The era of validation and algorithmic apathy
I hate sounding like the “old man yelling at cloud” about everything, but I really just want to get my thoughts out about things. This is therapeutic, I guess. Or perhaps it’s because I feel that not enough people talk about these things regularly enough and SOMEONE has to shout it into the void or we risk losing sight of things overall? Is this what Chicken Little was about? Also I recognize that I’m quite scathing in my focus on a couple specific articles here. Unavoidably, someone’s not going to take that well. However, given that my entire point there revolves around the never-ending hyperbole being fed down our throats not just by social media algorithms, but by those very hyperbolic articles... I can’t say I’ll feel bad if anyone’s feelings are hurt. If you put hyperbole out in the world on that scale of a communication channel, you actively incite hyperbole in response. That’s the game you chose to play – if you’re bothered by it, perhaps you actually learned the lesson I wish everyone could learn. God I sound like a shitty grandpa. “Puts hairs on your chest!” or something – I hate that stuff. But here I am. Follow me on Mastodon!
I promise it’s not what you think
Okay, hear me out for a second. You saw the name of this blog post, I know what it sounds like and what you’re probably thinking. But this isn’t that. This isn’t a generational dunk, this isn’t Gen Z vs Gen X or about avocado toast or privilege or entitlement, none of it. I hate the “generation wars” – that kind of nonsense doesn’t help anyone. If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s me trying to wave a white flag in the middle of it, so that we don’t miss the big problem underneath the petty fighting. If any generation has major issues on a wide scale that the prior generations are taking a problem with – it’s most certainly their fault anyway, so blaming that younger generation is just a complete lack of self-awareness.
The Hot Take
I think we’re in an era where people (especially “the younger folk” but not at all limited to them) are seeking public validation online in ways that, in a vacuum, feel really creepy. I think we’re seeing an unprecedented amount of self-focused justifications for anxieties and lack of socialization among other issues, being presented as cultural development or some sort of “news” to inform everyone else of. It’s toxic and creepy – but it’s also Gen X and Millennials’ faults, not just the Zoomers’.
I’m talking about things like this:– focus on the headlines and content as a complete item, an artifact of the specific problem I’m describing, rather than as a call-out of any specific writer or etc. for the moment -
Both of these are examples of pretty bad reporting, with the first being far more egregious than the second – but both exemplifying the greater issue. I want to analyze them both within the context of what they mean for communication and messaging.
Lack of Sincerity
Referring back to the piece about signing up for Mastodon... Actually first, let me remind you of my own context: I guess you could say I have a stick up my ass. I am not proud of it, but as goofy as I can be in emotional expression, I take big picture matters, the responsibility of having a publication and influence over the masses, etc. incredibly seriously and struggle to hold respect for those who don’t. It’s a flaw, but not one I’m convinced needs “fixing”, especially when everyone else seems so cool to go along with it. I don’t participate in many conversations where I’m not saying things that I would stand behind or accurately express my feelings on a matter;– and I sure as hell would never do so while writing for a major publication, even IF it’s BuzzFeed. I know a lot of people don’t take BuzzFeed seriously, but they generally do on the actual “BuzzFeedNews” side. The people who go there to be journalists do so to be journalists not to be memes. As someone who has a ton of enthusiasm for the internet populace finally learning lessons about the consequences of “big social media” and owning your data, Mastodon and other alternate social sites’ numbers booming and a tech reporter I respect posts... whatever the fuck you call that post. No, I’m not “just mad” because she “didn’t like Mastodon.” I’m MAD because the article states that she lost her sanity and self-esteem in doing so, and the only road bump/cause she listed was that the email verification link wasn’t working. You know, a common tech outage that happens with even the biggest of services ... A basic tech problem that any online service ever has and will have is what “cost you your sanity and self-esteem” and thus you place that absurd weight onto Mastodon? Look me in the eyes and tell me that doesn’t sound fucking insane to you.
