One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.
One of the most unusual things about Internet-based businesses is that few of them try very hard to make money. Of course, with a very few exceptions (such as Wikipedia) making money is certainly in the business plan, or there wouldn’t be all that venture capital floating around, but in general the approach has been to come up with a good product or service first, and only look for ways to make it profitable after it’s acquired a steady clientele. Hugely important and successful ventures like Google, YouTube and Facebook all started out operating at a significant loss. This pattern continues today: it’s already hard to imagine the Internet without Twitter, but so far that service isn’t earning its makers much money (though you can be sure they’re looking for ways to do that.)
Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers.
Just a short while ago, concern with online predators was so dominant that anyone trying to draw attention to the problem of cyberbullying felt like a voice in the wilderness. In the last few years, though, new research has not only provided a more realistic picture of the risks of online sexual solicitation; but has also raised awareness on the severity of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, all of the media attention that is now focused on cyberbullying runs the risk of making public perceptions on this issue as narrow and inaccurate as they were towards online predation.
Ever since Cronus the Titan tried to swallow his son Zeus, parents have feared being supplanted by their children. (It didn’t take.) But it’s only in the last few generations, as the rate of technological progress has accelerated, that children have grown up in a world significantly different from the one their parents knew, and it’s only very recently that parents have seen their surpass them while they were still in the single digits. Thanks to digital media, the world is changing so rapidly today – consider that five years ago there was no Twitter, ten years ago no Facebook and fifteen years ago no Google – that even those of us who spent our childhoods programming our parents’ VCRs can feel left behind.
Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article “Small Change” has set the blogosphere buzzing with its strongly stated argument that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter will not usher in a new age of social activism, as some digital evangelists have proposed, but that they and the relationships they foster are actually detrimental to real social change. As Gladwell puts it, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”
It’s been a busy few months for Facebook: a government investigation, another in a seemingly endless series of changes to the site’s privacy controls, a New Yorker profile of its famously publicity-shy founder and the upcoming release of The Social Network, a thoroughly unauthorized account of its early days. With all of the publicity and controversy around Facebook – not to mention its still-growing popularity – it’s almost impossible to remember what online life was like before it. In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that those who began using the Internet after the introduction of Facebook and its competitors do so in a way that is fundamentally different from older users.
New York’s Gramercy Park is a curious institution: two acres of fenced-in greenspace that is accessible only to those who own the houses surrounding the park. (Non-residents must either stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel or join the Players Club or National Arts Club if they want to visit, and each of these institutions has a limited number of park keys.) Private parks like it are the exception, of course, not the rule: since the days of Frederick Law Olmsted, who campaigned for and designed city parks across North America (Central Park, in New York, and Montreal’s Mount Royal Park among them) we have come to expect most of our recreational spaces to be public. Cities and neighbourhoods are routinely rated on both the quantity and quality of their parks, and any suggestion that these services should be cut back always receives violent reactions from taxpayers; playgrounds, too, are public by default.
When Marlene Kane’s sixteen-year-old son Andrew asked her to drive him to the nearby town of Midland last December, she was surprised to hear that he wanted to meet with someone he had met while playing the online game World of Warcraft – and even more surprised to learn that the person he was meeting was a 42-year-old mother of four from Texas. Experts on sexual solicitation of youth online were less shocked however. In fact, for them the only surprising thing was Lauri Price’s sex. Everything else about the scenario – how they made contact, Price’s openness about her age, Andrew’s willingness to meet her, and the lack of deception about her intentions – all fit the evolving picture of how youth are sexually exploited online.