Not too long ago I was in Chicago meeting a new client. After walking into her office and shaking her hand she asked me if I wanted a coffee. When I told her I didn’t drink coffee she responded:
Oh, is that a millennial thing?
My face twitched with the rage that boiled within me. My refusal of a cup of coffee was not attributed to my personal feelings about the beverage but to my possible membership in an invented classification of a generation of roughly 80 million people.
The term millennial no longer means anything to me. It has become a default for people to describe the behavior of those significantly younger than them.
I told my client I just didn’t drink coffee. I should have responded:
Yes, according to our covenant any millennial caught drinking coffee will immediately face judgment from our high priestess and be subject to a lifetime teaching the accordion to squirrels.
Millennial is just another in a long line of words we as a culture have exhausted. I certainly am tired of hearing it. We are lazy when it comes to our language. We reuse terms over and over again until they become essentially meaningless.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. A couple of years ago a UX designer, aware of the overuse of the term millennial, created a browser plugin that replaced every instance of the word “Millenial” with the word “Snake People.”
While made in jest, the browser plugin shows how certain terms go from popular to ubiquitous quite quickly. And that ubiquity sucks all meaning from the word until it becomes as ridiculous as referring to people born across a 20-year span as “Snake People.”
In our quest for clarity and understanding, we can easily become reductive in how we describe the world around us. We end up using the same words to discuss the same topics ad nauseam. Startups. Social Media. Anything regarding billions of dollars or billions of views. Those are the stories constantly projected into our eyes and ears.
Social Media started off as a separate activity, a type of engagement. Today it refers not only to the tools we use but the way we use them; how we interact, share and learn. It is our baby pictures, our bad days, and our politics. Social Media is now so intertwined with the way we live our lives that we are a part of it, and it a part of us. We are always creating, consuming, and furthering its impact. Technological singularity has gone from science fiction to terrifying reality.
To say social media today is to say culture, society, humanity.
And in this rapidly changing world in which we live, this attention economy, virality (another exhausted term) has been replaced with the ability to maintain the focus of as many people as possible. Thousands of views translated into millions of followers and billions of impressions.
We love this unfathomable term. Whether it’s likes or dollars, the number is so massive as to have no sense of scale. If somebody gave you a billion one dollar bills, it would take you decades to count it all by hand. But nobody has that much cash lying around do they? We have to believe physical money exists in that quantity. And thusly it changes hands electronically, almost theoretically, in a promissory fashion.
All of it is so far removed from our daily lives which we are often inaccurate in describing. Like how we use the word amazing to describe anything remotely good.
I myself am amazed by very many things. But I am very careful about my use of the word amazing because it carries great weight. Its definition says causing great surprise or wonder. There are many great things in this life. Things worth talking about, impressive, and fantastic things… but that cause great surprise and wonder?
The fact anything surprises us today is… well, surprising. Our current reality is one of few secrets. We pursue the experiences we are interested in and can predict. Rating systems have taken the surprise out of movies, restaurants, hotels, and even the produce we buy in the supermarket.
We are living in the decade of the least amount of surprise in history. I find it amazing the most educated generation in history (millennials) speak unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) in hashtags, reusing the same language, grouping wildly different experiences into very general buckets.
These overused words become verbal rice cakes, useless and undesirable unless paired with something else to provide meaning and value.
I had a social studies teacher in high school who hated when people used the phrase:
Words can’t describe it.
“Yes they can,” he said. “Learn some words.”
Our lives are nuanced and specific, unique and independent. Our language needs to reflect that. Because when everything is amazing nothing is.
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