“The canary in the cole mine for today’s teenagers”

friendfluenceThat’s how Carlin Flora described me in her new book, Friendfluence, with respect to my immersive online life, which I detailed for her in an interview last fall.

I met Carlin when I was an intern at Psychology Today and she was an editor, so it was kind of a cool time-warpy thing to become her interview subject. I’m super excited for her new book, which combines the latest psychological research on friendships with personal anecdotes.

Here is the excerpt about me:

Anyone over thirty can likely divide life into the pre- and post-Internet eras. They made friends before online socializing proliferated, and now they maintain those friends (and sometimes make new ones) online. But what is it like for younger people who have no “before” and “after,” whose friends have always existed in person and on screens? Arikia Millikan, now twenty-five, got her first e-mail account when she was eight years old, after her mom got her a Hewlett-Packard personal computer. In high school, she started wandering into online chat rooms. “I was drawn to the kind of disjointed interaction it offered—where you could walk away from the computer and come back and resume the conversation later.”

Near the end of Arikia’s freshman year of high school in Gainesville, Florida, when she was fourteen, her mother found an e-mail to her from a boy in her class. “It was sexual, but it was jokey—just innocent kid stuff. But my mom completely freaked out. She ended our Internet subscription. So all through high school I had to walk to the public library to get online.” She could IM there at the library but felt very distant from her peers who had constant access. “There was this whole conversation I was missing out on, and relationships I couldn’t forge. Knowing that I was missing out probably drove the tech obsession I later developed.”

Before going off to college at the University of Michigan in 2004, Arikia got a new laptop. It happened to be the year that Facebook first became accessible to colleges other than Harvard. “You would meet someone in a class or something, and then you would immediately look them up on Facebook,” she says. “You would have way more information about that person than was ever possible before.”

Reading Facebook profiles entailed more than just checking out someone’s favorite bands or movies, Arikia says. It was an intuitive process that yielded an overall impression of someone. “Throughout college I became really good friends with people who were really different from me, opposite in their political views, for instance. Facebook just framed the conversation going forward. You had access to things that person hadn’t told you, but that were fair game information to discuss.”

I wondered if maintaining her own Facebook page was a stressful game of image maintenance, given how crucial these profiles were to social life. “I was always pretty authentic,” she says. “But you want to have your best face forward, so there’s the process of deleting unflattering pictures, and crafting your updates to reflect the best parts of your personality. I was probably less self-conscious than other people about photos that were potentially incriminating, like of me drinking at a party.” Students were warned by administrators, in fact, not to post comments or photos that they wouldn’t want a future employer to see. “I was very quick to take the position that if a future employer was going to hold something silly I did in college against me, that wasn’t the kind of employer that I’d want to work for.” Spoken like a stereotypical millennial!

Yet it was a prophetic notion: Arikia is now an online editor at Wired, the tech and science magazine. Her natural passion for online socializing turned into a job offer when a Wired editor started following her tweets and gave her a few freelance projects to work on. Still close with many of her college friends, she believes she has personally influenced several of them to move to New York, where she headed right after graduation. “I think some of my friends were drawn to come here, based on my portrayal of my experiences in the city on social media.”

“I’m always online,” Arikia says. “I never disconnect, except when I sleep. I probably go to about four events a week; most are media or science related—it’s an opportunity for people to get together and see friends from the Internet and meet new people.” In an ironic twist, Arikia met her roommate—whom she considers to be her best friend—the old-fashioned way, at a bar. But their first conversation was about none other than Facebook. “We were thrilled to find another person who understood social media as much as the other.”

“Social media has made such a big difference on my well-being that I like to show other people that it can be a really enjoyable part of life,” Arikia says. “For me it’s really been the vessel to solidify friendships that I can’t imagine would have formed, or would have formed so quickly, if it wasn’t for the availability of the communication media.”

As for those who say people of her generation are empathy-less narcissists without real friends, Arikia says, “Anyone who would say that has obviously not experienced the full benefits of the Internet or even given it a chance. I feel sorry for them.”

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