Home Sweet Homepage: Growing Up in Cyberspace

2 Nov

“Have you ever played the Wikipedia game?”

After an exasperating few seconds struggling to articulate her mental picture of the Internet — “I can’t fit it into my head!” she protested — college sophomore Nicole Hugo landed upon one of her favorite exercises in procrastination as a suitable analogy for the greater World Wide Web.  To play, she explained, you need only think of a topic, any topic, and attempt to wind your way through the hyperlinked labyrinth of Wikipedia’s three-million-odd articles until reaching, at long last, a page dealing with the subject you’d originally chosen.  The “Wikipedia game,” she claimed, is the Internet writ small: “You can start off one place and end up where you want to go because everything is so interconnected.”

An effortless activity for Nicole, who rated herself a modest 10.5 in Internet proficiency (on a scale of 1 to 10), the analogy suggests an interesting topological conception of the Internet — for cyber-navigators like Hugo, information retrieval is so simple as to be a game; the challenge lies in exploring the geography, covering the terrain from point A to point B in the most creative way possible (her example: from roadrunners to Japanese anime).  In the minds of these college-age students, raised to treat it less as a tool than an environment, the Internet has become a “place” — one they find as comfortable and natural as the world outside the computer monitor.

Leah Jacobs, perhaps the only member of the Millennial Generation to express the wish that the Internet had never been invented, is not one of those students.

“I was always behind on the Internet,” she confessed — “This is embarrassing, but if I heard a song I liked on the radio, I would go on the iTunes search engine and try to guess the name of the song until something came up; I didn’t know I could go on Google and just type in a couple lyrics and press enter.  I only realized this the other day.”

Leah, who sees the Internet predominantly as an instrument of time wasting (at one point she compared Facebook to a drug addiction), approved of the utility of only a select few Internet features: email and Mapquest, in particular, though she still prefers Rand McNally.  While she originally rated herself a 7 in Internet competence, about an hour after the interview Leah must have had second thoughts; she emailed me back with the suggestion that I change her self-evaluation to a 4.  Perhaps the drop to a below-average ranking has something to do with her shaky command of Digital Age jargon, in which she’s not quite fluent: over the course of our conversation Leah groped for the term “flash drive” — “those little things that you put in the USB and save stuff to and take them somewhere else?” — and, when referring to websites she frequents, commonly cited the full URL (“dot com” and all).

Leah attributes her limited proficiency online to a long series of technological deficiencies in the Jacobs household: “It’s definitely how I was brought up — I was a sheltered child,” she said, adding that her family’s falling “behind” extended beyond computers.  As Leah remembers: “It was this big exciting thing when we got one cell phone… until we realized we couldn’t call each other.”

Though she was, like most millennials, exposed to computers very young, these early experiences served mainly to establish the utilitarian view of the Internet she holds today — while her “mom was obsessed with buying computer games,” they were strictly educational programs, and online activity involved nothing but email until high school.  “I think of the Internet as a tool to help me do work,” she said; “Other than that, it’s better to actually do things with people, to see them and talk to them.”

That sentiment was echoed by another Internet detractor, Dana Cooper, who spends her time online in similarly practical pursuits: homework, research, email.  This too reflects a pattern forged in childhood: while Dana learned to type before she could spell her own last name, her earliest memories of the Internet emphasize the academic uses she puts it to today.  “I remember being eight years old, looking up stuff online to do a project for science, on manatees,” she laughed, “And I did it all on my own, like I knew how to look stuff up online” — ten years later, the pride in her voice is still audible.

But Dana, if more adept than Leah at what she termed “the tricks of the trade,” still deplores the amount of time her classmates spend on the Internet.  “I think it’s embarrassing,” she said, citing a recent visit to a friend’s house as an example of the excessive lengths her peers will go to in pursuit of the perfect social networking profile — “She was putting up her pictures online, and fixing them and changing them and cropping them here or there, and I felt like, you can find out way too much stuff about people.  It’s invasive.”

From here, Dana begins to diverge from Leah’s functionalism: while Jacobs considers face-to-face communication the only true form of human contact, Dana indicates that the Internet does provide a setting for real social interaction, even if she isn’t a participant.  “Sometimes I do feel like an outsider,” she lamented; “If I go on some site and see what other people are writing, it’s kind of strange, like, why am I reading this if I’m not a part of it?”

For Dana, reading the posts of an online forum, the comments on someone’s YouTube account, or the wall posts between individuals over Facebook is akin to eavesdropping — the content a person generates online, in this view, is an accurate reflection of the flesh-and-blood human being behind the HTML.  To Dana, you are who you are online, and she, without a virtual identity (even one as cropped and edited as her friend’s), is less than an outsider: “If the Internet was real life,” she mused, “I would be non-existent!”

