I am fascinated by the modern individual’s tendency to distinguish between what is virtual and what is real. In this light, I will try to focus on how we perceive this distinction shapes the way we perceive youth; as it is often believed that they are too involved in the “virtual world” and missing out on the “real one.” Because youth is such a crucial stage of identity development, the worry that adolescents are way too involved with their electronics and “made up worlds” is understandable. However, caution must be taken when this worry turns into a way of branding youth as “lazy” or “irresponsible.” This way of labelling often results in viewing youth in a negative light that is neither objective nor helpful. It would not be reasonable to argue that the new waves of technology and mediation have no effects on our lives whatsoever. However, seeing the world in a distinct separation of real and virtual instead of embracing it as a complex whole has its consequences on the way youth is perceived.
The age period that we call “youth” or “adolescence” that roughly covers between the ages of 13 and 18 [the years between 18 and 25 later conceptualized as “emerging adulthood” (Arnett 2000, p. 469)], has always been under the microscope of adults and older generations as a subject of interest. As Erik Erikson’s theory of life stages suggests; adolescence is one of the most important period in a person’s lifetime for creating their identity and shaping their beliefs that will lead them in life later on. He claims that this is the age period when young people first start to ask the question “who am I?” and experiment with their identities and roles in society (1968, p. 1- 2).
It is understandable, therefore, that there is much emphasis and focus on the period of adolescence (or youth culture in general); as it is possibly the most influential one in our life trajectories. Youth are, in a way, are always under an inspection by older generations on their behaviors and abilities. In today’s society however (with the unprecedented expansion of new media technologies), the methods of inspection have slightly changed and a new concern has come to light. A tendency has emerged to view youth as people who are just too involved with their electronics, their online presence and the virtual world – causing them to miss out on the real one. John Holmes (2011) identifies this characterization as the “cyberkid discourse,” which entails seeing the younger generation (referred by some as the digital natives, internet generation, Google generation, net generation, n-geners and so on) as purely “online” beings that create and shape their identities only with the virtual world that is available to them (p. 1105).
Publications that reproduce the “cyberkid discourse” and depict the concern of the older generations (often ironically circulated in this new media spheres) are not hard to come by. For example, the French photographer Antoine Geiger created a series of images for a very popular social media site called Bored Panda (2015). In these pictures (most of which feature young individuals), we see people’s souls getting sucked into their phones. Geiger’s work is incredibly similar to those of Max Cavallari, who has also created a series called “Loneliness” that depicts the same motion (Celeste Prize 2015). These artworks imply that constantly being on our phones is literally turning society (and more particularly, youth) into soulless beings. Another example for this may be the popular video called “Look Up,” which has over 50 million views on YouTube (2016). This video includes a representation of a poem written by Gary Turk, which involves lines such as; “This media we call social is anything but, when we open our computers and it’s our doors we shut. All this technology we have it’s just an illusion; community, companionship, a sense of inclusion. We’re surrounded by children who since they were born, have watched us living like robots and think it’s the norm. It’s not very likely you’ll make world’s greatest dad if you can’t entertain a child without using an iPad.”
Both aimed at and mostly viewed by the younger generation, the internet is filled to the brim with examples, stories anecdotes such as these that contribute to the public hype that asserts – “young people are missing out on real life!” It is certainly true that the younger generation (myself included) is living in a world filled with mediated spaces, mostly brought on by the development of the internet and the great advancements in technology. One can even say that we are the cyberkids, in a sense. However, the question lies not in this overgeneralizing identification but in its actual consequences. Do adults really have a reason to worry? Are we really damaging our most formative years because we are too involved with the virtual world? When we look at the academic debate on this topic, we see that there is not a consensus on whether the media and the new “online age” is really harmful to young people who are trying to shape their identities.
Valkenburg and Peter (2008), for instance, give detailed accounts on from both sides. They firstly introduce what they call the “optimists,” that is; the scholars who believe that experimenting with online identities will contribute to youths’ offline social skills, because it allows them to interact with people from various backgrounds and identities. Then come the “pessimists,” who believe that the identities adolescents create online are less inhibited compared to their own, which may create problems in actual day-to-day interactions. Furthermore they claim that as adolescents become more and more attached to their online selves, it will be harder for their offline selves to become socially competent. After explaining both sides of the argument, Valkenburg and Peter (2008) decide to side with the optimists as they claim that the ability adolescents (and other frequent users of the online world) have to creatively fashion their online selves and use it to communicate with people from different backgrounds presents an advantage in offline socializations (p. 226 – 227).
Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) further support this point in their publication, as they too, claim that the mediated spaces technology offers us are filled with people we would not have come face to face in our daily lives, and they therefore manage to expand our horizons (p. 885). Contrary to these positive stances, however, there are also some publications that constitute a warning in terms of youth’s relationship with online worlds. One of which, for instance, is that of Shamel, Blinka and Ledabyl (2010) who claim that adolescents have a higher chance of getting addicted to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) as they are in a more fragile state of their identity development (p. 715).
