30.6 C
New York
Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Growing Old Online

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I put the Twitter app back on my phone and scroll aimlessly. I’m trying to hurt my own feelings, and I’m always successful. I want something to hate, I want someone to be wrong, I want someone or something to hurt me. And I always get it, because that’s what the internet is for.

Lately, the point at which I get enough of what I wanted that I delete the app again is when I see a tweet telling me I’m old. I don’t mean it says my name or anything, but that it targets a category of people and makes fun of them for being online at all at 32, 35, 37. I get into a snarly little snit of indignance, and then I get mad at myself for getting mad, and then I delete the app and go to bed, essentially obeying the command in the tweet: Get off of the internet, you’re the wrong age to be here.

Millennials are getting old, and everyone is going to have to hear about it. Characteristically and in the only way we know how, we are making it everybody’s problem. Until somewhat recently, I felt like I knew where the lines were, and who was on which team. I felt like I knew who was old online, and who was young, who was the butt of the jokes, and who was making them. But in the last few years, those categories have shifted.

The hierarchy in online social spaces is changing as we reach a series of page breaks: The oldest millennials have already turned 40, and the youngest are staring down 30. Our slang terms are embarrassing, and our memes are outdated; the clothes we wore the first time around in middle school or high school are in retro fashion for teens and young adults who weren’t alive yet for Y2K.

People have been old online before, and young people online get older online every day. But millennials are, arguably, the first generation to have been young on social media and to then get older there. Those of us in our mid- to late thirties may have been extremely online for more than two decades, going through more stages of a life cycle here than anyone else yet has. Other people have been old on here before, but they weren’t here when they were young.

When I first got online, the internet felt so much like the future as to be science fiction. Early social media was grimy and chaotic and had nothing to do with family, careers, or any part of polite visible life. It was always 2 am on the internet; it was always a sleepover after somebody’s parents had gone to bed. The internet was the opposite of our parents’ world. It was, by definition, not for old people. Old people, from a preteen’s perspective, probably meant anyone over 25.

My experience of social media, and that of many people around my age, was predicated on making fun of our parents and people their age, who didn’t know what the internet was or how to behave on it. My dad used to tell me about listening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones” with his dad, and how his dad kept asking who Mr. Jones was, because he didn’t understand that it was him. The internet was our music that our parents couldn’t understand. Sometimes a friend’s parent would make an AOL account, and all of us—fumbling through middle school with our screen names and our chat rooms and our passive-aggressive away messages and our Livejournals—would shriek with laughter about it: an old person, on the internet! It was the best joke in the world.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Each generation thinks they reinvented the world; each generation is mostly wrong. Millennials didn’t invent the internet, but we can plausibly claim to have invented social media in the form in which it exists today. The early online socializing I did on AOL in 1999 is also the origin story of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. The ways those ecosystems function, the manners and expectations that now define many people’s idea of what “online” means, developed in step with my generational cohort’s adolescence.

Things change, and they don’t. Having an AOL address now is the oldest old-person thing you can do online. The collision of aging and the internet, a space in which time both moves in hyperspeed and stands still, is a diffuse and multipart process. This relationship changed when boomers got Facebook accounts and started using them prolifically; it changed when high school kids got Snapchat, and when they stopped using it in favor of TikTok. It changed each time somebody declared that Twitter was only for old people, which first happened nearly a decade ago. There have already been multiple waves of this same story, even within this one generation, even in this one version.

But an old person on the internet is still the best joke in the world; the thing my seventh-grade friends and I shrieked about when one of our parents decided to try AIM is still the same thing people much younger than me shriek about when a person my age makes a TikTok and does the millennial pause. Or at least I think they do; I don’t actually know, because I am not in on that joke. I’m the butt of it instead, an old person clumsily entering spaces by and for the very young. My awkward, online generation is still here, trying to operate by the rules we created in our teens or earlier.

I realize now how much my initial idea of the internet was based on incorrect assumptions. There were definitely old people online back then; the anonymity of early social media meant that it was probably easier to be old on there than it is to be old on today’s internet. There were most likely old people, middle-aged people, people in their thirties and twenties and seventies and nineties, people in college and in retirement communities, in the chatrooms I frequented as a preteen. But I didn’t know they were there; I only knew about my friends, and our parents who asked us what the internet was in the same way they asked us about our favorite bands on the radio, as though we were speaking a language they couldn’t understand. This disconnect felt like the natural order of things, and maybe it was.

