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The myth of Generation Snowflake: how did "sensitive" become a dirty word?

If my generation are a heap of fragile snowflakes, then the internet is a snow machine – and that's no bad thing.

I don’t remember the exact words my father used to describe my home-made shortbread but they weren’t kind. I was ten years old, I had made the biscuits during my Year Seven cooking class, and for homework I had to ask a family member to taste and “review” my work. A week later, when I peered over at my classmates’ worksheets as we handed in our homework, I realised most of their parents had marked them a respectable but diplomatic seven out of ten. My father, not bothering to shield his disgust, gave me a “four”.

I wasn’t raised wrapped in bubble wrap. My parents never once called me “special”. My schools never offered medals for participation. I’m telling you this not so that you feel sorry for me (do, though) but because, by popular logic, my upbringing should have made me tough as old boots. I’m not. I sobbed uncontrollably at 4am on the night Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Go on, say it. I am a snowflake.

For those who have somehow missed this, the insult of the year, a “snowflake” is a young person who is perceived to be too sensitive, easily offended and weak. Not content with insulting us individually, however, baby boomers have also coined the expression “Generation Snowflake” to tar everyone born in the Nineties with the same brush. This definition entered the Collins English Dictionary last year, and can be found, much like a reference to Hitler, in every internet argument.

How can an entire generation be too sensitive? One theory, put forward by Claire Fox, the author of I Find That Offensive!, is that we were all mollycoddled as children. Other writers have argued that “participation medals” (which, incidentally, have been around since ancient Greece) made every last one of us feel entitled to praise.

Fox and her ilk are wrong. No one I know ever got a medal for participation in their youth, and we all got plenty of scraped knees. Yet it is undeniable that we are more sensitive (to my mind, this is not an insult) than earlier generations. Why?

We have the internet to thank for this. I grew up in a town of 6,000 people. Most of them were white and even more of them were old. Collectively, we were outnumbered by the local sheep. As I was never confronted with anyone remotely different from myself, I spent my teenage years thinking that being offensive was the highest form of wit. I didn’t meet a single person who changed my mind – I met thousands. And I met them all online.

Having instant access to millions of different viewpoints at once changed everything. Blogs opened my eyes to experiences outside my own, YouTube videos allowed access to the lives of strangers, and tweets flooded my narrow world with opinions. In particular, the social media project Everyday Sexism – which encourages women to tweet their experiences of normalised ­sexism – made me realise that the street harassment I faced wasn’t just “life”.

Yet if the internet is the reason we all became more empathetic, it is also the reason the “snowflake” myth spread. According to Time magazine, generational nicknames originated “with writers and journalists”, but the internet meant that a term first coined on an obscure blog could quickly spread into mainstream use. “Special snowflake” was used in the Noughties on Tumblr, the social blogging site, to insult those with dyed hair and alternative gender pronouns. It was not until the past couple of years that “snowflake” morphed from someone who thought they were special to someone who was weak and sensitive. How did that happen?

Honestly, the University of East Anglia’s student union probably shouldn’t have branded a local Mexican restaurant “racist” for handing out free sombreros. This (I concede, ridiculous) move opened the way for some of the earliest examples of what we now call fake news: stories of students insisting on trigger warnings and “safe spaces” which were exaggerated far beyond reality, but were believable because of a few, rare instances of “political correctness gone mad”. Last December, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail published a story claiming that the Oxford Student Union had insisted students use the gender-neutral pronoun “ze” instead of “he” or “she”. It later emerged that this was untrue, but the damage had been done.

The internet has allowed both students’ ideas and mainstream disdain of them to spread beyond university walls. Students have, by and large, been progressive to a fault, but social media allows outsiders an insight into their world. When Asa Dunbar stood on a Harvard University dining chair in 1766 and declared, “Behold, our butter stinketh!— Give us therefore, butter that stinketh not,” there was no Facebook on which
Terry from Surrey Quays could call him a “lazy, entitled snowflake”, followed by the angry face emoticon.

It was in June last year that the term “Generation Snowflake” was given its greatest boost, when a Daily Mail article described us as “a fragile, thin-skinned younger generation that can’t cope with conflicting views, let alone criticism”. From that point on, the right-wing media ran with the insult. Last week, Michael Gove used it to describe anyone who was offended or irritated by Boris Johnson comparing the French president, François Hollande, to a Nazi guard.

Social media allowed my generation to become more sensitive and also allowed exaggerated myths about our sensitivity to spread. If we are snowflakes, the internet is a snow machine. Now, we must use online networks collectively to adopt our pejorative nickname and wear it as a badge of pride. If that fails, at least the internet offers up a few decent shortbread recipes.

Amelia Tait writes for NS.com

Helen Lewis returns next week

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.