2011 was a banner year for Mark Zuckerberg. The film based on a tell-all memoir about him became a favorite for the U.S.’s top film honors – Oscars, Golden Globes, MTV Movie Awards. He was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, beating out a group of miners from Chile who found a way, not just to stay alive, but remain relatively healthy for almost 70 days. Time Magazine’s logic behind choosing a Person of the Year is to choose someone who, for better or worse, has significantly impacted events in that particular year. Zuckerberg is credited for creating an online global community that, if it were an actual country, would have the third largest population in the world.
Personally, I’ve never been a true believer of the “one man, in a world, against the odds” type of stories. There are a small number of things one can do by oneself, and creating empires is not one of them. Not to completely disavow the work that the developers of Facebook have done by any means. What’s misguided, misconstrued and mis-marketed is this idea that one person is to be praised for what has happened with social networking in particular and the Internet in general.
The Internet has existed in various incarnations since the 1960s. I was first exposed to a version of the World Wide Web in 1993 via a friend who was studying Computer Science at a local university. Website addresses had yet to evolve from a series of numbers to the more convenient words in use today. By using my friend’s computer account and my best friend’s brother’s clunky laptop computer, I could plug a phone cord into the computer and use it to dial into the university computer system.
Unlike a Zuckerbergian protégé, I had no interest in hacking or learning code or anything of the sort. As a 16 year-old Catholic high school girl, there was only one thing that appealed to me about having access to a university computer system – the ability to talk to my boyfriend for free. He had gone away to college a few months prior, which had been a significant amount of time to inflict some serious damage on my mom’s phone bill.
We would set up a time to meet online at which point we would log on to a online role playing game (usually a variation of Vampire: The Masquerade). It was, in essence, a super complicated version of chatting. Since the site was set up as a role playing game, we’d have to navigate through a virtual “world” to find a “private” room in a virtual bar to just talk. And we weren’t the only ones.
What I remember about the early years of the modern incarnation of the Internet is the social nature of it. Although it was initially restricted to university access, the Internet was a means for people to connect with people across distances and build community regardless of whatever geeky, freaky thing they were into (for better or for worse). That was the appeal to me, and a lot of people, in the early days. I was fortunate enough to briefly have access in high school, and privileged enough to go to a university. I didn’t own a computer at the time, but it was readily available at any of the campus computer labs and library.
Fast-forward a few years and virtually everyone has a computer in his or her home. Most people who can afford cable have a digital connection. Dial-up connections are practically dead. For every video of a sleeping cat in a teacup, there is a story about how people use the Internet to effect social change in their environment, and sometimes, revolution.
If Facebook has the third largest population in the world, it is the result of a computer based Big Bang which continues to grow and morph at an exponential rate, despite the best efforts of business people and lawmakers to control it. This is because the nature of the Internet – as it is right now, as is the nature of all newly discovered “frontiers” – is egalitarian.
People are not restricted to information and content as passed down by major networks, government and lobbyists. As more and more people become Internet savvy, individuals are able to create content for each other, for themselves and even the world.
A lot of marginalized communities and cultures have an explosion of opportunities that weren’t there even 15 years ago, to create online communities, to rally support, to organize, to use the internet to level the playing field.
I live in Los Angeles. I’ve been a part of the local Latino theater community going on 10 years now. At the time, there were a few theater companies doing their own thing, starting up, trying to get people to come to their shows. Now there’s a network of actors, musicians, writers and artists who actively support each other, and have become a part of a burgeoning artistic renaissance in some of the city’s historically notorious crime-ridden areas. All of this has been done with minimal access and effort through the Internet.
Social media, social networking, and building communities on the Internet are a whole new language on the scene. As the largest growing population in the U.S. (and historically bilingual, for the most part) it might be time for Latinos to throw another language into the mix.