Yes, I know clickbait is nothing new, blah blah. I get it to some degree – though I guess I’ve managed to not “lower myself” to “reading this kind of thing” too often before? That’s how others have put it – but I’m really not comfortable being so dismissive and disrespectful about someone’s current outlet, topic, etc. that their job has them working. I don’t think that’s fair and it’s a shitty thing to do that I’m trying to avoid. But there are some lines of absurdity where I just can’t respect the choices made anywhere up the chain to allow that to be published. I’m imagining: 1. Something needed to be posted about Mastodon or “fediverse” topics quick to get clicks about the trending thing. 2. Writer who is skewed against changing the status quo or losing existing reach doesn’t think it deserves attention. 3. Due to said email verification issues, perhaps too much time had passed to do any sort of real story (even though if this really took “days” then theoretically getting a couple quotes on the subject from people could have been feasible) and thus only a “here’s what happened when I signed up” piece was born.
I’ve made crappy posts in the name of “just getting something up” in a reasonable manner. I’ve made mistakes in my coverage for worse reasons. I get it. Again, while I realize I’m doing it anyway to express how I feel, I don’t intend to just shit on someone’s work. But when I feel that this is really important on a societal level for us to use this historic crumbling of a company to push for better tech literacy over privacy, data ownership, and agency over your online experience with shifts/changes we haven’t had in over 10 years on the internet it feels actively harmful for people to be so damn dismissive of the new stuff over absolutely petty, or frankly made-up reasons.
My potentially-dramatic or disproportionate response is even sillier because I think it instead identifies one of my big problems with online communication from the newer generations (including my own) – which is a lack of sincerity. That article title was hyperbolic. It was over-the-top. It was perhaps trying to one-up the “Mastodon made me cry” style headlines others had run. Ultimately, it wasn’t sincere. As a journalism graduate and someone with the previously-mentioned stick-up-butt about journalistic integrity, the responsibility of having a platform, how harmful modern media is to every new generations – all that self-righteous bullshit – being a big (ish? Don’t know how to qualify) name tech reporter on a big platform and using that to meme on an important new subject in a way that (even by those who understand this lack of sincerity) with 100% contribute towards the hive mind of ignoring good things, new tech, this potential shift, etc... just seems like an absurd decision. What a waste, right? But that very lack of sincerity here is common. From the ROFLMAOs of my generation first discovering new ways to chat in forums, IRC, and IMs to the “I’M LITERALLY CRYING” of younger generations and plenty of other things I haven’t picked up on;– we’ve all been doing it. But for me, the difference comes in the time and place. 5, I guess maybe 10 years ago now, I wasn’t seeing that kind of culture leak into fucking news headlines. Perhaps it’s only natural that it has done so, perhaps that’s an acceptable and normal evolution – but I’ve always seen bigger picture communication and especially news/journalism as being something that would forgo some of those cultural language shifts in favor of being as easily-understood as possible. In my program I was taught to work AGAINST the tendency to sensationalize, make controversies where there are not, or exaggerate in a way that would skew the readers’ opinions in a direction other than their own. Yes, you would be correct in pointing out that this is all over YouTube, too. While I’d argue a lot of the super-hyperbolic clickbait has fallen aside due to performing worse as audiences grow tired of it, video titles do tend to remain a bit hyper-real or exaggerated in the name of posing a compelling value offering. But then it is the responsibility and goal of most (good) creators to deliver on that. I didn’t click on this article about Mastodon expecting to be convinced of a scenario in which someone genuinely felt they lost their sanity or even their self-esteem (though based on everything I’ve said, perhaps it was already low) through their experiences trying to sign up for Mastodon. But I DID expect there to be a delivery of an actual, meaningful point of friction specific to the new service/tool that justified *being hyperbolic about it in the first place! Not “oh boo hoo email services were overwhelmed in a predictable, universal way due to the obviously unprecedented influx of traffic.” Mastodon has a lot of pain points in its UX for new users, especially those expecting a Twitter 2.0. *Picking a server? Can be confusing or frustrating, especially when the new user doesn’t yet understand what role that server serves (and may not ever understand it). *Searching for servers isn’t as great as it should be. *Being bounced between the website to the app to the server-specific signup page could be frustrating. *The official mobile app has a pretty empty-looking home feed until the user knows how to find the proper timelines, and those aren’t even explained well. These are but a few of the plethora of UX confusions facing a new user. This article contained not a single one of these, nothing remotely close. Instead, the article sounded like a grandmother by comparing Twitter to Studio54 and in the same swing basically shitting on anyone who likes hanging out on Mastodon – regardless of who they were or how they ended up there. So not only was it a completely fabricated, insincere headline that would immediately turn off someone who glanced at it and was easily swayed from trying Mastodon, they couldn’t even be bothered to be informational to someone wanting to know what to expect to struggle with anyway!
