OK, Boomer: A viral clapback and its impact on social media discussions part of research earning student national recognition

When the term “OK, Boomer” started running rampant on social media, the age-related slight was now in the same ecosystem as “snowflake,” an established age-related insult directed toward younger generations. The result was an amped-up generational warfare online.

Emotions may have been running hot, but the scenario was perfect for the cool-headed linguistic analysis by a student who, as an undergraduate, had the opportunity to submit her work for recognition at a national symposium.

Carly Vaitkevicius, who graduated with an English degree and is now pursuing a graduate degree in applied linguistics, said her training in linguistics has allowed her to take a different approach to absorbing the hot rhetoric on social media these days. She tries to take a step back.

"If you allow yourself to be emotional about it, you'll get the full flavor of the language but also miss other people's perspective," Vaitkevicius said.

Carly Vaitkevicius
Carly Vaitkevicius
Image credit - Courtesy photo

Her paper, "OK, Boomer: The Impact of Age Based Language Ideologies," is part of a peer-reviewed journal associated with the Richard Macksey National Undergraduate Humanities Research Symposium at Johns Hopkins University.

In her work, Vaitkevicius discussed how evidence shows the term started on TikTok, which is designed for and used by Generation Z. She explored how likely ageism played a role both in the "snowflake" insult as well as "OK, Boomer."

She also noted in the paper that the discourse around political elections is a particular breeding ground for stereotypes. "OK Boomer," prominent in 2019, was part of a political discussion influenced by the impending presidential election that "allowed for these insults to take on a more political flair which, nonetheless, continued to press the ageist ideologies." Even former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg became a variation of the phrase because of how his name is spelled.

Her exploration of this phenomenon was an extension of an undergraduate sociolinguistics class project. Once the presentation was done, the social media firestorm continued piquing curiosity in Vaitkevicius as she saw more examples.

Kathryn Remlinger, professor of English, encouraged Vaitkevicius to produce an analysis for the symposium. 

"Here’s an undergraduate who took a collaborative research project for a class and had the courage to submit to a national program and write a paper," Remlinger said. "She embodied liberal education, applied what she was learning, synthesized information and went beyond the classroom to be an academic citizen."

Remlinger thought the work especially illuminated the schism between the generations and is an important example of sociolinguistics. "At the heart of this, I want students to know they have a role in shaping language and perceptions," Remlinger said.

That notion resonated with Vaitkevicius, who started on a STEM path in her studies but found a connection with linguistics, which has a scientific element. To her, observing how language is used to connect people and the lasting impact of a fleeting term such as "OK, Boomer" is endlessly fascinating.

"I enjoy understanding now just how language impacts society but also how society impacts languages," she said.


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