How snapchat became the New Rock 'n' Roll
Why do middle-aged people throw their eyes to heaven when someone mentions social media? Is it because we're worried about on-line bullying, porn and the effects it might have on young people? Or is it because we're old and sad, asks our reporter, who says that over 30s don't get social media, because we're not supposed to get it. Every generation has their outlet for rebellion and Snapchat et al is the millenials' drug of choice - and maybe it's not so bad
June 2, 1956. Santa Cruz police chief Al Huntsman decides he has had enough. He breaks up a rock 'n' roll concert in the town, complaining that teenagers were dancing in an "obscene and highly suggestive manner". He then bans rock 'n' roll concerts from the town, forever. Down in Florida, reformed rocker, the Rev Jimmy Snow, tells his congregation that the new beat is driving young people bananas. A DJ at KWK radio in St Louis smashes rock records for the cameras, presumably because he thought it would make him look cool.
We snigger at these people now. The backward squares, trying to hold back the tide and stop the kids from expressing themselves. We're glad they lost and that the kids (us, eventually) entered a golden age of songs, singers, bands, gigs and sex, tons of it. Most of us over 30 think that rock 'n' roll saved our world. And then, in the next breath, we say we are terrified about the effects of social media on young people. You see, that's ironic.
There is no shortage of studies purporting to show that social media is causing depression, alienation and porn addiction among teenagers. Archbishop Eamon Martin told the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference that social media is leading to the sins of "bearing false witness, defamation, detraction and calumny." You can almost hear Rev Lovejoy's wife, in The Simpsons, wailing, "Won't someone please think of the children?" Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is on message, with plans to introduce a digital consent age, so children under 16 will have to ask their parents if they are allowed to use apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp. It won't work.
For anyone under 30, social media is the new rock 'n' roll. And they like it. Rather than sharing stories about bands, they are sharing stories about themselves. And they've gone mad for it in Ireland. We are the number-one country in the world for Snapchat usage (the messaging app of choice for the under 30s.) It's as if a generation of Irish teenagers and 20-somethings looked at their cagey, deferential parents and decided: Shag this, we're going to make some noise.
The reason we middle-aged types don't really understand social media is because we're not supposed to understand it. The whole idea is to keep us out. Install Snapchat on your phone and you'll see what I mean. It has a weird, 'prove you're not a robot' authentication system, where you are presented with a bunch of images, and you click on the ones that include a ghost. My four-year-old could do it. It took me nine goes, and I had my glasses on.
Once in Snapchat, you'll see the profiles of people in your phone contact list who have already joined. Their profile is a fast-moving collage of their grinning selfies, which make them look like the manic guy from Thurles in your class in college, who turned out to be crazy in the end. It doesn't make them look like someone you'd want as a friend. If you make it past this point, the rest of Snapchat has the look and feel of a cartoon for toddlers. The message is clear: Get back to Facebook, you sad old loser.
Still, at least you're active on some form of social media. Because here's the thing. Social media is the best thing that ever happened to kids and adults alike. (Unless you're a journalist living off cream crackers, but that's another day's work.) Here's what we know about talking-heads in the media who complain that social media is wrecking the Great Irish Childhood - they were obviously drunk from the age of eight. Otherwise they'd remember what the Great Irish Childhood actually involved. Boredom. You spent most of your time wondering what your friends were doing; or 'Will this spin around west Cork in the rain with my parents ever end?'
The kids don't have to worry about spins anymore. Even if they are dragged off to look at some scenery, they get to bring their friends, their music and their idols with them on the phone. You might think this is a bad thing. Which means you can't remember how time stood still when you went to visit your grandmother's house. Or that you took up smoking because there was nothing else to do.
Look, there's nothing wrong with wanting your kids to grow up liking the things that you liked. Except that it will always end in disappointment. The reality is the kids have pretty much the same attitude to your music preferences as that guy in St Louis who was smashing up the records. Rock music, or hip-hop or whatever you call it to sound relevant, is mainly for young kids and old adults. That's good news for Taylor Swift and U2. It's why you'll see accountants and HR managers roaring out, "I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside" at U2 in Croke Park this summer. Meanwhile, their kids are at home, mocking Dad on Snapchat. And who could blame them?
For most of us, music wasn't really about the music. It was finding something to like and making a connection with other people who liked it. It's why we wrote the names of the bands and teams we liked on books, schoolbags, walls, anywhere they could be seen by the rest of the world. It was a straightforward proposition to anyone who'd listen - here I am, and I am what I like.
