The Internet as a Subculture

I'd like 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.

To start 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).

The fourth 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.

"This 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 criminals.
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 my manifesto."

This excerpt, 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…” and “My wrath…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 Sheriff’s online report. As Lefkowitz suggests in his essay, “Don’t 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 doesn’t 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 culture.
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?