Internet as a Subculture
to start by asking "what is a subculture?" A subculture
is generally defined as a small culture within a larger cultural
structure. The prefix "sub-" means "beneath,"
or "secondary," implying that a "subculture"
is merely a lower level of the dominant culture. To me, the word
"subculture" brings to mind dark alleyways and seedy,
half-lit bars where members of these "subcultures" meet.
Does such a widespread medium as the internet really belong under
this classification? Perhaps it did in the early days. These days,
however, the internet is everywhere. Business-related web sites
are plastered on the sides of busses and buildings, local news
channels give internet updates, and practically everyone has an
e-mail address. Instead of dismissing the internet as a mere "subculture,"
I'd like to suggest that the internet is clearly an "interculture,"
not separate from, but interwoven with our own culture. I would
even go so far as to suggest that the internet itself contains
the ability to evolve into a separate culture, and that people
within our culture, particularly teenagers, who feel excluded
by their peers and ignored by the world, are helping to fuel this
split from dominant society.
This theory probably sounds rather extreme. However, many aspects
of the internet suggest that it already contains the potential
to evolve. First of all, the internet has almost completely developed
its own economy. Besides technical things, such as web design
or computer repair, e-commerce has morphed into such a simplified
system that anyone can sell almost anything online. Internet "auction"
sites, such as "Yahoo! Auctions" or "E-bay"
allow users to hock almost anything they own to the highest bidder.
Sites like "Cafe Press" make money by charging a fee
to let people design and sell t-shirts online. And let's not forget
the booming porn industry. With systems like these, businesses
and individuals can sell any product to anyone, at any time, all
over the world.
The internet also has applicable laws associated with it, such
as hacking laws, copyright laws, and intellectual property laws.
Hacking laws address "unauthorized connections" to another
person's computer, or actions that harm or disrupt another person's
activities, or tamper with files. We'll address hacking laws more
extensively later. Copyright and intellectual property laws are
taken very seriously, and with good reason, because in a system
where nothing is "real" or tangible, information and
ideas have become the main commodities. In my opinion, this creates
a very interesting question with respect to internet libraries,
or even just libraries in general: how far do copyright laws extend
with respect to books? Currently it is illegal to redistribute
electronic texts, just as it is illegal to photocopy books and
redistribute them. Yet rather than illegally photocopying a book,
one can just as easily walk down the street to the nearest library
and borrow it. To what extent should this apply to internet libraries
or online texts? This topic may be better addressed in another
paper, but my point is that the internet is developing a special
set of laws specifically to address its own needs.
The next important way the internet is evolving is that it is
developing subcultures of its own. These subcultures include (but
aren't limited to) web design, online games, chat rooms, hacking,
"blogging," or weblogging (keeping an online journal),
and internet radio. In order to keep these simple, and to develop
a distinction between different types of internet users, I have
divided them into four general levels of internet use, though
these levels can certainly intermingle.
with, there is the use of the internet for information only. This
includes looking up weather, news, and doing research. This is
the most basic level of use, one which people who don't know too
much about technology can still feel reasonably comfortable with.
My father, for example, can browse web sites a bit, but mostly
uses the internet to check weather updates. Users from this level
who make web sites usually use simple walkthrough programs instead
of writing their own html code.
Second, there is the use of the internet as communication. This
includes "chat rooms," where people can communicate
in groups, or the use of an "IM" or Instant Messaging
program such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or Yahoo Instant Messenger
(YIM). This level of use is widespread, connecting a diverse variety
of people, many of them teenagers from different social groups.
In my experience, one of the appeals chat rooms have to teenagers,
especially younger teenagers or even pre-teens, is the ability
to adopt a different persona. For young teenagers who are still
sort of "growing up" this is a great way for them to
"try on" other personalities as easily as clothing.
For the more romantically-minded, chat rooms act as a sort of
dating service, which can sometimes lead to problems, since no
one in a chat room is necessarily who they claim to be.
It is in chat rooms and on IM programs where the first signs of
a distinct language start to emerge. In the chat room environment,
where how fast you type becomes an important factor, many things
have been shortened to abbreviations. "Lol," (laugh
out loud), or "rofl" (rolling on the floor laughing)
when someone says something amusing, "asl" to ask someone
their "age, sex and location," or "ty" to
tell someone "thank you."
The third level of internet use is gaming, which includes not
only communication, but interaction as well. Depending on the
game, players can cooperate, or work against each other. Some
games, called "MMORPGs," or "Massive Multiplayer
Online Role-Playing Games," allow players to develop a character,
and then place them in worlds where that character can "live"
online. A good example of this is Ultima Online, which allows
players to purchase housing for their character, and interact
with others in a well-developed fantasy-style world. Players can
converse with other players, or battle monsters and other players.
