So, I was staying at my mother's house for the weekend – power out at my place, in town for a relatives birthday, we've been over this right? - and I had one of those generation gap moments.
My mother was watching TV and stumbled across one of those ultra-annoying commercials for Zwinkies. I'd link to them but I understand they're awful with spyware so I won't. Use your own damn search muscles, dammit. But you know the ones that chant “Get Zwinky! Get Zwinky! Get Zwinky!” over and over like some kind of middle school pep rally upbeat imitation of Head On. Here, if you brace yourself for the horror, I'll show you what I mean:
Eyes stopped bleeding yet? Well, anyway, my mother was, understandably, nonplussed and wanted to know just what the hell she'd seen. And since I'm somewhat the family's tech geek in residence, she naturally assumed I'd know.
I should explain, of course, that even though I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, I'm relatively clueless about it all. I press the button, things happen, I'm happy, that's about the extent of my hardcore knowledge of computers. But, for whatever reason, all my relatives seem to think I'm the person to turn to whenever they need help figuring out why their files won't open or their harddrive has melted through their desk and is now cooling in a puddle on the floor. I don't get it.
When it comes to things related to the internets and web culture, she thinks I know what I'm doing. Well, I don't. Not really. I took a haphazzard guess – which turned out to be correct - that these Zwinkies were some kind of avatar thing. It took a bit of doing to explain the concept of an avatar to my mother, though.
My mother, by the way, isn't exactly unfamiliar with computers. She works as a programmer – a DBA – for one of the power companies in Detroit. As you might image, they have any number of databases to organize and maintain, and that's what my mother does. And, by all accounts she's both very good and very respected at it. Knows Oracle, DB2, and more than one way around a multidimensional array. Can look at a page after page of jumbled code and spot the error like that. She taught herself all that rather late in life, after divorcing my father she headed back to school while raising three kids all by herself. Worked her way up from a humble operator to one of the more challenging and lucrative programming positions around in just a few short years. It's just one of the reasons my mother is awesome. But that's big box mainframe stuff. My mother doesn't spend a lot of time websurfing or lurking on forums, she doesn't use AIM or IRC or anything like that. She'd much rather just veg out in front of the television.
But an avatar is not exactly an unfamiliar concept to a veteran of countless forums (And roleplaying campaigns) like myself but I've never had any personal experience with the cloyingly cute little Zwinky things. It's a bit after my time, so to speak. I'd never think to head to some website to slap together a pre-fashioned avatar for my identity on MySpace and elsewhere. I'd, you know, just make one myself the old fashioned way. Of course, I'd never get a ring tone for my cellphone, either, so take that as you will. But having done some research into the topic – to see if I was right, of course – these things are, apparently, really popular. And a lot more than a new kind of “smilies” to enhance the web experience. Not just a simple avatar creating program that lets you flip through eyes and ears like the character creation screen of, say, City of Heroes. They're almost their own little world, with games and forums and instant messaging features and all other sorts of very Web2.0 interactivity.
And Zwinkies aren't the only one. One of the most popular “clubs”, hell, one of the most popular threads, period, over at the Frenzy is for so-called Gaians. Which, you know, back when I was in highschool I got mercilessly teased for saying I was jacked into the information superhighway. And for saying I was reading the latest issue of Sandman – not for the content, but because of the author's name. I can only imagine what Jocky McScratchItch does to someone who says they're a “Gay-an”. But, no, it's not the technogaianism that I'm familiar with, it's a place for people who use the Gaia Online service to come together.
They make up clubs, encourage each other to write, it's a little niche within the 7k+ who've got that adrenaline flowing in their veins. All through this just one of these social networking services. My aunt mentioned something about penguins (And also something about the penguin gestapo but I haven't been able to find it so I'm just going to have to leave that image dangling) that her daughter – my cousin and about twenty years my junior - and her friends use. And, really, you can look at things like the Nintendo Wii's online network and see a similar scenario.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm not saying it's a good thing. I'm saying it's something I don't understand. It's beyond my experience. It's not how we used the web when I was growing up – although the seeds were there, of course, I'm not that old – but to kids growing up today using places like MySpace and Gaia Online are as second nature to them as logging onto an MMO is to me. But for me, it's always going to be something a little unnatural. It's always going to be knowledge I acquire, a thing I learn to use, and it'll never be as fluid or as intuitive as it will be for, say, my cousin.
Now I think I know what it feels like not like my grandmother trying to program a VCR or send an e-mail. But what it feels like for my mother to sit in her chair and see a commercial for a service so far removed from her experience that she has no frame of reference to begin understanding it.