Tavi Gevinson is no regular teen. Since starting her fashion blog, Style Rookie, at the age of 11, she has become an international media fixture – sitting on the front row of Fashion Week; speaking at TEDx; acting in movies (she's been cast opposite James Gandolfini in an upcoming film by Nicole Holofcener); singing; and, most recently, editing her online teen magazine, Rookie. Lady Gaga has described her as "the future of journalism" – a pretty awesome reference to have on your CV, especially at 17.
But despite her precocity, Gevinson is no Uncle Tom for the adolescent set. On the contrary. Last month, she started a Twitter war that has pitted adults against teens. The results have been both fascinating and hilarious.
Gevinson urged her 150,000-plus followers to #followanadult – a strike against an earlier popular hashtag, #followateen, created in 2011 by David Thorpe, a San Francisco-based writer and a contributor to the Village Voice. Back then, Thorpe urged his several thousand followers to select a random adolescent from the Twittersphere and report back on his or her doings. The results were amusing, from a grownup's point of view (e.g., "My teen wants Tyler to know she can totally see him creeping on her." "My teen wonders if Diet Coke can be used as birth control, legit?").
And then, for reasons known only to the fickle gods of Twitter, the hashtag made a comeback this spring. It was then that Gevinson weighed in with her tweet volley: "Growns who think teen tweets are dumb
(#followateen) should see their fellow adults'. Today we dare to
#followanadult. Join us won't you?"
Many of them did, and the results are blisteringly funny – teens offering sarcastic play-by-plays of banal middle-class
grownup life. "My adult is really excited her clients have closed escrow on their dream house." "My adult has recently discovered that freezing mushrooms makes them easier to chop!" "My adult wants to wish everyone who has experienced the amazing journey of parenthood a happy Mother's Day."
Gevinson's stunt illustrates, in fascinating relief, just how myopic and inward-looking social media can be. Twitter is a strange place, because it isn't one place at all. For most of my peers, it serves as a kind of parallel office and newsstand – a wire service, water cooler, and cocktail party, all rolled into one. For most teens, meanwhile, it's more like an empty bench in a nice park on a hot summer evening – one the cops can't kick you off for smoking, swearing and generally doing nothing but being clever, young and bored.
Reading over the #follow-
anadult stream, I became suddenly self-conscious of my own tweets. What would an average teen make of my photo of my favourite solo dinner (sardines on gluten-free toast with chèvre, sundried tomatoes and basil), my baby's teething woes, or my recent complaints against Britain's backlogged immigration system? Maybe – just maybe – a teenager was creeping on me already, retweeting the contents of my brain back to her sniggering followers.
According to the rules of the game – set first by Thorpe, later updated by Gevinson – once the random adult or teen being followed becomes aware of it, the gig is up. Similarly, any adult or teen who asks to be followed, is, according to a tweet from Gevinson, "automatically disqualified." The point, then, is to document – and satirize – a member of the opposing tribe in their natural habitat, tweeting unselfconsciously about their love of Carly Rae Jepsen or tax-time tedium, as the case may be.
A similar social-media stunt earlier this year by the comedian Nathan Fielder urged university students to send an "accidental" text to their parents saying "got 2 grams for $40" and then post the reaction. Although most parents went completely ballistic ("2 grams of WHAT?
Answer me now!!!)" some were actually so confused that they thought it was a text about Grandma.
Following my own teen this week (Kaitlyn, 17, an emo fan), I felt oddly nostalgic for her anguished interior life – a world away from my thirtysomething vantage point. The other day, when she tweeted "I wanna kill everyone for no reason," I didn't alert her local board of education of a potential murderer in their midst. Wanting to kill everyone is, I suddenly recalled, a perfectly normal mood to be in, especially in your teens.
When I was that age, I wanted to kill everyone approximately 82 per cent of the time. These days, the feeling's been reduced to roughly 16 per cent (significantly higher when I'm hungry or tired), but it's certainly still there. Do I tweet it? No. In fact, I barely even admit it to myself.
That's the wonderful difference between being 37 and 17: You don't feel the need to express your true feelings any more because most of the time you barely even know what they are.
Social-media stunts like Gevinson's and Fielder's not only illustrate the intractable, yawning generation gap. They also show us that, despite the unprecedented access that social media give us to other people's tribes, most of us use it to stay safely within our own. And that, as Kaitlyn would say, is seriously freaking lame, legit #follow-ateen.