Like everyone else under 50, I have two primary nemeses: Facebook and Baby Boomers. Our antipathy toward Facebook is righteous and justified. We created it, we adopted it early, and now we’ve tired of it. We owe it nothing, yet we’ve entered into a contract with it that feels like one of those toy finger traps. Boomers, meanwhile, are challenging to live alongside, because they presided over a time of almost impossible prosperity, which provided them with certain assumptions and entitlements that we, their children, don’t get to have. We feel that it’s unfair, and maybe it is, but what good does fixating on generational inequities do? Besides, they’re our parents, and we owe them at the very least our love — most of us do, anyway. Unfortunately our two nemeses have an unholy alchemical relationship. Facebook and Boomers exacerbate each other’s grating qualities. I have a proposal that mitigates the impact of both nemeses with one bold stroke.
Let’s segregate social media platforms by generation. The Boomers can have Facebook, because they love it. They share almost 20 percent more than any other demographic. Facebook’s user base is the only social platform that isn’t dominated by Millennials. Adults under 50 can have Instagram. Snapchat goes to the teens. Twitter would be an at-your-own-risk situation for anyone sadistic enough to log on. Mark Zuckerberg could even consider a new model: People like me (and we are legion!) might pay $5/month to access Facebook's event listings, and to use Messenger. No news feed or sharing privileges.
You see, Facebook’s events listings are the one pain-free dimension of the platform, and unfortunately, without them my social life would deteriorate significantly. I don’t need to know about how you want your vacation to look in pictures, but I do need to know who exactly is invited to your barbecue. I also need Messenger as a Rolodex of everyone I’ve met in the last decade. I don’t know need to know what everyone’s doing, or even what they look like these days, but if I’m passing through their town and wonder if they’d like to meet a long-lost friend for a drink, I’d like to be able to reach them. Facebook, putting up a generational paywall will be the most user-friendly innovation you’ll have ever made.
It is historically unprecedented that two generations should have to overhear so many of one another’s opinions.
A lot of the static between Boomers and Millennials has been caused by too much proximity. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. It is historically unprecedented that two generations should have to overhear so many of one another’s opinions. Even when humans were largely nomadic, I bet the younger folks kept their inside jokes to the far side of the yurt, you know? Would Boomers have even known about how much we liked avocado toast a few years ago if we hadn’t all been on Facebook together?
For the past few years I’ve had a running joke on Instagram that functions on the premise that John Mayer is my son. My mom hates this joke and doesn’t understand it at all. She especially hates it when I post images of John superimposed into photos of my actual sons. She protests in the comments. This joke is not funny, she insists. Why and how is this joke funny? I don’t blame her for not liking this joke. Appreciating it requires that you possess a deep intertextual understanding of John Mayer and the nature of his specific brand of commodified celebrity. This is a joke intended for no more than like ten of my friends.
For perspective, I sometimes think of my wonderful late grandma, Helen — my mom’s mom. When my mom was in her thirties, and making jokes with her friends — running jokes with tons of subtext, maybe a little crudeness in the mix — Grandma Helen would never have overheard those jokes. They would not have occurred in airspace shared by Grandma Helen. They occupied completely different social milieux! They kept it separate, kept it clean — and saved themselves a lot of mutual antipathy in the process.
Facebook is a platform that rewards inflated pride and strong opinions. It was founded by college kids while they were in college, which makes perfect poetic sense. Never did I engage in more self-mythologizing than I did as a college kid. My friends and I were legends! We did epic shit! I do not feel this way anymore. I’m running out of energy for boasting about my life. I still feel vaguely legendary when I’m partying with my friends, but I know better than to document this feeling with photos and post them online. I’ve seen photos of me partying — I look old in them. My lipstick is always smudged. On top of that, in this political climate, ideological debates exhaust me because I don't believe that anyone's mind can be changed anymore, so there go those once righteous status updates.
Boomers, on the other hand, are retiring from their jobs. They are becoming grandparents, and taking trips. Home renovations! There’s a whole new set of milestones to document, and they seem happy to do so, even while engaging in lively online debates about the state of the world. That they continue to have the will to do all this is a testament, perhaps, to the generative power of living through the wealthiest era the world will ever see. Millennials are running on fumes but the Boomers still have gas in the tank. Let them burn some of it on Facebook!
Do you remember the early-days thrill of engaging with far-flung friends and randos on Facebook? In 2009, if a post of mine got a handful of likes, I’d sometimes click to expand the list of names and imagine them all in a room together. I loved it! Oh, these two would totally hate each other if they met. And so on. The novelty of gathering everyone together lasted for a solid decade. I used to enjoy the mild challenge of drafting a post that would appeal to a wide swath of my friends — my market, if you will. Now these crowd-pleaser posts read as bland — vanilla copy. USA Today’s weekend magazine insert.
Today, after a decade of trying to reconcile ourselves with Facebook’s implied user, we’re getting worn out.
The type of social web communication I am interested in is hyper-specific. I don’t want to communicate with 700 people at once — even 100 is too many. I only really want to talk to my four best friends who live far away, my hilarious sisters-in-law, a few people I used to work with, and some mom-friends I’ve made in the last few years. Instagram is perfect for this. We coalesce around memes, niche celebs in whom we share inexplicable interest, and moments from our day. I never want to have to explain what something or who someone is in a comments thread ever again. I am not here for that.
All technologies have an implied user. In Facebook’s case, the implied user enjoys updating and managing their profile by liking, commenting, and sharing.Today, after a decade of trying to reconcile ourselves with Facebook’s implied user, we’re getting worn out. Concealing and revealing our identities as we’ve come of age, suffered setbacks and victories, accepted some disappointments and continued to rail against others — this all comes at a cost. I hate looking back at the Facebook-me of a decade ago, not because I was embarrassingly immature, but because of how little I’ve actually changed. These are supposed to be our transformative years of prime adulthood. For Boomers, these last ten years may not have had such a high-stakes feel to them. Their transformations occurred during the 1960s and 70s — maybe you’ve heard of em?
Digital sociologists insist that offline sociality is replicated online; very little that happens online doesn’t have its offline analog. I generally agree with this, but Facebook’s intergenerationality up to this point seems like an anomaly. I love the idea of intergenerationality in households, and in context of care and nurturing, but hanging out online? Suboptimal. Intergenerational harmony requires a collective generosity and commitment to slack-cutting that is not a good fit for social media. The nuance required to tell or understand a joke told across generations is very hard to convey in a photo caption.