A couple weeks ago I was on my very first panel at a con and the topic was “When I was Your Age…” and we discussed what YA authors should know about being an actual YA in the modern era. A bunch of folks on Twitter wanted me to share my insights with them, too. So to that end I’m starting a blog series on things I understand that are different now than they were back then for “grown-up” YA authors.

These topics will focus on stuff I feel relatively comfortable addressing, but will be done so from my perspective. This means that I’m going to make mistakes. If you see one, or want to clarify, PLEASE comment here or on Twitter or send me a message and let me know where I may have messed up.

For a little bit of context, these topics tend to come from one of two parts of my life: dayjob and volunteering gig.

For the last 13+ years I’ve worked in wireless implementation and consulting. Specifically, I was the person who figured out how to fix problems using cell phones. So I’m not a digital native, but I AM a digital immersed person. In addition, for the last four months I’ve volunteered on a teen crisis line and worked with a local youth shelter. This has given me a unique insight into the world of mental health as well as a new light on the problems teens today are facing.

Add that to my history degree, and I hope I’ll be able to put together examples and explanations that help those who really want to connect to young people grasp a little bit better some of the stuff that’s going on in our world and how a different perspective changes what seems to be an obvious thing.

The first topic in the series Photography. It’s a super simple thing that is also super divisive inter-generationally. But it’s also something the middle-aged have a chance of grasping pretty easily because, after all, how we used pictures is not remotely the same as how our parents did. The same is happening to the kids these days.

There are three technological advances that combined to make pictures and the taking of them into something it never was “in my day”: format, storage capacity and distribution.

The Death of Film

When I was a teenager I got my first camera. It was a point and shoot. It came with a load of film and batteries. So the first thing I did was take pictures of all my other presents then went outside and took pictures of my grandparents farm. I was excited to use the thing and so I did.

I don’t feel I need to explain my art to you.

When the film came back weeks later my mother questioned why I took pictures of the things I did. A tractor. The sunset. Five pastel jelly bracelets displayed on a burnt orange cushion. But the only reason I had at the time was that I wanted to. And the common consensus was that I had just wasted film. My parents are from the composed generation. They felt most pictures should be of things. They told stories, but they were very structured (usually very, very boring stories) with the pictures they took.

When I was a teen my pictures captured moments. They grabbed my friends and my feelings in a way that could be put onto paper and treasured. They could be brought out again for embarrassment.

(Or as I was looking back through to find some of the pictures in this post, they made me misty with memories.)

But that’s not how pictures work now. Pictures are cheap. You can take a picture anywhere at any time and consume it instantly. There’s no more delay, no more need to develop and hope. You know if it worked or if it didn’t. You can re-take, re-pose, and review all in seconds. What changed with that was the importance of a single picture.

Yes, there are some pictures that remain important. There are some that still tell stories, but NOT ALL pictures tell stories, they don’t contain an important moment. They don’t reflect every hope of who you are and who these people or things are to you. They’re just pictures. They can be used for other things. They can tell your friends how you’re feeling in that second. They can remind you of where you parked your car. They can show off just how good your hair looked today. It doesn’t have to last forever. That doesn’t mean no pictures are worthwhile, but not all pictures are. That feeling of a picture automatically being precious died about 5 years ago, before most teens even got their first camera.

The Rise of Digital

I’m sure there was a system at one point. But, I assure you, they’re all very precious to me.

Once upon a time we used a lot of paper. And on that paper we printed pictures. And they were precious, so we had to keep them safe. Picture books, storage boxes, memory books, scrapbooks. You name it we’d put our ever so important pictures into it. And then we’d dig through like crazy people trying to find THE ONE picture we were thinking of.

Then digital came along and we learned how to index images and paper pictures became a thing reserved for the select few. The ones worthy of being put on display. We can take more pictures now. We can look at them and judge them and THEN print them. This means the waste of the blur is gone.

This means that we can use pictures that we took once, over and over again.

This means pictures can become something more than a thing we drag out if we have time.

If you visit relatives you don’t bring the giant book along anymore, you pull open your phone and start showing them things. You do it with friends, too. Teens now a days don’t have the relationship with the paper picture we did. These monstrous boxes of doom are not contextually accurate, nor is the obsession with printed photography. Having your pictures with you all the time, the ones that you want to keep has changed the relationship with the picture as well.

You don’t have to explain a really funny thing you saw on the way over anymore, you can just whip out the picture. It’s instant and available and a world we don’t remember.

The Ease of Communication

When I started in wireless we didn’t have pictures. And when we did have pictures they were terrible grainy things. But this didn’t stop anyone from sharing pictures no one cared to see.

Precious memories. PRECIOUS!

Then 4G came along and it became trivial to send a picture. So when we have a picture we’ve taken of a thing we saw that we can pull up in a lot of different ways we can now send it to someone who isn’t anywhere near you instantaneously and it becomes a new form of communication.

We see it in GIFs, emojis, Instagram and Snapchat. Pictures are no longer just an element of the story, they ARE the story. You don’t have to wait until you’re all together to walk them through the meaning, you can throw words and actions into it and in seconds someone halfway across the world knows what you’ve seen and how you feel about it. The relationship is different.

You don’t have to be embarrassed about a bad picture because you have hundreds of bad pictures. You only save your worst ones if they’re hilarious. But you’ve seen yourself so many times you’re not immediately self-conscious of all of it. Selfies are like exposure therapy.

And, honestly, our generation kind of needs that therapy. We avoid looking at ourselves. We’re embarrassed of pictures of ourselves. We think other people should be embarrassed to see themselves. We shame people for looking good as much as looking bad. And we mock teens for stoping mid-sentence to take a picture and send it to someone who is missing out.

They’re not taking the kind of pictures we took. They’re not using them in the way we used our pictures. But, most of all, they’re not doing a single thing wrong.

So when you’re writing your teens and deciding to make one snarky or vain, rethink the tropes that would fit into our vision of pictures and re-contextualize it for the modern era.

Hope that helps!