TikTok feels like the definitive mark in a forthcoming tide shift. Millennials are aging out and Gen Z is taking over as the dominant online culture. To quote an anonymous 15-year-old user: “Boomer is a state of mind, not an age. We all become boomers eventually.”
Millennials internalized a strategy for how to use the internet: We built our personal brands to accumulate followers who we would later monetize to sell our art, music, or any number of creative endeavors. Producing images of ourselves being successful, even while we were struggling, was our “fake it ’til you make it” scheme that—no surprise—didn’t work for the overwhelming majority of those who tried. For every one successful creative director, thousands of same-age workers are relegated to freelance precarity. In an age of declining prospects, we used social media to weave the fiction of success on the off-chance that it just might become real. Now tipping 30, saddled with a lifetime of debt and rising rents, the reality of millenials’ unfortunate place in post-2008 history has begun to settle in.
To their credit, Gen Z listened closely and took our advice. Recent research, such as Sean Monahan and Sophie Secaf’s cultural report “GenExit” (2017), shows a new and distinctly non-millennial set of values emerging among the younger generation: “Declining labor market participation, stagnating or declining rates of college attendance, and record-breaking third-party affiliation” are among the most prominent of the trends they cite. Scrolling through video after video on TikTok, I realized that these trends are reflected in the content Gen Z creates, too: The majority are abandoning the personal brand in favor of fluid identity play. On TikTok, the popular use of masks or covering one’s face with a hoodie or dark glasses marks the beginnings of something Monahan, an artist and writer, describes as “post-selfie culture.” The best content occurs when users collaborate. You can’t do TikTok alone.
Observing Gen Z’s digital culture over the past several years has meant moving from platform to platform with them, as they change their usernames and preferred networks frequently. It’s as if they don’t care about building a following or about being recognized in the way platform-loyal millenials do. They only want to a join in the interpersonal fabric of memetic activity and savor the last bit of human connection left on our cold, data-collecting, psychographic-profiling platforms. Making TikTok videos is linking oneself to the cultural duet chain. They build narratives of collective participation.
Their memetic actions are mostly meaningless, and in that way mirror the meaninglessness of most actions in today’s society. Political action has failed. Mass protest has failed. Even capitalism has failed. Yet, somehow, we continue our zombie march to the tireless drumbeat of neoliberal austerity. The younger generation now mimes the zombie forms of gaming avatars in order to laugh at a world in which they themselves have no autonomy and are controlled by outside forces. Young people face a future that was set in motion years ago—they will soon inherit a worse economy than any recent American generation. While millennials earnestly tweet about the stress of their student loans and freelance precarity, Gen Z TikToks in joyous nihilism, mocking a society in which self-determination and upward mobility have long since collapsed.