Seeing a Suite Life of Zack and Cody GIF while scrolling through Tumblr at work recently filled me with both a practical and existential feeling of dread. In and of itself, the Disney Channel original show that ran from 2005 to 2008 isn't particularly scary. Twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse (also known for sharing the role of Ross Geller's son on Friends and that of Adam Sandler's ward in Big Daddy) starred as siblings who live in a hotel. They spend each episode getting in the kind of brightly colored mischief kids tend to get into on Disney shows. It also starred Ashley Tisdale (who played Sharpay in High School Musical), and Brenda Song, she of the brief engagement to Miley Cyrus' brother. I know all these facts about the show, but I don't have any warm memories of watching the Sprouses dodge trouble and learn important lessons. By 2005, I was 15, and the Disney Channel had become just a number I flipped through on the way to MTV. But the next generation was watching, absorbing inside jokes and catchphrases, leading them to include that GIF I stumbled upon in a Tumblr post dedicated to remembering the "good old days of Disney."
This is mid-2000s nostalgia, which I can certainly learn about. But I'll never truly be able to understand it and share in the wistfulness with younger millennials. I can sing "Breaking Free," but I'll never really be a Wildcat. Which means that the echo of my childhood, the time when my current 25-year-old self can count on stumbling upon an ode to the tamagotchi or Gushers on a daily basis, could be coming to an end. And because of this, I fear that I am becoming less employable. My career in web writing has been, at least partially, built on capturing the feeling of, say, opening a white plastic Disney VHS case for "Remember the '90s?" lists. It would come up in job interviews, somewhere after education and well before references: "You've really got a handle on the '90s." And I do. I know which Hey Arnold! cast members grew up to be hot and that Ryan Goslings' first post-Mickey Mouse Club role was in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? But with each mid-2000s post I see on BuzzFeed, I get the same feeling I had when I'd finally nailed my MySpace Top Eight and my friends came home from college talking about this new thing called Facebook. Nostalgia for the '90s is an omnipresent force on the internet, yet another thing Gen-Xers and their predecessors can use to mock millennials. But anyone who has ever seen a middle-aged man demand that his entire family watch and appreciate the brilliance of the original Charlie's Angels TV series or a senior citizen get giddy over the vintage toy selection at the Cracker Barrel knows that millennials didn't invent nostalgia. (Though we do tend to think we did.) And since we're arguably the most online-savvy generation yet, we have flooded the internet with loving nods to our past. We've cornered the digital nostalgia market, and our drive to produce and consume listacles describing the scent of the now-discontinued French Toast Crunch seems unstoppable.
'90s kids can spend hours wading through fond recollections of that Microsoft Word paper clip thing with the eyes (and yes, I know his name is Clippy). That creepy creature was forever in the corner of the screen, doing its thing when you wrote the haiku about your hamster or your college admissions essay. It is as tied to memories of childhood and adolescence as any Backstreet Boys song. A big part of the appeal of '90s nostalgia is the feeling of being in on a giant inside joke. You and your best friends from high school and their new friends from work and that woman who moved in across the hall will understand why the Skydancer ad you just shared on Facebook brings up some painful memories. But your fortysomething cousin might not. Of course, they've got plenty of their own pop culture artifacts to moon over, but they're not getting the same attention online as ours. So of course I'm feeling bit panicked about the creeping 2000s nostalgia. I really, really don't get the appeal of Hannah Montana. And if history repeats itself, I'm going to be reading about that one episode where she wears that one shirt and also has a moment with her dad/BFF/brother, for the next decade or so. And I know all too well that asserting that Lizzie McGuire is so much better will just make me seem old and hopelessly out of touch.
As today's tweens and teens become twentysomethings, and I gradually inch my way out of the Lena Dunham decade, there are ways I can keep up with the youths. I can learn their slang, watch the shows they're watching, download their apps and join their social media networks. But I'll never love Kung Fu Panda the way they do. So maybe "Best Couples of the WB" lists will be pushed into a far corner of the internet. As 2000s kids grow up, they'll create their own nostalgic content. And if '90s kids have learned anything, we'll know enough to step back, quietly hum the Pokemon theme song, and let them take their trips down memory lane in peace.