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Refresh? The Internet Hits Adolescence

Opinion | December 1, 2010

“Can I use the I-word?”  I would ask my parents at around 7:43 PM on Tuesday nights in fifth grade. I had to strategize in order to make sure that I would be successfully logged on to AOL in time for the commencement of the “Tuesday night at 8” chat room with all of my best friends. “Internet” had been reduced to a class of swear word in my household because of its inconvenient obstruction of our one phone line. If I wanted to IM my friends and check out all the latest offerings for American Girl dolls online, no one else in my family would be able to receive or make phone calls. Time had to be budgeted.

Back then, the Internet was a very compartmentalized part of life. It was slow and frustrating, and certainly not portable.  It took its place among other tasks; we still awaited catalogues from which to order our holiday presents, we still organized our schedules to catch television shows when they were scheduled to broadcast. The Internet was a finite resource—we had to negotiate with our families to determine how to best distribute its usage. This allocation of resources is no longer necessary; today we can scarcely escape the Internet. It has managed to permeate almost every aspect of life as we know it. My question now is: what’s next for the Internet? And what’s next for us?

The Internet revolutionized our access to information and minimized the detriment of distance on our ability to communicate. More and more processes have been adapted to web execution, and now we can cross things off our  to-do lists rather painlessly using our laptops or smart phones. I start to wonder, though, if the Internet’s capacity for innovation has reached a plateau. It seems like all the newest phenomena are variations on the old. We find new ways to chat with each other, new ways of organizing news sources, new ways to stream music. When the most popular viral video gets a little dull after a month or so, we remix it and create a song for sale on iTunes. I find myself alternating among all my favorite tabs, or even just habitually clicking the refresh button, only to be filled with a profound sense of boredom, even resentment. I beg YouTube to actually make me laugh again, for facebook to present with me a mere tidbit of interestingness. But I get nada. I remember being captivated by the expanding infinity of potential that the Internet introduced, now I’m just frustrated. I need a break.

The problem is, though, that we can’t take a break. Our culture has become so inextricably connected with the Internet that to sign off is to make yourself vulnerable. It’s so easy to stay informed that there’s absolutely no excuse not to stay current. This new standard to which we hold ourselves gives us no excuse to sign off. We find solace in believing that we are learning a lot in all of our hours perusing the web, but often we are so enmeshed in our clicking tangent that we have no idea what we’re even looking at anymore. Are we autonomously navigating when we’re online, or is the Internet leading us?

Facebook appears to be the most devilish of them all. No matter how disgusted we’ve become with ourselves for our dependence on this site, the truth remains: it’s no longer our choice to participate in Facebook, it’s our obligation. It’s necessary to our relevance in the social world, it makes us feel like we’re playing a part. They describe Facebook as a “social networking” site, but it seems to me that it’s become more like digital communal vomit. More and more users converge, without purpose, just to become part of the mob. We know not what we do on Facebook, yet we remain hypnotized by its blue and white, constantly updating, interface. Like it or not, we keep coming back to Facebook.  That’s because we’ve come to rely on the Internet to present us with intriguing material in a faster and more efficient way than we can find such material for ourselves.

Sites like Google and Facebook make the most money by collecting information about their users to sell to other parties to optimize marketing. They want to know what we’re clicking on the most often so that they can continue to lure us further and further in. They’re starting to know what attracts us better than we do. And they’d rather be manipulating us than striving to serve us better. Maybe the “I-word” really has become a curse.