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It started in Polk County, Florida, then came in waves. Report after report of teens – and sometimes even younger kids – engaging in mob beatdowns of classmates.

The motivation?

Look at me.

In that case, six high-school girls assaulted a 16-year-old cheerleader as two male classmates filmed it. The idea was to post the video on YouTube.

There was the Arizona 14-year-old who set up a camera to film herself bashing a chair over the head of another girl, knocking her unconscious for her Web audience, real or imagined.

Three teenage girls in New York filmed themselves beating up a 13-year-old girl to post to YouTube, and MySpace.

A group of middle-schoolers, ages 12 to 14, assaulted a classmate in a parking lot, filming it for the Website Photobucket.

Look At Me.

It’s just the latest example of the increasingly run-amok mentality of the 2000s. The 1970s gave us the Me Generation. Welcome to the 2000s, the Look At Me Generation.

From celebrities who’ve done nothing but get themselves in front of as many cameras as possible (hello, Paris) to personal grooming (nice mohawk, dude) to style (it says WHAT on your butt?), the 35-and-under group seems to want nothing more than to be noticed. For any damn thing at all.

Consider television (yes, you have to). The top show of the decade, by far, is devoted to showing us ... us, showing off. And if you think for a second that “American Idol” is a winner because it’s original or different, consider some of the other shows that have led the ratings in the past eight years: “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race” and “Fear Factor.”

LOOK at me.

What do they all have in common? You, or people like you, showing what morons they are in exchange for the chance to be seen. Oh, yes, there may be a carrot dangling from that stick — a recording contract or a cash prize — but how many winners are there compared to the number of wannabes auditioning for these shows each season? The real pull is the chance to make it to prime time, no matter what you have to do to get there. What’s more embarrassing, eating grubs or sucking up to The Donald? Name your abuse.

There have always been game shows that fed off the narcissistic and/or stupid. Remember “The Dating Game”? “The Newlywed Game”? Did anyone ever show even an ounce of talent on the show that provided “American Idol” with its framework, “The Gong Show”? No, but that didn’t stop them from auditioning.

But those shows were oddities. On them, the viewing public tuned in to see how dumb people would be willing to appear to make a buck. Today, such programs dominate the ratings and we tune in wishing it were us taking verbal backhands from Simon Cowell.

And if you can’t even make the cut for “The Biggest Loser,” maybe you can be a video star anyway. How much talent goes into an appearance in a “Girls Gone Wild” video. I can name two things that’ll get you there (no, not THOSE two things): timing; and a complete lack of shame.

The former is simply a question of being in the right place when the cameras start rolling. It’s all luck. But the latter is important here, because it’s common to all these endeavors, and its widespread existence is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Look at ME.

Thank Bill Clinton for that one. When the most famous man in the world can go on TV and flat out lie about having sex with an intern, then weasel out of it and continue to mug for the cameras, rather than step down in shame and skulk away quietly, what does that tell us? That the age of modesty and accountability is past. From now on, anything goes. The Bush administration has taken that to new heights, but so has a whole generation not involved in politics.

Not that Clinton did this all by himself. It’s been building for years. You could see it in the fashions inspired by Madonna (Really? Wearing your underwear on the outside is a good thing?) and the lyrics of hip-hop, which are often pure ego. It was a driving force in the exponential proliferation of tattoo and body-piercing shops. “Body art” isn’t an expression of individualism. Here’s a reality TV show concept for you: Let’s try to find the one remaining twentysomething woman out there who doesn’t have a small-of-the-back tattoo.
It’s all just another way of saying:

Look. At. Me.

Yes, television and other media have certainly aided and abetted our growing national narcissism, but as in many other areas, the Internet has exponentially increased the opportunities to show off.

It started with e-mail and list serves. No longer did the cost of stamps and the time spent duplicating letters keep you from reaching the masses. In one fell swoop, you could send your message to anyone – or any number of people – online. And what was one of the first things we all learned to send? Viral videos, of course. As soon as nerds and techies realized photos, then video, could be digitized and compressed, the Star Wars Kid was born.  (See it here).

According to Web legend (and who doesn’t believe any legend spawned by the Internet?), the geeky fat kid with the makeshift light sabre didn’t actually mean for anyone to see his self-shot masterpiece, but “friends” uploaded it to a Web site and the rest was history. Nevertheless, once people saw the kind of audience a bad video could attract, they were off and filming.

(By the way, the same happened in porn, with disastrous effects to the industry. Once America got a look at Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, couples everywhere realized they could film their own nasty selves, and not only could they watch it instead of paying for porn, hey, it might be a kick to post it online and let other people watch, too. And they have. So who rents porn videos anymore?)

But the Internet allows us to show off in far more ways than by reproducing amateur versions of Christy Canyon’s greatest hits. Bandwidth and memory advances have made it possible for anyone to create their own Web site, or to hook into sites that allow them to pour their own content into pages built on templates. And what is that content about?

The people posting it, of course. MySpace, FaceBook, and myriad chat and social networking sites are all about telling people what you like (or don’t), what you want (or don’t), and how many other people you’ve told so far.

And if networking sites don’t give you enough opportunity to spout off about yourself, start a blog, a vlog, or better yet, a podcast. The Internet is brimming with chances to call attention to yourself. It worked for Matt Drudge, Perez Hilton, Tila Tequila, and it could make you a star, too.

LOOK AT ME.

Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t it what we all want? To be noticed, acknowledged, confirmed? Isn’t that what this trend is all about? Validation? It seems as if more and more people are more and more concerned with their own agendas than with being a working part of a greater society.

Most people, whatever their personal needs and challenges, used to at least pay lip service to the idea of a common good. It’s what makes society work. People who put their own egos first were once called selfish or antisocial. Now they’re celebrated (We’re looking your way, Bill O’Reilly).

Could an entire generation be growing up lacking the vision, the ability to think through the logical implications of an “every man for himself” world?

Actually, it could. Consider again the Me Generation that came of age in the 1970s, the Baby Boomers. It’s their children who now constitute the Look At Me Generation. Celebrated as a collective group with a selfish, me-first attitude, the Boomers reached adulthood as the first generation raised on TV, the greatest dumber-down in history.

It makes perfect sense they would pamper and spoil their own kids, as extensions of themselves. And now, the Look At Me Generation has grown up with movies on demand (via the VCR and now, the DVD and DVR), video games, even more TV (via cable and satellite offerings), cell phones, specialty magazines for every taste and fetish, and, most importantly, the Internet – a medium through which they can reach anyone at any time.

The result? “Jackass,” “The Simple Life,” Judith Regan, sports stars with posses, attack-oriented talk radio, a culture in which people are famous primarily for being famous, karaoke, a new celebrity sex video every month and, yes, gang assaults perpetrated for no other reason than to show your friends (and strangers) the video.

All hope is not lost. Perhaps the trend has reached its zenith. With our nation at war in two countries (as of this writing) and our president waging war on truth, justice, the poor, the press and the English language, many young people today seem to be becoming more civic-minded.

Maybe it was 9/11, maybe the divisiveness of our political atmosphere, maybe a backlash against their peers who are staging elaborate wedding dances to film for YouTube, but whatever the reason, there seem to be a lot more environmentally conscious, ready-to-volunteer young people out there today.

But there’s another trend that’s also disconcerting; the increasingly graphic violence that passes for entertainment in our culture. From “Kill Bill” (a personal affront) to “Grand Theft Auto: Whatever” to Eminem, entertainment for our youth is more and more based on killing, maiming, raping, stealing and gang culture.
It does not bode well for the 2030s, time for the Are You Looking At Me? Generation.