Sound familiar? Say what you will about Mark Zuckerberg, but he figured that out from the get-go. Facebook is built around likes. You express yourself, in front of your friends, by liking stuff. It could be music, or a photo of a squirrel in a Liverpool jersey, or a video of a homeless man in Bulgaria who is so drunk, he can't stand up. It all allows you to carve out a niche, to find your thing and a tribe of people who like it with you. And you can do it from your own bedroom.
Parents are never going to like what goes on in a teenager's bedroom. It explains a lot of the scare stories. Google 'social media harm children', and you'll get no end of Daily Mail stories saying that Facebook etc can rot your brain. (The Daily Mail is, unsurprisingly, red hot when it comes to things that will rot your brain.) For example, we read neuroscientists have discovered that overuse of social media can alter brain development in a child. As, I'm sure, can watching Scooby Doo for 14 hours a week when you're a child. But it didn't do us any harm.
Another pot-shot is that social media is creating a generation of self-obsessed snowflakes. This doesn't worry parents as much, because it means they are not to blame. You'll find that any 'generation of snowflakes' article shared on Facebook gets a lot of love from people with names like Momof4.
And then there's the porn. Nothing gets the hysterical juices flowing faster than a suspicion that the young people are at it like rabbits. Apparently they are getting their sex education from the internet. Unlike their parents, who probably heard it first from a nun. (Sister Rosary refused to answer any questions on blow jobs. You can hardly blame her.) Still, nothing will persuade Team Hysteria that the internet is sending all their kids to hell. Not even the Growing Up in Ireland report from the ESRI, released last year. It found that 40pc of 17/18-year-olds had had oral sex, with 33pc reporting they had sexual intercourse.
Those figures are disappointingly low for the Won't Someone Think of the Children Brigade. Today's teenagers are barely more rampant than 30 years ago, when all we had to drive us crazy was the dirty magazine that Stinger O'Leary smuggled back from the school tour to Hamburg. When you read that millennials (those born in the 1990s) are having less sex than the preceding generation, you realise that porn isn't doing what they're saying it's doing.
Finally, social media is to blame for the election of Donald Trump. Because as we know, when they're not out shooting at deer, or maybe Mexicans, there's nothing an unemployed steelworker in Pennsylvania likes more than keeping up to date with things on Instagram. This is the greatest lie of them all. Hilary Clinton had far more potential voters on social media. She spent tens of millions of dollars, employing a team of over 100 people, targeting millennials with her message on Facebook. It couldn't disguise her failings as a candidate. And before you ask what those are, she failed to beat Donald Trump. Sad! As the new President might say.
If you think you've heard all this hysteria before, it's because you have. Social media has replaced video games as the bogey man in modern culture. Remember how video games were going to rot young minds and lead us on the violent road to ruin? It turns out the rate of violent crime in the US has fallen by over a half, in just a decade. The same impulse that dismissed video games - I don't understand it, so it must be bad for my children - is at play in the debate over social media.
This has blinded us to the benefits. Not the big picture, hippie stuff celebrating some giant organism that brings us together in a network of lovely love. We'll leave that to people in the Bay Area in California who clearly have access to some very powerful drugs. Really, it's all about small pleasures when it comes to time on the internet. I'd challenge anyone to find a better pastime than scrolling through the list of people you might know on LinkedIn. Particularly when you see an old flame who has completely lost it. Or that prick from sales in your first job, who is now 'actively seeking opportunities'. This mightn't reflect the better angels of your nature. But it's very entertaining.
And then there's the accidental friend on Facebook. This typically happens when your kids get at your phone and friend-request some stranger. You only find out about this when said stranger accepts your request. (We might never understand why this happens.) It is now too late and awkward to back out of this, particularly if you are both Irish. So now you are part of each other's lives. You see your new bestie up a mountain with her kids, or at a hen party with an inflatable penis tied to her back. You're not surprised when they wish you happy birthday on Facebook. It's like the best soap opera of all time. And it's all yours.
Top of the heap on Facebook are those people who can't resist letting you know they are in an airport. They will very often take a photo of the plane they are about to board, with a 'so sad to be leaving' caption that mentions the city they have just visited on business. It goes without saying it's a cool city. The big fish in the 'I'm so cool I fly on planes' pool wouldn't be seen dead in a regional airport. And no will ever believe a post saying 'so sad to be leaving Bradford'.
Your airport Facebook friends trigger all the emotions. Contempt, envy, pity, loneliness and finally a 'like' for their post, in case they think you are feeling contempt, envy, pity and loneliness. You might bitch about these people every day for the rest of your life. But you will never block them on Facebook. Because, for reasons we are only beginning to understand, they add some kind of magic to your day. And it beats going to an actual airport which, as we all know, is the seventh circle of hell.
