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The art of being, as told by the internet

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APRIL 10, 2023

As an 11 year old, I, like every other preteen with access to the worldwide internet, was addicted to Buzzfeed quizzes.

The classes I looked forward to the most were the ones where the coveted Chromebook cart would be wheeled into the classroom, signaling 55 precious minutes of in-class internet access. I spent most of that time switching between tabs of what I was actually supposed to be doing and random quizzes titled “What dog breed are you based off of your favorite desserts?” My tablemates and I would spend entire periods on the Buzzfeed website, dissecting our results in hushed whispers while pretending to type out the essays that we were very evidently not working on.

Growing up in the digital age, I’m sure that my experiences in the art of covert internet personality test-taking are not unique. The internet has undoubtedly shaped the identities of this generation of adolescents, starting from the mid-2000s YouTube to the social media of today. As I scroll through Pinterest, I am met with hundreds of comments from preteen girls along the lines of “What aesthetic is this?” The MBTI types and Hogwarts house combinations have become the clean girl, coastal granddaughter aesthetics of today — I guess some things never change.

We have always looked for community (just think back to wandering bands of humans in the Paleolithic era), and the internet is the perfect place to make a large world seem smaller. As a middle schooler figuring out who I was, these beloved personality tests gave me more than a pixelated display of my results — they gave me a sense of belonging. As I poured through pages and pages of the traits, likes and dislikes and preferences of ESFPs, I found bits of myself in every line. As I scanned through the nitty-gritty of how Hufflepuffs are loyal and hard-working, I found myself feeling better about the fact that my friends had all been sorted into the “cool” houses. 

As a preteen with little to no media awareness, my entire personality became the fact that my MBTI type was the root cause of my indecision and inattentiveness, and that my Hogwarts house was what made me a good person. Maybe that’s the same thing going through the heads of the “what aesthetic is this” preteens of today — it’s easier to digest and comprehend the ins and outs of your burgeoning personality when you have something to mold yourself around. 

Sometimes, I like to think about what I would be like — what anyone born after the year 1998 would be like — if the internet had never existed. What would the process of figuring myself out, without all the weird little niches and quizzes the internet holds, have looked like? In all honesty, maybe it would have been better. 

Discovering who I am as a person, minus the inundation of Tumblr thinspo and social media encouragement to follow a strictly keto diet, sounds like an awfully fair trade to me. Even though internet culture has gotten the slightest bit better, the same goes for preteens today. Puberty (and life) would go a lot easier for 11 year olds if they didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. every single morning for a green smoothie and a three mile run.

While I think that striving to live up to the perfectly manicured personalities of the Internet definitely led me down a slippery slope at times, I would never have discovered some of my favorite things without their presence in my prepubescent life. My entire middle school music taste was marked by the pop-punk renaissance of 2016. The book series I devoured came from the YouTubers who raved about them in half-hour long videos. When I aligned myself with Spotify in the ages-old Apple Music vs. Spotify debate, when I self-identified with every Booktuber on the Internet. These online communities I found myself a part of began to influence my passions. 

Without the internet, I wouldn’t have found my people. Not just my Hufflepuffs and my ESFPs, but my music lovers and bookworms. The things I grew to love from the Internet began to translate into my real-life friendships. If I hadn’t listened to what I listened to and read what I read because of the cool girls on the internet I strived to be like, I wouldn’t have met the friends that I cherish today.

I grew up with the internet. As a kid, I let who I was be defined by the algorithmic responses I got from quizzes written by who was probably an unfortunately underpaid Buzzfeed employee. I believed too many words of advice from fitness gurus who, to me at the time, embodied the pinnacle of health and wellness. I later realized they actually gave terrible advice for my body. 

But, the good outweighs the bad. The internet has shaped me as a person. It’s gifted me with almost every interest I have today and the most wonderful friends alongside it. The ways human beings shape their personalities and connect with others has changed drastically as our world grows increasingly digitized — and while that’s a double-edged sword in itself, I will always, always choose to look at the bright side of it.

Naomi Lam writes the Monday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 10, 2023