This lack of sincerity (followed by under-delivering) is not an oversight, it’s not a mistake. The writer would not be where she is at in her career if she didn’t know what she was doing. Instead, it’s merely a consequence of a growing trend of this kind of “culture writing” in fields online. (Realistically these problems I have with this kind of writing has always been there in some form, but usually restricted to tabloids or “lifestyle” columns that rarely touched on topics more hardcore than finding a date to prom, now being made out as actual “tech reporting” where somehow I’m now supposed to trust this person’s opinions on anything after such a post.)
That problem comes from relatability. Younger people including my own generation, to be clear, have always been hooked on the novelty of “being relatable” online. It stems from the early days of it just being magical to find like-minded people online in the first place, with the seemingly infinite potential of the internet allowing friendships and relationships to form that proximity restrictions would not normally allow for. It’s the dopamine hit of having a certain, seemingly unique feeling validated by a stranger online who happened to share it where no one else thought to. That connection to another human being who might be feeling what you’re feeling. There’s a lot of value in that, clearly. That’s what turned so many of us into living-online people in our formative years when falling in love with the internet; especially those of us who couldn’t relate to our in-person peers as much. But also not every feeling needs to be validated, or at least validated strongly or publicly. Sometimes it’s cool to accept a feeling, and then get over it so you can be a productive or functioning human being. I’m sure it was frustrating for someone to keep trying to activate their account and the email validation wasn’t working. I’ve run into similar experiences – even with things I’ve paid a significant amount of money for. It’s fine, even, to express that feeling – but then you move on from it. Once it does start working, you breathe and move forward. You don’t need to openly shit on every product or service that happens to give you a mild annoyance. There’s enough of that as it is.
[As I write this, I’m realizing that this is ironically a MASSIVE part of Twitter culture. The very premise of jumping to Tweet your frustration at a company the moment they annoy you, yelling at your ISP when your internet goes down, tagging the restaurant you were at where you got bad service, or screaming into the void about a very temporary outage only to follow up with “lol nvm it works now” by time support staff can actually reach out to you... That is probably one of the most universally-shared uses of Twitter that everyone does at some point, or on a regular basis. Perhaps that’s leaking through, here, too. We shouldn’t treat that as rational behavior, never should have.]
But it’s “relatable” to express the melodramatic feeling associated with trying to sign up for a service and the system to complete the last step not working properly, so why not share a relatable thing that paints an entire service and its 7+ million user base in a bad light if it means making some lolz and being #relatable? Sure, it’s a feeling we have all experienced, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we need to see represented and normalized. Not every feeling you have needs to be a big thing that you share with others, especially when from the very title it’s transparently hyperbolic to begin with. [I know I’m taking this too seriously, but this exact kind of thing ABSOLUTELY spreads beyond these lower-stakes instances. When we try to make every feeling relatable, instead of teaching people to fucking cope and maybe get over a feeling or two, what starts as an innocent post of “wow this sucked” that seems weird to be mad at, turns into how people communicate about everything – as we see with my contextualization within Twitter, and I think is pretty transparent in plenty of other places.]
Validating and Over-Valuing
I have far less scathing things to say about the writing and reporting in the emoji piece, but I do still have feelings. The primary one being that the only quoted source is an “expert” on Emoji by way of being the editor-in-chief of Emojipedia. While I don’t doubt his credentials of being the expert on what Emoji are and the context with which they’re often referred to online (I can only assume he’s “the guy” to reference, for sure) – there’s seemingly no consideration to actually looking at the psychology at play here. A bunch of Gen Z-ers have decided that the “Thumbs Up” emoji is “passive aggressive.” Except basic reasoning tells you that humans have been giving each other thumbs-ups for centuries and there’s nothing inherent to the action that’s passive aggressive. But you know what IS passive aggressive? Passive aggression. People use and do all kinds of things that are completely acceptable under most circumstances, but can be passive aggressive when used that way. Combine that with the widely-reported, or... accused? increase in insecurity basically every generation, and you have a generation (multiple, even) of kids/teens who have most of their social interactions online and thus lack real world non-verbal context for a lot of things, are already super insecure (hell, I was incredibly insecure until my early 20s and would have fallen into this trap) and see something that is sometimes used as a passive aggressive thing. That’s cool, that’s fine. But you don’t need to take that discomfort and turn it into a global announcement that your generation sees it that way because it’s been used that way. You just kinda... get life experience and get over it. But we now again have multiple generations that spent a lot of time seeking constant validation about everything, emphasizing one’s personal feelings and experiences to “be heard,” and (more or less) applying a TON of social pressure to anyone who tries to “take that away from them.”
