* * *
I still remember the screaming fights with my mother when I started spending all my free time on the Internet. (I love you, Mom!) It was the late 1990s. It really freaked her out: What was this Internet, anyway? What was I doing? Who was I talking to?
I would get home, finish my homework right away, then log into online fantasy games and stay there until midnight. I hung out in enchanted glades and slew exotic monsters—and more importantly, I began to understand the benefits of all kinds of communities. But unlike in “real life,” I had a lot of online friends. On the Internet, guys actually flirted with me. In one or two games, I built in-game businesses from digital items and currency; some other players respected my savvy.
This is not difficult to grasp today, but it was quasi-unthinkable 20 years ago. My mom was furious and scared because of media hype about “Internet slayings”—and because no one online used their real names. In fact, making a real name username was considered slightly odd. I knew that it mattered that I could be a snarky merchant in one world and a compassionate healer in another. But at age 12, I didn’t have the vocabulary to defend that space against a stressed-out adult.
As the Internet evolved, the ecosystem of chat rooms, simple games, and clunky flashing headers soon birthed algorithmic matchmakers, blogging software, and serene blue social networks. It also gave rise to anthropologists with more vocabulary, like Tricia Wang, who has documented what she calls “the elastic self.” Wang wrote her dissertation about the elastic self among Chinese youth, but I see myself in the way she describes them:
Chinese youth are developing new forms of engagement that they can iterate in their social circles with people they know. Before doing that, however, they search for safe spaces where they can safely and anonymously practice new ways of thinking and being. These interactions offer them freedom and distance from their existing relationships. They eventually use the experiences, relationships, and practices cultivated through their Elastic Self in other areas of their life.
I was finding myself on the Internet, but I was also learning skills that would be useful both as a professional and a human offline. My ability to be an effective creator was hugely shaped by writing popular fan fiction and running side-project businesses in virtual worlds. Researchers have also found pseudonymous games to be great environments for training leadership skills. “Individuals you’d never expect to identify—and who’d never expect to be identified—as ‘high potentials’ for real-world management training end up taking on significant leadership roles in games,” wrote a trio of professors in the Harvard Business Review.
Nowadays, we’re often told that The Future lies in entrepreneurship. I believe that elastic selfhood is crucial for people’s personal development, but it’s important for broader innovation, too. We need space to experiment and risk-tolerant environments where people can learn.