Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Kids are Newbs

Let me start off by saying, I like a lot of John Cheese's stuff, and his latest piece for is no exception: "5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation."

But I'm not convinced of some of his conclusions.

We've slowly killed off most of the activities where kids get together with other kids and have fun (and in the process, learn how to interact).
 There is a pattern since the mid-Nineties undervaluing online interaction.  Ultimately, it seems to stem from a late twentieth century stereotype of the computer nerd, socially crippled, who interacts solely with dumb machines.  Like all stereotypes, the picture is incomplete.*

The point being, interacting with other people is interacting with people, even if a machine or a network serves as a medium.  When people interact, there are rules governing that interaction; the rules appear emergently, and are one of the foundations of culture.  Follow the rules, and one is rewarded with social success.  Violate the rules and reward is withheld.

Growing up is a process of acculturating the young.  Children learn the rules of their culture, usually in a controlled environment that cushions somewhat their failures and attempts to make clear the lessons to be learned.  Interacting with other children is a step in that process; children learn how to deal with one another, and carry those skills on to their adult lives.

That process still occurs in electronically-mediated environments, like Facebook, Twitter, online Foums, chat channels, Youtube comments sections, or X-Box live.  Children (and adults!) are logging on and interacting with each other.  In the process, they are learning the cultural rules.  Indeed, many such venues have adults who, by virtue of social status if not administrative powers, find themselves able to reinforce successful social interactions and negatively reinforce unsuccessful ones.  Online culture is still culture.

Indeed, there are dark corners of the internet where adult supervision is less-enforced, like /b/.  In places such as these, savvy children, adolescents and young adults get to create their own rules.  Remarkably, a social order of sorts does come into being.  It may not parallel mainstream culture, but a social order does exist.  In the process, children and adolescents do learn social skills and social savvy: much of my social interactions as an adolescent occurred in the local BBS culture.  In a sense, many of my social skills were learned in that environment.

Cheese is correct: kids need minimally supervised fora in which to interact, learn social skills, and have fun.  But the digital computing revolution hasn't necessarily killed that off.  Instead, a local process has simply become more globally distributed.

This last is important.  Networked communications and global trade have made the world smaller.  An American in the 21st century will need to be prepared to deal with people from outside their own local communities: people who may not speak (or type) English well, who have different cultural assumptions, who have a different body of intellectual and artistic references.  Interacting online gives children and teens a chance to learn to deal with a multicultural world.  And that's worth learning.

* In the mainframe and terminal era, and before widespread telecommuting, computer users would frequently occupy labs with one another.  As often occurs with people in close proximity, a culture formed, with it's own conventions rules, and slang.  Many of those cultural and conversational conventions carried over to electronically mediated interactions.  Over time, hackers generated their own culture:

Googlebombing for a cause:

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