The article failed to bring any of the psychological context into the equation. Sure, Emojipedia guy knows his stuff about the emoji themselves – but where’s the context of evolving perceptions of expression, the history of thumbs-up-ing at all, the psychology of a big group of people supposedly all deciding that an innocuous thing is now passive aggressive and the assumed insecurity or other issues that back that up? Would be incredible information to contextualize this conversation — but reporting so often these days falls back to single-source reporting and fails to contextualize anything, even super important world events, and tell people why it matters or how it’s changed over time. We live in an era where theoretically infinite information is available at your fingertips, but it’s buried in infinite noise and misinformation trying to lead you astray. DYOR is impossible for most people (online) for complex topics, and it’s quite literally a reporter’s job to do the legwork for the reader. Back to the prior discussion of lack of sincerity and modern clickbait-y context: This article most likely wasn’t meant to be “that serious.” But it’s a blip in the existing constant generational tension and finger-pointing and blaming; and once again chooses to participate in that bad cycle instead of doing just a little bit of work to contribute to the greater good of breaking the cycle. Just a little extra information goes a long way. While it’s a smaller amount, some people do read the content of articles, and those would be the people who spread to other people trying to address the bad info. It’s a cascading effect. With both of these articles, the content fails to deliver a relatively low-effort, high-reward contribution towards improving the mass conversation on the topic, and thus ultimately fails at reporting. The waves rippling out from that article become many other websites and radio hosts and podcasts reacting to the idea that “Gen Z sees thumbs up as bad” when some of that conversation could have been steered away from the predictable generational wars and blaming, and the magnification of a silly message based on a silly, fleeting feeling.
These are two, randomly-picked examples that I’m not singling out for the sake of swinging exclusively at them in a vacuum, but as representative of constant waves of this kind of content, everywhere.
We’re to Blame
Validation is important to anyone, to an extent. Being heard and having your feelings recognized is important to anyone to an extent. There’s nothing wrong with that until a passing feeling that can be gotten over and grown up from with an ounce of life experience ends up on the New York Times as a talking piece for what an entire generation supposedly demands be changed about online communication.
A lot of this is our fault. And by “our” you can point to any generation before the current, just like the generation being “talked about” here would slot in with most newer generations you have in mind, my own included. But to get more specific, let’s first apply some context... Surely by now you know at least one person who never stops complaining about how “this generation” (without ever knowing which generation they’re talking about) has to have participation trophies for everything and how that’s probably ruined anything from competition to self-esteem to manhood to the entirety of the US of A. It’s always “the kids just HAD to have participation trophies so they could all feel special and were never taught the hard lessons of losing to trying to work hard.” The hilarious truth of all that scenario is that the participation trophies were never for the kids. They were introduced for the parents. The parents who wanted to all feel like their kid did a good job and whatever else. So immediately, you can see the eternal blaming of one generation for the direct actions of another, project and point fingers, yada yada. And, of course, there’s some line to draw of that generation’s parents wanting participation trophies for their kids because their parents worked all the time and expected too much strict rule-following of them and didn’t celebrate their own achievements so they altered their worldview and raised children in a way informed by that scenario. There’s always something, this isn’t surprising to anyone.
[Reminder that I’m speaking in generalizations that not everyone will feel is accurate.]
Translating this down, you could say that Gen X demanded participation trophies so they could feel and brag about what their kids did because they didn’t feel their parents were ever proud of them, but then constantly tell their kids to “get over it” any time they felt wronged, oppressed, silenced, or just generally had big feelings (or opinions on how the world should be run).
