provide. The only other choice is the Angry emoji. Either way it’s going to come across as emotionally charged, so maybe we were unfair to my friend-in-the-Facebook-sense, who kind of got mobbed. But that’s the consequence of posting an unpopular opinion on social media, where people of like belief tend to congregate. Very, very few of my friends-in-the-Facebook-sense are Trump supporters.

I’ve seen the Haha emoji used in other contexts, clearly to express dissent. The typical case is when the Governor of my fine state of Pennsylvania posts a declaration regarding his administration’s response to the pandemic. There are generally a few thousand reactions, of three kinds: Like, Haha and Love. I take that to mean: supports, does not support, and supports whole-heartedly. The ratio will be something like 67%/23%/10%. I find comfort in knowing that there is 3/4 support for the Governor among Facebook users, since I think he is doing an excellent job and want him to keep at it.

I see this pattern of minority objection on other social media platforms as well. Now it’s quite possible that I am not getting the whole picture because of some kind of social bubble effect. But I am reminded of the religious faction in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri game, protesting against their society’s mad rush to a technological utopia. Today’s pandemic deniers tag Facebook posts with Haha emojis like they are spraying “We Must Dissent” graffiti. And as the majoritarian viewpoint emerges, they are getting pushed into the shadows.

Trump supporters may actually be too large a minority to be relegated to the lurking in the shadows status of a renegade faction in a science fiction game. But it is my partisan hope that as this era evolves, that is exactly where they will end up in the next era. In the mean time, I can only express my dissent at the outrageous social injustice and criminal conduct of the Trump administration using the Angry red face emoji. It gets used a lot these days. The Sad crying face emoji is also available for expressing a kind of pitying dissent, as if to say, “what a pathetic species.”

I suppose Trump supporters have their criteria for what makes them Angry or Sad, but I don’t see them so much. I live in a different bubble from them. A society split between two bubbles of likeminded people, each group clicking icons on scrolling digital feeds in their own patterns, may be the saddest thing of all.

The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.