Maybe I’m just like your gruff old uncle at heart, but I have to admit it: sometimes I hate teenagers. Well, some teenagers — at least those whose seal of approval would be a resounding #yaaaas and who would attend a concert only to watch it through the screens of their iPhones. I, however, openly acknowledge the fact that I unreasonably resent a generation of people who are not at fault for being born in the Millennial Age. Technically speaking, I am a ‘Millennial’ myself. I realize that, like most things, adolescent culture evolves with the passing of time. If anything, I’m just part of an undying cycle, through which I have expectedly progressed to the cynical young adult stage.
While I tend to show favor toward the innovations of social media, I sometimes find myself at odds with the cultures they seem to inspire. Social media sites can be strange spaces that often read as personal diary entries. Many social media users broadcast hookups, cryptic breakups, what they had for brunch and how much time they logged in at the gym. They do this because they can — whether you like it or not. The fact that I feel somewhat conflicted about these posts is completely subjective. It’s definitely a matter of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ There’s no substantive argument I have to show for my disdain, other than the impression that these people seem to be incentivized by how many ‘likes’ they can get. It’s as if people, particularly young people, have an insatiable quota for them.
Gone are the days when seeking popularity or fame consisted of auditioning to be on a subpar reality television contest, or forcing your way onto a breaking news coverage. While these methods are not necessarily extinct, they’re definitely outdated. In this day and age, social media revolutionized the concept of celebrity, as it readily provides both an audience and a stage. And all it takes for a person to take that stage is six seconds or 140 characters.
Vine, YouTube and Twitter all establish the popularity of the soundbite, and along with other platforms, immortalize them as memes: sharable and alterable media. There are roles in the social media fame game; one is the star and the other is the promoter. The role of the star often involves some ingenuity, whether it be in the orchestration of an outrageous stunt, or a silly, yet instantly iconic one-liner. Sometimes the subject of a viral video isn’t a social media savant. The subject can be an endearingly jumpy dog, or someone caught falling off a stage. Regardless of intention, many subjects become the butt of a joke that lasts for a few weeks, and more often than not, they laugh along with the audience.
The role of the star is nuanced. The task of the promoter, on the other hand, is unambiguous. The viral component of a meme has more to do with how the Internet transforms it and its actual distribution. In this sense, social media platforms constitute a participatory culture where many are credited with the popularization of a new meme.
For many people, the social media fame game goes beyond trying to stand out as a singular, big name. As a promoter, the faculty of sharing and expanding a meme provides one with the experience of co-authorship, which is arguably more accessible to us than the prospect of being a star. This goes back to an age-old question: why do we want to be famous? It’s actually not that complicated. It’s a sort of paradox in that standing out gives people dignity and a sense of belonging. This is not necessarily true of all people, but at least it makes sense to the players in the social media fame game. In our day-to-day lives, we subconsciously size people up within seconds of meeting them. We compare ourselves to them and other people we know because of a latent desire to elevate ourselves. And ‘other people’ are the only units of measure that seem both accessible and relevant to us.
In a world where we continually decrease our prospects for recognition — as illustrated in restrictive 140 character tweets and six-second Vine videos — we struggle against being socially marginalized. So we hashtag the memes and Instagram our selfies in the spirit of an implicit competition. Not all of these competitions are hostile; some are merely to ensure survival. The stakes, of course, are not exactly trivial. People either want to co-author a meme or star in a viral video to feel like a contributing member of social media’s participatory culture. They just want to be appreciated.
Older generations often have misconceptions about social media. They are confused by it, they trivialize it and they arrive at the conclusion that Millennials are somehow more impersonal and different from them. Despite my personal antipathy towards many aspects of social media and online culture, I know not to dismiss them as unimportant. Social media works to project basic and transgenerational wants and needs — it’s just a different brand. While many things remain the same, I find that a lot of young people are increasingly in it for Hollywood fame and glory. They just want to do it for the Vine.