I’d thought the assignment was pretty easy.
“Think of the songs you and your friends were listening to, or the shows everyone was watching, or world events that everyone was talking about when you were growing up,” I instructed my class of college freshmen.
I asked them then to break into small groups and discuss whether and how common passions and experiences affected them personally. The goal of this exercise, I explained, was to get at how shared cultural moments and phenomena shaped or were reflected in the outlook and attitudes of their generation.
They couldn’t come up with their generation’s equivalent of JFK’s assassination, The Beatles’ first visit to the United States, the moon landing, 'the Cosby Show' or the Vietnam War.
Two of the teams honed in on social media. I listened as they laughed and reminisced about persuading parents to let them get their first Facebook accounts, ruing that they once considered this granddaddy of a social network to be the ultimate in cool. They charted their own growth not as tape measure marks on a doorframe, but as a steady advance from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat.
The third group sat in glum silence. Despite my insistent questioning to spur their conversation, they couldn’t come up with their generation’s equivalent of JFK’s assassination, The Beatles’ first visit to the United States, the moon landing, "the Cosby Show" or the Vietnam War.
“What about Michael Jackson’s death?” I asked. “Or 9/11? Or President Obama’s election? Or the Recession?”
“What’s that?” one student asked.
“The economic downturn, all those people losing jobs and houses,” I answered with a calm I didn’t feel.
“My parents have always bought all my stuff,” another student said, “so I don’t know anything about that.”
Silence – theirs stumped, mine stunned.
Finally, I said, “How about social media?”
They were off.
It’s early days in the school year, and I’m just getting to know these kids. They strike me as neither especially entitled nor uninquisitive. In fact, thus far, I’ve been delighted by their awkward earnestness, their openness and their readiness to learn. But clearly, it’s not just marketers and pundits who differentiate this generation of digital natives in terms of their social media savvy. If this roomful of 18-year-olds is typical, that’s also how they define themselves.
Whereas my generation came together over exciting firsts, common cultural heroes and history-altering conflicts, this generation seems bound not by similar sensibilities or life-changing events, but by the tools they use to share what they’re listening to on their playlists.
But for all of their real time communication, for all of that so-called “sharing” via pictures and URLs and status updates, these kids are hard-pressed to name a common experience. They are, as Sherry Turkle aptly described it in her most recent book, alone together. Social media, with its fabulous capacity to forge shallow but broad and frequent connections, is what sustains them.
As a child of the '60s, my sense of connection was almost tactile. Many of the most moving and transformative experiences of my life were spent in large groups of people. In protests and marches and music festivals, I found not just emotional but sensory validation that, beyond my immediate circle of friends and family, I belonged to a tribe, one formed out of experiences that were literally, not virtually, shared. Our physical congregation as a community and as a generation was transitory, but the knowledge we acquired as a group sunk deep roots that endure.
Social media, with its fabulous capacity to forge shallow but broad and frequent connections, is what sustains them.
I don’t want to believe that those days are entirely gone — and the Hong Kong protests reassure me that they’re not. Had I thought to mention Harry Potter, I might have found at least one passion that my students had shared at some point in their lives. Kids still go to concerts, still signal their affiliations through the clothes or the ink on their bodies, still use Facebook and Twitter to find their people. And for all of my generation’s rhetoric on the subject of diversity, theirs seems infinitely more informed about and evolved about embracing it. Today’s young adults have given each other far greater latitude to express and reinvent their individual sexual, ethnic and spiritual identities than my generation ever did.
But I’m saddened — worried, really — by the tenuousness of their collective identity. These kids are inheriting a deeply troubled planet, coming of age in a period of climate change that will demand radical, unwelcome adjustments in how we legislate and live. But mobilizing and sustaining the necessary fight for social and political overhaul requires a sense of “we.” It demands physical gatherings and raised collective voices. Movements are not made of “likes,” but of actual people coming together as a corporeal whole. I hope these kids come to find inspiration and sustenance in sharing that.