Their kids (usually millennials at this point) took that and became the first “feelings” generation as they made more room for the individual. Individualism was huge, with cultures like scene, emo, and goth seemingly soaring in popularity in the early ‘00s and the teenage trope went from driving cars too fast, drinking a ton and partying (rules got a lot tighter from the ‘80s to the ‘00s – though I wish I was older for more of the bike-riding, woods exploring, D&D-playing of the ‘90s) to the edgy, angsty “they just don’t understand me” teen. This is also a time where we saw a huge rise in the normalization or popularity of self-harm and a kind of sub-culture around that. We were also the first kind-of web-first generation. Riding that personality of individualism and finding room for the individual’s feelings, we also were led right into the portal to a globalized super-dimension: The World Wide Web. On the net we could find whole new communities where we could make friends and belong in ways never before possible – further giving merit to the need to take our feelings seriously and make room for expressing them. Be it posters all over the wall or a MySpace page littered with CSS-crafted skulls and blood tears and My Chemical Romance blaring while your Netscape, AOL browser or Internet Explorer 3.5 slowed to a crawl.
While it wouldn’t enter the cultural mythology for another decade and a half, somewhere in this timeframe is also where the “Karen” archetype started to rear its head. The Participation Trophy Parents and their kids (once they became parents) were emboldened to challenge every authority that would dare talk to their kid a certain way, enforce rules upon their kid, consequences, give them bad grades, whatever. It started with a “mama bear” tactic (applied to men, too, but the archetype is obviously a 30-something white woman) to “protect” the children, but would later be frequently turned on anyone that “had it coming” ensuing never-ending memes.
Inherent to being the first web generation, Millennials also effectively established (and revamped over and over) the “Netiquette” for future generations. Rules and laws that dictated not important expectations of privacy, data collection, doing no harm, not wrapping up the entire online experience into singular corporate bubbles, no. Rather rules about respecting the individual’s “opinion”, about “debating” everything, yet actual critique of arguments being “personal attacks”, and the actually deadly one – that if someone has, expresses signs of, or otherwise identifies with some sort of mental illness, you cannot suggest or offer anything that the person could do to better that situation or improve the mental situation, as that’s “ableist” and would cause them to suppress/reject who they are (that depression, eating disorders, anxiety, agoraphobia were just “personality traits” that you can’t be prejudice against or exclusionary of somehow). This relates to the greater point I’m trying to make, but I want to refresh you: From the late ‘00s into the early ‘10s onward, there developed a subculture of the mentally ill that would join together in groups, discuss their mental illness – but as is the case with most lifestyles or hobbies once you find a hardcore group of individuals online in that niche, you become compelled to explore that subject further, get deeply involved, and as happens with the mental illness side... you’re effectively encouraged to stay in that dark place and any attempts at leaving is hostile. It’s like an abusive relationship. Marie Le Conte brilliantly discusses this in her book _”Escape: How a generation shaped and survived the internet,” saying that people in these circles get trapped into not improving their situation, as improving it would mean pulling away from the group – and both the person that might improve and the group on the whole would be incentivized to not allow themselves to lose each other. Normalizing staying in the worst of your mental illness, instead celebrating days where you never leave your bed rather than building each other up and celebrating the days you do. That effect is mortifying. [These circles had tons of popularity early on with sites like Tumblr, but have once again risen in popularity among younger people through platforms like TikTok, where new language has been developed for self-harm and suicide (“unalive”) to circumvent detection and avoid videos or comments being deleted or being shadowbanned on the platform.]
While this is perhaps the most extreme example of this kind of phenomenon (or second maybe to the rise of domestic terrorism under similar conditions), it comes from the same place. We first established the need for room for feelings and momentary existence, then built entire communities around living in those feelings. The internet removes all context from what a person is feeling, doing, or going through when they post, and online communication ends up “branding” us with things we say long after we meant them or cared about them; so feelings that we express in a specific moment become a bigger conversation or expressed personality trait, and if you’re not careful they turn into your entire online persona. This wasn’t a problem in the early, better days, as it was relatively easy enough to just juggle different online personas depending on your mood. Anonymity was the default, communities were decentralized, everyone wasn’t in the same room in the first place. You could go to the grocery store mad and seem angry there, but you grabbed a snack, felt better and could then go to the bank chipper and friendly, and be seen as such. The consolidation of social media and online experiences took that from us. Today most people have one profile per platform, usually the exact same profile across the whole platform – and that profile is generally very transparent. Photos of yourself, talk about your real life, your name attached to it – your job title with the company tagged in it, who you’re married to or dating. You know, all the stuff our parents and schools repeatedly told us not to share while we were sitting in AIM or The Palace being asked “A/S/L?”. With consolidated social experiences and profiles, with zero anonymity, all it takes is a bad enough week to bleed into your online interactions, or enough trolls baiting you into specific responses, and effectively everyone you’d expect to see you now views you as this specific way – and their responses to you will continue to box you into that projected personality. (The whole “if you keep making me out to be the bad guy, I’m just going to become the bad guy” thing.)
