Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Does the Internet have a culture?

Duff: Does the Internet have a culture?

Sometimes it can be very hard to explain what I do here.

I like to describe this as an “Internet culture” column, but nobody really knows what that means. It sounds smart, so most people just look thoughtful and nod. But every now and then I get some troublemaker who calls me on it and asks me to explain.

I’ve developed a list of meaningless stock phrases to deploy at these times. Like advertising slogans; they sound cool as long as you don’t think about them too much.

My favorite one is, “I tell people what the Internet cares about.”

When you use this line on people over 40 they nod, look thoughtful and rub their chins as if they understand. But if you think about it, it’s a really stupid thing to say.

The Internet is a technology, and technology can’t care about anything. Imagine how you would react if a columnist said: “I tell people what television cares about.” Or, “I tell people what the telephone cares about.”

Your television may be an intimate part of your life, but it doesn’t actually care about anything. And your television can’t read the newspaper, although I hear Apple is working on it.

When I say, “I tell people what the Internet cares about,” I mean I tell readers what people who use the Internet care about, as if the class of people who use the Internet is fundamentally different from the people who don’t.

This used to be true, when the Internet was populated exclusively by scientists, educators and geeks. But now the Internet has spread to every home, and “Internet culture” could include anybody with a phone line and a keyboard.

So now that Internet access has become as common as the household blender, I have to ask, “Does the Internet really have a culture? And if so, is that culture really worth writing about?”

The truth is, I’m not just writing about Internet culture, I’m writing about the Internet Generation – the generation of people who grew up with the Internet as part of their daily lives. Not merely a function of age, the Internet Generation includes 8-year-olds sending text messages to their parents and 60-somethings who send e-mails from the nursing home.

It includes the professor posting assignments to the class message board and the office worker surfing YouTube on the clock. It includes teenagers on MySpace and professional bloggers like Emily Gould, writing in a medium that rewards gossip and erodes privacy.

In 20 years, the Internet will be so integrated into our lives it will barely be worth talking about, but we’re the first. Consider how baby boomers had their lives changed by television. When boomers look back on their childhoods they don’t just think about stick ball and playing jacks; they remember Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody and the Green Hornet.

They remember Apollo landings and the Kennedy assassination. Their lives were defined by what they saw on TV, and like it or not, subsequent generations will have their lives changed by what they do on the Internet.

Right now people are making friends, finding jobs, learning new careers and finding love on the Internet. Internet use has changed family structures and moving patterns all over the world. I trade e-mail every day with friends in Georgia, Florida, Boston and California. My guild buddies in Australia have become part of my daily life.

Contact with friends in other countries has destroyed prejudices and changed my politics. Correspondence with successful people has expanded my horizons and made me want more out of life.

So the next time someone asks me what I do here, I’ll still tell them I cover Internet culture, a culture that we’re all part of, ready or not.

MICHAEL DUFF writes an Internet culture column for The Avalanche-Journal, but no one actually knows what that means.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 14, 2008 at 13:32

Posted in Columns

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