Nicole Hugo and Britta Kilkenny, another college sophomore and Internet true believer, elaborated on this idea — “Everything I post is true,” Nicole said of her Facebook profile, “So I guess it is does show who I am, or at least who I think I am”; Britta agreed, speculating that “someone could get a pretty good idea” of her personality and daily life if she updated her status more often.

What Dana termed “invasive,” Nicole and Britta see as a means of accurately representing themselves in a new medium, online.  And for Nicole, even something as short and presumably impersonal as a YouTube video comment can extend meaningful human contact — because she sees content that may not include so much as the creator’s name as representing an actual person, Hugo tries always to be encouraging and supportive: “These are usually people that I really enjoy, that I subscribe to, and I think they appreciate it when you write something positive.”  Compare this to Leah, for whom “people” exist only in physical space.

But in cyberspace (at least for Nicole, Britta, and Dana), manifestation as a tangible, carbon-based life form isn’t necessary; one’s virtual identity, perhaps a thing of words alone, is just as real and just as capable of social interaction.  The germs of this mindset as well may have been planted in early childhood — when asked what website they most remember visiting during their first days of Internet travels, all but Leah answered without hesitation: “Neopets.”

Launched in 1999, Neopets was something of an early online community for kids; set on the virtual planet of Neopia, members chose their own pets from a wide selection of chimerical animals and then proceeded to feed, clothe, and entertain them.  Discussing Neopets, Dana’s description highlighted both the independent nature of her early Internet use as well as the sense that the website was more a virtual environment than a game: “You could have your own pet, and it was yours, and you cared for it.  Then I could make money and have all my own material possessions, but on the Internet, you know?”  Britta, too, agreed that “it was pretty intense,” recalling that the website allowed for messaging among “neofriends” and even “battles” between the pets of complete strangers, an online cognate of the then-popular Pokemon card game.

Though she played as well, Nicole Hugo found Neopets rather too tame for her tastes — her online communication with others, even with strangers, proved more direct: chat rooms.

“Now that I think about it, that was probably extra sketch,” she said of these first, daring forays into the online social environment — nevertheless, a fourth-grade girl in 1999 could hardly expect to maintain her reputation without participating in at least one Backstreet Boys chat room.  A self-described “bad kid,” Nicole very early developed a cool confidence on the Internet.  “Because we didn’t have a babysitter,” she explained, free time was spent on the computer in her father’s office; this informal, private practice — “click-click-click, that’s all I knew how to do” — gave Nicole the basic skills she needed to manipulate a mouse, keyboard, and search engine in order to pursue her personal interests as a ravenous fangirl.

It’s no coincidence that Nicole and Britta, who at a young age began to see the Internet as a medium for social interaction, today treat websites like Facebook and YouTube as settings for communication as comfortable and personal as any face-to-face conversation.  Dana too, a Neopets veteran, sees the Internet as a “place,” an environment with its own geography — “Everyone talks about how big the Internet is, and I know, because I can go on for hours and hours and still feel like I’ve never gotten into the core of it.”

Her use of the word “big” here, interestingly, refers neither to popularity nor extension across a physical expanse of space: Dana references the simply overwhelming number of websites, a dense virtual world she can’t penetrate because, without a Facebook profile or other virtual identity, she remains on the periphery, “non-existent.”  And while Dana can’t reach the “core” of the Internet, Leah Jacobs — who described her family as “technologically deprived” — seems constantly out of her depth, floundering with search engines and information retrieval processes digital natives like Nicole Hugo consider so familiar as to constitute a game.

Ultimately, these four millennials represent a continuum in their treatment of the Internet — from a practical tool and nothing more, to a virtual environment in which real human interaction can occur.  The determinant?  Who cut their teeth on mousepads and keyboards, and who had to settle for pacifiers.

 

This is a slightly re-tooled version of a paper I recently wrote for an American Studies course.  The research is original, though names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities (especially that of “Leah” who really doesn’t trust the Internet).  Feel free to use my research—just cite your sources.  Because remember, kids: plagiarism will send you straight to the Gates of Hell with the inefficient, the indifferent, and Pope Celestine V.  Or so says Dante.

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One Response to “Home Sweet Homepage: Growing Up in Cyberspace”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Nostalgic, Prescient (and very, very memorable) Science Fiction « The Scattering - November 23, 2009

    […] once again, the topics that fascinate me today, I discover, are absolutely nothing new.  The research I recently did on the millennial generation’s changing conception of the Internet (or, for them/us, […]

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