Most stories end with a secret being revealed, but my story is a little unorthodox. This narrative is going to begin by sharing a secret: I have a fear of the digital world. My anxiety isn’t so different from many people’s common uneasiness around the ocean; my online anxiety, like phobias of the ocean, is about the depth—the unknown. However, if I am really going to sit down and trace my fear to its inception, I am going to have to place all the blame on Minesweeper.
Allow me to backtrack a little.
By the time I was six years old, I had my own computer in my bedroom (check out the bulky setup behind me in the featured picture). This might not seem so impressive now, since many preschoolers are technologically savvy by the time they are half that age. Nevertheless, this was a pretty big deal in 2001 when we were still watching VHS tapes and still had a corded telephone hooked on the kitchen wall (which I avidly used as a limbo bar or jump rope when my mom made calls).
It all began with that computer—a clunky white box with no online access, just some preprogrammed games. I started by playing Pinball, attracted by all the whizzes and beeps and glowing lights. Once I felt like I had gotten the hang of the game, I moved on to Solitaire. Because of the strategic awareness involved in this game, it took me much longer to get the hang of. It did happen though, so I moved on again—this time to Minesweeper.
I never have managed to get the hang of Minesweeper. It became a game of just randomly clicking all over the place until I was unlucky enough to click on a hidden bomb, at which point a defeated smiley face (no longer smiley) would signal a “game over.” In many ways, I feel that my early digital experiences were identical to my guesswork while playing Minesweeper: click here, now here, now there, now—oops. I clicked the wrong thing. BACKSPACE. BACKSPACE. EXIT.
Since my technological coming-of-age occurred during the online “boom,” I feel like there was a lot of gray area surrounding my digital presence. People would come to my elementary school and tell us not to trust strangers on the internet. Essentially, the “stranger danger” slogan that had once warned my generation against getting in the car with someone we didn’t know had just been attached to the word “computer,” as if that was all it took to make it appropriate for an entirely new challenge in personal safety. There was no consideration given to evaluating the trustworthiness of sources, nor was there any substantial mention of the permanence of online activity. By the end of high school, education had caught up to these challenges and made us aware of them; however, many of my peers—myself included—had already been clicking high and low all over the internet for at least a decade by the time these warnings came.
I turned on the CPU and monitor, listening to the loud purr of the system waking from a long slumber. I went to the kitchen, grabbed a snack from the cabinet, and returned to my spot in front of the screen, excited to try my hand at making a website. Click the internet icon. Google “make your own website.” Weebly? Sure, I’ll try that. I’m feeling inspired by Hilary Duff’s character in “The Perfect Man,” where she blogs every detail of her life to an unknown audience. My mom is not boy-crazy and forcing me to move all over the country, though, so what should I write about? My hamster, Cookie, just died… I’ll make a website in his honor. I’ll post some pictures from my phone (I finally have a camera feature) so that everyone can savor his cuteness. I’ll write a heart wrenching tribute to his gentle, furry spirit. Just some finishing touches…and, voila! I’m eleven years old with a website.
This memory, in many ways, marks my initiation to the online world, coinciding with the general initiation of the online world itself. There were not many guides—a lot of it was just guesswork. Is this a reputable source? I don’t know. Will this website give me a virus? I have no clue. Should I make a website so that I can post pictures and tales of my dearly departed hamster, Cookie? Sure—what is permanence, anyways? Click. Click. Click. It was Minesweeper all over again, but with higher stakes. The Minesweeper bomb had become a tidal wave of misinformation, a virus, or a permanent online presence at an age when permanence had no meaning.
The importance of learning to effectively maneuver the hidden bombs in the digital realm, rather than just randomly clicking your way through it, cannot be stressed enough (something I wish I knew when I was committing my obsession with my hamster to the online netherworld). The real question is: How do we strategically navigate the internet in a way that allows us to benefit, rather than suffer, at the hands of its medley of information?
On the Georgetown University Library website, this issue is addressed thusly: “Unlike similar information found in newspapers or television broadcasts, information available on the Internet is not regulated for quality or accuracy; therefore it is particularly important for the individual Internet user to evaluate the resource or information” (Evaluating Internet Resources). The days of being able to type anything into Google and click on the very first thing to appear are, quite frankly, long gone. (Perhaps I should not have Googled “make your own website” and just clicked on the first result.) There are many times when the first two results are sponsored content, and many more times when the top results are from websites with strange URLs. It is our responsibility, then, as consumers of information to pay close attention to these details and consider them before passing final judgment.
When I find myself on a website trying to inform me of something, I find Jay David Bolter’s words from the “Writing as Technology” chapter of Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print floating around in my head: “The open architecture of the World Wide Web allowed individuals to create sites and add them to the Web without the approval of any authority” (20). As of yet, there is no general committee to approve people’s individual online endeavors. Particularly unsavory projects, such as those concerning illegal activities, are monitored, but everything else seems to be fair game. It is this freedom that allows people to disseminate false information on the web, and it is this freedom that allows a young girl to prematurely establish herself as a member of the online community.
On a similar note, James E. Porter uses his Computers and Composition essay “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric” to further explore ideas regarding online presence and purpose. He writes:
Writing—all writing, I would say—resides in economic systems of value, exchange, and capital. These systems are not necessarily monetary or commercial systems […] The kind of economics I am talking about has to do with value more broadly defined: yes, it might involve the exchange of currency—but the motivation could be based on desire, participation, sharing, emotional connectedness. (Porter 218)
Keeping the idea of “motivation” in mind is essential to evaluating online sources. While the producer of website content might not be paid for making information available, the pay-off could come in a different form, such as persuading, uniting, or igniting an audience. (The motivation for my own online writing was to unite an audience in adoration of a very cute, cuddly creature.) Rather than clicking aimlessly all over a website, sometimes with the uninvited consequence of a virus or irritating pop-up, looking at where information is coming from can be very telling of why that information is being shared. Without even having to click on a website, the URL can be a great goldmine of information. Personally, I find it incredibly flattering that all of these online platforms have such an intense focus on drawing little old me into their digital depths. Keeping this in mind, though, I stay diligent of these motives whenever I am working on the computer.
Six year old Talia would probably be very disappointed to learn that I have never mastered Minesweeper (although she might be excited to know that she’ll be getting a hamster in four years). I can picture that tiny girl who had stuck Hello Kitty stickers all over the side of her desk asking, “What have you been doing all these years?” I might reply, “I stopped clicking all over the screen—on Minesweeper and on the internet. The only difference is that I stopped clicking all over Minesweeper because I never figured out the game; I stopped clicking all over the internet because I did figure out the game.” This would almost certainly go over tiny Talia’s head, but it certainly has meaning to me now. My digital literacy journey began simply, a product of a basic computer with even more basic capabilities, but it has led me to a place in my life where I feel like I have the skills to navigate the complexity of the digital realm…however scary that might sometimes be. Mindless Minesweeper clicking is a thing of the past—and for that, I am truly grateful.