“Millennials don’t know how to email,” my mother complains near-daily. She bemoans our poor grammar, our sloppy style, our overly-informal tone. She sighs and asks me, “How do you even understand what your friends are saying?”
We don’t email — we text or Snapchat or Facebook message, I explain to her. And for a long time, my response ended there. I excused our inability to craft letters by playing up our use of alternative forms. Recently, though, it dawned on me that not only has my generation replaced one skill — the classic epistolary style of years long gone — with others, but we’ve also honed our specific style of conversation.
We communicate, for the most part, in short bursts — speedy back-and-forth phrases. We feel little need to write some longer narrative because our means of communication mirrors conversation. Quick wit is paramount. A balance between brevity and explicit meaning is necessary. And emotion doesn’t fall by the wayside — we cram humor, sarcasm, love, rage, and poignancy into just a few words. I’ll come out and say it, at the risk of sounding simultaneously conceited and deluded: my generation has turned the most informal, sloppy kinds of communication into art.
Art? you say, mouth agape. Correspondence, perhaps, but art? I understand the hesitation — one I feel as much as my parents do — to classify something so functional and so hasty as art. But hold on just a second — let me argue my point.
Like any good millennial, my attention span is minuscule and my need for entertainment desperately pressing. A constant pulse thrums in the background of my existence, urging me to be interesting, be fun, be unexpected. And so the means of communication that I use daily for a purpose as banal as confirming lunch plans has become, by virtue of some default setting in my overactive, thrill-seeking brain, an opportunity for humor, wordplay, aestheticism.
Sometimes this urge takes the form of something like word association, in which case the conversation might shift focus entirely after a string of connected ideas. Sometimes it’s what my friend Matt likes to call a “puzzle” — an acronym, maybe, or short phrase taken out of context whose meaning the recipient must guess, and in doing so receive some current meaning from a shared memory. Sometimes it’s an unexpected escalation from a pure exchange of information to storytelling through creative imagery — a fantastical break from reality. Sometimes it’s simply the choice to spell a word a certain way, to use “u” instead of “you.”
Fig. 1. A conversation between myself and my friend Nate, wherein an accusation of lameness turns into a) an analysis of capitalism and advertisement; b) a study of American suburban culture; c) an ironic subversion of social expectations.
Let’s refer to Figure 1 as an example. In this instance, I text my friend Nate a simple accusation: that he is a “lame-o.” But suddenly, thanks to his quick impulse to play with that word, to twist its meaning into something unexpected, he riffs on the idea of Cheerios to rebrand the word as a sort of midlife-crisis cereal. Inane? Frivolous? Silly? Yes. Creative? Clever? Funny? Yes, those too.
I won’t compare this sort of everyday fun to a Woolf novel or a Rembrandt painting. But I see an aesthetic value to this kind of play — play that permeates even the most daily of tasks. We often think of creativity as something on the periphery of daily life, as a muscle we exercise in very specific and extracurricular ways. We paint, we write, we sing — and unless we make a living off this art, it becomes a hobby that falls outside what’s normal for us. But why limit ourselves that way? Why not play creatively during our day-to-day lives rather than outside of them?
I don’t propose to replace the Mona Lisa with a Snapchat, or to ban novels in favor of texts. But I do value the opportunity to inject creative play into my daily life — to participate in art as part of my routine. And I think that casual communication allows for more — and different — creativity than ever before. So maybe I don’t know how to write a great email. But I can text directions in haiku form and shape a grocery list into post-modern flash fiction. And I find that simply thrilling.