As we can clearly see, there is not a definite agreement on whether this mediatized age helps or harms adolescents. Furthermore, scholars such as Holmes (2011) and Smith, Hewitt and Skrbis (2014) suggest that the ways in which youth engage with the media and the virtual world differ dramatically regarding their circumstances and therefore trying to fit them into a pre-determined, over-simplified box is an effort that is bound to fail. Holmes (2011) claims, for instance, that there are different ways in which a person can engage with the online world and this, in turn, creates different user types. “It cannot be assumed,” he writes, “that simply because young people are more likely to engage in particular activities that this represents a genuine generational cleavage” (p. 1117-1119). Building on Holmes’ (2011) ideas of different typologies for different ways of engaging with the media, Smith et al. (2014) also claim that the way youth uses the media and new technological devices as means of socialization changes according to their characteristics, former usage styles and socio-economic backgrounds.
In the end, it is understandable that much focus is being put upon youth (or adolescence) as it is one of the most important periods of human development. Investigating the effects of this unbelievably stimulating and technologically advanced millennium on youth is also understandable and it should be encouraged. However, it does not make any sense to completely label youth with definitions such as “cyberkids” or the “Google generation” while disregarding the differences and complexities of the situation. As I hope I was able to demonstrate, there is still much debate about whether this new era of mediatization and technology has positive or negative effects upon youth. Furthermore, there are still major cultural differences among the ability to access these techonological advancements, let alone be defined by them. As Holmes (2011) puts it; “it seems questionable to define a generation by their intensive use of technology when a quarter of them do not have access to at home” (p. 1107). There are also differences in the ways that youth choose to engage with technology that should render it impossible to solidly characterize a whole generation as “too involved with their virtual worlds.” All these viable reasons aside, however, the reason I think that this is a redundant characterization begins at the moment when the instinctive distinction is made between what is “virtual” and what is “real.”
When we think about virtuality and reality, definitions rapidly start to come to our minds as we often characterize the tangible things as “real” and the imaginary as “virtual.” The things that we are able to experience with our five senses; the ones we are able to touch, see, hear, smell, taste; or the processes which we are able to understand the underlying mechanisms of become “real.” On the other hand, something becomes “virtual” when it is not a three dimensional event that one can be a part of; but rather a two dimensional, weak copy of reality. Imagine two scenarios; in the first one you see your friend on the street and talk to them for a little bit and in the second one, you comment on the last picture they shared on Facebook. As the traditional definition goes, the first one is a “real” experience and the second one is an almost shameful, hand-me-down of reality that it is “virtual.”
It would be unwise to say that these two experiences are exactly the same and that there is not a difference between them; I am not to deny that the mediated experiences we usually have online differ from the ones that entail face-to-face interaction. What interests me, however, is this innate tendency we have to make clear cut distinctions of what is real and what is not. In this light, I would like to suggest this: the virtual and the real have melodically melted into one another in our modern society, and the only way to grasp our relationships with mediated experiences in their whole complexity lies in embracing this new union.
On this topic, I would like to first introduce John Thompson’s (1995) approach to mediated and non-mediated experiences. He firstly claims that the areas in our lives have gone through a process of or de-sequestration and have differentiated their purposes; we go to a school to learn, a hospital when we are sick and to prison if we commit any crimes. This means that we have slowly assigned different meanings to different places and Thompson further claims that the expansion of media has added a new dimension to this de-sequestration, as it has made it possible for people to experience and witness some realities that are not their own (p. 2-5). In the last ten years after Thompson’s article, it is possible to see how the power of media has grown even further and it now liberates us from our locales and opens new doors of experiences more than ever. What I find really interesting about Thompson’s article, however, is the suggestion that we reflexively organize our “selves” with the resources that are available to us, media and virtual worlds being just a few of them (p. 1-19). This idea of “reflexivity” is crucial as it proposes that the way these (different) experiences influence our lives is inherently organic.
Furthermore, I believe that viewing the consequences of mediated and non-mediated experiences as an organic whole (as Thompson does) is also helpful in understanding how the economic system plays a role in our eager characterization of virtuality and reality. Whether we aware of it or not; our thoughts, ideas, world views and habits are mostly influenced by bigger structures that are out of our control. If a seventeen year-old boy can sit in front of his computer and play video games for five hours and not be crucially affected by this process; this means that the society of which he is a part of has created an economic system that can sustain this choice of action. If the economic system required otherwise; if he needed to work in order to continue with his life, for instance, then spending excessive amounts of time in the “virtual world” would have been impossible. Furthermore, the economic processes of the 21st century not only can sustain these ways of spending one’s leisure time, but they also depend on it. We all become incredibly important consumers of the virtual world; we buy games, phones, go to movies, get play-stations and download music on our computers. This means that somewhere in the world, there are people who are creating and selling those games, songs and computers and making the movies, the banners for the movies, the devices in which we watch the movies and so forth. So the seventeen year-old boy we have been talking about is not just an unimportant glitch in the economy, on the contrary, he is a consumer and his (and our) consumption is incredibly essential to for the continuity of the bigger system.
