There are strange things happening and I’m not sure what to make of it. It has to do with the Internet and people who use it. In this case, young people.
I’m overwhelmed, which is nothing new, really.
I make no secret about the fact that I teach teens, which is overwhelming enough, but I teach them art in a one-to-one setting and so they can share their creative interests with me. It’s gratifying to witness how many different ways these young people can express themselves creatively.
Aside from their generation and shifting hormones, there is one thing that threads them all together, and that’s the Internet and the ways they use it. I’m unable to completely grasp their way of being in it, or with it, but in my own capacity, I observe and I listen. I'm sure they'd hate to know that I'm lumping them all together in my (most likely outdated) perception of the word, "teen," but I have good intentions and different kids teach me different things and often change my way of thinking.
For instance I've learned a lot about various popular “Youtubers” that I really cannot tolerate but they are very, very popular. As the adult that I am, I perceive these Youtubers as young people that kids find attractive who play video games and record them while it’s happening and tell jokes that I don't think are funny. I do think it's cool, however, that people can create their own channels and develop a fan base.
And then there is all of the appropriation, and this is at the same time fascinating as well as overwhelming and confusing to me. Some of my more “arty” kids are fascinated with other young people who take songs and animate their own kind of music videos. Not only are they using other people’s music, but they take characters from popular cartoons AND the characters made by others who create blogs or Youtube channels and place them into a newly designed landscape. Sometimes these people collaborate with others who add to the “project,” and then it becomes an even larger stew of borrowed and original sounds and artwork. I see them as visual diaries that are most often expressing your typical teen angst but the work involved can be time consuming and can allow the student to grow formally, as an artist. (The topic of plagiarism comes up a lot in my class and that's a rich and tricky subject for me right now. For instance, I'm posting links to images I simply "grabbed" from the Internet in this blog post–)
In any case, I’m glad to see these kids engaging in art projects that are collaborative and I’m glad that some of these kids are trying out new creative tools because of what they see their peers doing online, but there is the part of me that is unsure if everything is just turning into borrowed crap that mimes and wiggles along to clips of borrowed music.
That being said, I'm constantly having to remind myself to ease up on my "doom and gloom" perceptions of youth.
I mean, I look back at a lot of stuff I was really, really into at thirteen and it’s just awful to me now but good lord I loved it then and wanted to share it with everyone I came into contact with and I did. -But I didn’t have the Internet.
–And the Internet that these kids know! There is so much for me to learn about that I simply don't have the time or mental space to absorb, and when I do learn something new it's often about something so dull or ugly that it's depressing. For instance, a teen just told me about something called the "Dark Internet,” which apparently looks like the Internet I use but it’s really perverse and filled with shops that sell bad things. Like, really bad. I haven’t looked into it, and I really don’t want to so I'm not going to.
My first years on the Internet, in the late nineties/early two-thousands were dark. Things got very dark for me, actually, in regard to coming into contact with abusive predator-types, but I was also very excited about the connectivity and how it allowed for sharing. I finally had a place that was big and unknown to share thoughts and imagery that I instinctively wanted, or perhaps, needed to share. The mystery of who might find something I put out "there" was and is exciting and makes me feel larger than myself. Even if I have to be cautious of the darker side of human behavior in this way, I have decided that for me, it's worth it. I want to be in control of my online identity.
I don’t want to teach teenagers to be afraid or to not share on this web that is meant for pockets of ourselves as well as our collective voices, but I also don’t want them to be lured into dark digital realms where people are cruel, unbalanced and manipulative.
