Alex is your typical university student. Never mind the fact that he attends a university in a foreign country, or that he has no particular attachment to what is seen as the mainstream popular culture. He is an engineering student with a minor in French literature; he listens to Japanese translations of American musicals; he has strong ties to his Macedonian heritage and defines himself as a Social Democratic Anti-Capitalist. Alex is a typical university student because he is, in fact, hardly typical at all.
What ties the students of today's universities together is not their taste in music, their clothes or their politics. It's their collective communication. Alex is a typical university student because he takes full advantage of all the social networking tools at his disposal -- Facebook, an instant-messaging service, a cell phone with texting capabilities and, of course, that old-fashioned method of communication, e-mail. These means of contact have forged a generation of individuals, bonded together by a degree of contact and connection unprecedented in human history. This does not harm their individuality, but rather offers them more of a say in how they define themselves and how they are defined by their peers.
But the grander implications of this environment can be addressed later. For now, an examination of just how this system works is in order and such an exploration must begin with the pervasive center of the student universe: Facebook.
It's a world of poking, tagging and status updates. It offers so much to its members, a cultural foundation for young people at the university level and, increasingly, to high school students and members of the generation outside the world of traditional schooling. For those unfamiliar with the details of this communications megalith, it's a networking tool, but one that has become more central and personal to its members, now numbering more than 100 million. Its popularity is seemingly limitless.
In fact, in a university setting, without much falsehood, everyone is on Facebook. Meeting someone who isn't a member of the reigning king of networking is almost unheard of -- and can create a degree of suspicion. Who is this person who hasn't joined his or her generation? One may ask what could possibly be wrong with this person for rejecting what seems like the only possible way of meeting people. This, of course, is hyperbole. There are plenty of college students without a Facebook account, and they tend not to have any more problems making friends than their peers. But it is also fairly safe to say that when a student comes to a university without a Facebook membership, there is a good chance that by the end of their first semester, that will change. For better or worse, and this author would postulate certainly for the better, Facebook has become the defining factor in the younger generation of today.
The crux of Facebook is the profile, a collection of pictures and information that individual members write. There are the basics: the networks to which the individual belongs, gender, birthday, hometown, relationship status, sexual orientation and political and religious views. This is followed by a personal information section, including taste in activities, music, television, books and movies, as well as a general interests box and an "about me" space. Contact information follows, often including AIM or MSN screen names and an e-mail address. And the profile concludes with education and career information.
Yet what most defines the Facebook profile is not its degree of detail but the fact that every last one of these pieces of information is optional. If an individual chooses to post every movie he or she has ever enjoyed as well as their phone number, e-mail address, mailing address and the names of all of their goldfish, nothing stands in the way. It's also equally common to find a user with a quite enigmatic profile, listing perhaps only gender and educational information -- if those. The strength of these options is that they give the user complete control of one's identity. The individual not only decides what to display to the world, but also what to keep private.
What Facebook causes in the social universe of today's youth is a reverse of the traditional paradigm of self-definition in the younger generation. Where once the individual was defined by his or her friendships, peer pressure and cultural norms, the reverse is now true. The friendships and the greater social sphere of the individual are now formed based on how the individual defines oneself. There are more than 100 million people in this social network; there are no cultural norms. There is no pervasive popular identity to which the individual can feel forced to subscribe, but instead there is an incredible wealth of diversity where anyone can find those with whom one feels the most connected.
This isn't to say that Facebook is the exclusive factor that defines this communication generation; it's merely a large piece of the puzzle. It's a communication generation because the degree of social contact in everyday life is almost staggering when compared to all that has come before. The contemporary college student is arguably never alone. Of course, dormitory life helps this along, but it is no longer the major factor. The typical university student wakes up in the morning, greets the day and his or her roommate, and heads to class.
A lecture hall is no longer an environment in which one simply absorbs the information, occasionally whispering to a neighbor. With laptops in class and Internet access on campus, students can take notes, communicate on Facebook and IM their friends. If one doesn't bring the computer along, there is always text messaging, the easiest way to reach anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The classroom has therefore become just as much a communication zone as anywhere else. In fact, solitude as an institution has almost ceased to exist for this generation. Alone time consists of maybe reading a book, for class or otherwise, listening to music and chatting online. To go without Internet for too long can cause withdrawals. An interesting anecdote is that of a girl who works at the school alumni phone-a-thon, calling graduates to raise money for the university. The only time of the day she is not communicating with her peers is while she's at work, where she turns off her cell phone and spends four hours talking on the phone.
This is bound to inspire worry, and the anxiety is certainly not confined to those teaching the students. Is it possible for students to truly learn when they are so distracted, even during class? Can they truly accomplish their best work when every paper is written alongside a never-ending storm of text messages and IMs? Is all the Internet communication going to cause a decline in how much face-to-face contact they will have with their peers? Of course, it is beneficial for youth to retain relationships with friends who have traveled far away, but does it, at the same time, harm their relationships with those who attend their classes and live in their dormitories? These are questions asked by parents, professors and the members of this generation.
Taking a step back to observe the constant presence of social contact can be disconcerting, especially given that it is in the beginning stages. But it's important not to overreact. Today's students aren't at risk of learning less; academic standards haven't declined and students still want a high GPA; texting in class won't impact how much students want that A; and if a student doesn't perform well in a class, it will, almost without exception, be the result of a personal decision outside of their subversive media usage.
While so much is going on around students, one must keep in mind: Students have also learned the skill of multitasking. They can IM 10 people at once, send out Facebook event invitations and watch YouTube videos -- while writing a paper. Distractions have always been present, preventing students from finishing their academic work, and it remains the student's prerogative to decide how to handle these distractions. Finally, it's important to note that while face-to-face communication may have declined, total communication has not. Now, young people constantly interact via Internet, but this doesn't mean they don't enjoy physical interaction -- this will probably never die.
Does the incessant buzzing of cell phones therefore imply the downfall of a generation? Hardly. On the contrary, this age of constant communication has, more than anything else, liberated today's youth from the adversities of individuality. It may seem a bit absurd, but when it comes down to it, the Facebook universe can be seen as an indicator of what may very well be the most accepting and mutually respectful generation in modern times.
Think of it. A generation of individuals, tied closely together almost solely by the simple fact that they all talk to each other. What will they accomplish after leaving the academic world? The possibilities offered by such a diverse and well-connected group are endless.
*This story is from Converge magazine's Mixed & Mashed 2008 special issue.