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Message of the online medium: Transliteracy, the Global Village, and the Rise of Networked Individualism

A recent post on ReadWriteWeb discusses the general decline of the popularity of print media and the shift toward reading activity conducted primarily online. We are in the midst of transitioning to yet another form of media, and, like television before it, many of the concerns about this shift pertain to whether this medium is good or bad for “society.” I would argue that the imposition of a value structure in understanding the changes this shift has been accompanied by is insufficient.

While newspapers played a significant role in the formation of national consciousness (through an awareness of an increasingly shared readership), television and the music industry brought people together on the basis of shared cultural tastes that helped individuals to define themselves through identifying with specific niche interests. The Internet has helped to extend this process of individualization, and in the process has transformed the degree of agency people have in learning about the wider world, and most importantly, granting them a voice with which they might be part of that world.

The information we “digital natives” now come across on the Internet is increasingly social in nature. As opposed to the more “top-down” distribution of news and entertainment, the social web creates a heightened sense of shared readership by creating a more horizontal structure (think Digg, social networks, the blogosphere, etc;). As a result, we are given more agency in assessing the quality of information – leading to a new form of reading that involves scanning, filtering, aggregating and organizing. I would argue that this is not a “dumbing down” at all, but rather a qualitative shift in the way we learn through media. The question then becomes, who is in fact “dumber”- the person who reads the newspaper that lands on her doorstep and accepts it as the truth, or the person who reads bits and pieces from many news sources (including blogs) and is able to piece together a more complex perspective?

I think a more pertinent question to ask is the degree to which the Internet is affecting individual or collective identity- the concept of “networked individualism,” introduced by Boase and Wellman, suggests we are expanding our social networks (weak ties in particular) according to our individual interests and communities of membership, thus diversifying the kinds of information available to us. Simultaneously, through the Internet we are potentially approaching the fulfillment of McLuhan’s notion of “the global village,” and in the process forming a new sort of collective identity- the feeling that we are not only a part of, but increasingly connected to the world on a global scale.

First Forays into the Cybernetic Jungle (Circa 1998)

The introduction of the Internet in my life occurred at the pivotal juncture between childhood and adolescence. Moreover, for me this transition was made even more definitive by my family’s move from the countryside of upstate New York (where our backyard merged with a local farmer’s berry crops) to the nearby small college town of Clinton. The move was made in large part so that I could legally attend one of the better public schools in the area, having graduated from a tiny private Catholic elementary school in the same town. Not only was I the new kid, but I was a shy bookworm who still let her mother choose the clothes she owned. Overwhelmed, I found solace and freedom on the Internet, where it didn’t matter whom you knew or what you wore. Certainly, my online interactions were not always pleasant, but I at least had time to craft a witty response, unhindered by my tendency to blush furiously and lose the ability to speak in response to direct confrontations.
Like all adolescents, I sought an environment in which I could experiment and play. Many of these explorations were marked by transgressions of the “social laws” that typically guide young adolescent behavior, such as adult supervision, as well as more general social norms of aggression and sexual conduct. My first forays into the veritable human jungle of online chat rooms were my own secret dramas, the social risks of which were null (in the “real world,” anyway). Early on, I learned to avoid the America Online chatrooms, preferring the more anonymous, explorative diversity of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) . On AOL, I was frustratingly limited to a single username linked to my main e-mail inbox, meaning that anyone I conversed with in AOL channels could send me messages whenever I was online (unless, of course, I blocked them). With IRC, I was free to create a new name for myself each time I logged in, free to experiment without risk of exposing my true identity. Often, I attempted to pass for a college-aged woman with a name like “Wildfire,” and was delighted to find I could successfully banter intellectually with my faceless peers. Many of the more popular chatrooms felt a bit like entering a bar: one would immediately be asked “a/s/l? (age/sex/location?)”. To expose oneself as a young female would be a fatal flaw, indeed; it would inevitably result in a barrage of messages, the likes of which taught me a good deal about men, sex, and danger. Oftentimes, when I didn’t feel like dealing with the lecherous come-ons of lonely men, I would choose an androgynous handle. Over time, I developed the ability to discern between the aforementioned squalor and “quality” chatrooms, and came to spend a good deal of time competing with other users in word games monitored by a robot, or gossiping in fan-based chatrooms about the last episode of The X-Files.
“Jenneh,” as I was known to those I considered my closer (albeit still faceless) Internet friends, was the creator of a website composed mostly of favorite quotes, self-fashioned graphics and animations, and long lists of “favorites.” Anyone who was at all Internet-savvy during this time period (often younger users) had a personal webpage, usually obtained by creating an account with a free web-hosting provider such as AngelFire or Geocities. Usually, these pages were loaded with bad HTML, such as flashing text and continuous GIF animations. Creators of such sites linked to one another based on the relevancy of another site’s content (a direct recommendation), or through interest-based “webrings” located on the page (typically not affiliated with the site owner herself) . Such custom-made, egocentric webpages parallel today’s online social networking profiles, where everyone is an author without an editor. Today, such webpages/profiles are usually linked together through social networks increasingly based on offline ties. Certainly, the medium for self-expression on the Internet has evolved, but the desire for transgression, the search for connection, and the allure of anonymity and fantasy continue to be key factors in why people choose to engage with one another online in the way that they do.
My first sexual “encounter” occurred in the ethereal realm of cyberspace at the age of 13, where I also fell in love with a boy I would never end up meeting face-to-face. Though it would be another two years until my first offline sexual interaction, the sense of intimacy, excitement, awkwardness and joy felt no different. We’d gotten to know one another in the chatroom of a downloadable game called HoverCraft, where players met in the game’s chat rooms to challenge each other to virtual races in virtual hovercrafts. In this world, I was a renowned “expert” at the game, and so was he. After races, which we usually won, we would often linger on the course, represented by our little red hovercrafts, typing to each other into a void made somehow more visceral by our frequent games of hide-and-shoot. Though we chatted for hours each night for several months, when he finally called me on the phone our conversation was stilted. His voice sounded too feminine, too young. I realized that my attraction to him had hinged in large part on fantasy, fueled by the titillating unknown. Nevertheless, our bond was not entirely imagined; it was, most certainly, the result of what I have come to call “mind-melding,” when empathy, vulnerability, and love coalesce to allow for the kind of connection that transcends the petty hierarchies of appearance, social status, and even spatial proximity itself. That year, following a recent divorce from her cheating husband, my best friend’s mother moved to Germany to marry and live with a man she’d met over the Internet and gotten to know over a period of 10 months. As parents raised eyebrows and murmured their disdain for such “impractical,” “pathetic” behavior, I remember thinking to myself, “the world is certainly evolving faster than they can understand.” My friend’s mother remains happily married in Germany to this day.