But let’s step away from the Internet for a moment to talk about actual meeting places; the conventions where people aren’t themselves. Let’s talk about Cosplay. It's not my world at all but kids are often making costumes or costume elements in my class for some or another convention where they will dress as a creature they invented (that fits into a collectively agreed upon aesthetic “world”) or they dress as characters from comics or anime or stories and games they admire, thereby shifting away from the computer screen and into a physical world where everyone is cloaked in a sort of anonymity. With my kids it seems to come from a wholesome place. It's often childlike and sweet. The goal, as far as I can tell, is to be recognized as your character and admired by convention-goers and online communities, and in some cases these characters are original. Sometimes these kids receive recognition for the creation of their costumes and creatures and videos displaying their work and visual stories surrounding them and I think that’s really cool. In addition to that, parents seem to always chaperone their children at these events. The anonymity, however, makes me feel at ease. The idea of people making themselves into new creatures, or creatures they wish to be like is kind of cool. I support the idea of making yourself, on the outside, who you wish to become, on the inside. I believe this has the potential to lead to positive change. I guess I'm concerned here, with the predators who take advantage of the innocents that I know are attending these events and posting videos online of their skits and dance routines.
Speaking of predators and innocents, let’s look at the teens who live as and behave in their day-to-day lives as young, playful kids, but when they show me their various profiles and Instagram photos they are posing with "kissy" faces and brooding mugs and wearing clothes that make them appear much older than they are, with captions that I don't understand at all. It worries me but at the same time a lot of them are actually writing, on a daily basis, in blogs about their lives and the world around them and I think that's really cool and valuable.
It’s sort of a new way of engaging with the world, to expose (and even refine) your diary/visual identity, and so many of these kids seem fearless to me and I have to believe that it is good. Kids don’t know it’s new though, because it’s always been there for them.
Jokes. On a daily basis, I observe middle schoolers sharing absurdist “inside jokes” that I secretly think are hilarious because I actually get the references and I’ve studied Dadaism and Semiotics and know a little bit about Memetics but when I question these teens about why these jokes amuse them, they really have no idea and eventually I realize they most often don’t really think they are funny. They simply repeat them because they see it being repeated online and then the fact that they are obnoxious becomes their joke. This is something I used to do in my own, “the world was a smaller place” sort of way, when I was a teen, like telling my mom, "Mom, just get me a Pepsi, please, all I want is a Pepsi!" which is a line from the Suicidal Tendencies song, Institutionalized. So when it’s appropriate, I break elements down and explain to them why something is being referenced in that specific manner, which makes me appear even older and nerdier and more boring to them, but whatever- with my nudging they might eventually start taking a step back and asking questions. I'm a teacher, that's my role.
I can explain some things to them, but really, I have no answers. We’re all in the middle of something and we're coming at it from different generational and experiential angles and I think for me, it’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees or I’m seeing so many trees that I don’t know what the forest is…
And then we have trolls. Trolling. I learned this term about five years ago when a sixth grade student wanted to depict that horrid Internet drawing.
As I mentioned above, I have experienced plenty of trolling and trolls.
I see them occasionally in my adult, day-to-day Internet life and I think it’s revolting because, of course, I’m old enough to understand some of the psychology behind these people displaying cowardice and sociopathic tendencies. It’s rooted in fear and we all know that it can get so ugly. I cringe at what the kids must have to deal with. Perhaps they have thicker skin? I know many who, most certainly, do not.
Perhaps these trolls are growing older and having their own kids that are being deeply bothered by people on the Internet? -Messing with their lives. The children of trolls. Have we reached that point? Are there essays written about that? About people who treated people horribly online only to give birth to their own kids that had something similar happen to them? Part of me wishes for that sort of karma but that’s not fair to the young ones birthed by trolls. Anyway I'm not even sure if trolls actually mate. It makes sense that they're manipulative, mean and cruel because they are failures in the world of human relationships and person-to-person contact.
I hope this is a generation of kids with thicker skin (but not too thick) and at least some understanding of a world that I am simply unable to be a part of. I also hope they become a generation that is useful with their hands as well as their minds. I want kids to want to connect beyond the borders of who they physically are and contribute something to their communities, as opposed to calling people names while hiding behind electronic devices. You know, I want kids to feel connected to something global and good and weird and I want them to sometimes turn their camera app off and have real conversations and experiences with friends and people in person, so that they don't forget how to.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.