Youth itself is novelty, and everyone loves when something is new. In this ecosystem where all the instruments are tuned toward whatever is new, youth will always make the loudest noise. The young take up the most space online, by cultural volume if not necessarily by actual numbers. Everyone else online is old–I know this, because we all talk to each other about it all day long–and yet it is always possible to feel like the only person over 30 left on the internet.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Social media’s goal is saturation; it wants to be no less than everywhere. Here is a world where everything is all about you, and where you aren’t ever supposed to look away from the mirror. This mandated, obsessive self-focus makes it much too easy to take everyone else’s youth or age very personally. Struggles between the young and not-quite-as-young, the inevitable process of aging and all the questions that come with it, grow louder and sharper than they might have been in an offline world, where we had neither the opportunity nor the seeming obligation to look at ourselves and one another constantly.

Youth has always been sold as an aspirational product, and it is nothing new for people to fear getting older than 25. But online social spaces run on envy; we have been told to feel bad about aging since forever, but where once we might have seen a billboard about it, now that billboard is an IV hooked up to our arms. An ad for an anti-aging product that might have briefly made me feel anxious about my appearance as I flipped past it in a magazine is now the shape and size and texture of the entire world. Jealousy seeks out categories and binaries. It adores rigid definitions. The envy-driven internet loves to sort complex, flawed individuals into harshly delineated categories: good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable, young and old. It thrives on extremes. My phone ceaselessly reminds me that someone else is younger, that someone else is doing more of whatever the right thing is to do.

In all the swirling debate about who is young and who is old online, I’m constantly surprised to see how much adults in their thirties seem to care what teenagers think of them. Ever since I was barely in my twenties, I’ve known the best thing about not being a teenager was no longer having to care about teenagers’ opinions. Part of being an adult is that teenagers are supposed to think you are old and uncool, and one of the benefits of being an adult is that you don’t have to care. But I still open Twitter when I can’t sleep and try to hurt my own feelings by finding a post where a young person makes fun of people my age for being irrelevant. It’s not hard to find these posts; it’s never hard to hurt your own feelings online. The internet as it currently exists wants us all to care what every stranger thinks of us; it feeds on people’s desire to get their feelings hurt for no reason by a child they have never met.

My generation learned what social media was as children, and we have never really let go of a child’s black-and-white understanding of it. In that understanding, everyone who isn’t my own age is my mom, and my mom is old because all moms are old. It seems ridiculous that anyone in their thirties cares what a teenager thinks of them, but many older millennials only ever learned to look at anything online, including ourselves, through a teenager’s viewpoint. We taught ourselves that that viewpoint, stuck in the emotional cadence of early adolescence, defined the internet itself, not just our own experience of it. The internet’s social technology was new enough then that it offered no other models for how to exist on it but our own.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

One of the difficulties, and opportunities, of aging is realizing that things are going to change regardless of whether you agree to change along with them. Again and again, I struggle to accept that I am living in a different world than I was 20, or 10, or even two years ago. If the internet can only exist in the form in which we taught it to ourselves, if it can only exist as novelty, then this is a kind of death; we have to either become the butt of every joke or cease to exist entirely.

But maybe something else is possible; maybe there is something beyond youth other than death or obsolescence online. There are so many stories about coming of age, so many fables about the transition between childhood and adulthood. There are far fewer stories, however, about the next great and mysterious transition, the crossing from youth to the next thing after it, what happens after our twenties but before we get actually old. This place where we in the first social media generation now find ourselves is also a coming-of-age story, as strange and fascinating, heroic and awkward, exciting and scary as the one we were living through when we first got online. Each of these things– the transition from childhood to early adulthood, and the transition from youth to middle age–happens to anyone who lives long enough to get there. But only one is celebrated, and only one is so far part of what defines the internet and how we all live there now.

Maybe part of the reason we complain so much about how unfair it is when young people call us old—as if it mattered, as if it were our business at all—is that we do not know how to make this next transition meaningful. We do not have a next place to go; we have not written ourselves a next chapter.

One option, of course, is simply to leave. People in their thirties and forties are in some cases reducing their social-media presences, making their accounts private, posting less, and moving their lives into other shapes and formats. My whole existence used to happen on Twitter; now I use it rarely, and almost exclusively for professional reasons. Perhaps aging out of relevance to youth culture gives us permission to be less extremely online; maybe this is how it becomes possible to jump off the never-ending carousel. It might be an enormous relief to no longer be the main character of online.

