Marianne Cassidy didn’t grow up with online communities. She grew up in them.
I have always been a creature of the Internet, ever since I was 11 years old and my family moved back to the home country, to a small town in rural Ireland. I was the child who read too much and had too many opinions in class and did not understand concepts like “uncool” or “weird” until my social standing was far past redemption. As a result, I took to supplementing my limited and awkward daily interactions with a rich online life. I started drawing for the sole purpose of being able to join Elfwood. Through the community on this website, I made friends who shared my fanatical interest in high fantasy. I joined forums where I could discuss these things at length. I participated in text-based roleplaying with multiple characters. I started a livejournal. I started a deviantart account. At the tender of age of 14, I became a moderator on a roleplaying board.
I was a late-bloomer in many respects, but little did I know that by cultivating a complex online existence at a young age, I was way ahead of the pack. When I was in my early teens, the Internet was still niche interest. Most of my peers needed the classes we took on email and basic web-browsing. In many ways, the online world was a sanctuary for me and kids like me, who had trouble connecting with their peers and finding people who shared their passions.
Needless to say, I was a little miffed when my classmates all started talking about Bebo (the now-obsolete Ireland/UK equivalent of Myspace) and, consequently, the existence of the Internet like it was a revelation of the highest order. I felt like I was being invaded. I resisted joining Bebo when I was 16, but I eventually had some friends and an investment in keeping on top of social trends, so I caved. Honestly, Bebo caused some tears in my house. The last thing an already chronically insecure 16-year-old needs is a visual means of quantifying her popularity. But I digress.
We are the Facebook generation. We were the first-wave of children who grew up mediating and managing our lives through social networking sites. Today, my pre-teen cousins all have email addresses and Facebook profiles and occasionally terrify me by initiating Skype conversations with roughly 300 animated smiley faces all winking at me in unison. But the pre-teens of 10 years ago, we were among the first.
Steven Axelrod thinks virtual communities are about as real as the wonders of CGI. What I am trying to emphasize—by writing A Brief History of My Early Internet Days—is that virtual communities are real to me. I did not just grow up with them. I grew up in them. I can attribute much of my early development and knowledge of the world (particularly my ability to express myself through writing) to the hours I spent online, moving through a global community of people from many different walks of life. In many ways, the Internet is the greatest leveler of men. At 14 years old, I was already used to interacting with adults as equals. People twice my age had respect for my opinions. Elfwood taught me how to give useful constructive criticism. Moderating taught me about conflict resolution and fairness. Text-based roleplaying taught me about collaboration and listening. Today, it was obvious to me that virtual communities had a real and tangible effect on who I am and how I process the world around me.
As a society, we of the First World are becoming more and more integrated with virtual communities to the extent that the distinction between “real” and virtual” is becoming less and less useful. The Internet is no longer an abstract amorphous entity that exists on the other side of a computer screen, primarily occupied by freaks and geeks and porn addicts. Today, most of us are immersed in the online world in the most basic and practical of ways. Not only does the Internet amplify and supplement our real world experiences, it also actively impacts on them and effects change in the physical world around us. The Internet is no longer simply a means of recording memories or preserving thoughts; it makes things happen. It changes how we present ourselves and how the world sees us, how we receive and process information, how we interact, how we work, how we relax, how we meet, greet and keep people. All of these things are very real to me. Indeed, I would describe them as the fundamentals of my social existence.
Think about online dating. Even five years ago, the idea of meeting someone online–while not quite taboo–certainly had stigma attached to it. The mainstream assumption was that only social outcasts resorted to the Internet to find love. Nowadays, many of my attractive, young urban friends use OKCupid for dating. Who knows, maybe one night when I’m bored and lonely, I’ll make a profile and send a message to the only other person in Chicago who likes Father Ted. Maybe we’ll go on a date. In many ways, this is a more civilized process than going to a bar and hoping I’ll catch Mr. Right’s eye in between bouts of scowling into my drink and wondering why I decided to go to a bar when I could be at home watching Father Ted.
I have tried to explain Facebook to my parents several times. They are generally overwhelmed by the entire concept, and also by the speed at which I skim over concepts such as “newsfeed” and “status update.” To me, these concepts are so ingrained that it would never occur to me that I might have to explain them in anything more than cursory detail. Ultimately, I never seem to be able to encapsulate the sum of the Facebook experience through demonstrating its wide variety of parts:
And this is my wall, and people can post on my wall, but only people who are my friends, as in I’ve accepted them as friends on Facebook, except this person isn’t really my friend, but I think met her at a show once, and anyone can send me a private message and these are my photos, but these are other photos that my friends tagged me in, and you can also tag people in posts and sometimes people will tag me in a post on someone else’s wall and this is the newsfeed where you can see everyone’s wall and I can also chat to people directly in this box which is the same as a private message sort of …
The question my parents invariably come back to is, “But why?”
I can understand that. They never had Facebook and they have managed to maintain a wonderful network of friends from college and school. But I persistently fail to answer this question because, for me, the question isn’t “Why?” The question is “What now?”
The inevitability of further integration is not particularly scary to me. I enjoy communication, and I think the Internet is ultimately a force of good. Despite my occasional sessions spent glaring at the profiles of pretty and successful girls who may have dated a guy I’m interested in, I don’t take social networking more seriously than I take most things. I have a healthy level of skepticism; I know I don’t actually have 300+ friends in the real sense of the word, and I know I’m not as ugly as those awful photos of me from that camping trip. I don’t think a wall post will ever replace a long phone conversation with an old friend, but I don’t see the harm in supplementing.
For me, social media is not a phenomenon or a novelty. I am not observing its development with a detached and objective eye. My belief is that within the next 10 years, the scope and scale of immersion in virtual worlds will inform humanity in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. Our online existence will eventually become every bit as real as our physical one. Like my parents and Facebook, maybe in 20 years, I will be the one gaping as my son bombards me with a science fiction smorgasbord of holographic-social-interactive interfaces and tries to explain how fundamental this baffling technology is to his social experience.
I remember finishing my math problems, while I waited for a large image to load, and begging my mother to get off the phone so I could check if anyone had replied to my thread about rumors of a Lord of the Rings movie. I was one of the first. When I see college kids intently swiping and skimming their iPads on public transport and receive emails from my little cousins linking me to their favorite YouTube videos, I do not believe I will be one of the last.
—Photo Coletivo Mambembe/Flickr