I think it would be fair to call myself an Internet early adopter. At least of what we might now recognize as The Internet. I was 11 when Netscape Navigator 1.1 was released. I remember using it. I took an after school class on How To Internet. There have been a pretty decent number of cultural panics over what goes on over the net in the years since. Now it’s become so embedded into life in the developed world that the net and the hardware we use to access it have undergone extensive appliance-fication (which is a whole other, kind of paranoid, rant-y post).
That is to say, our computers and smartphones are off-the-shelf commercial products that nearly everyone owns and takes for granted. There’s probably no point in a modern How To Internet after-school class for middle school kids since we’ve spent the past 20 years polishing our interface to the Internet into something that can integrate completely into the lives of nearly everyone who’s grown up around it. Having said that, how are we still having to point out that The Internet is real life.
Back in the day one of the many cultural panics to sweep the land was over Internet Friends. The older demographic, frightened of the potential for anonymity, was adamant that Internet Friends are not Real Friends. Which is not to say there aren’t serious dangers involved in interactions over the net, but a non-insignificant number from my generation can surely disprove this by contradiction*.
So now that people like me are entering their 30s, how is the Realness of Internet communication still up for debate? We’re living in a world where it’s quite likely, especially if you have younger cousins like me, that you are in some way sending bits back and forth across TCP/IP with your grandmother. That’s a relationship based on a bedrock of making sure you’ve had enough to eat. Nothing is more real than cookies. Nothing.
Yet, a significant plurality of us still seem to think we occupy a world where those bits are like trees falling in a forest with nobody there to hear them. Or that all Internet communication ceases to have any effects as soon as we log off (as if that’s even possible in this day and age). Or maybe the Internet is a sandbox that resets every night while we sleep, or maybe at midnight UTC. I have no idea. I am genuinely at a complete loss as to how anyone could possibly think The Internet and Real Life are orthogonal planes of existence.
Not only is this idea fabulously wrong, it’s also undeniably toxic as can be seen here, here, here, here, and here. Content warning, particularly on that last one, there are some vile human beings creeping in the comments. I rarely jump into things that don’t directly involve me (see: introverted), but this is just so profoundly, phantasmagorically wrong that sometimes all I can do is say something to avoid the anger-induced dry heaves.
— Graham S Langer (@SpittheFifth) April 24, 2014
This is what passes for sound logic, apparently. I don’t understand it, so it must be a lie. Personal incredulity. And that lack of understanding seems to be inextricably linked to the bizarre popular notion that the Internet is Not Real and therefore cannot in any way impact the living, breathing, human being shielded by an LCD and a series of tubes that apparently scrub all the Realness off your TCP/IP packets.
Just for fun I Google Scholar-ed (Googled Scholar? What’s the proper grammar for Google products?) “cyberbully“. Even though my .edu IP address gives me access to a lot of the journal articles themselves, it doesn’t take more than scanning a few abstracts to get the idea that cyberbullying has a real effect on real peoples’ lives. Of course, as you’ve seen if you’ve subjected yourself to some of the less savory comment sections linked above, these folks have the goal posts on freaking casters, so without a case study on one particular diagnosis for one particular demographic they will apparently bleat on and on that at least in this one particular situation The Internet is NOT REAL.
I’d like to see someone come up with an actual argument for how The Internet filters out any potential harm from online communications. Of course, it’ll never happen…
* I've never had Internet Friends, really. I'm such a committed introvert that even having roamed the serpentine corridors of the net since 1995 I've used it primarily as a communication tool to interact with my Meat Space friends. More recently, though, I've developed remote, casual acquaintances through blogs and Twitter. While they may not be deep, they are certainly real by any measure.