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The Internet of Me

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on March 23, 2009 - 10:30am

I wonder if Peggy Orenstein ever got a letter (or several letters) from someone she was hoping to gracefully lose touch with. Or had a friend who called her parents, trying to find out where she moved after college. Maybe she wished for an “ignore” button. More likely, she grumbled to a friend and continued pursuing her adult identity.

Orenstein’s thoughtful essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the impact of online living on the creation of an adult identity has shown up on twitter a few times and (natch) on Facebook. For those of us who joined social networks as adults, the question of how to navigate the often-dreadful tweens, teens and twenties online seems huge and difficult.

However, it seems like adults are the only ones perplexed at the meta-level. For Orenstein’s six nieces headed off to college, asking what it’s like to be a teenager with a Facebook account is probably like asking how they plan to handle coming of age with cell phones- it’s just part of their lives. Navigating the waters to adulthood is nasty, tricky business, regardless of the tools at our disposal.

In my first archives class, the archivist teaching us showed a series of letters between two college friends who kept in touch for most of their lives after graduating from college. They had been prolific letter writers, but the letters trailed off and changed dramatically after they both acquired telephones. The long, detailed accounts of their lives disappeared, replaced by short infrequent notes that often said things like “per our conversation: yes” and nothing more. Did those women marvel at the impact of the telephone on their daughter’s lives? Did they worry that their children wouldn’t grow up the same way they did? Probably.

We all look at the next generation and the technology that they may use through the lens of our own experience. Those of us who grew up with computers look spoiled to our parents who had to suffer through typewriters (I promise, Mom, copying and pasting entries in my bibliography to make it alphabetical is not cheating). Is our writing less authentic? Did our papers hold less value? I had my own “get off my lawn” moment just the other day when a patron looking for articles waved off my explanation about citation with a single word: “EndNote” (how is that not cheating?)

How we develop our sense of self is beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say, there are countless things pushing at us, carving the “me” out from us. Technology is a tiny factor, to be sure, but is it a critical component in how we view ourselves? Facebook, GPS-enabled phones, the ability and cultural expectation to broadcast where you are and what you’re doing represent a tremendous shift in how many of us live our lives.

When I saw Orenstein’s essay, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a bit. Another boomer freaked out by Facebook, I thought, ho-hum. Yes, yes, kids today are very different, but is that anything new? Kids everyday since the beginning of time are different. A week later, however, I'm starting to think that she’s onto something.

The phone, the airplane, the television and the internet (to name a few) shaped how different generations came of age. They changed how everyone lived their lives and how the world worked in huge ways. The shift Orenstein is talking about is more personal, more internal. It’s not so much the technology itself (it’s still just the internet), but what the technology lets us talk about: ourselves.

Today, many of us are using the Internet of me, where everyone’s a broadcaster, content creator and mini celebrity, bound by the same social rules we hold public figures up to. Everything is documented and available for dissection, no matter how small a mistake, how off-hand a comment or positive the intention behind the content. 

Orenstein speculates about growing up online: 

Perhaps they will evolve through judicious deleting and updating of profile information, through the constant awareness of their public face. Maybe the Greek chorus of preschool buddies will be more anchor than albatross, giving them strength to take risks or to stick out tough times. It could be that my generation was the anomalous one, that Facebook marks a return to the time when people remained embedded in their communities for life, with connections that ran deep, peers who reined them in if they strayed too far from the norm, parents who expected them to live at home until marriage (adult children are already reclaiming their childhood rooms in droves). More likely, though, the very thing that attracts us oldsters to Facebook — the lure of auld lang syne — will be its undoing. Kids, who will inevitably want to drive a stake into the heart of former lives, may simply abandon the service (remember Friendster?) and find something new: something still unformed, yet to be invented — much like themselves.

Just how powerful is that “Greek chorus of preschool buddies” lurking online? Facebook, whether it ends up marking a cultural shift or collapsing with a stake through its heart, isn’t really the issue. What it represents is the rise of a generation who, while being told to just be themselves, have grown up projecting and creating themselves via profiles, status updates and self-portraits. It’s the change to a life with a public face.

In that context, screenshots of adolescent outbursts seem more dangerous than naysayers from seventh grade homeroom. Orenstein’s nieces will likely find that the albatross of Facebook is not their friends list, but themselves.