E-motions: How the Internet has changed the way a generation thinks, feels, expresses

Kate Shellnutt by Kate Shellnutt

It’s the 21st Century, and the indulgent world that Madonna sang about in her quintessentially ’80s hit “Material Girl” has all but given way to the World Wide Web.  At 23, I’ll admit, we are living in a digital world, and I am a digital girl.

The Internet has gone from a storehouse for information to an outlet for socialization, and today’s generation is transferring more of its day-to-day activity from the physical realm to one that exists beyond our computer screens.  We ask Google our questions. We take classes online.  We post announcements on our profiles. We complain on f my life.

And these digital lives we lead alter the real-world lives we increasingly leave behind.  The Internet has become an outlet for our emotions and a depository for our relationships, changing the way we express ourselves.

Emotion was once necessarily physical, shown in screams, laughter, hugs, hits and nods.  Today, though, we almost instinctually turn to the Internet with our feelings.


When work frustrates us, we bitch and moan about our coworkers in our away messages or fire off strongly worded emails to friends.  There we rant and rave about our relationships, marriages (see: stfumarrieds.tumblr.com), breakups.  I guess this is what’s meant by “extimacy,” the need to share and expose once-personal details, or exteriorizing the intimate.  Also known as TMI.

The Internet is always nearby, a persistent, virtual listening ear for all of our feelings, not just individually, but also collectively: The passing of pop icon Michael Jackson, after all, was mourned first as a Twitter trending topic.

But the Internet is a funny thing; it’s both constantly present and constantly absent.  Like God, it’s at the same time everywhere and nowhere.  The digital world is placeless, so even though it receives our expression—in bits and pixels and tweets—it leaves us alone, restricted to the screens of our laptops and iPhones.

The Internet is disembodied.  Despite what you may argue about interactivity and networking, it cannot reach out to us in the ways that people can.  So when Facebook gets more face time than any friend of mine, that’s a freaky thing.  Not only is my head in a different place, depending on archived emails and Wikipedia for info, but now, so is my heart, tied to daily, hourly ritual of connecting online.

It reminds me of a quote I read about people becoming “posthuman,” something that seemed silly just a year and a half ago… but somehow scarily relevant now.

“Cyberspace represents a quantum leap forward into the technological construction of vision.  Instead of an embodied consciousness looking through the window at a scene consciousness moves through the screen to become the point of view, leaving the body behind as an unoccupied shell,” wrote Katherine Hayles, a scholar who writes about electronic texts and postmodernity.

As computers and technology continue to play a growing role in our lives, the old ways of doing things will just become even more passé.  Already, it’s weirdly out-of-the-ordinary to send a handwritten letter or pay an unexpected visit.  In the future, will we be uncomfortable with these physical interactions?  With outward emotions?  With touch?  Will we value the digital over the real, embodied world?

I don’t think we can stop the powers of the high-tech world, but we can make conscious efforts to incorporate non-digital media and interactions.  This was part of my thought process when I used photos developed from film (gasp!) and notes on sheets of a memo pad for my slideshow on spirituality on D.C. streets.

Sometimes my old-school efforts may seem for naught: Many of the people I send letters to won’t return my correspondence and my local friends may rather Gchat than come over to talk, but I still make the effort.  These little bits of dated tradition – a typewriter, a thank-you note, a dinner party – become even more special as they become more infrequent.

Admittedly, I might be a little more concerned over the Internet’s effects and a little more nostalgic over the physical culture it seems to replace.  So what do you think?  Does the digital world change the way you express yourself, the way that you interact with others?

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18 Responses to “E-motions: How the Internet has changed the way a generation thinks, feels, expresses”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Great article! Makes my heart clench up though thinking about writing letters and them not being returned. I know it’s a selfless act but I can’t help but be sad thinking about the joy someone gets receiving the treasure of snail mail and then not responding. I also love real hugs and have never heard the word ‘extimacy’ before. I agree though that even while the internet disconnects, it also brings together. Just had an email from John Bosco’s mom and Mr. Enzmann about my blog – even when snail mail was protocol I feel one wouldn’t have been compelled to pen a letter if they were feeling just a hint of nostalgia for someone but now people can instantly send a little message to let you know they’re thinking of you. The re-worked site looks great- i like the entry page.

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    This clip says it all – and being an oldster – I can sit back and view the difference. It’s amazing, sad, and unstoppable – all at the same time. My grandson probably won’t know what a postage stamp is, or even money – when all we use are plastic cards. The speed of it all is scary too – hang on for the ride!

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