Learning Out Loud: reflections on the generation gap

Friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers have been discussing generation gaps for as far back as I can remember. I always dismissed these discussions as silly. After all, people are just people. We can relate to each other if we try, right?

Then the internet was born.

I’m 30. According to various sources, I’m of the X generation. This means little to me other than that I have learned through numerous trials and errors that when someone more than twenty years older than I am says “That’s very X-gen of you,” the best response is to politely smile and nod. Never ask whether it’s a compliment or an insult. That will only bring on the dreaded discussion of the gap.

Here’s the thing I’ve only recently realized: if there’s a gap here, my generation is currently bridging it. That’s a scary thought for a gephyrophobic like me. (Gephyrophobia is fear of bridges, in case you don’t feel like Googling it.) But it’s the best metaphor I can come up with: we are the bridge.

If we’re not the bridge, we’re simply torn. Raised by grandmothers whose mottoes were “What goes on in this house stays in this house” and raising children whose teachers’ collective mantra is “Get your assignment into the cloud by Friday,” we are somewhere in the middle. We want to know our privacy is there when we want it, but we also tend to learn out loud.

I remember very clearly the embarrassment of learning to ride a bike. I was 10 and uncoordinated. All my friends could already speed around corners and ride with no hands, while I toppled toward the earth with training wheels. My friends’ moms, who were also my mom’s friends, sat around in lounge chairs trying — although not very well — to stifle their laughter. At one point, I was distracted by my mother’s cackling and looked back only to crash head-on into a stop sign and then land in a bush. Today, my mother has no memory of this. No one was there with a digital camera. No one YouTubed it. My mother was not a mommyblogger. For this much, I am grateful.

Fast-forward two decades, and I’m still making a lot of mistakes. Difference is, most of you have seen them. They have been captured in blog comments, twitted, or flickred. Sometimes by me, other times without my consent. But they’re out there, to haunt me forever, as the most colorful memories do. Google doesn’t forget.

Certain events that have transpired online this week have had me reflecting and ruminating. Lately, the gap is seeming wider and less bridgeable. My life is becoming more complicated and busier. I frequently consider giving up the social aspect of the internet, because it can be draining. I sometimes forget the good parts.

I chatted with a friend this evening. I’ve known her for almost twelve years, but I’ve never met her face-to-face. We first came across each other on a message board — one of those places people talked online before social media was called “social media”. She has followed me through multiple websites, countless blogs, a few jobs and many life choices. We rarely write on each other’s walls, but we have emailed quite a bit over the years. As much time as I spend online, and as much of myself as I’ve put out there, I think it’s safe to say that she knows me better than many people do in so-called “real life”.

Tonight, after we swapped stories about our weeks, she said, “I’ve enjoyed watching you grow up.” It was out of the blue and a bit motherly. I was taken aback for a moment before I remembered that she’s nearly my mother’s age. Instinctively, I smiled and nodded.

It’s easy to forget the gap if you’re not looking for it. And sometimes, even when you’re staring it right in the face, it doesn’t matter at all.

Originally published February 5, 2010

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