February 7, 2014

Why haven't Millennials created the next big online thing?

Young techie people sure seemed more creative in the not-too-distant past.

The guys who invented Napster were in their late teens, and that was the hottest thing for goofing off online since the world wide web. The guy who developed DirectConnect, a peer-to-peer file-sharing program, cooked it up when he was in high school. And the guy who made BitTorrent had a first version out when he was 25.

The Facebook guys were undergraduates, the YouTube guys were 26 to 27, and one half of the duo who created WordPress was 19.

None of these folks, born towards the end of Generation X, grew up in a thriving online world -- in fact, they probably didn't have much to do online until they were adolescents.

The same goes for the founders of other, bigger online phenomena such as Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, MySpace, and so on, who were born toward the beginning of Gen X. They were developing their software later in life, since at age 19 the Google guys did not have the raw materials to make Google.

So what's up with Millennials not making much of a show in the churn, churn, churn of online time killers? Someone born in 1994 turned 19 last year -- what did they create that was akin to WordPress, Facebook, or Napster? From browsing around, not exhaustively, I found only three Millennials. And they were for the more airheaded and selfie-centered audience that they come from -- the founder of Tumblr, one half of the duo who made Instagram, and the creators of Snapchat.

Now, you could accuse the makers of file-sharing programs for reflecting the "five-finger discount" values of their Bart Simpson / Beavis & Butt-head generation. Maybe, but their efforts were adopted far more broadly than just college slackers. Ditto Facebook, YouTube, etc. Generation X fundamentally wants to be liked and accepted, so they try to make themselves likable and acceptable.

Millennials are more akin the awkward Beatnik posers from the Silent Gen, seeking to withdraw from the older generations. "You just wouldn't understand our internet technology, DAD."

It's also striking how their handful of contributions have been toward making online interactions less interactive. Facebook used to be full of conversations back and forth between two partners. Now it's devolved into a lone individual sharing their thoughts to no one in particular, and usually just getting a few "likes" in silent acknowledgement, with the odd comment that doesn't further a conversation but merely nods their head in agreement to the original blathering. But Tumblr and Instagram are even less interactive. Post a picture on Tumblr, and it just gets likes and reblogs -- almost never a comment, let alone a conversation.

Flickr pictures and YouTube videos were meant to be more permanent than the disposable things exchanged over Snapchat. By refusing to make any of your exchanges permanent (a message, a picture), you're telling the other person you don't trust them enough to take care of this private thing you're sending them.

When a close friend moved away after ninth grade, we continued to write each other. But she didn't have to design her letters to self-destruct because she trusted that I wouldn't just blab whatever personal stuff she'd sent my way. If you have Baby Boomer parents, and you've ever sifted through old boxes of photographs, you may have awkwardly stumbled upon some Polaroids of them making out or in various stages of undress, before you were born and cramped their style. Again, these did not have to self-destruct after 30 seconds because they trusted each other not to send them out to an amateur nudie magazine. And in fact they were not sent out -- their trust was not misplaced. That could've been the equivalent of today's sex tapes, yet they had the basic social skills to respect each other.

Whether the Millennial underachievement here is due to their socially awkward ways, or to having grown up taking more of the online world for granted and not felt the need to innovate, I don't know. But it is weird how enterprising youngsters used to be, and how passive and complacent they are nowadays.


  1. Young people are losing interest in Facebook and are moving on to more modern social media. Facebook is gradually becoming the social media of Generation X.

  2. What is "modern social media"?

  3. There are back-and-forth conversations sometimes on tumblr, but it doesn't lend itself to conversation as well as blogging platforms. I think the more common way tumblr folks get feedback is through an "ask" function, which isn't associated with any particular post.

  4. Seems like its late Gen-Xers who end up innovators and industry titans.

  5. Early Gen X-ers founded Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, MySpace, etc.

  6. Seems like online life might somehow be making people more conventional and conformist, even though they predicted in the 1990s that it would cause society to splinter into millions of unique interest groups.


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