The students entering college are not millennials. The next generation, Generation Z, has arrived. The oldest in the group are in their early 20s.
Not only have they never known a world without the Internet, some have had smartphones since middle school.
And for this group, memes, animated GIFs and emojis are second nature, says Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who does features on language on NPR’s Fresh Air.
“When you’re young and you’re talking to people with whom you share a lot of experience, a lot of your communication, whether you’re talking or texting or sending emojis or whatever, really isn’t so much about communication. It’s just about connecting with people,” says Nunberg, who teaches at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information.
Take the the popular “confused math lady” meme, for example. Youth Radio’s Robert Fisher, a high school sophomore, explains that it’s used when someone is telling a story that “doesn’t add up, like they’re getting caught in a lie.”
“She’s looking around, her eyes are moving and she looks very confused. That’s why all the math equations are around her, because she’s like, ‘Wait, what’s going on here. Like, I don’t understand,’ ” Fisher explains.
— Know Your Meme (@knowyourmeme) October 12, 2016
With Gen Z, who were in grade school when the iPhone came out, it’s not just that a picture is worth a thousand words. A GIF can convey an attitude.
“I use them every day in almost every conversation that I have,” Fisher says. “Instead of me telling someone how good I look, I can just send them a picture of Beyoncé in a queen’s outfit.”
So he can say what he might not have the courage to type out.
“Basically yeah, that’s what it is,” he says. “It’s like I don’t sound arrogant about myself.”
Nunberg notes that language evolves constantly. He says teens like Fisher are some of its principal creators, and are often the most adept at using it.
“People say, ‘Oh slang is terrible’ and so on. Adolescents are very skillful at using slang — know when to use, know when not to use it,” Nunberg says.
Fisher shows him an online conversation with his sister that included an animated GIF featuring a drag queen named Latrice Royale from the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“They turned one of her popular sayings into a GIF where it’s ‘Ummm … no.’ ” Fisher says.
Such a brief exchange can convey a lot of feeling and emotion, Nunberg says.
“None of you said anything,” he says. “You haven’t said, ‘I’ll see you at 8 o’clock at the movie theater.’ It’s purely affective exchange between you and your sister, in a way almost like making faces at the dinner table.”
Nunberg says GIFs and memes as a form of communication aren’t new. We’ve always used media to enhance our language.
What is new is the speed of communication. A word like fleek can come out on Monday, and your parents know it by Wednesday.
“And if I were to walk in to my class and say, ‘Sorry I’m late. I’ve been chillin with my mains,’ God knows what the response would be,” Nunberg jokes.
This story is part of a series, We Are Generation Z. It was produced by Youth Radio in collaboration with NPR’s Sonari Glinton.