I remember the day I got my first America Online CD in the mail. I was living on a farm in Eastern Oregon, enjoying a well-earned summer break after a semester of commuting an hour and a half to Boise State University every day — majoring in something I would not be majoring in a year later.
Up to that point, my computer had been a thing for playing Tetris or World of Warcraft ROM’s on, maybe writing a paper — if I could remember how to save it. I had heard about this thing called “The World Wide Web” but wasn’t really sure what it was all about or what it was meant to do. And now, the web had arrived, unsolicited, in my mailbox, alongside my Cherry Poppin’ Daddies CD from the BMG Music Club. I slipped that AOL disc in and with a song of squeal and static, the soon-to-become familiar voice proudly announced, “You’ve got mail!” I had mail! Me! It was even OK that it was just mail from AOL.
A TBR 2015 Millennial Essay Contest winner
For the next month, I spent hours typing random URLs into the search bar — mostly my own and friends’ names — and seeing where they’d take me (jennifer.com was owned by a country singer performing in Branson, Missouri). I talked to people I didn’t know in chat rooms and freely gave out my address and phone number as there was nothing at the time to tell me that wasn’t such a good idea. Oh, and the email! The beautiful spam free box of four daily letters from only friends and family about only happy things.
Then I got my phone bill at the end of July. It was $800. I realized my AOL had been dialing long distance the entire time. That was the end of my love affair with the internet, but only for a while. Because I had been changed. I had seen the future. My computer was no longer just a thing to be put in a back room to play games on occasionally. I could feel in its mechanical thrum the change coming. I knew with this somersaulting connection to the world and all it offered, I was going to be part of something completely different than what had come before.
Despite learning later I’d missed the mark by five slim years, being born in 1975 instead of 1980, I knew right then I was a millennial.
As a millennial, I have seen the shift of everything as it was to something else — a society dictating what it wants rather than being dictated to. I have seen companies forced to become transparent and engaging when faced with the public online wrath of the consumer. I have watched even the smallest voices and most modest projects gain momentum and be heard, succeeding because they found an outlet beyond the few that were once available. I have watched the time it takes a trend to bloom and fade cut in half, and half again, attention spans wane to six seconds.
I watched all this until I watched technology reach a saturation point, until something flipped. Millennials, the generation of mile-a-minute change, were changing themselves. As soon as the marketing companies thought they had us all figured out — switching around algorithms and advertisements and opting us into emails, relying on what seemed to be our technology addiction — millennials looked up. We turned off. We stepped back. We realized that we were on the cusp of being too full of information and not enough knowledge. While we are still massive consumers of technology, willing to camp out for a week to get the iPhone 6, overall it’s balancing out.
Strapped with student loan debt and few job possibilities, we are the first generation in a long time to — at first unwillingly, then willingly — surrender money for things we feel passionately about. Non-profits have taken on new, global lives. We have returned to the land, educated through the green movement and focused on food quality. We grow our own gardens and do our own canning. We thrift clothes and upcycle furniture. We live in smaller spaces. We walk and bike and drive hybrid cars. The spectrum in music, art and literature is broad and thriving. Our individual stories are important and sought after. We move through life with confidence, with the wisdom of the world at our fingertips, emerging sages of the 21st century. There are very few things of which we can say, “We had no idea…”
Because we live with the breakneck speed of change and understand that we can brace ourselves against it, we are not as afraid of change. We risk. We lose. We recover and start again.
This is not to say that we are all the same, or that we are all balanced all of the time. Even as I have struggled to write this piece over the course of the last two hours, I have been distracted dozens of times with push notifications and email alerts, I have checked my Instagram several times and updated two Google docs for work, even though it is my day off. I feel that pull in every direction and the urgency to do everything right now. But I, like other millennials, am learning to slow down. Although I exist on the computer — backed up and backed up again, my life is also in the real world and the relationships I build. It is in the face of my friend over a table as we discuss a book. It is in the barista who knows my drink and the names of my kids. It is in what I choose to share for the internet to see and what I choose to hold close to myself. Millennials can seize the moment or we can exist quietly in it, and both will do us good. We are the fire under the feet of the generation above us, the warning voice to the generation below us. The world is safe in our hands.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.