All of this informs a subsequent generation – with even more inherent online dependency, even further reduced in-person socialization, even less coaching from parents to NOT share certain things/act certain ways online, and with a complete and utter erosion of any privacy or alone time thanks to the smart phone – who is shown that your feelings are really important, that everyone needs to make room for and respect them, and that you can’t criticize one another... perfect concoction for a mess. Add in the memory of Karen parents fighting everything for their kids and you create what I’m calling an unprecedented level of “social pressure.” Despite what often seems like claims to the opposite, Gen Z (and the newer) have far more individual power over the people, institutions, and authority around them than ever before. Look no further than the constant paranoia of “cancel culture” held by the people most likely to have done things they need to be publicly held accountable for. Be it calling in the Karen-mom to ruin a teacher’s day to making an Instagram/TikTok/whatever-new-thing-here post to draw negative attention to a business, to everyone being terrified of being made out to be a racist or a sexist or homophobe or general bigot over things that most likely (or at least consciously) don’t have anything to do with those factors:– Newer generations have so much more power and social pressure to make the world listen to how they see the world and expect things to be.
[Again “Gen Z” is a broad stroke including crossover with Millennial as well as the following generation here. There’s rarely hard cutoff divides between generations.]
This isn’t inherently negative. Praise has been given to this very trait by way of discussing how much more social progress is fought for in real, tangible ways by Gen Z versus the more passive activism (“slactivist” I think it was once referred as?) because we laid the ground work for accepting the individual feelings and expectations and Gen Z took that and actually demanded big public deals out of it. By not (entirely) being raised by a generation that kept telling them to “get over it” and to ignore their feelings, Gen Z was able to embrace those feelings and fight for what they believe in. But by never being told to “get over it” or being given time-and-place rules or any of that, that also means that validation of seemingly benign feelings are now sought on a public level from these people who are also getting jobs in major publications and etc. They have no one to tell them “that’s just life” and they have all the social pressure in the world to kind of kick the expectations and (for lack of a better phrase here) professionalism that’s expected in these fields. Combined with the surge in “enthusiast press” over actual journalism in recent decades, every field is now covered by “lifestyle bloggers” (essentially) rather than experts (or expert communicators/teachers) in a given field and we end up with the fucking NYT telling us a universal gesture is now unacceptable to use because it’s passive aggressive and whether an entirely new social networking paradigm is worth your time based on whether person can get an email quick enough or not.
It’s not all bad
As highlighted with the activism/social progress thing, these changes aren’t all bad, they always have some good consequences. But at the risk of sounding like a bitter old man, without being given more guidelines, hand-holding, and being taught actual tech literacy – as in the critical thinking, troubleshooting, feelings-processing, and philosophy behind the tech we use every day, not tutorials on random specific OSes or devices – I can’t help but feel we’re spiraling towards an erosion of any sort of coherent communication. It’s frequently said (again, each generation, just scaled up more for each subsequent one) that the younger generation is insecure and can’t have real, serious conversations — how can they when we accept a barrier to entry for major publications as normalizing hyperbole and melodrama and over-emphasizing mundane feelings because people aren’t forced to go make actual friends to vent to or failed to normalize therapy?
I don’t have the answers. I get stressed to the point of being sick to my stomach trying to postulate a way out of so many directions the world heads toward, as it is. But it’s my hope that have at least one more voice drawing attention to these issues helps encourage people to think more critically about them, engage with these societal problems on a deeper level, and facilitate us to eventually figure out the way.