Objectively, I can appreciate the many advantages, pleasures, and conveniences of our digitalized lives. My generation has, at its phone flipping fingertips, access to the largest database ever known to mankind. For this, I am often grateful. I cannot imagine my life without the ability to instantaneously “google” (*verb*) any question that pops into my head or arises from a conversation. I cannot imagine my life without the ability to condescendingly fact-check and correct a person mid-conversation without even having to leave the table. I cannot imagine what it would be like to feel disconnected from my family all over the world. I cannot imagine what it would be like to not see pictures of my baby nephew, or of my cousin’s wedding, or of my uncle’s edited, filtered, and ultimately “instagrammed” dinner. Simply put, I cannot imagine my life without the Internet. But sometimes I wish I could.
My first real connection with the Internet stemmed from my brother’s love of gaming. In 2002, at the ripe age of 7, I wandered into the mysterious realm of Runescape with a sword-swinging older brother (and idol) by my side. At this time, Runescape was just beginning to garner worldwide interest and the user base was rapidly increasing. My experience began on the docks fishing for lobsters (a time-consuming but simple process) while my brother took breaks for snacks and made vague promises about compensation. For hours I would stare at the screen, clicking on the water and then on the lobster cage. Not exactly most people’s definition of fun, but there was something thrilling about it. Text bubbles appeared over the people around me as they traded and bargained and socialized and I had a vague concept that these people were from all over the world. Sitting in my small home in the North of England, I felt universally connected to another world, perhaps a more adult world, in which no one had to know I was a “noob” at both gaming and life.
But it soon became clear that my youth (“noob status”) would make itself known online. Not only did my brother effectively gain free fishing labor from me, but online strangers also recognized and acted upon by naivety. I vividly remember having a conversation with another user during which he complimented me on my rune armor. Having worked very hard to buy it, I found myself blushing behind the screen. I was subsequently talked into letting him “try it on” in exchange for a single coin. Once the trade was complete, his character disappeared signaling that he had gone offline (and taken my beautiful rune armor with him). I cried for hours, mourning my loss and cursing the cruel world of Runescape. My parents couldn’t believe that someone could be so mean. My brother laughed.
In many ways this experience (and unfortunately/embarrassingly similar ones thereafter) shaped how I feel about the Internet today. While I now consider myself computer literate, I still feel vulnerable to scams. So much of my information is stored online and my online presence is only growing by the day. While I readily sign up and provide information for a growing number of apps, my fundamental lack of Internet IQ bothers me constantly. Do I really know how safe my banking information is? Can I trust this website to keep my personal information private? These are questions to which I have to assume answers without really having the time, motivation, or knowledge to make educated decisions. Will I ever not be a noob?
Alas, I’ve missed a very important transition from my online gaming days to my online social days. Upon moving to Canada, I entered the world of “MSN messenger”. My time spent on Runescape waned and my time spent awkwardly messaging friends after-school began. I mean, how much did 10-year-old-me have to inform my classmates only a few hours after seeing them? “The ride home was super smooth today and my mum’s cheese and crackers were on point”. Yet, it seemed so important at the time: it made the cool kids “cool”, earned shier people brownie points, and spurred on young love. So even though it seemed pointless, it served as a greater social function in the school and I had no choice but to make some time for it.
This designated online “social” time grew with the emergence of Facebook. I made an account at the age of 12, which meant I had to lie about my age (and it’s been a struggle changing my birthday ever since). Facebook has recorded my life since then, leaving me susceptible to revisited embarrassing 2007 Facebook statuses but also providing a living, breathing, multimedia diary of sorts. I worry about my account crashing because so much of my life is stored on there. I also worry about my life being permanently stored on Facebook and how much of it could come back to haunt me.
All in all, this makes molding my Facebook “presence” particularly difficult. Of course, Facebook is a social tool used to impress other people with just how amazing the lives of its users are. This is, in itself, a source of stress, especially with the rise of new social media tools such as Instagram and Twitter. “Its Thursday today…I should really Instagram a throwback. I haven’t tweeted in days…I should do something funny before people unfollow me. Sophomore year has nearly started and I still haven’t uploaded any photos from Freshman year! Wow, there are so many photos that never made it to Facebook. I should really dedicate a month to getting caught up on the last three years.” The thought process is ridiculous, yet so, so real. It is a constant nag, both internal and external, with friends and family wanting you to upload photos from this event, while you also try and perfectly time your profile picture upload so it gets the maximum amount of likes (while still living life and being a human being of course). If this isn’t enough to worry about, our generation also has to be concerned about maintaining a professional image on our online accounts (or having really amazing privacy settings). Balancing the two can be extremely difficult and leads to even more questions: “Should I upload this funny photo of me chugging beer in London? Everyone would think that’s funny. But would that look bad to a future employer?” The struggle is real.
Yes, it is true that the Internet has made some things much easier. But it is also true that the Internet leaves many people vulnerable to deception and fraud (as illustrated by my Runescape incident). While it is true that this mirrors “offline” life, I would argue that the Internet has the ability to more explicitly target socio-economically challenged communities, youth (noobs), and the elderly. Furthermore, the Internet has made social life more complicated than ever before and, in doing so, has meant that the “online” population has to spend an ever-increasing amount of time, effort, and thought on their image. Sometimes I try and imagine my life without these stresses but then I realize I haven’t refreshed my email in 30 minutes and I probably have to do that ASAP.
*Side Note: I later had my Runescape character hacked and stolen. The new user went on to make my character one of the top 25 foresters in the world. Wut.*