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Columns, Opinions

Hong ’24: The challenges of engaging with digital communities

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In three days, 300 clubs, 300 Zoom links. A daunting Google Spreadsheet. 

Over the three-day Brown Student Activities Fair, I joined a scant nine of the 300 some student activities links. I ended up leaving nearly all Zoom calls thinking, “I’d love to join on campus, but I won’t join virtually.”

My first Brown Student Activities Fair highlighted the challenges of joining online student communities. There were so many student activities — nearly endless options — to choose from, but I only managed to check out nine clubs online. This number is miniscule compared to the dozens of clubs I could’ve visited at a physical activities fair.

From the outset, I knew that I couldn’t give each activity a fair chance online. In an ideal world, I would’ve spent hours researching all the club websites and communicating with the club leaders before the fair. That way, I would’ve truly taken advantage of the huge collection of activities at Brown. But, confronted with 300 Zoom links, I did what I assume most others did: I quickly perused the list of clubs and judged each by its name. I picked activities that sounded exciting — or that I was familiar with from my prior experience.

My behavior reflects a cyberspace trend I’ve felt as a first-year student studying remotely. Contrary to what we may believe, the Internet does not always give us tremendous freedom. Indeed, the longer we find ourselves in cyberspace, the easier it is to get fatigued. As the remote semester continues for many of us, we may become more myopic as a result.

Instead of exploring more options throughout the semester and joining new communities, we stick to the people and activities that we are familiar with. This wasn’t the case at the beginning of the academic year. Back then, I raced to email various student club leaders and joined as many optional webinars as I could. I hadn’t even matriculated at Brown, but I still emailed The Herald about writing positions. I was totally unfamiliar with planetary geology, but I still sat in on a class. I even messaged an upperclassman out of the blue, in the spirit of gathering more information about Brown.

As time passed, however, I grew tired, and I prioritized other digital activities that I already knew, rather than starting up new ones. Instead of virtually joining groups of Brown students who lived on an unfamiliar campus far, far away for me, I decided to ring up my closest high school friends. Instead of sitting in on a physics lecture, I decided to read the latest local news. Despite the treasure trove of information on the internet, I found myself returning to my old online habits. 

Old cyberspace routines are familiar and comfortable. We trust them. But they don’t allow us to explore or expand ourselves. Complacency accompanies internet fatigue. Unable to continuously digest our vast array of internet resources, we stick to our favorite digital resources, inadvertently boxing ourselves into “tried and true” activities and genres. Sometimes, we become so sick of the internet that we avoid it altogether. 

As a first-year student, my sole connection to Brown is through the virtual world. In these circumstances, I would never give that up. When I rigorously took advantage of Brown’s online resources, I met new Brown peers, and I became happily acquainted with several Brown student groups. 

Yet, online interactions are still no replacement for in-person ones. Physical space and in-person interaction foster intellectual and personal exploration of diverse topics — whether we want it or not. In comparison, so much is lost online: During Zoom sessions, we may mentally tune out or physically leave. After hours of internet exposure, we may lose the drive to explore digital resources, which are often the only ones available to us during these times. 

Internet fatigue is real, and virtual student activities are incomparable to in-person clubs. Sometimes, it’s fine to log off the web. But now, since we communicate with others exclusively online, we should make concerted efforts to exercise the full range of freedom that the internet provides. All of us in the University community — not just first years — should try to fight against this fatigue and purposefully interact with new websites, new communities and new ideas. 

Jaehyun Hong ’24 can be reached at jaehyun_hong@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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