The writer’s father spent years on a project that helped create the internet. So why does he recoil at the thought of his daughter’s warm embrace of its innumerable virtues?
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Sometimes my father acts like he practically invented the internet.
In all fairness, he kind of did. He was a part of the Andrew Project, a partnership between IBM and Carnegie Mellon that began in 1982, and ultimately re-framed the internet from a curiosity into a viable means for mass communication. After that, he continued to work on internet standards for years developing something called MIME— that’s what lets anybody send pretty much anything over the same internet. Back in those days, future tech rock stars would try to poach my dad into working for them. One summer day, when I was 7 years old, I put Steve Jobs on hold on the kitchen phone when he called my father about some technical mumbo jumbo I still don’t care about.
I’m now 32, a millennial, and most of us grew up online. But even for my generation, I was an early adopter. My dad was thrilled when, in second grade, I had the opportunity to be one of the first kids in the world with an email pen pal across the globe. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t see the point of having a friend in Australia I would never meet.
And yet, over ten years later, I would meet my husband on OKCupid. So sometimes my dad is onto something with this internet stuff.
Sometimes, he really isn’t.
My 58-year-old father does not understand Instagram. Or Periscope. Or Snapchat. He doesn’t understand social-media culture. He recoiled at the thought of the Ice Bucket challenge, after I made my video, and challenged him to do the same. He ridiculed me publicly, going on about how “slacktivism” accomplishes nothing, that making dumb videos wasn’t going to make any difference to anybody. He didn’t quite get that going on about this on his Facebook wall counted as being public, but as people who exist as much online as in the physical world know, that’s kind of like having a family argument on the front lawn. I’m pretty sure he made a donation, anyway.
Last summer the news came out that thanks to money raised through the Ice Bucket challenge, students at Johns Hopkins made a huge breakthrough in ALS research. Without the social-media campaign, something my dad compared to watching your friends jump off a bridge while waiting in line behind them, it would never have happened. Slacktivism, and other forms of internet-only outreach, can work.
We live in a world where the internet is a fundamental part not only of our experiences, but of the way we experience. Unlike the generation that created the internet, millennials don’t see “IRL” and “online” as being separate. Since Plato’s time, humans have understood we build relationships with people in our proximity. But as more of us work, learn, and relax online, the nature of that proximity has changed. Millennials don’t go to a local bar and befriend people who work in the same neighborhood, they build relationships on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope, and Reddit easily take the place of a dive bar by the train station. And although there are real and serious dangers that exist online, they are different from the threats of meeting new people in physical places. It’s harder for somebody from Twitter to stab you in an alley than it is for a disgruntled bar patron. Not impossible, but harder. While it was my mother who taught me to be cautious of strangers as I aged into a woman, my father’s concerns were more about the lurkers in early AOL chatrooms. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” he joked.
Dad knew first hand how warped a perception of a person could be from the reality. When I was in fifth grade, he hired an assistant who came to work at our house a few days a week. The kid was 16, and my father loved that my sisters and I all rapidly developed crushes on this new addition to our home life. It wasn’t until I was in college I learned that he’d recruited his assistant after receiving a plea for help from him—at 16, the new laws protecting minors from pornography online meant he no longer had access to the gallery of nude coeds he curated on his own site. I had a crush on a teenage porn mogul, and my father thought it was harmless and adorable. After all, the internet wasn’t the same as real life. A teenage prodigy who convinces the older girls in their dorms to pose for the nearly unknown web is not the same person blushing and averting their eyes from the three preteen girls stalking him back and forth across the house. That’s the way the internet functioned in 1994. But it’s not the way the internet functions now.
Now, thanks to social media, we live online full time. We communicate by text as seamlessly as we do in person. We see our connectivity as a way to engage full time with people “in real life” thought they might be far flung. IRL friends are connected online in a way we only used to be connected if we were roommates or neighbors. It’s not uncommon for people living on opposite ends of the same city to go months without finding an opportunity to meet in person, but they still constantly share video clips and personal stories in google hangouts while they work, wherever that might be.