Therefore, even if one does not believe in the theoretical and philosophical arguments that suggest virtuality and reality are not that different from each other; here they can see that the virtual world becomes very real (and important) when we think about the part it plays in the economy. It is real: it creates real jobs, real money transactions and it becomes the mirror image of a grander picture. We can further our investigation on the topic of how virtual worlds have become parts of (real) economic ones by looking at their intersections. Therefore I would like to talk about two major conventions in which these worlds collide: VidCon and ComicCon.
Created by Hank Green (of the Vlogbrothers) in 2010, VidCon is a multi-layered video conference in which creators, people who are working in the online video industry and fans get together to have panels, discussions and performances. Most of the fan-base of VidCon consists of people who are fans of video creators (mostly that of YouTube). In this sense, the content that people enjoy in their virtual worlds makes them buy tickets, get on planes and travel thousands of miles in order to interact and share experiences with the creators they respect the most. VidCon’s huge economic resonance aside, however, what I want to emphasize is that the experience of watching YouTube videos we so readily deem as virtual are in fact opening up new doors for people to experience real interactions with their peers, gives them a space to express themselves, and in some instances, it even stimulates them to choose online video as a career path.
Another example which transforms the virtual into real (or creates a space for them to co-exist) is that of ComicCon. Founded in the 1970s, ComicCon is a fan convention that has panels, discussions and fun activities about multiple disciplines such as movies, television shows and video games. Furthermore, it is a space where fans (or other non-mainstream creators) have a chance to showcase their products and their artworks, and sell them to the interested crowds. ComicCon also allows for fans to see their favorite creators, join discussions about upcoming projects, and most importantly; it helps fan-bases grow as people from all around the world get to meet people that have the same interests as they do.
In addition to all this, ComicCon also has another characteristic that blends the virtual and the real worlds together: a performative fashioning called “cosplay.” Cosplaying sometimes includes (but is not limited to) people dressing up in elaborate costumes of their favorite characters from television, film or online video games. Here again we see that the boundaries between the virtual and the real are transgressed. From the amount of time people spend on their costumes, to the manufacturers, transporters and sellers of all the materials, to the mere act of performing in another character (that comes from a virtual world), we see that the lines of virtual and real get incredibly blurry, really fast.
Therefore it is evident that the incorporation of the “virtual” into the “real” has enough economic and psychological significance that we are left with no choice but to recognize their marriage. Another medium that demonstrates this silent union is social media. The way that we choose to represent ourselves on social media (whether it be Instagram, Facebook or snapchat) is just an echo of our day-to-day, “real” lives. It is almost as if we have become curators of our own lives and we are silently screaming to everyone “hey, look at me, this is what I’m doing today! This is what I ate, and this is the movie that I went to!” Furthermore, the way that we use social media has also crept into even the simplest of our daily activities. If we are not curating our own life, we live in constant fear that we are missing out on what other people are doing and we therefore check our social media accounts any chance we get; when we are eating, after waking up, in the bus, in the metro and the list goes on and on…
As we reach the final part of this essay, I hope I was able to demonstrate that there is, in fact, a negative view imposed upon youth for being too involved in their virtual worlds. Whether adults and older generations have anything to worry about, however, is not yet clear as the scientific world is still debating about the possible outcomes of this “computerized age” and has not yet reached a coherent conclusion. Keeping this in mind, whether being the “cyberkids” is bad or good for the youth is insignificant; as the lines between the virtual and the real have been shattered in the last decade or two.
First of all, the economic co-existence of these worlds tells us something about how important it is to recognize their unity and not see them as separate entities. The world has expanded into a state in which the economic existence cannot be solidly maintained without the help or involvement of the “virtual” world. Second of all, the influences these different worlds have on us are so organic that it might be impossible to pin-point to the exact effect of the “virtual sphere.” And finally, especially with the development of social media, what we do in our “real” lives have become a part of how we present ourselves in our “virtual” ones and what we experience in the “virtual” world has become a determinant of our experiences in the “real” one.
What I ultimately wanted to argue in this essay is that shaping our understanding of youth and youth culture on the basis of their involvement in real and virtual spaces has become extremely irrelevant in our modern world. The virtual worlds that we are so ready to shun have, in fact, become places that open up new doors for international communication and interaction. As the boundaries between virtuality and reality are becoming more blurry by the minute, new methods that are more constructive and positive must be adopted in order to really hear what young people are saying.
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Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis (pp. 1-10). New York: W. W. Norton.
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YouTube,. (2015). Look Up. Retrieved 29 November 2015, from (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY)
Written for my “Wild Years” class at Utrecht University in Fall 2015.