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Why Your Kids Know More About the Future Than You Do


Soon enough, responsible parents are going to have to sit down with their children and say, "I want to talk to you about cybering."

As a positive by-product, cybering may be reinvigorating the narrative form. People tell stories. True stories, and not-true stories. It's a new oral tradition. Amazing stuff. Attention, English teachers!

All media is nerd media -- that is, it starts with an antisocial appeal, or an appeal to the disaffected. After all, media -- the most successful media, anyway -- offers an escape, it takes you out of where you are. For twenty years, new media -- bulletin boards, news groups, multiplayer games -- has been the frontier of the socially inept and the land of the sexually disaffected ("If spankers had a nation," wrote the Internet journalist Ben Greenman, " would be their Congress").

But something must happen for disaffected media to become mass media. In this instance, the catalyzer is AOL -- doing for the Internet what the Beatles did for rock.

First, there was the onslaught of a billion disks spread out over the nation. Unavoidable, omnipresent, irresistible. Filling the nation's sock drawers. Then there was the startling explicitness of AOL's conversations -- tens of thousands of dirty chats. (Everybody knows the business rule that a new medium must expand the borders of prurience. AOL's competitors, on the other hand, CompuServe and Prodigy, never quite understood that media -- i.e., dirty chat -- was the business they were in.) But disks and dirty chat were just the early stage of the medium's development. The real crossover into mass media began in early 1997 with two developments.

"Flat pricing," identifies a boy at my daughter's school (kids always know tons about the media they are most enthralled with; the point about jock culture, for instance, is not that you play sports but that you watch sports).

"And the buddy list," adds a young woman.

Before flat pricing -- AOL went from an hourly charge to a fixed monthly fee -- you were spending your parents' money. You were monitorable, accountable, and, inevitably, irresponsible. After flat pricing, AOL was just a sea of time, oxygen. Before buddy lists, you had to contact someone: It was phone-call-ish; it required a conscious act. With the buddy list, it was like television: The world -- your world -- just appeared before your eyes. In addition, it's an omniscient world. Matter of fact, if you push the concept, it's a world of maximum knowledge. Everyone knows where everyone else is, what everyone else is doing, who everyone else is speaking to. A perfectly level playing field. The problem with cliques is not that they exclude you but that they are mysterious. AOL gives you the power to know not only what your friends are doing but what your would-be friends are doing, and your enemies too. This may not be bad.

Marketers say that when you achieve a 10 percent penetration of American households, you hit a magical point of no return. That's where the snowball effect occurs -- that combination of word of mouth and keep-up-with-your-neighbor anxiety, when it's easier to go along than not go along. AOL hit 10 percent about eighteen months ago.

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