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Different generations are sharing what they did before they could look stuff up on the internet

Gen Z TikToker Sarah Adelman posted a video asking members of other generations to weigh in on what pre-internet existence was like.
Pink vintage computer on a dark gray desk and gray background
Before being able to search on the internet, one Gen Z TikTok user wanted to know, "Would you just accept not knowing?”Kelsea Petersen / NBC News

What did people do before they could look something up on the internet?

That’s what comedian Sarah Adelman, 26, wanted to know after she found herself with a dead cellphone trying to navigate her way home from Brooklyn, New York. So she turned to TikTok and decided to ask her elders.

“If you saw someone and you were like, ‘Oh, they remind me of that actor. What’s his name?’ and none of your friends knew, would you go to a library?” Adelman asked in her video, which has been viewed over 300,000 times. “And before Google Maps — I know that there was MapQuest, but before that, genuinely, what would you do? Would you just accept not knowing?”

The reaction was both funny and wholesome — with over thousands of people weighing in in the comments and sharing their reactions in stitched videos.

The video and its response also demonstrated a rarity on the internet: Generations came together, rather than mock one another. Many who replied appeared to identify as millennials, who are typically defined as people born from 1981 to 1996.

“What’s striking about this video is that it asks older generations to see themselves in a historical way by highlighting how all of our lives are different today than in the past,” Pamela Aronson, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said in an email. “The post is thus not creating conflict between generations with dismissive comments like ‘OK, boomer.’” 

The idea for the video stemmed from Adelman’s genuine interest in learning how people “lived in uncertainty before the internet.”  

“Even before handheld devices,” Adelman said in a phone interview. “Even having to go home to Google something, I cannot comprehend that.”

The responses enlightened her. 

“For maps … you had to use an actual folded map and stop and ask for directions at gas stations,” a person commented.

“Your aunt said something was fact, and you believed that until you found out otherwise,” another user said.

“Not all questions were answered,” a commenter added.

What’s striking about this video is that it asks older generations to see themselves in a historical way by highlighting how all of our lives are different today than in the past.

-Pamela Aronson, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn

“There was no way of going and looking it up,” TikToker Tom Powell Jr. said in a video response, referring specifically to finding a celebrity’s name. “We didn’t go to the library to look it up like you might have suggested in the video.”

Powell also showed off a photo of a wire-bound book that included maps of the Chicago area, which he said he kept in his car at all times when he needed maps. The book had reference points on the pages and an index with cities in the area.

Dawn Marie, a travel TikToker, said in a video that because the information wasn’t at your fingertips, you had “to get crafty.” For celebrities, she said, you would either accept not knowing or go to the local Blockbuster to find the movie cover.

“Or you’d ask the kid who worked there,” she said. “People at Blockbuster seemed to know every movie, who starred in them and all the things about movies.”

Adelman’s TikTok video, Aronson said, brought Gen Z and members of other generations together to reflect on how technology has shaped the nature of everyday life.

“Gen Z would identify with this post, because they can’t even imagine life without these things,” Aronson said “But I think that older generations have also become technology-dependent, so when they see this post, they likely think about how things have changed historically in their own lifetimes.”

Adelman, who was born in 1997, said she expected her video to do well because, she said, most generations lean into nostalgia. But in addition to attracting views, she also wanted to ensure her video came across as genuine.

“I knew that I would get hate if I didn’t ask it in a nice way,” she said. “And that’s why I was like, ‘I’m genuinely asking,’ because I was genuinely curious what people had to say.”