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Am I getting too old to write about the new internet?
This is not an entry about the online GeNeRaTiOnAl WaRs between millennials and Gen Z, as there can’t be a war if I enter it already admitting defeat.
A lot has already been written about the cultural shifts between Gen Z and millennials. Usually Gen Z is throwing the first grenade and mocking their older internet predecessors. Sometimes millennials will “clap back” (er, here’s a self-admittedly cringey and co-opted term us millennials need to give up). Most of the time, the younger folks win the battle. This is true of all aging generations, and it’s somewhat comforting to experience. How uncool we found our parents, Gen X’ers, and boomers is how uncool Gen Z’ers find us. It’s the circle of life.
This week, however, I started tumbling into an existential place, thinking about how I, a millennial covering the Gen Z internet, am nearing 30. I am one of those digital media reporters who touts growing up on the internet or whatever. But the internet that raised me — that has been so formative to who I am today — is a much, much different internet than the one I now write about. The older I get, the more distance I feel between myself and the new social paragons I observe on YouTube or TikTok. I, very naturally, am becoming one of those adult writers who is trying to take notes and give analyses that may or may not be on point. I feel like a young parent on the sidelines of a playground, watching children run around, except this new generation is growing up to be savvier and better critical thinkers than those of any generations past, IMO.
It all came to a head when someone sent me this TikTok from user @sheherzog. In it, she criticizes how media outlets are covering the new internet (like TikTok and its influencers like Addison Rae) saying coverage is geared toward an older audience or people who require a kind of “cognitive dissonance” to want to read about it.
“They need to be reassured constantly that this is inconsequential to their life, which I think at this point we’ve proven over the past couple decades is fundamentally untrue,” she says. “Most of online culture phenomena is a gradient of our histories, our social behaviors, our political and economic worlds, and all of these concepts have been happening for centuries.”
I love this critique. Mostly because it’s a rattling reminder of what I and a lot of my millennial friends sometimes do: When we don’t understand a strange new online cultural phenomenon, we shake our heads at it, like, “oh lol those silly kids.” The more we position ourselves as authorities to an ever-changing internet, the more we actually fail to be in it, to understand how young people are shaping it and are shaped by it on a deeply humanizing level.
Gen Z’ers don’t want to be studied like lab rats; they want to be understood. Like how we yearned to be understood in chaotic early internet days, when late-’90s TV news media portrayed the dot-com boom like it was an anarchist uprising.
I reached out to @sheherzog, whose real name is Kendall. She’s 26, aka “teetering on the edge of millennial and Gen Z,” she said. She told me she’s aware that journalists like me and my peers churn out so much content “that there really isn’t time for a journalist to always carefully treat these stories about the internet with care.”
When I asked Kendall how, then, internet reporters like me can better treat our stories, she expounded on her TikTok. We should treat being online as something that’s malleable and permeates our real world, she said, as opposed to existing in a vacuum.
“‘Online’ is a very fluid thing, at least from my perspective. And I think it both influences the outside world and is influenced by our past and present,” she said. “I think these TikTok influencers, regardless of how shallow or vapid they may seem to an older audience, impact music, economics, advertising, celebrity, TV, politics.”
She also wanted to remind millennials that the stakes are greater for young people who are growing up on the internet today.
“Millennials grew up with an inconsequential, anonymous internet. Like, I’m a little older than these kids, and I remember having a Tumblr. And I said a lot of stupid shit there, but I guarantee no one would find it. These kids are posting their whole faces and lives, practically their SSN.”
She hopes journalists are “making [their] intentions clear when pursuing a subject … especially younger ones, who might be a little starry-eyed at the idea.”
I was really called out when Kendall ended her TikTok with a quippy dig that aging digital media reporters have not had an authentic internet experience since “role-playing on AIM.” Ouch. I wave my white flag, @sheherzog.
It starts to get existential for me when I think about how I and other ~older~ journalists can effectively and authentically cover the Gen Z internet for a Gen Z audience. If we can. (Aside: Is being in my late twenties “older”? Are tildes still relevant? Did using them just now reveal myself?)
I have tried to participate in the online trends I cover as much as I can. But the older I get, newer and younger trends no longer feel authentic to my sensibilities. Because I’m human, it’s natural that I write for an audience closer to my age, even as I want to responsibly address the right demographics. So is it even possible to synthesize that authenticity if I’m aging out of it???
I think, to answer my own big questions very simply, of course there is space for me and other millennials to cover Gen Z culture through our lenses. I have to accept the implicit bias I have and that I am only an observer of a culture and ecosystem I no longer belong to. I hope to write for Gen Z’ers, but I most likely will write for other millennials. The battle to maintain coolness will inevitably be a losing one. But I do think all these musings I’ve been having (about my career, my interests and my future career and interests) have landed in a productive place. I think these valid criticisms of digital media publications should lead them, and including the one I work for, to hire younger talent to cover these spaces. The industry is in a bad place, but ideally more Gen Z reporters should be covering Gen Z issues.
That’s how you engender authenticity.
Until next time,