Coming of age in the 21st century, my adolescent years were defined by experiences and interactions with the online communities I joined. And there’s been no denying the power that the Internet and technology have had while I attended high school, college, and even graduate school.
I got my Facebook account in the summer of 2004, six months after the social networking site launched, and a few months before starting my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I did not know at the time that the community I formed on Facebook would be so influential on all aspects of my college career—in academics, in my social life, and in my development into an adult. Online communities were a chance to grow out of my shell, test the waters of my new university, and see how far I would go to make new friends and fit in.
But I soon realized that the problem with relying on technology to form social identities is that these online communities do not always have a corresponding offline presence. For all the power that Facebook and other social media networks wield, they are useless when it comes to crossing over to personal, face-to-face relationships.
In July 2009, I had the opportunity to attend Twiistup 6, a technology, media, and entertainment conference in Los Angeles. For three nights and four days, I attended a series of technology and social media-related panels, discussions, and displays.
It seemed everyone was highly aware of the power that technology and online communications holds for Generation Y, the not-so-well-defined group who have graduated college in the past five years and are now in their 20s. For us—yes, I’m among them—the Internet is the first place we turn to for nearly everything: directions to the new coffee shop, finding out what an audience thinks of a new movie, catching up with an old friend.
In the past, these are tasks that would have required picking up a book, reading a newspaper, or mailing a letter. But the Internet has revolutionized the speed and efficiency with which we complete our daily tasks. This has, in many ways, rid us of the old ways of communicating, of reaching out to each other. It’s easier now. Not necessarily simpler. But easier.
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center on millennials reveals how deeply my generation embraces multiple modes of self-expression. Three-quarters have created a profile on a social networking site, the study found, and one-in-five have posted a video of themselves online. The abundant availability of the means to express ourselves is part of the reason why we continuously do so.
Before attending the event, I wondered how capable the young people I was going to meet would be in forming real relationships? How interested? What percentage of their days would revolve around one-sided interactions with their computer?
I was surprised. And happily so. As successful as my peers at the conference were in building online communities, many of the attendees continued to maintain healthy relationships offline. I met Edward Lu, a young entrepreneur whose Web site creates social and communal dining experiences. He told me that he never forgets the real and concrete relationships in his life—with his family and friends.
Personally, and proudly, I draw a line between time spent online and off. Consider the weekend before the conference. After racking up some 40 hours at the office, I wanted to spend time outdoors, enjoying the sun and escaping the glare of the computer. And I did. Over the 36 hours after I left my newsroom on Friday at 4:30 p.m., I did not turn on the computer. For any reason. I was busy with friends, running around Chicago as young twenty-somethings do. There was coffee outside, a train to dinner before a late movie, a visit to the new Skydeck at the former Sears Tower, a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo, another train ride for dinner, and finally crashing at home.
Sure, I am guilty of often allowing the Internet and mobile technology to suck up my time. At the same time, I find ways to enjoy summer in Chicago—the real city season. Maybe I’m lucky. Maybe I’m organized. But I advise other young adults not to allow the great experience of youth to be dictated by the Internet and online communities. Take a chance by attending a meeting for the society of chefs, and bring along your favorite recipe. Join a book club. Take salsa lessons at a summer outdoor festival. Watch a movie under the stars.
I was encouraged to hear that some of the most influential people in social media recognize that those of us filling up Facebook and Twitter pages are more than just numbers. These sites are a place to start conversations, but they are not where conversations should end. They are forums, where you can exchange ideas and thoughts with people who are passionate about similar issues, but they should not inhibit you from taking up the same topics in person.
What I took away from the conference in LA is that successful people maintain a level of control over their involvement with online communities. When I need recommendation letters for a job, I will request a meaningful, handwritten letter, not some fill-in-the blank form that can be found online. To this day, even with so much of my own communication happening online, one of the most exciting feelings is to get a letter or package in the mail from someone I love.
Online communication is not going away. But we, as young adults, should control it—not be controlled by it.
And I am determined to maintain a balance between face time with my Sony Vaio and making lifelong, flesh and blood, offline memories with family and friends.
Kiran Sood is a multimedia journalist and reporter at Sauk Valley Newspapers. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism.