Coming of Age Online

My family had our first modem installed in 1996. I was six years old. I spent most of my web browsing time looking up pictures of the Spice Girls. They downloaded slowly, bit by bit. The connection was interrupted often, sometimes randomly, though usually by an incoming fax.

To grow up as the internet has come to greater and greater prominence is to feel a little like a pioneer. There are ubiquitous hallmarks of growing up in Western culture that most could relate to and remember regardless of age. Learning to read, to ride a bike. First kisses. Embarrassing moments. Going through on a dare.

But for my peers and I, and the generations after us, the list expands. First pornographic pop-up. First sign up to a social media account. First time you have a problem you can’t imagine getting offline help for, so you go to a forum.

Many social commentators have talked about this new internet thing with a mix of awe and fear. They wonder if the internet has changed our culture in any way – for better or worse – or if perhaps it instead merely reflects and magnifies what was already there. Cyberbullying, for instance, could be nastier than ordinary bullying in that it invades a tech user when they’re ‘safe’ at home. Yet, it is the same sorts of taunts as regular bullying, just extended into new media. Likewise, Facebook may reduce the meaningful contact we have with the people we know, yet perhaps most in-person conversations we have are on the superficial side anyway.

I’ve always found questions around what it is to be human in a Facebook-mediated world, and whether coming-of-age has grown to be a different experience in the wake of the iPhone, to be a little overwrought. A lot of these commentators seem to think there is an offline life and an online life. Offline life is referred to as ‘real life’ (as in, IRL), which leaves online as some combination of fake, trivial, virtual, pointless, theoretical.

The dichotomy is false. Servers exist in tangible space, even if they might be very far away from your house. The usernames online correspond with actual people (unless they’re spambots), even though you might not know who they are. My coming-of-age has involved navigating the normal spaces of home and school, as well an online space. I picture this online space as a kind of balcony. It is an extension of the world I see and touch. Though it doesn’t make it taller or wider, it still exists.

ijustineThese issues became relevant for reflection in reading I, Justine, a memoir by Justine Ezarik. Ezarik is ‘internet famous’. She has made a decent living out of making videos on YouTube and is an early-adopter of most social media platforms. Like me, she reflects on an adolescence mediated by the internet. After a boy at school was mean to her, she created her first website – a hate website about him. Although the site itself didn’t last long, the skills became crucial for her subsequent career. She asked for RAM for Christmas. She posed for her school photo with her iMac. She remembers when things happened not through the Gregorian calendar, but by remembering what video games she was playing at the time.

Even for someone who works with the internet career-wise, Ezarik’s experience of the internet has at times been one of complete pervasiveness. She has live-streamed her life directly to viewers around the world. The result was not always pretty – there have been pranks and general creepiness from her audience – but Ezarik never dwells on the bad.

In fact, it is a relief to read a narrative that simply accepts the reality of the internet. Even when Ezarik receives negative attention in response to her online work, she feels steady in what she is doing. The internet is a site of good things and bad things and she takes it as part of the melange of life. There’s no point in rueing the tech. It would be like going up to Prometheus and telling him, ‘oh, we aren’t really sure we wanted that fire after all.’

So unselfconsciously embedded in the online world is Ezarik that her memoir has actual emoji in it. Yes. Emoji. It also has screencaps from Twitter and Facebook. The colour-printed pages seem to be embarking on an experiment in converging this online/offline dichotomy. It doesn’t work. It has the effect of one of those books printed after a popular children’s film has been released with images of stills and a vague half-hearted re-enactment of the basic plot. In principle, I like the idea of putting online modes of communications in the traditionally offline form of a book just as I like the idea that a story can be told in multiple formats. The main problem is in the bones of execution.

I, Justine is wanting in terms of execution. While Ezarik has had a successful life, it does not lend itself well at this stage to the memoir form. There’s no sense of her vulnerability, or any real engagement with the underlying themes of her life. It also seems that she made poor use of potentially interesting experiences. For instance, she writes that she picked a username which was gender-neutral, specifically because it was so difficult to be a female user particularly in the earlier days of the internet. This issue, however, is only briefly and superficially mentioned, even though the ways in which inequalities are propagated (and perhaps overcome in some ways) online is a key issue in the way the internet mediates our lives.

Yet, it is what Ezarik does, rather than fails to do, that warrants the most disappointment. I, Justine includes a lot of irritating name-dropping. To me, it is made all the more irritating by the fact that I had never heard of these names before. While I feel that online life is real life, it doesn’t mean I recognise the names of those who are ‘internet famous’.

All the same, I felt like I had moments of connection with Ezarik. I built my first website when I was 10. I had read the Harry Potter books – they weren’t all out at that stage – and I wanted to connect with other fans and devise a way of waiting for the next book at an age where patience was a particularly trying virtue. I built a virtual Hogwarts on expage.com (now defunct). At the time, I also had a friend at school interested in websites, she had a Sailor Moon site, and we bonded over our shared interest in HTML coding. Like Ezarik, my online and offline lives converged. They’ve remained converged ever since.

Articulating this experience of convergence is an odd one because our language has been set up by an older generation which has assumed a dichotomy. I feel the need to unpick that some more. I want to find a way to talk about the internet where we aren’t constantly assessing its value in our collective lives, or seeing it as something detachable from ‘reality’. It is a lazy way of viewing tech. It lacks acceptance for what is. The internet is some mix of a tool for socialisation, hobbies, and career, as well as a nonliteral arena where human drama plays out.

I, Justine is not necessarily a good text, but it is the first text I have seen these ideas actually take shape. For this reason, I find it exciting.

Just like the advent of the written word, the printing press, and the Industrial Revolution, the internet is making profound changes to the way we live our lives. It is probably natural to react with some combination of fear and curiosity. But for those of us who grew up in this age, for whom life sans internet is unimaginable, life goes on. Second by second, pixel by pixel, life goes on.

 

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