Here’s what I learned from reading dozens of essays about the internet
This past graduation season, Mozilla’s Pocket teamed up with Her Campus for The Future Connection, a writing contest for college students to reflect on what it’s like to come of age in a “hyper-online and always-connected world.” While this isn’t a new concept for them — this generation, including our essay contest winner, Esther Omole, were born into a digital society — the postponement and outright cancelation of in-person graduations and prom-nights because of COVID-19, made the last truly “offline” rites of passage to adulthood into virtual events.
As both a mom and a leader in tech, I think about the impact of growing up with technology a lot — especially during the last 19 months. What would social distancing as a result of COVID-19 look like without the internet? Earlier this year, when I helped my mom learn to video-call so that she, too, could attend the virtual festivities of graduation season, I was so thankful for the connection of the internet. But I still wonder, have the oddly connective-yet-destructive powers of the internet created a larger void for the younger generations that never lived in a world free of shiny screens?
That same complicated feeling of ‘loss’ around the increasing dependence of being online for everything I’ve felt this year, was mirrored time and time again in the essays from young people I read. Here are my main takeaways from this experience:
They are the IoT Generation
The more conversations I have had with folks at the start of their career, the more nostalgic it makes me feel that the way I think about the ‘Internet of Things’ is outdated: Digital life and the opportunities and challenges it represents are not something young people are actively exploring. Being online is equivalent to breathing oxygen for them and has been a constant since day-one.
It’s a different perspective and even as a CMO who frequently speaks on the ‘Internet of Things,’ that humility to move forward and steward our mission on to a new and increasingly brilliant generation is something that I need to continually remind myself of. Yes, my generation did some great shit, but it’s important for me to take a step back and recognize that even after so much change, the internet remains this incredibly innovative space.
Speaking In Meme
Many of us feel uncomfortable or even ‘naked’ without our mobile device in hand. While society tells us that this sensation is unhealthy, one of the most provocative essays I read exuded absolute pride in the uncanny attachment their generation has with consumer technology.
My kids are 14 and 11. They were delivered right into the internet. It completely dominates their culture, and even if they’re not online all the time, so much of how they interact with each other and how their generation relates to each other is found in the ‘Internet of Things’. They literally speak in memes – a language that’s sometimes hard for me to understand. It’s hard to blame them when the most up-to-date news information is online, the majority of today’s entertainment is consumed via Twitter threads and sub-Reddits, and even the food we eat is influenced by TikTok recipes and Instagram-foodies. So instead of questioning the morality of today’s hyper-online culture, the better question to ask is how society can expect this generation to navigate life without carrying their phones around like a second-limb? It’s the reality they were born into.
“God, it’s brutal out here!”
In the wise words of pop-princess, Olivia Rodrigo– the internet can be a pretty harsh place. The constant cycle of performance and consumption over and again on a small, bright screen filled with hundreds of others doing the exact same thing can be pretty numbing. At the same time, the internet is a gift, connecting us intimately with friends, distant family members, and even neighborly strangers that we never would have known of otherwise. This turbulent duality is a consequence of living in an always-connected world.
There is a community of other like-minded people for everyone on the internet. This internet culture of support and constructive criticism in micro-communities has helped young people redefine what success and happiness means to them, effectively breaking the molds and cultural norms that were passed on to them from hometowns, families, and traditions. However, even though our favorite people are a text, DM or Slack away – you’re never truly alone online — it’s still possible to feel lonely and isolated.
Speaking with Esther, who confirmed this sentiment, advised the next generation growing up in the digital age to “reclaim the way that they consume things on the Internet, knowing that the internet does mirror and perpetuate a lot of harmful images and issues that we see in society.” She also advises these next digital natives to “use their time on the Internet in a way that’s also uplifting. I’ve been seeing a lot of anti-anxiety infographics on Instagram that are really comforting.”
These takeaways certainly aren’t new and my interpretation of these essays isn’t going to shatter the world. But, maybe as you read through the winning contest essay, appropriately titled, ‘Reflection: Embracing My Undulating Image’, you’ll be caught in a wave of nostalgia. You might see yourself in these young people and remember what it was like to teeter on the cusp of adulthood. Technology has changed what growing up looks like, but it hasn’t made and can’t make the process of finding yourself online easier.