Zoomer: Generation Z + Boomer.
My grandfather Friday is a small, bald Nigerian man with a character of immense proportions. He’s been living in my family’s home for the past few months, entertaining guests and visiting the public library. He spends all of his other time on one of his two phones communicating with his friends and family in Calibar. In the few moments I am home, he comes to me to ‘fix’ his phone when he forgets that you can’t send someone a Facebook message through WhatsApp. When I’m away, he keeps me updated through Facebook Messenger with amusing clickbait nonsense, ranging from “Sunday Blessings” to “256 Reasons Why Cold Water Will Kill You.” Imagine this man posting a selfie on Instagram. Disturbing.
This kind of thing makes me smile. Even though he can’t really tell the difference between garbage content and real content, I know he’s thinking about me. What seems to be absent in my 80-year-old grandfather’s internet surfing is this level of perception: distinguishing clickbait from content. Overall, people are pretty bad at this, especially on Facebook (weaponized ads during the 2016 election are a prime example), but I remain optimistic that each successive generation is better at it by function of familiarity—more realistically it’s because young people just don’t really engage with it anymore. Zoomers hardly even look to Facebook anymore for information; 34 percent of Americans 12 to 17 year olds online think Facebook is exclusively for “old people.”
I find this above stat so eerily accurate. I am 20, born in 1999, and I use Facebook a decent amount—mainly because it feels like an obligation, but never for anything serious and certainly not for news. I’m sort of on the tail end of Gen Z and am probably passable as a Millennial in some sense. My parents (and their friends), on the other hand, use Facebook all the time and understand it to be a serious social dimension (as much as they’ll deny it).
Facebook is really a Millennial invention co-opted by older generations. Its chief architect was a socially awkward college student trying to get laid. Facebook’s initial purpose was mainly surveillance; it was a mingling site that allowed Harvard students to know their peers’ relationship statuses, social group and interests, without ever really having to meet them. Pretty convenient if you had no intention of doing so in the first place.
Jose Antonio Vargas, in the New Yorker, accurately sums it up: “Zuckerberg’s business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation and sheer self-display. The more people are willing to put online, the more money [Zuckerberg’s] site can make from advertisers.” Zoomers don’t really like putting all that much of their personal info online. In fact, they have come to primarily value anonymity and image. My sister is 17 and has never had a Facebook in her life.
She exclusively uses Snapchat and Instagram. Zoomers’ use of Instagram captures the heart of who we are as a cohort. We are more inclined to publically put out our aspirational selves to the public and we tend to orbit around our changing modes of self-expression. These modes are, in part, appearance over connectivity, persona and aesthetics over real life. Art is used, on platforms like Instagram, by Zoomers as a mantle for vaguely imitating real life, not copying it. Most Instagram profiles don’t even contain birthdays, they’ll more likely contain artsy quotes. Aristotle defines this process in his work, Poetics, as mimesis, the human desire to mimic nature in order to perfect or improve on it. Some might say this is the purpose of art. But the way I see it, Zoomers are hardly concerned with conscious attention to form or transgression in the medium; “artistic” expression, for us, stands as a perpetual vanity fair where many profiles exist as contrived resumes shouting into the ether: “This is me. This is my life. Jealous?”
Finstagram, or fake-Instagram, culture reveals a deeper desire from our generation for honest representation. Zoomers practically invented this idea. Having an Instagram persona is fine, but a finsta—shared only with close friends—defies all of the conventions of a normal, public profile. Finstagrams usually contain jokes, memes, embarrassing stories or whatever you like. Your mother will never find it because the handle is definitely not your full name. You don’t need to care about your number of followers or likes. My finsta allows me to feel included and connected to my friends without having to succumb to the rules of clout counting.
Who we really are as Zoomers is actually not who we want to present to the world. Why should it be? Zoomers never asked to be thrust into these new-age social parameters of inclusion and exclusion online, they just exist similar to how drinking laws exist. And it’s really difficult to just abstain. Whether or not this is a bad thing is sort of irrelevant; without an existence online, whatever your preference, you are certainly nudged out in some small or dramatic way from what’s going on.
Still, the net effect of curating greater-than-life personas online may have negative effects on all of us. We might be more artistic, but we certainly aren’t getting any happier. Overdosing on this kind of social-comparison stimuli generates all kinds of nasty things: loneliness and depression, to name just two. The Pew Research Center not only confirms that Zoomers are spending more time on Instagram than other platforms, but it also found that the total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased by 59% between 2007 and 2017, and teenage girls are three times more likely to be affected. Correlation? Maybe not. But it’s hard to deny the fact that the social demands of a dominant culture do have an effect on the emotional state of young people.
All in all, Zoomers today desire to be unidentifiable beyond the symbols, icons and artistic gestures that they believe represent them honestly. They follow those who reinforce their own notions of beauty and interact with images that strike the eye. With consequences? Possibly. But in what direction does this all trend? Facebook owns Instagram, so rebellious teens’ distaste for Facebook makes little difference to Zuck. As we age, will we reject these forms of media? Or slowly drift further into them?