I think at how history will look back on us a lot, and the only thing I'm sure of is that my generation is the internet generation, and somehow that feels more world-changing and significant than the roaring 20's, or the hippie 60's. It's not just a new way to spend time, or a place where you can look at videos of dogs riding skateboards (although it is that too and we should never forget the contribution of animals doing human things on YouTube.) It's the expansion of the mind in a greater context. A dissenting opinion is a few clicks away. But it also so much bigger with the realization, like the top of your skull opening, that the world is so goddamn full of so many people. It is the first glimpse at the vastness and variety of the human experience, and we are growing up with that with every kilobyte.
That's what the internet is to me. It's the access into the greater world, into the subcultures that were once kept in secret club houses, and into the subsubcultures that divide them. It is the spread of ideas - the good, enlightening ones and the awful, horrific ones that make you lose hope in the human spirit. But it's human all the same, we just take a shot of the terrible and chase it with the good.
I know it's been a defining part of my life. I feel pretty privileged to be able to be part of the generation that can be the first to say that. I came upon the internet at the unusually young age of 9 -- 1996, just as the internet blew that dot com bubble out of a soapy plastic hoop.
The very first webpage I visited on that 56k connection, other than the Yahoo! home page was called Kidpub. It was, fittingly enough, a site where kids wrote short stories and submitted them for all to share. If you go there today, it's been updated with the modern web design standards: Gradients, sans serif fonts, minimalist influences. Clearly a template. This, I think, was a recent development. For the longest time, it was in its painful original form - a stark white background, blinking text, and a multicolored Comic Sans logo. It's nice to see the thing is still around either way.
Of course, I never actually sent a story to that site. Writing had not yet occured to me as something that should be shared. It was my personal time killer. I might as well send video tapes of me playing with my Ninja Turtle toys. What I did on the site was participate on their version of the "message board", which was not designed for chatting, but was used as one anyway. It was simply a series of unmoderated messages that people added to a site that would refresh every minute or so. The only thing I remember was that it was full of 13 year olds trying to hook up with each other.
That was my first experience with the blind contact of the web. From there, it evolved. I moved on to MUDs, to chatrooms, to Inside the Web messageboards, to the modern PHP bulletin board. I moved the way people move from town to town. I settled down, got to know the locals, gained some prominence and regularity until something came a long. Until a tornado swept the town away or everyone else moved away first. I made friends. For a long time, most of the people I talked to online were people I had never met in person, seeing as how none of the other 9 year olds I knew had the internet. It was the new version of pen pals, and I thought it was completely normal and standard operating procedure.
But here's why I think the internet is one of the defining features of my life, at the risk of being unbearably arrogant: It made me smart. I was pretty good in school, I learned to read before most of the other kids, but I don't think I would have reached the level I am at today without the internet. It gave me the appreciation for knowledge and the will to seek it out.
See, message boards were like little ecological communities, full of different kinds of personalities, intricate self-contained parts of a whole, seeing who excels, who doesn't. They're worthy of anthropological or sociological study. Who becomes the popular ones, who are the village idiots. The experience that changed me was the interaction with people who were smart and -- get this -- liked it. Being smart, to them, was not something other kids would call you a nerd for or something that you tried to downplay. It was bright, shining, unapologetic pride. They were always looking to understand more, it was my first encounter with learning as hunger.
Could it be that liking learning was cool? As I talked to them and got to know them, I began to follow their example. I began to regard knowledge as the ultimate goal, for the first time in my life, at a very young age.
The smartest ones were always the funniest ones, always the ones that won the arguments, always the ones that had something to say. The internet showed me that there people out there that lead seemingly ideal lives, with the perfect personality, equal parts humility, intelligence, wit and chivalry. It's a romanticization and probably not true, but it gave me something to aim for when I thought what I wanted to be was a basketball player.
My little cousin, something like 12 or 13, has been on the internet for a couple of years now. I like to think that she's been going through the same feelings and experiences. I like to think that she's interacting with all the right people, kids her age or a little bit older, learning from them. Maybe when someone says something mean to her, she feels bad for a couple of days until she learns to disregard the words of faceless idiots. Maybe she chats with a kid in Iowa about politics for the first time and begins to educate herself through Google to look like she knows something.
The internet also broadened my scope about how society works. There are so many crazy people on the internet, your first reaction is to think that maybe this world is entirely insane. If you don't agree with this assessment, you have not seen what the internet has to offer. What could possess someone to create and spread shock sites and viral videos like Goatse or 2 Girls 1 Cup? Why do sites like Rotten exist with a vast, dedicated following? Why are furry communities an internet phenomenon? Even ignoring the dark, seedy corners of the internet, participate in any public forum long enough and you will come across some opinions or messages that are so revoltingly dumb/hateful/ignorant that you will want to rage.
The first reaction is that maybe we as a society are too far gone. Perhaps it is a side effect of the atomic bomb, or Mount Pinotubo, or all the pollution since the Industrial Revolution is mutating our brains. Maybe we were never sane, always this nebulous mass of idiocy and inanity, and the internet is the first time we get to see how pervasive it is. Before now, in the times of TV or Radio or Printing Press, generally the best rose to the top of the pile. The internet puts the pile in your living room.
But there's another way to look at it, and it's maybe we are never sane. Because somewhere in this vast online world, someone has read your reply about politics and thinks you are an idiot or worse. The unsettling spectre of relativity seeps in - maybe we are all insane, and therefore, no one is insane. Because it's just a matter of perspective, so even the guy that likes to dress up as a purple fox and have sex in hotel rooms and then blog about it is just as sane as you, who eats expensive sandwiches and likes to listen to Leonard Cohen. It invalidates the very structures that make us feel good about ourselves, and bad about others.
The internet taught me that there is a subculture to everything, and it runs deep. Everything will have its customs, its terminology, its major figures, its historical turning points and its prospective future. Every TV show, every hobby, every pop artifact has a culture surrounding it. It starts out harmlessly enough. There are people who really like knives. Okay, fine. Groups dedicated to the mythology of Jim Henson's Muppets. I guess I can see that. Forums surrounding the long defunct Babysitter's Club series of books. Weird. Web rings on steampunk self mutilation. Whoa, what? Obsessive blog communities about exploding dogs. What doesn't have a following?
What this understanding does to you is that it makes you give everything the benefit of the doubt. For example, you might think that there is nothing more to, say, professional wrestling than men throwing other men, and occasionally hugging them really hard for extended periods of time. But there is a culture and a history surrounding everything - there are standards, classics, tragedies and moments that changed lives. There's a bloody Steve Austin passing out to former hero Bret Hart in 1996, and what that story meant to people, and how that story changed lives and industries. There are stories that come from that story, and how even on the face of it, it's choreographed fighting, but to the culture surrounding it, it's mythic.
Today, the internet for mainstream youth is a form of defining oneself. How does our blog best represent who we are as people? What screen names best describes my personality and life at this moment? (Protip: People who use their real name usually do so because they cant think of anything else to properly represent/define them) What MySpace background best evokes the emotions that I so often experience? Today, the web causes us to look at ourselves and how we can convey that through ethernet cables.
That's what we have to offer as the first internet generation. It's the broad scope of how people are. Every day, I learn something new, from a news article on Digg, from a blog post by the eccentric Warren Ellis, from random Wikipedia links or from dense debates on internet forums. If people are only using it as a tool for researching papers and contacting people they already know, they are missing out on so much of the potential world. It's scary, but it's good to know it's out there.