My 65-year-old mother, Sue, is a “cool” mom. She lives in a condo in San Francisco. She wears skinny jeans and leather jackets. She watches all the hit prestige television shows in real time and goes to the occasional music festival with her friends where she gets drunk on two glasses of “chard.” Most importantly: She loves the internet.
She has Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which she essentially uses as intended by documenting her rad (post-retirement) life. There’s the occasional selfie with her girlfriends, dispatches from vacations and hikes, her favorite funny signs at political rallies. But the majority of her posts are homages to her children — me and my brother. She uses social media both to keep tabs on what we’re up to and to broadcast that information to her network of people. She loves to share my work (with simply the caption “Alana,” no tag) and photos of our family awkwardly squeezed into a restaurant booth and bathed in terrible overhead lighting. She also LOVES to interact with our status updates, as if they are addressed directly to her:
When a new social network pops up, she always wants to try it, much to the chagrin of my brother and me, who are tasked with teaching her how. Let’s be clear: There is no pain in this world like teaching your boomer parent how to do something that involves technology — none. I once tried to explain the concept of a browser to her, and it ended in me having a full-on mental breakdown.
A couple years ago, I helped her set up an Instagram account. When I asked her what she wanted her handle to be, she thought for a few moments before deciding to go with “laptop10.” When I asked her why, she answered matter-of-factly, as if it was obvious: “I own a laptop and I’m a 10.” Duh, Alana.
This was one of those incredible interactions you have with someone you love, when you’re keenly aware in real time that you’ll remember it forever, long after they’re gone, as a part of their myth. I loved her response, and not just because it revealed that she somehow knows about the 1–10 scale of attractiveness. There was something so sweet, almost childlike, in how she went with “laptop” as a descriptor, as if having one was unique or demonstrative of a personality trait. I never stopped to think that maybe for someone in their mid-60s, it is!
As a 29-year-old millennial, I’m a part of a small cohort of people who came of age along with the internet. We remember life before technology, and the transition to it being ubiquitous. We remember the first family computer. We remember dial-up, and fighting with our siblings when they kicked us off AOL so they could talk to their latest crush on the phone. We were the first human beings to log into chat rooms and talk to creepy strangers with screen names like “sexybobhouston.”
Much is made of this distinct human experience and how it’s shaped our generation. It’s no surprise that as a result we’re notoriously nostalgic, particularly for the aforementioned time period in the late 1990s and early aughts, when we experienced firsthand our current reality clicking into place.
But we never talk about our parents — the baby boomers who were forced to adapt to this same reality along with us. Only they did it far later in life, with zero context, and under the scrutiny and judgment of their children. (When we become parents, there will be new, complicated tech that will confound us, of course. But we will share with our children a core understanding, a context, of digital-native life that our parents could never have.)
If they are lucky enough to have a good relationship, most millennials can offer up examples of their mom’s bizarre (but loving) use of technology or social media, like mildly abusive and nonsensical emoji usage. An ex-boyfriend contends with his 71-year-old mom writing emails in her own special code, which reads as a bizarre throwback to shorthand. Recently, she shared a video he made with her friends, and then sent him a follow-up note that read: “feel kinda silly tooting ur horn (= stage ma) but do think video is cool & gd 2 put und nose o anyone who mite rec u.” He hates this, but says it’s getting better as he’s “shamed her out of it a few times.”
The embarrassment is worse when it’s public. When my friend Drew Turner (now 28) was in college, his mother Sharon (now 59) took a picture of Drew and his then-girlfriend. Next, to keep her friends abreast of the latest in her son’s life, she posted said pic to Facebook. Sharon went with a simple, literal caption — nothing flashy: “Drew and his girlfriend [NAME].” This all sounds normal, and it was, until they broke up four months later. Drew was horrified when he realized his mom had gone back to the photo and followed up with a comment: “Update: They have since broken up!”
To millennials, social media is not a courtroom ledger—it’s a semi-autobiographical, self-aggrandizing novel. But Sharon didn’t understand the problem. She posted the update in the interest of keeping her friends abreast of the latest news. (Wasn’t that the point of social media, after all?) “She’s proud of me and wants to tell people about my life,” Drew says. “So in her mind, she was just ‘being accurate.’”
Besides, this behavior was already commonplace in the family, though it had never been exercised digitally. Before the advent of the internet, Drew’s grandmother would physically cut her children’s exes out of printed photos after they broke up. Similarly, she said this wasn’t a malicious act, but rather an attempt to capture the most current family dynamic in her photo albums.
In response, Drew reacted the way most of millennials do when our moms use technology in a cringeworthy way. “Haha it’s my mom! What am I supposed to do other than be like, ‘Aw mom, I love you,’ and then secretly wish she were better at technology,” he says.
When I ask my brother about our mother’s social media presence, he’s less forgiving: “I think her presence is very elementary. They [boomers] use social media far too literally. Very little creativity and the photos SUCK.”
But maybe we’re all looking at our boomer parents’ social media strategy (if you can call it that) the wrong way. Lack of gratitude for their love aside, maybe it’s refreshing that they don’t “get” it, that they have no interest in curating some fake proxy version of themselves on the internet. It’s possible that they’re the last vestige of real purity online, and that’s probably why they make us so uncomfortable. Since the dawn of time, people have found their parents embarrassing, but nothing makes a millennial more uncomfortable than grand displays of real authenticity — especially on the internet, the marketplace of exactly the opposite.
The other day, I woke up to just that from my mom, via Bitmoji.
She’s recently discovered the personal emoji app, and this one is her favorite. No matter that Bitmoji are a little passé at this point—I teared up at the sweetness of her message. The force of her love is so apparent, and I can’t help but find it endearing when she uses technology to express it. It probably took her way longer than usual to send the Bitmoji — I can imagine her fumbling with the app, peering out over her reading glasses as she selected the message.
But she did it anyway, because she’s a mom. Regardless of generation, no one loves like they do. And I think it’s actually kinda punk how they don’t give a shit if that’s cool.