Vine, and Other Millennial Weirdness on Social Media

There was a time when many millennials felt that social media belonged to us because we could easily navigate technology that older people could not. We knew that the audience of our social media content would be other millennials and we were excited about the freedom to communicate in a place adults would seemingly never go. However, this generationally private community opened to the public when our bosses, teachers, and grandparents caught up to the technology and joined social media outlets like Facebook.

In the words of one college-aged blogger, “Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party” (Watts). Now that social media communication happens under the eyes of generational outsiders, it starts to feel more like real life and less like a community just for young people. The result is the birth of millennial-exclusive subcultures on social media which maintain that community identity.

Eventually, older generations will learn to adopt any medium they want, so it’s not enough just to find a new spot on the internet for us to go. The cultural transformation that has taken place in parts of Vine, Tumblr, and others goes beyond conventional generational slang designed to keep parents in the dark. Young social media users now maintain private communities by redefining standards of communication, expression, and humor in a way that is beyond weird to older people and keeps them away.

But why do we go this far (perhaps subconsciously) to maintain a community only we millennials belong to? Reinforcing group identity, even with people we have never physically met, creates a sense of belonging. According to Standage, even the primate ancestors of humans built security in groups through social grooming (9). It is an inherent part of who we are to maintain strong connections with other group members, and this can be helped not only by having things in common with each other but by keeping others out of the loop.

It may be hard to visualize all of this in action if you have never seen it on social media before, but take Vine for example. The vast majority of this video-sharing app is dominated by millennials, and that is evident through the type of content and inside jokes that are most often shared. It makes sense that an app by young people and for young people should be made up of content that appeals to us, but at the same time much of the communication is designed to be exclusively understood by millennials. The following vine references what viewers have in common to build generational solidarity through humor:

Nearly everyone our age watched Spongebob as kids, and the “legally blind” piece is from a viral vine which has come to be well known by people our age. An older person who does not recognize either part of this vine would not laugh and would probably write the whole thing off as bizarre. Vines like these are shared to appeal to our common experience while simultaneously warding off people who do not share that experience. At least a generational norm like the word “ratchet” can be explained to anyone who has not learned it, but it is hard to imagine someone who is outside this joke fully appreciating it even if it’s been explained to them. This is exactly why millennials share this type of content; it attracts other young people who get it and repels older people who go by a different set of norms.

A stranger and more mainstream example is the famous “Twenty-One” Vine:

The video in and of itself barely warrants a chuckle because it’s just a kid making a math error in front of a camera. So why did anyone actually enjoy sharing it enough for it to go viral? It’s because this specific piece of content was something that only other people on vine (other young people) would possibly know about. At some point, it no longer mattered that the video itself was not funny, because it was an insider that we just loved sharing. People started incorporating the sound of that random boy saying “twenty-one” in any other situation they could think of within their own vines. In an unintentional way, a bond formed between people who shared it.

I personally felt this effect outside of Vine back when the “twenty-one” joke was in its heyday. A professor in one of my classes unsuspectingly used the number twenty-one during his lecture, which caused some guy in the back of the class to yell “twenty-one” in a perfect imitation of the boy in the video. Everyone laughed except the professor, which I found oddly increased the camaraderie between people who did get it. Again, the professor still probably would not have appreciated it the way we did even if we had explained it to him. This is because the value of sharing that reference is in the sense of belonging between people who use it to identify each other as part of the group.

These Vine examples have a common thread: young people like to communicate with content that only we will understand, but it’s more than just pop culture references. There is a whole new understanding of what’s share-worthy that, intentionally or not, does a good job of alienating older people and affirming an identity among millennials. It is surely part of who we are as people to form social bonds through the things we have in common, but until now these things were always logically based off of common experiences of that particular group. While millennials still do this in part, the goal on social media is now to share whatever will be most confusing to generational outsiders, no matter how crazy it is.

To say the least, technology has given us a unique way to continue a long tradition of young people writing their own social rules to form solidarity and be different. In fact, we may very well find ourselves standing on the other side of a cultural barrier that our own kids put up on social media someday. If that’s true, I say good luck to whoever tries to top our weirdness:

References

Standage, Tom. Writing on the Wall. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Watts, Andrew. “A Teenager’s View on Social Media.” Blog. Backchannel. Medium. 3 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

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