This is an overly facile answer, though, and likely not possible for the vast majority of this cohort. Social media is so built into many of our lives as to be inescapable, both professionally and socially. Giving up on the internet at the point where one is old enough to be stung by a younger person’s posts making fun of older people online admittedly feels like a relief to me, but as a solution it also boils down to making an excluding space even further exclusionary.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

I never felt young enough, not even when I was very young; I have always felt like I was losing the game. Perhaps this is because the game is rigged to isolate us from one another, and to obstruct the creation of communities–including online ones–that might foster real and radical change, across generations and social media habits. Science-fictional dystopias often depict societies brutally stratified by age. These are fictions, but maybe there is a reason fiction returns again and again to this same note in its bleakest visions of the future. Millennials’ weird, codependent, obsessive relationship with the internet needs to be renegotiated, but that renegotiation might offer more than just an exit. It could be the opportunity to invent a new, and perhaps better, way to live in these spaces where we have stayed so long as to no longer be young in them. Myths are fictions, but those fictions often teach us how to live and, crucially, how it is that people and systems change.

To seek out and to foreground myths of a next online coming-of-age might mean reimagining online spaces and their purpose. The more capitalist, corporate, and market-driven the internet becomes, the more it tells only one story, sorts to only one medium, and caters to only its youngest and newest customers. But a more inclusive internet, one that could hold multiple coming-of-age stories, might also hold multiple mediums and approaches, rather than rapidly and categorically discarding one for the next. It does not matter, on an internet that tells only one story about age and youth, that I prefer text to video, that I am never going to feel comfortable making a post where I point the camera at my face and talk out loud, that I don’t want to turn the sound on on my phone for any reason. Those innovations–text becomes video, posts involve talking out loud–remain dominant because they are forward motion. The only thing that matters is what happens next and getting there as fast as possible. If I hold on to my nostalgia, I become cringe. I can assimilate, or I can be ridiculed for being old.

On a less exclusionary internet, new mediums might need not subsume older ones, and different forms of media might exist parallel to one another rather than each seeking to devour the others. We might stay online as we age, but refuse to chase after youth–our own or other people’s–by doing so. Instead, we could seek to cast the net wider, to build weirder, less familiar, less marketable communities.

The assumption that young people are the only drivers of novelty makes sense; young people are, after all, literally newer. But what if novelty came from many sources and in many directions? There is also novelty to be found in experience, and regret, and nostalgia, in having been online a long time, in narratives that have not held cultural attention before. There is novelty in seeking a different, stranger, less familiar coming-of-age story, one that follows us into the next and the next era of our lives. Coming-of-age stories are about gaining access to secrets; perhaps the big secret of whatever comes after youth is that we are capable of holding more than we think we can, that there is always room. The coming-of-age myth at this next turn beyond youth might include a shift in priority from the individual to the communal. By getting older, we have already lost the competition; perhaps this transition might be, instead of a defeat, an opportunity to stop competing. Knowing we can’t win might free us to imagine a collaborative, rather than competitive, way of living online.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

When I was younger, I always understood the internet as a place only for young people, but at the same time, at that age I was always longing to be older than I was, able to get into the bars and clubs and dinner parties, all the glamorous weariness, of the people in the elegantly boring movies my parents watched. Those spaces could exist online too; we know there are more ways to be aspirational than what is newest and sleekest, because we have all felt the longing for things that were something other than that. Perhaps envy, when it cuts both ways, when it flows in both directions, transforms into curiosity. Online, we might pass back and forth between any and all of these different spaces, envying and envied at once, no one person or one type of experience drawing all the light in the room.

This might seem impossibly utopian or, to put it another way, this might seem hopelessly cringe. A vision of a better world is always maximally cringe. Hope is always cringe. But so is getting older, and like the meme says, being cringe can also mean being free. Freed from the treadmill of trying to be the youngest and most relevant people online, we might, in this next coming-of-age, be cringe enough to envision a better version of online, one that expands rather than narrows, one that holds multiple traditions without pitting them against one another, one that fosters intergenerational community. The assumption that young people are the only drivers of novelty makes sense; young people are, after all, literally newer. But there could also be novelty in seeking a different, stranger, less familiar coming-of-age story, one that follows us into the next and the next era of our lives.

Questions of aging are questions of identity and purpose. This generation is the first to have to decide whether being extremely online is sustainable past youth, which perhaps gives us a chance to once again redefine our relationship to social media and the internet itself. We can believe the myth that says we created the internet and invented social media, but if we did that, then we are also capable of inventing a new thing, of dreaming up a new form of living, beyond internet youth culture and capitalist churn. We can mediate our relationship with the internet in a way that admits the inevitability of change and seeks out the mysteries and possibilities of this next coming-of-age. We can celebrate moving away from youth, rowing out into the enormous unknown ocean beyond it, and start to consider whatever kind of internet might exist out there.

Related Articles

Latest Articles