You'll find other people via social media that make life worthwhile. The real gems are the ones who filter out all the noise. They might be Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi telling the world that Trump could be President, when everyone else thought he was just a clown. Or Guardian writer John Harris, visiting out-of-the-way parts of Britain rather than just writing about them and sharing his view on Twitter that Brexit was coming down the tracks.
Sometimes all you need is that English guy on Facebook, who posts a snippet of a chat he just had with his two-year-old son. Or your cousin who you don't really know in France, who posts weirdly enchanting shots of her local town. And, if all else fails, someone will point you towards a video on YouTube of some guy called Michael jumping from a waterfall in north Cork in his jocks. It's only a minute and 40 seconds in length. It's the best Irish coming-of-age movie of all time, better than anything Martin Scorsese might have put out with Robert De Niro back when they were good. There's a world of this stuff out there, and it's free, as long as you don't mind a large American corporation knowing that you like to look for cheap flights on a Monday morning. Most of us don't seem to mind that at all.
Put in the effort to find these people, or let them find you, and the internet opens up like an early house on a spring morning. These guides can steer you around the dross. And remember, one person's dross is another person's Kim Kardashian. Complaining that the internet is full of rubbish is like putting your foot through the telly because it has too much Jimmy Carr. The whole point is to find your favourites and ignore the rest.
This doesn't mean ignoring people under 30. Snapchat can seem like it doesn't want oldies, but persevere for 15 minutes and suddenly you're into a world of millennials on the make. It's 10-second clips of the young and good-looking making their way around Dublin. (Snapchat is very Dublin.) It's all done with a bit of a wink; people camping it up as if they're in on the joke. And yes, there are lots of people giving a shout-out to brands in return for ridiculous amounts of money. (It seems that a mid-ranking Snapchat influencer in Ireland can command a four-figure sum for posting a clip of her eating a certain brand of pizza.) But, in fairness, product endorsement didn't start because of Snapchat.
The biggest name in Irish Snapchat is James Kavanagh. He's one of the reasons people of a certain age don't watch television any more. Instead they are watching James and people like him careering around the capital. These Snapchat stars are young, good-looking and often at the camp end of the spectrum. They lack the awkwardness and self-loathing that came pre-installed on any Irish person born before 1977. They have good skin. No wonder they're not hugely popular with people over 40. We're just plain jealous.
The next time you feel the need to despair about young people walking around, talking into their phone, stop and ask yourself the following multiple-choice question: Am I, (a) worried that we are breeding a generation of isolated loners? Or (b) devastated that they have a pert arse and a social life, while I'm stuck at home watching Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away, with tits that hang down to my knees. If it's (b), welcome to the majority of middle-aged people. (And maybe get out and do some exercise.)
You can also stop worrying about the future of the world. Here's the other thing about the majority of social-media influencers, here and abroad. They're nice. They're funny. They don't pick on people for a cheap laugh. If they are the people influencing the next generation, we're going to be alright.
There's a lot of hypocrisy in all this middle-aged hysteria. You'd swear that people over 40 are out learning Spanish in a night class or doing volunteer outreach work with real human beings. But, of course, it isn't true. A recent Ipsos MRBI poll shows that around 50pc of people living here, aged over 15, use Facebook (the choice of the oldies), every day. The way that Irish people bemoan social media in public, while digging into it at home would remind you of our relationship with alcohol. It's probably linked. Many is the Irish person who spends a Tuesday night looking at videos of pandas on a slide, drinking that nice bottle of Chablis they were trying to keep for the weekend. It's kind of our thing.
Look, there's no shortage of things to dislike about social media and the internet. The bullying, the bragging, the pandas, Piers Morgan. But then there were plenty things to dislike about rock 'n' roll. (The period from 1972 to 1977. Spandau Ballet.) That doesn't mean we should dismiss it, Helen Lovejoy style, worried what it's doing to the kids.
Instead, take a listen to Lou Reed's classic, Rock 'n' Roll. It's about Jenny, who doesn't like what's on the radio, and then one day she finds a New York station, and her life is saved by rock 'n' roll.
Remember that feeling? It could have been Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Lady Gaga or even Bon Jovi, if you are from Offaly. Whatever it was, we all remember finding that one act, that one song that understood us better than anyone else. And now the kids are up in their rooms, moving the dial on social media to find something that will save their lives. It's could be an Irish model drinking a latte or an indie band from the north of England pretending to be sad.
It's up to the kids to choose what they like. It's via Snapchat today, it will probably be via something else tomorrow week. And we'll worry that it is rotting their brains. Because we're the boring old squares now.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine