While chatting some time ago with John about high school, I slipped into bitter old man mode for a bit, and railed against FaceSpace and MyBook because they make it too easy to “friend” people online who you might never be friends with in the real world. Surprisingly, this got me thinking about high school reunions. I submit to you that reunions are less relevant today because the kids all have their FaceSpace and MyBook and eleventy billion other social networks, so the graduating class has a much easier time staying informed and connected. The purpose of the high school reunion is to catch up with folks you might not have seen for the last five years. Reunions are an old-school social network, allowing you the opportunity to create new bonds, or find new connections, with people. That opportunity is now being satisfied by new tools. Now the only reason to go to a reunion is to see who got fat. Maybe that was always the reason, anyway. I don’t know.
Similarly, John reminisced about the underground newspaper I wrote in high school. I was ultimately expelled for this. I wonder if the kids today would take the time and effort to distribute an underground newspapers through a school. With the increase in easy communication, things like underground newspapers become less relevant. Instead, we’re more likely to see unsanctioned reactionary blogs and forums; not to mention an explosion of private direct communication through text messaging and email. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing; though I do think kids are missing out by being subversive only online. There’s a real thrill to producing and distributing a physical paper as your voice of complaint against the system! To sit in your room and do it all online removes some of the visceral reward.
There is, however, a subtle benefit to the explosion of world-wide communications available to kids today: their sense of community and belonging can easily be greatly expanded. When I was in high school, the population of the school was, for the most part, my community. I didn’t have a lot of friends at other schools; most of the kids in my neighborhood went to my school; and I didn’t participate in many activities that introduced me to too many new people.
In middle school I was a frequent participant on local BBSes, a few of which were connected upstream to various networks, so I had a glimpse of what it was like to communicate and interact with like-minded folks far away from me. So I grew up taking it for granted that there were people elsewhere in the world who shared my interests and passions, and that I could exchange ideas with them without too much effort. The kids today can easily find online communities that share their interests and passions, and I should hope that that helps alleviate some of the feelings of isolation and exclusion that were all too commonly associated with high school.
Of course, as we all integrate Internet technologies into our daily lives in more and more ways, the Internet stops being a thing we consciously use, and becomes merely a conduit for other activities. I can remember a time – not all that long ago – when “getting on the Internet” was a big deal: a task unto itself. It required configuring a SLIP or PPP connection, fiddling with WinSock settings, and a host of other things. Once online, there was always a purpose – a task – that directed my actions. Even the now-trivial act of downloading drivers was a big deal. It was a kind of freedom, access to a wealth of information that was in some ways intoxicating. Now we don’t think twice about the fact that our computers connect to some server somewhere to automatically fetch the latest driver. We don’t marvel at the staggering amount of information available to us.
Instead, we engage in flame wars, post bizarre photos (and more bizarre photos), post links to crazy sites, and generally take for granted the phenomenal conveniences now afforded to us. We don’t think twice about making a video call with someone across the globe. As comedian Louis CK says Everything’s amazing, but nobody’s happy.