As they continue, their character gains weapons and items, and
grows more powerful. These types of games usually create a division
between "RPers" or "Role-Players," people
who "become" their character and play as if the world
were real, and "PKs" or "Player Killers,"
who try to increase their character's power quickly by killing
other players and taking their items. Other types of games include
strategy games, and "FPS" or "first person shooter"
games. FPSs, which allow players to blast monsters and opponents
into (usually quite bloody) smithereens, include Doom, Quake,
and Unreal Tournament, and are often blamed for desensitizing
teens and young people to violence.
In gaming we start to see a distinct language emerge more strongly.
This language is called "l337," or "Leet,"
shortened from the word "elite," or 31337.
Leet originated with hackers, who created a virus that would allows
the hacker to connect remotely to a computer through port 31337,
which later evolved into the word elite, and the language
grew from there. It incorporates the use of numbers and symbols
in place of letters, and also alters the spelling words. Leet
began to be picked up by gamers who wanted to show off, and is
now used quite widely in many online games. Common boasts in FPS
games include such warped phrases as "j00 d34d f00"
(You're dead, fool), and "ph33r /\/\y l337 5k1llz!"
(Fear my elite skills).
level of interaction over the internet is hacking. A "hacker"
is someone who uses the internet to gain unauthorized access to
another person's computer, or a company's computer system. Sometimes
hackers are simply exploring--looking for weaknesses, using those
weaknesses to gain access, and then leaving. Sometimes hackers
do far more sinister things. This area is the most glamorized
and infamous of all the internet's subcultures. This is also the
most extreme level of the four, since hacking deals with computers
on an extremely advanced level.
One explanation for the appeal "hacking" has for some
people is that hacking is a source of power. Many people who feel
excluded or ignored by their peers and, to a large extent, society,
turn to the internet as a way of expressing themselves. However,
the measure of power in the internet is still largely controlled
by publicity--who cares how brilliant your ideas are if they are
lost in the myriad of brainless (and often horribly designed)
personal sites created by people with little or no html skill?
I have seen too many web sites in garish neon green that proclaim
"My name is so-and-so, and this is a picture of my <insert
pet here>." The range of power one has on the internet
largely depends on how freely one can move there.
Many hackers reject or spurn the more dominant society around
them. Many of them feel cheated by society somehow, or simply
don't care about it.
is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch,
the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing
without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by
profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore...
and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you
call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality,
without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build
atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us
and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime
is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what
they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something
that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is
from "The Anarchist's Cookbook," offers good insight
into the general mentality of most hackers. First of all, many
hackers feel superior to other people. Notice the reference to
outsmarting the targeted audience, indicating a feeling
of increased intelligence. Besides representing hackers, this
feeling of suppressed superiority also reflects the mentality
of many other young people, particularly that of Dylan Klebold
and Eric Harris, the two teenage gunmen who killed 13 and wounded
21 before taking their own lives at Columbine high school. Glimpses
of this are reflected in the writings the two gunmen left behind,
saying such things as
before I leave this worthless
place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit
will be godlike
Both Harris and Klebold were interested in computers, and even
edited levels of Doom, a popular FPS game, to look
like their school. Now, keep in mind that I am not blaming computers
for this tragedy. What I am suggesting is that a different sort
of mentality is emerging among some teenagers and young people
in society that cannot be contained within our present culture.
Members of the Trenchcoat Mafia, of which Klebold
and Harris were both loosely associated members, were often
harassed by student athletes, according to the Jefferson
County Sheriffs online report. As Lefkowitz suggests in
his essay, Dont Further Empower Cliques, the
athletes in high school received all the glory, while smarter
students were often left feeling ignored. It is this kind of social
structure that can lead to a feeling of suppressed superiority
among students who are often very intelligent but rarely recognized.
Obviously not all students resort to violence of this kind, and
it is here we see the internet culture begin to form. Many turn
to computers as an escape, cocooning themselves in technology
and becoming entrenched in the culture, treating the internet
almost as if it were another world. Others use the internet only
superficially. Those who treat it as another world have a difficult
time readjusting to the dominant culture, which treats the flow
of information and ideas much differently, often placing judgements
and restrictions, which the internet doesnt employ. This
rift between the two groups can cause strain on some individuals,
causing them to have a lower view of the people in the surrounding
culture because the individuals become dissatisfied with the dominant
Though the internet is strongly interwoven with our current dominant
society, the differences between the two could be a point of possible
future division. It will be interesting to observe the progression
of these two very different cultures as they evolve. Will they
continue to grow alongside one another, or will they go their
separate ways? Will they merge together to form something completely
new, or will they split apart and form a multi-layered society?