The Early Years
Before the Internet, computers did not matter to me. I have vague memories of DOS, but my curiosity about the big grey box in the corner of my parents’ room was not piqued until our installation of America Online in 1996.
My family inherited an old Compaq from my aunt the software programmer in the mid-90s. Mom and Dad kept a respectful distance from the machine, using it to send a few e-mails to close friends and family, while my brother and I became enthralled by its potential. By 2000, when my home was outfitted with a broadband connection, it was all my parents could do to keep me offline. The rest of the world was incorporating the Internet into daily life, too. Our cereal boxes came with links to online games, commercials started advertising their company’s websites, and Napster was taking over the music industry. The web and I were growing up together, but we were far from grown.
By 2004 I had already had a cellphone for four years and a computer in my house for ten. I wasn’t a Neo-level hacker by any means, but computers did not intimidate me the way they did my elders. I found myself able to easily navigate the new media constantly springing up around me.
High School 2.0
Then, at the ripe old age of 14, I was catapulted into a world far beyond my understanding. A few days before my freshman year of high school they strapped the building with wireless modems and handed out laptops. We were left to our own devices. (See what I did there?)
I’m still grappling with the implications of this decision on the part of my administrators. We became guinea pigs, the first generation of kids encouraged to multitask and integrate and never unplug. Less than ten years later, I can hardly make a moral judgment about the whole experiment. I can say that it only took about a week before those “in charge” were incapable of keeping up with our ability manipulate the devices and take control of our high school experience in a profound way. My fellow classmates and I had been adapting to and evolving with the same technology that was still mostly alien to our teachers and administrators (besides the IT department, which was headed by my friend’s dad and some upperclassmen).
Teachers were unable to stop students from constantly cheating, whether by exchanging information during class or plagiarizing at home. (It was not until later in my high school career that software and eventually freeware became available to weed out plagiarism.) As soon as a teacher would catch on to some suspicious behavior, we would change the behavior. In an effort to keeps students from “checking out” of the classroom, certain websites (Myspace, AIM.com, material deemed “inappropriate”) were blocked. We easily traversed firewalls through web-based circumventors and proxies. We were little hackers about it, and we felt pretty cool.
The Myspace Generation
Instant messaging had already been a prevalent part of my life since grade school, but a newer form of social media began to emerge in those crucial years. By 2005, Facebook was still mostly for college students, but Myspace had become the main online teen hangout, where we never had to go home. It had some negative social consequences, of course.
Some people chose to turn Myspace into a popularity contest, collecting as many friends as possible. (This put them in contact with strangers constantly, and while I never heard of anything bad coming of this practice among people in my school, I know in retrospect the dangers of 14 and 15 year old kids connecting with virtual strangers.) The introduction of “Top 8” tore close friends apart by providing a template for one’s close circle of friends. These friends, according to Myspace, had to be numbered 1-8 (and there could be no more than that until later when “Top 8” was expanded to include any multiple of 4). Since privacy was becoming a thing of the past, people’s reputations were destroyed with the quick exchange of data like bad pictures and damaging rumors. Cyber-bullying emerged.
But it wasn’t all bad. Myspace, for me, became a place to practice building an online identity, a skill that has come in handy in my adult life. In high school, where everyone is trying to “find” themselves, I started to build myself. I used Myspace to project whatever image of myself I wanted. It took a few tries to get it right, to be able to use the medium to promote a positive self-image, but I learned from some mistakes and it stuck. I use the same “social” skills of personal branding today through outlets like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
Myspace was also completely unique in that it allowed its users to manipulate its format, unlike Facebook and Twitter. I once heard someone say, “Everything I ever learned about HTML I learned through pimpin’ out my Myspace page.” I taught myself HTML codes to make my page look as unique as possible, changing the layout, privacy settings, font, colors, graphics and music to fit my mood. Those skills in HTML have since given me the ability to quickly adapt to other programs (like WordPress!).
Eventually, administrators decided the negatives outweighed the positives. By my senior year, they ripped the technology from our carpal-tunneled little hands in a show of dominance. We were the first and last class of the experiment that, in their eyes, had gone horribly wrong. As I wrote earlier, I have yet to decide whether it was a good or bad idea.
Early last week, CBS reported that Long Island students were using a Facebook group to cheat and I thought, Duh. Of course cheating is wrong, and of course people are always find ways to manipulate the technology at their disposal in order to do what they want and get what they want out of it. But what I learned in high school became crucial to my participation in the world today, a world that has become mostly online-based (as is evidenced by this class). I would not be as comfortable with technology had learning about it not been so crucial to my teenage life. And maybe a little cheating in high school can teach a bigger lesson about the exchange of information and the utilization of the Internet for personal gain.