Every so often when I have nothing to do on a Thursday night, I go, “I’m gonna get drunk and write something that gets, like, 11,000 Facebook shares.” This makes me sound obnoxious, I know. It’s like, bitch, no one wants to hear your selfish rambling. Except they do. I’m a 21st century internet writer. Sorry.
Okay, hang on. I’m frontin’ a little bit. Let’s back up.
So there was this TIME magazine article about Thought Catalog, examining the massive popularity of young people’s personal narratives. The article is quick to note that critics call us “narcissistic,” and the first such critic cited by name is Gawker.
It’d be an understatement to say the Gawker network saw its own heavily-scrutinized, meteoric rise not too many years ago. In the early millennium, Gawker literally reformatted web journalism by pioneering the blog-format quick hit — and the movement was led by hungry young writers drawing millions of eyeballs through provocative headlines and sharp individualist commentary on everything from celeb gossip to world issues.
The old guard mourned. I remember reading a lot about the death of journalism in the internet age: What happened to neutrality, to sincerity, to true reportage? What gave these kids the right to get their attitude all over everything?
It’s funny to see that Gawker is now among the most incensed, as a new wave of young writers widely believed to be centralized in New York is changing the paradigm again. Full disclosure: I’m only partially qualified to comment; at 30 years of age I am a generational cusp-baby. I straddle a weird line. I can do well as a Thought Catalog writer, but I also still take an occasional paycheck from Gawker as a columnist for its videogame blog, Kotaku. If I have anything at all to tell you anything about being a 20-something, it’s with the wisdom of hindsight.
Sketch in your own ironic quotes as regards wisdom, or even the absurd idea that a couple of years lends me seniority. But like, remember when you were 23, and 30 was some horrific imagined deathbed?
Anyway. I’m a writer for a living, but I’m a “real journalist” as I am a pure essayist with equal rarity. Still, even from here I can see the movement popularizing those developing content on daily feelings, reflections on mundane experiences, brutal honesty as regards navigating the complexities of frequently-childish relationships, as symptomatic of an incredibly important age.
I’ve seen the articles that grown-ups have written about the millennials, characterizing a coddled generation that refuses to grow up. Even with all the self-esteeming and expensive education in the world, these kids still think they can click “like” to change the world, everyone says. Who’s to blame? Where did we go wrong? While these 26-year-olds toil in coffee shops or at unpaid internships waiting to be handed their promised dream jobs, who’s going to pay back all their damn student loans?
Maybe our moms and dads didn’t get what they expected of us, but today’s 20-somethings didn’t get what they expected of the world, either. You’ve read articles about this side of the story before, too: These kids grew up with 45-hour weeks of scheduled enrichment activities, art, language, athletics and community service — anything and everything that might help them reach the holy grail of well-rounded adulthood. From a young age they were indoctrinated to addiction: to the dopamine drip of praise, to the Ritalin and Adderall and Prozac “necessary” to smooth out any inconvenient challenges to remaining cheerful, capable members of the program.
The result? Apparently, hyper-achievers obsessed with being well-rounded at the expense of their souls. In the bellies of today’s recent grads lies an enormous void where something crucial is missing: The self. It’s no wonder the present wave of writers rebelliously prizes self-examination, the lavish indulgence of human experience, of clumsy sex, bad kisses, and — despite having no idea what grunge was — obsessive ownership of the 90s, the decade of the silly Nickelodeon childhood they should have had.
No one told them they’d graduate into a world where being voraciously passionate about everything but specialized in nothing (except for art or music or whatever it was that made Mom and Dad hug them as a child) was a bad prescription for a career. No one told them the economy was going to tank and that the only way any of them, of us, whatsoever can dream of home ownership would be to abandon all of these competitive cities we’ve fought our way into — the only place where we can be amazing, Mom! — and go to where we could afford a house beside all those others that never left home.
Or to get married, in our world where the independence to achieve is paramount and intimacy is profoundly frightening and impossible to navigate. We’re the first generation to demand believable Disney princesses; we’re the first to know for sure that the romantic constructs sold to us by the media are lies. Want to know why we use so many ‘scare quotes’? Because we’re scared, dude. The hell are we supposed to do now?
People call 20-somethings “the me generation,” but I remember being a teenager myself and looking at some magazine cover and learning that they hoped to call my little sister’s generation “Generation Why.” The idea was that in the digital age, they’d grow up questioning everything. Let’s just combine it and call them Generation Why Me. It fits, right?
And then there’s Facebook and Twitter. When I was a kid the internet — capital I — was a zone for escapists, where we made up other names and enjoyed nerdy jokes behind the backs of those who hadn’t figured out how to use computers yet. Now it’s inescapable. You can’t participate even remotely without being inundated in a crush of personal commentary: What strangers think. What they ate for breakfast. We’re able to take the pulse of our own society on an unprecedented scale, and even the smartest and strongest of us is often paralyzed about how to respond. Where to begin. How to be heard.
The internet has completely upended the economic structure for success in media. Record companies are selling us fewer and fewer pop stars; the radio plays chilly litanies of robot voices extolling party party party. We prefer to find our own heroes in a post-reality-TV age that sees us combing blogs for artists we can actually identify with. We are all hungry for internet fame, since if we get it maybe we can bypass the ancient infrastructure altogether. If, if, if we can score enough retweets and views that someone finally thinks we’re worth paying.
Yet the massive, rapid proliferation of so-called “narcissism” online is attractive to audiences because it suggests we can distinguish ourselves above the online din by being ourselves, by being relatable, by having something to say. It’s a refreshing rebellion against the illusory idea of professionalism, of printed-out resumes and cover letters that our elders drilled into us to no avail. We’re still being warned to be careful about being inappropriate on Facebook, on our blogs and on Twitter because some imagined future employer might punish us. It’s like oh, man, please don’t take away these jobs you weren’t going to give us anyway.
VICE magazine’s current new star is Cat Marnell, beloved for the blunt honesty with which she documents her drug use in the underworld of New York City after flagrantly ditching a storybook job at Jane Pratt’s beauty mag. We don’t love her because we glamorize amphetamines, necessarily, but because we want — oh, ouch, we want — to imagine a world where we can be wanted just by being ourselves. Where even if we are completely screwed up and have no idea what to do we don’t have to put on some business costume, some tidy LinkedIn page, and lie.
You can’t blame us for wanting a world where we can finally tell the truth, especially now that the internet has put so much of the truth at our fingertips. We can feel strong when we write about how hard it is to be a woman or black or disabled or fat or poor or gay or sick because at any given time we can pull thousands of comment threads where people spew pigheaded harassment. Injustice is everywhere and it’s gross. We have been handed the world and it looks awful, and we have never felt so goddamn powerless.
Our need to talk and to process is so profound that there’s a market in media for it — Lena Dunham’s Girls is among the most galvanizing programs on TV, don’t forget, even while programs about good old fashioned men’s club media (Mad Men, The Newsroom) flail, incensed, furiously acerbic.
In an echo chamber of internet noise, as this generation’s naïve hopes shatter like so many unbought CDs, all we know is who we are. The only out we have is to do the most socially-inappropriate, unprofessional, ill-advised stuff we can muster. We’ll talk about our sex lives. We’ll talk about fears and nostalgia and addiction and loneliness, the things we were warned never to air lest we be disliked, uncool, unhireable.
Damn straight, we’re narcissistic. The self is the only thing we have. Our own experience is the only thing on which we have complete authority, the only thing over which we have total control. What critics call “narcissism” is the only anchor we have. Welcome to the age of feelings. Please like. Please share. Please retweet. Please. Please.