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What This Picture Of Beyoncé Tells Us About How Generation Z Connects

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 8, 2017 8:21 am

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 University of California, 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.

With Gen Z, whose members 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 into 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.

Copyright 2017 Youth Radio. To see more, visit Youth Radio.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Even the oldest Gen Zers, now in their early 20s, have never known a world without the Internet. And they're more likely to use their smartphones to send messages than to talk. That is something NPR's Sonari Glinton - a Gen Xer, by the way - has noticed. Sonari paired up with Youth Radio's Robert Fisher, a member of Gen Z, in an attempt to bridge this generational divide.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: On Robert's phone, there are dozens of conversations that literally display no words. They're pictures and animated pics. They're called JIFs (ph) or GIFs. These are short videos. 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.

ROBERT FISHER, BYLINE: I use them every day in almost every conversation that I have. Instead of me telling someone how good I look, I can just send them a picture of Beyonce in a queen's outfit.

GLINTON: It's like Robert can say what he might not have had the courage to type out.

FISHER: Basically, yeah, that's what it is. It's like I don't sound arrogant about myself.

GLINTON: If you've had a text conversation with, say, a teenager, you've probably noticed words are so out. Robert wanted to know if GIFs were changing our language, so we turned to a familiar expert.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I'm Geoff Nunberg. I'm a linguist. I teach at the UC Berkeley School of Information. And I do features on language on the NPR show Fresh Air.

GLINTON: On the one side, baby boomer linguist with Ph.D. - on the other, Youth Radio intern, junior in high school.

FISHER: Sorry. My phone's cracked.

NUNBERG: I had - mine was cracked for a long, long time before I finally - my wife said get a new phone.

FISHER: I had just fixed it, too.

GLINTON: And both are language experts in their own rights.

FISHER: I do use emojis or memes to - I guess to express myself. Like, is it bad, or is it good? Or...

NUNBERG: Oh, it's just the way people are. When - I mean, when you're young and you're talking to people with whom you share a lot of experience and so on, 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.

GLINTON: Nunberg says language evolves constantly. Teens like Robert are some of the principal creators of slang and language. And according to Nunberg, they are often the most adept at using it.

NUNBERG: People say, oh, slang's terrible and so on, but adolescents are very skillful at using slang - know when to use it, know when not to use it.

FISHER: It's like the way I talk at work wouldn't be the same way I would speak as if I were with a group of friends. It's just a matter of where I am and what time I'm there.

NUNBERG: Right. I assume - and I assume the way you're talking to me is not the way you talk when you go home and talk to your friends.

FISHER: No, of course not (laughter). No, it's completely different, completely different.

GLINTON: Here's the challenge. Can Geoff Nunberg follow a conversation between Robert and his sister using minimal words?

NUNBERG: The odds that I will understand it are somewhere between zero and 1 percent, but we'll try. How old is your sister?

FISHER: She's 18.

NUNBERG: So she's a couple years older than you.

FISHER: Yeah.

NUNBERG: OK. Let's have a look.

FISHER: All right.

NUNBERG: And who is this person? I'm supposed to know who these people are, but...

FISHER: The person in this GIF is from "RuPaul's Drag Race." Have you ever heard of the show?

NUNBERG: Yeah.

FISHER: That was one of the Season 5 drag queens named Latrice Royale.

NUNBERG: Uh-huh (ph).

FISHER: And they turned one of her popular sayings into a GIF where it's no.

NUNBERG: Now, one of the interesting things about this is you conveyed a lot of affect and feeling. None of you said anything. You haven't said, you know, I'll see you at 8 o'clock at the movie theater, right? It's purely affective exchange between you and your sister in the way - almost like making faces at the dinner table.

GLINTON: To be fair, Geoff Nunberg got his fair share right. He is a linguist, after all. He says GIFs and memes as a form of communication isn't new. We've always used media to enhance our language. What's new is the speed of communication. A word like fleek can come out on Monday, and your parents knew it by Wednesday. Then you both look lame.

NUNBERG: And if I were to walk into my class and say, sorry I'm late, I've been chilling with my mains, God knows what they - what the response would be. But it would be just - maybe I'll try it sometime and just see what happens, you know?

FISHER: (Laughter) I want to see the video reaction to that. If you do that, please record it and email it to me. Oh, that would make my day.

NUNBERG: Yeah.

GLINTON: Nunberg says Generation Z will graft words and even images onto the language because, well, that's what generations do. But the fun part is when Robert turns 18, Nunberg says language-wise, he'll be kind of old. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

KELLY: Our story was produced with Youth Radio as part of the series We Are Generation Z.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.