This doesn’t mean physical gatherings don’t happen, but it lends them more drama and excitement. Millennials travel nearly 50 percent more than generations that came before. An increasing number of millennials talk of “meeting” new friends online, people they do go with to bars and concerts and parties, or cross oceans to sleep on an “online” friend’s couch. A growing number of married couples met in digital space, just as my husband and I did. When people ask us where we met we can say, “OkCupid in ’03,” and our peers understand it as a place, with an atmosphere and demographic, which might bring to mind other people we know in common based on that context. When I told to my father about my first internet boyfriend, a 14-year-old three towns away I met through IRC in 1997, my father was dismissive at best. And while it was true that boy and I only met once or twice in person, our “romance” went on for more than four years. This, from a man who’s dream it was to work remotely full time.
For him, the internet was for work. There were silly things on there as well, just as there’s always that one guy at the office with a desk covered in toys. Usually my father at his places of employment. But just as you didn’t seek out romantic entanglements or lasting friendships at work, you didn’t use the web for your emotional and social needs. For him, as useful as it was, the internet was an antisocial enterprise.
What the first internet generation is starting to figure out is millennials are not nearly as lazy or apathetic as we might appear. Staring at your phone is interacting with other people. It is accomplishing essential tasks. It is engaging with the world around you in a meaningful way.
My dad is the first guy to check Snopes and let you know if you’re spreading a hoax. But that makes it all the more frustrating that he doesn’t understand how social media, rapidly becoming synonymous with “the internet,” works. He understands the nuts and bolts, the code and cables, but he doesn’t understand why I use it the way I do.
When I see my dad in person, we have a great time. We talk politics and I tweet it. We eat too much food and I Instagram it. He plays with his grandkids and I post pictures on Facebook. We play Bananagrams and I share my wins on Snapchat.
When he was building the bones of what would one day be the internet we know, he wanted to make sure the code was democratic enough to evolve, so someday he could get pictures of his grandkids emailed to him. He told his peers 30 years ago, “Someday we’d be able to email each other smells.” People thought he was joking. Six years ago I emailed him ultrasound pictures of his first grandkids. Now you can download and 3D print a prosthetic hand at home. There are perfume printers in tests.
This isn’t the future he envisioned 25 years ago—it’s better. I feel bad that he hasn’t found a way to live in it the way I do, with one foot online and one foot off, balanced and stable. Twenty odd years after he was disappointed that I didn’t want a pen pal in Australia, I’m disappointed he doesn’t get on Periscope and share a walk through the woods where he lives, nearly off the grid, telecommuting full time. He doesn’t understand that through social media I can be with him, though I might physically be sitting with my nose pointed toward my phone in a playground, 500 miles away.
I remember a world before the web was a place, but that world doesn’t exist anymore. Even “off the grid,” we document our experiences, to contribute to a global body of knowledge that enriches all of us. We are made aware of the other people in the world as much by their absence as their availability. We can believe better of them because as carefully as someone cultivates an online persona, their true self comes through. The public nature of our social existence carries less pretense than the curated, not-real-space existence of the pre-social media web.
We have been constructing versions of ourselves to project to the public since the dawn of vanity. Social media has not invented the external persona, it has changed the way we choose to express one. The #BlackLivesMatter tag is not unlike my father’s black arm band on the anniversary of the Kent State massacre. It’s public self identification, only the public is larger now than eyes on the street of our local neighborhoods. Political movements are organized and mobilized through social media, and taken to the streets in real life.
Older generations still exist in that pre-internet age world. They feel interaction online is less meaningful than interactions where you can reach out and touch somebody. But there are people solving these problems. Soon, virtual reality technology will allow you to touch people across distances, let you transmit taste and smell so you can watch your grandmother cook dinner and smell the soup as it boils across town, or across an ocean.
From the days of the Andrew Project, the internet has been about connecting with other people. Millennials are the first pioneers of an interconnected wilderness where we live. It’s sometimes lawless and violent, and it’s sometimes confusing and dangerous, but we can adapt to it and with fundamentally human optimism, force it to adapt to us. Social media is erasing the boundaries of physical space, allowing people to connect across the globe instantaneously. For every troll on a mommy blog, there’s a Brother Orange creating meaningful human connections across the globe.
It’s a brave new world, even without its creators in it.
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