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Looking for Cultural Belonging as a Digital Native

The other day a friend of mine asked, “what is Rihanna even up to these days?” Being the merciful person that I am, I kindly updated her on Rihanna’s game-changing entrepreneurial endeavours while also pulling Riri up on the ‘gram. The aforementioned friend then asked, “has she gained weight?” That last comment got me over the edge. What could this friend and I possibly have in common if she’s not even familiar with the trending topic that is #thickanna, when it feels like my entire world orbits the Bajan sun Robyn Rihanna Fenty?

 

Fast forward a couple weeks and I found myself at a dinner party having to explain what FOMO stands for, who BTS are, what the difference between a bitmoji and emoji is, and what the In My Feelings challenge is (was). You know… casual, millennial, internet stuff. I even had to break down a couple memes that same evening.

 

To be fair, yes, I am a nerd with a dumpster brain that picks up on even the most peripheral pop cultural news. But although I wanted to write my friends off as aliens living under a rock for needing me to explain these things to them, at the end of the day I know that the only alien in a situation like this is me.

I grew up in Sweden and Singapore, and although I am Swedish and I’ve spent the majority of my life living in Sweden, I consume relatively little Swedish media or popular culture. And although a majority of the media I consume is American, I am certainly not American either.

 

What I am explaining here might sound like a classic case of third culture kid dilemmas. With this being said, just because a person has grown up in a country other than their “motherland” doesn’t mean they are automatically up to date on Rihanna’s weight fluctuations or the dankest memes. I mean, it takes more than being a TCK to be cut from this internet cloth. 

I spent some time living in Italy a few years back. The Italians turned out to be surprisingly difficult to bond with, the American exchange students were very, um… American, and the Swedish crowd and I had absolutely nothing in common. I ended up living with a Kazakh flatmate and as it turned out, she and I had several things in common. We might not speak the same mother tongue, or celebrate the same religious holidays, but we follow the same Instagram meme accounts, subscribe to the same email newsletters, binge the same TV-shows, and keep close tabs on the same celebrity gossip. We were complete strangers that shared a long list of inside jokes and references without ever having met before.

 

When realising how much more I had in common with a stranger from Kazakhstan than with my Swedish peers, the consequences of growing up in the digital age became very tangible and real.

 

Millennials and Gen z have become digital natives with our own colloquial speech, inside jokes and codes of conduct. All the while national belonging is becoming a thing of the past. So is this it? Is this the future? Just like third culture kids are moulding a sense of unity out of their collective rootlessness, will children spending an excessive amount of time on the internet do the same?

The conclusion I’m leaning towards here isn’t mind-blowingly new. Maybe what I am describing is simply the consequences of modern-day imperialism: cultural homogenisation with America at the helm. After all, it’s no secret that with digitalisation and globalisation comes the merging of cultures and blending of borders. But I feel like my friendship with my Kazakh flatmate represents something more than that. As if today’s generation of internet-based youth embodies a shift in human history where digital culture has officially started to overpower national borders.

by Michelle Hallstrom
photos by Petra Collins for Purple Magazine