Archive for April 26th, 2007

I was already an adult in the first days of the Internet, but I clamped on to it like a lamprey hungry for its next meal. For a letter writing, research addict like me, it was the tool I had always wanted. More recently, working in high-tech journalism and interacting with people from fourteen to eighty, I’ve been kept fully submerged in the latest trends. I don’t always participate in them (for instance, I was late to blog), but I have generally poked around and experimented. In fact, that’s my job. Yet it’s only been in the last few months that I realized that most of my middle-aged contemporaries view the Internet, Web 2.0, and related trends very differently. Some of them hope to exploit the trends, but few understand them and many are not-so secretly suspicious and hostile towards them.

On the Internet, the generation gap is not only alive, but stronger than it has been any time since the 1960s. Take email, for instance. Many middle-aged business experts suggest that email should only be a few lines long at the most. What would they say of the 2600 word email I received yesterday as part of my research for a story? And while these same experts talk about email overload, I routinely deal with several hundred emails a day. Naturally, I don’t read all those emails; but I deal with them. It’s a rare day, too, that I write less than a couple of dozen myself. No big deal – just part of my routine.

The difference, I think, is that, like people younger with me, I treat email casually. For me, email is useful when I’m not concerned about the speed of the response, or when I and my correspondents want to plan what we say more carefully than is possible on IRC. By contrast, most of my contemporaries still treat each email like a letter. Their attitude makes any given email a much more significant event to them than it is for me.

Unfortunately, accustomed to treating any given email as a minor event, I didn’t realize this difference until it cost me a friend whom I might have valued. While I was treating the person like I would any colleague, to the potential friend I was coming across as demanding and needy.

But at least email is something that my generation has reluctantly embraced because of its usefulness. When you get to various forms of social networking, the gap is even greater. A column in The Globe and Mail this morning that was supposed to be about Facebook quickly turned into a rant about the fecklessness of the young. Russell Smith, a writer in his mid-forties, wrote:

I kept asking young people, what is it, exactly, what is it for, what is the point? You keep in constant touch with your friends for why, exactly? . . . . Why on earth would anyone want to increase their e-mail workload? Why would anyone want to deliberately eliminate any remnants of their privacy?

Instead of exploring social networking as an interesting phenomenon, the column amounted to a rant because “young people” didn’t share Smith’s values. In the end, he came off as sneering and intolerant – attitudes very much against the prevailing spirit of the Internet. Generally, in my sixteen years of connectivity, I’ve found the Web extremely tolerant, almost too much so, considering some of its darker corners. Flame wars do erupt, but the Internet is a big place: If you don’t like the people in the parts you hang out, you can always find somewhere else to go.

All too often, though, the middle-aged make no distinctions. They persist in talking about the Internet as a homogeneous whole. Recently, for example, I read another middle-aged man’s comment that the Internet was responsible for a rise in “ludicrous” professions — not exactly the most tolerant view of change. And if you believe the average traditional media outlets, nothing exists on the Internet except viruses and pornography. This attitude may be due to the jealousy of traditional journalists who find their audiences shrinking and their relevance reduced by online hacks like me, but there’s a more general hostility and distrust there, too. Too many of my contemporaries sound like octogenarians whining about the young and their crazy ways because their bad backs are giving them trouble.

I’m no trendoid. I pick and choose the parts of the Internet in which I participate, in the same way that I pick and choose whether to carry a cell phone or own a microwave or credit cards (three commonplaces for which I have no use). Nor do I go overboard trying to use every acronym in the IRC lexicon. Nothing, after all, is more pathetic — or, at times, creepy — than the middle-aged trying to pretend they’re young. But just because I choose not to participate in something doesn’t mean it has no right to exist. And, more importantly, I prefer to be open-minded, and to base my conclusions on knowledge rather than prejudice.

If acting my age means being stodgy and irritable about everything new that comes along, then I plan to prolong my first childhood until my second one kicks in.

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