For a long time, people have been saying that the internet would change everything - and it has. It really really has. In the last 20 years, connectivity between individuals has increased exponentially. The online forum for interaction has opened an infinite number of possibilities on an equally limitless number of stages: Online gaming, online shopping, online voting - heck, I just saw a billboard on the side of the road saying "report crime - online”. The internet is easily the single most influential network that humanity has ever seen. Our world is undergoing a radical grassroots shift, and we're making it up as we go.
From my perspective, I see that the worlds exploding online are challenging and redefining our concepts of the world we live in. The lines between the virtual world and the ‘real’ world are smudged and growing more faint. Our web -personas are blurring into our ‘real’ world personalities, and the events occurring in online universe are affecting life in the ‘real world’. In the midst of this technological supernova, I'm seeing elusive bits of something, subtle clues that point to a gradual shift in the formation of our identities.
I believe that part of the lure of online interaction is the ability to become whomever you want to be. Blanket anonymity can be incredibly empowering, and it is remarkably easy to construct an identity that can be as close or as far from 'reality' as you, the user, chooses. It is in the process of building a personality that we reveal to the world what is within us.
When we hide behind the anonymity that the internet affords us, we actually reveal who we really want to be and who we secretly are. When we are allowed to choose how we present ourselves, we end up revealing enormous amounts of information to anyone who sees us. Therein lies the beauty of online life; this is the allure of the anonymity found on the contoured landscape of the internet. The 'cloak of anonymity' isn't a cloak at all; it's a gateway into the soul.
When you have nothing to hide, when you live in a constant state of openness without the fear of reprisal, you live in freedom. You are empowered to be who you really are. Is this why the worlds opening up in cyberspace are being populated so quickly? Perhaps there is a sense of identity cultured in a multiplayer game. Perhaps the openness you can live with online cuts a sharp contrast to the lives full of charades and expectations and interpersonal walls that many of us slog through daily.
15 year old Brandon Crips from Ontario disappeared after his parents confiscated his XBOX 360 because of the inordinate amounts of time he spent playing Call of Duty 4 online. Perhaps the scariest thing about the story is that it was after the boy disappeared that the parents realized just how devastating their well-intentioned actions were for their teenage son. The scope of his online life was staggering: there were 200 contacts Brandon had gained through internet gameplay - and Brandon had been sharply removed from what had become his only social outlet. Whatever you think about online friendships, losing his entire network of peers all at once crushed Brandon, and he ran from his home never to return.
Obviously, I'm not close to the Brandon Crips situation at all, and I do not want to draw assumptions about either him or his family from a handful of articles scattered across the web. However, it is obvious that Brandon was snared by something in the online game, and whatever it was, it contributed to his eventual disappearance. You don't have to look very far to find other stories at least as sobering and provocative as this one. Dozens of families have been ripped apart because of addictions fostered online.
Whenever I'm reading articles like this one, I typically tune out at this point right here... Yah, yah, the internet's scary and terrible and addictive and - insert your adjective of choice here- , I get it. But honestly, that's not the point. While this situation does suggest certain things and a boy’s life has at best been put in jeopardy, I refuse to put myself in a position of judgement. I will not comment on whether or not blame should be laid at the feet of the online gaming machine.
It is only logical though, that if Brandon's identity had grown and shaped itself around his online game play, it becomes very easy to see just how tattered and shredded his concept of self would be without his game. While this situation is an anomaly, it serves as an exclamation mark on the growing situation of the blank canvas of online interaction as a central factor in the development of teen identity. What does this mean? Parts of me think that we won’t be able to see the full ramifications of this current trend until it plays itself out.
I do suspect that we’re going to see a ‘polarization’ in the agencies and organizations dealing with youth; I think that some agencies, unable to adjust or adapt their methods of reaching the growing number of web-centric youth, will fold. The agencies that do succeed in finding new ways of reaching this new generation will experience impressive growth.
Most of me, though, is not sure. I start getting confused when I try to figure out what’s going to happen. I delve deeper into this subject and it feels bottomless; there are so many factors that come to bear in this discussion.
Somebody smarter than me should do a study on this…