One of my favorite things to do is sit down and talk about life with my parents and grandparents in the same room. I’m incredibly interested in the different perspectives we each bring to the table and I feel blessed to have an opportunity to hear firsthand accounts reaching all the way back to the 1950's. Intergenerational communication can be tough, though. One huge difference we face is the reality we each experience -- our differences in values and, really, just what we spend our time doing. My grandparents are both in their mid 60's, meaning that the Internet has only been commonly used for about a quarter of their lives. My parents, in their mid 40's, did not grow up using it, but were introduced somewhere around their late 20's-early 30's. Then there’s us. At 24-years-old I can still remember when we first got AOL dial-up in our home. I think I was 5 or 6 years old. E-mail and news sites, as well as informational places like Wikipedia was popularized in my early adolescence, and MySpace emerged as a social media giant the year I started high school. The Internet, in so many ways, is a defining characteristic of our generation, and the way it is perceived by us is often vastly different than the way it is perceived and used by many other groups of people.
Fast forward a few years to when smartphones moved from a luxury to a commonplace item. Access to the Internet -- whenever and wherever -- has changed the way it is used dramatically. Here is where the generations start to diverge in our perceptions. I want to preface the rest of this article by noting that this is the opinion of a single person (me), and I do not presume to speak for the immense sea of ideas represented by the term “Millennial” or any other generation. I do not believe that people are a certain way depending on when they were born, but I do believe that world events and societal demands push people in different directions as time progresses. My mission in this discussion is not to present anything as fact, but to make observations and hopefully spark conversation between people of different perspectives and age groups.
A sharp schism between the Millennial understanding and more traditional understandings of the Internet lies in its purpose. What are we using it for? Originally it seems like the Internet served as a sort of digital library. Websites were far more text-based in the beginning -- even the online gaming community was heavily text-based! But that’s not what it is now. The Internet is no longer a catalog that you go to when you need information and then leave until the next time. In every sense but the physical, the Internet is now an actual place.
I’m sure there were many eyebrows raised at my last statement, so let me explain my reasoning. More than ever Millennials and Gen Zs (and, admittedly, many others) are “hanging out” through their computer screens. Endless streams of Facebook messages, tweet exchanges and community document editing are now a part of many people’s everyday lives. Classes can meet online via video calling or Google docs, employers are turning to instant messaging and virtual conference rooms. Even our leisure time can easily be spent in bazillions of entertainment options thanks to the explosion of the online gaming community and film streaming.
I recently read a book called “Ready Player One," the premise of which took place in an evolved version of this Internet place. People had become so immersed in the Internet that they only got offline to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. They didn’t care about clothing or leaving their homes because everything essential to survival was delivered to their door. Their bodies were attached to workout machines that moved with them as they interacted with the virtual world so that they would still get their exercise. Even money only mattered online, the place where their school, work and leisure took place. Sounds crazy, right?
Maybe not as crazy as it sounds. While this, of course, is an extreme version of a contemporary phenomenon, many of these concepts are rooted in today’s very real society. You actually can live solely on the Internet. Food actually can be delivered to your door for every meal. You actually can find a job online, interview via Skype, complete paperwork remotely, work from your laptop, have your paycheck automatically deposited into your account, make friends remotely, hang out with them in online games and never ever ever leave your house again. This is what the Internet means to us. I’m not implying that most of us never leave our homes; I don’t believe that. What I do believe is that the Internet itself has changed the face of reality for those of us who came into adulthood using it for so many aspects of life. It’s redefining who we are and what we think about. We are actually starting to form identities based primarily on our Internet presence as opposed to our tangible presence. What we say and how we look online may one day be far more important than what we say and how we look in person.I’m not here to comment on the value of this change, just to point out that it exists. More and more I am beginning to realize just how significant this period of history is. Did the people living when the printing press was born realize how revolutionary that invention would be? How it would standardize languages and make literacy the norm? Is our experience with the Internet comparable? I’ll let you decide.