Can You Keep Up? Online Spaces and the Need for a Digital Education

I was born in 1990, only a few years after the creation of the modern Internet. I am part of the generation dubbed “generation Y,” which Wikipedia describes as being “generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.” If I concentrate on my childhood memories, I can recall the fuzzy sounds of dial-up Internet and the generic female voice cheerfully state, “You’ve got mail.” As having grown up around computers and other forms of technology, I thought that I knew everything about the World Wide Web, and its use and purposes; I am constantly sending email, browsing through Facebook pages, and reading the New York Times (online, of course), that is, if I have time. But in my college class, “This Is Your Brain On the Internet,” I am time and time again amazed at my utter lack of understanding of the Internet and its current uses.

Notably, the Internet is so much more expansive that I ever thought possible. According to a 2011 CNN TechTalk article by Joshua Norman, there were 255 million websites in existence in December of 2010, and certainly this number has increased since then. By my calculations it would take you about 476 years to visit every single website if you spent one minute on every single site– more than several lifetimes. That’s a lot of websites in existence.

Not only am I oftentimes caught off guard (okay, more like knocked off my feet) by the number of websites available on the Internet but also by the sheer diversity of the topics on which you can find information. If you can imagine a topic, there probably exists a website specifically dedicated for that particular subject– and if there amazingly does not exist a website dedicated to that topic, you can easily create one. There are websites written for women, such as Jezebel, which markets itself as “celebrity, sex, and fashion for women, without airbrushing.” There are websites for music lovers, like Pandora and Playlist.com. There are cooking websites, online poker websites, restaurant reviewer websites, business websites, stock tracking websites, and more. There are even websites dedicated to helping people randomly navigate their way around the amazing bulk of data that is the Internet, like Stumble Upon. And of course there are websites dedicated to the less attractive, less ethical side of human nature. Pornography, violence, bullying– all are easily available online. But if you’re looking to avoid these particular sites, there are, of course, other websites, like the FBI’s webpage on Internet safety, that help you to do so.

 Websites are not just a place to find information but are also becoming sites of finding and maintaining interpersonal connections. During one “This is Your Brain on the Internet” class in March, we specifically focused on the wide variety of current Internet communities (websites specifically dedicated to fostering connections between individuals) that are open and available to almost everyone. Individuals are gathering together online to showcase and celebrate artistic works of everyday people through the website Deviant Art. There are Internet communities dedicated to creating your own rap beats, such as Let’s Beef. There are even online sites for connecting organic vegetable gardeners, such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

The number of people who belong to online communities is truly amazing. In 2009, Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, an online community that allows people to meet online via simulated creatures called avatars, issued a press release that claimed that its viewers had spent more than one billion hours in Second Life, and users spent an average of one-hundred minutes per visit, quite a bit of time in my opinion. Likewise, Facebook, the social networking has infiltrated most American homes, connecting people in the world through posts, statuses, and photos. According to an new report from Arbitron, Inc. and Edison Research, The Infinite Dial 2011: Navigating Digital Platforms, more than half of all Americans ages 12 and older are on Facebook.

The users of online communities are utilizing their collective membership to create social changes away from the computer. For example, in 2007, members of the environmental group, Greenpeace gathered together a momentous online collective campaign to successfully save a whale creatively named “Mr. Spashly Pants” from whaling boats. As described in Alexis Ohanian’s TED talk, “How to Make a Splash in Social Media,” it was only through the World Wide Web could so many people gather together for a common cause and realize Greenpeace’s goal of saving the whale. Likewise, after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Facebook groups quickly arose to gather financial support for the shaken citizens of the Land of the Rising Sun. Other examples of real life collective movements that have begun on the internet include artists gaining fame through posting their beats on the website Let’s Beef and the growth of the popularity of the pop star, Justin Bieber. 

There has been other, perhaps less directed, goals enacted offline than saving Mr. Splashy Pants from being harpooned. Indeed, the online subculture Anonymous, a brainchild of the image-sharing website 4Chan, has dedicated itself to fighting perceived social injustices and increasing free speech. The group is completely anonymous (hence their name), and they have used their collective power to shut down websites (sources of information and action for the public), organize marches, and push You Tube Videos to either to the Most Viewed or Least Liked status. According to Wikipedia, CNN posited that Anonymous is one of the three major successors to WikiLeaks, an online organization dedicated to publishing classified documents from governments all over the world.

Prior to discussing these online communities in my college class, I, a member of the supposedly technologically gifted generation, had no idea that many of these websites existed, including, but certainly limited to, 4Chan, Deviant Art, and Let’s Beef. However, given that Internet groups possess the extraordinary capacity to change offline life, and are beginning to do so more frequently, I believe that it should be a goal of educational institutions to teach students about the uses and expanses of the Internet as this digital tool continues to grow and develop. Teaching about the World Wide Web could be done by incorporating the Internet into more educational lessons (math on the internet?) and by including online historical movements as part of the study of 21st human history. To ignore the Internet, to view it as static and distant is misleading, and to ignore its potential is ignorance at its best. Overall, we must adapt to the changes that are occurring online, for these changes are affecting the ways in which we live our offline lives.