The Myth of the “Me Generation”
It seems as though every generation born in the United States in the last 50 years has been branded as the “Me Generation” at one point in time. Tom Wolfe declared the “Baby Boomers” as the “Me Generation” in the 1970s, speaking out against the culture of narcissism they saw dominating the media and the cultural zeitgeist. Jean Twenge felt generous enough to extend “Generation Me” to all those born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Most recently, the “Millenials” have been pointed out as the perfect example of the “Me” generation; their obsession with selfies, likes, social media, and youtube stardom makes them a sociologist’s dream! They leave wonderful digital data trails that are easy to collect, study, and analyze from anywhere on the globe.
Every generation is likely to have a “me” phase in which narcissism, excess, and self gratification through media and other outlets takes center stage; it’s called being a teenager. The time when you feel you need to prove your greatness to the world. As video has become extremely portable, consumable, and social across the planet, we have become attuned to a hyper-sensationalized reality that reflects a distorted view of Millenials dispositions and attitudes about their sense of self. What if the current generation of connected students weren’t as completely focused on themselves as they appear to be? What if the perfect convergence of social media and adolescent “look at me” hormones just gave that impression? We all want to envision ourselves as better people than we are, and have far fewer controls over our ability to curtail public displays of our egos when younger. But as media inundates us, I wonder if it’s more difficult to see the teens that are dispelling the myth of “me, me, me!”
Case in point; last week I helped introduce a “video selfie” project to a group of English 10 students at the high school in my district. I’m blessed to work with a number of teachers who understand the power of developing strong positive relationships with students, and Kyle Boswell has allowed me to collaborate on a lot of great projects in her classroom over the years. The students needed little introduction to the idea of a 60-second video selfie as a beginning of the year ice-breaker; I was there mostly to walk them through a few finer points of capturing video using their iPads, some quick tips with iMovie, and to always remember to prevent “vertical video syndrome.” Basically, the students were being challenged to create something like the following:
We let them go with their devices to start shooting video, thinking that they would eat it up! Teenagers, being given a chance to make duck faces, and tell jokes about themselves for the video camera for a full minute; it should have been a raging ego-party. And yet, several students choose to not even lift their devices and tap the record button. Some recorded small bits, deleted it, recorded again, deleted, and repeated. Others claimed they felt uncomfortable putting themselves on video, the anxiety already visible on their faces as they imagined having to share the finished product with the class. Yes, there were some that leapt at the chance to be the star of their own 60-second documentary. And there were several others that somewhat enthusiastically started to record. But for the first half of the work hour, at least half a dozen students sat, their iPad screens dark, their cameras covered, most likely wishing the assignment away.
I know Kyle well enough that she’s no doubt circled round her room in the past week, and has touched base with each student about the project. Most likely all of them are finishing up their videos, and are happy with what they’ve produced. Kyle has the ability to give students enough freedom with projects to feel comfortable making it their own, and I’m sure those first few have come around. Still, it was interesting to see them acting as if their “me, me, me!” functions has been arrested. Perhaps the rise of more “private” virtual communities and communication channels like WhatsApp and Snapchat are proving more attractive than the open “airwaves” of Youtube. The sense of “me first” might still be present, but muted, and confined to safe places (or at least places that feel safe).
Regardless of perceived reality, I think it might do many educators and parents a world of good to carefully observe what their teens are watching and in turn putting out into the world via social media. They may not be as obsessed with themselves as we might think, as an over-abundance of video clips, Vines, and Tweets has forced them to grow up in a hyper-connected world where more anonymity is preferred as an expression of self. I wonder how many others have seen students shifting away from the limelight, and whether the idea of the “Me generation” is simply an over-generalized label akin to “digital native” or one of a hundred stereotypes that students in high school are labeled with every day.