THE RISE OF THE TEEN GURU
They're brilliant, ambitious, and almost intuitively gifted at technology. A new generation of whiz kids are gaining unprecedented power and authority -- and, as a new study shows, they're reshaping the American family.
You know the story of kids like Shawn Fanning, and you don't know the story. Fanning got his first computer as a gift from his uncle three and a half years ago, when he was 16. At the time, he lived in Harwich, a small town on Cape Cod. Now he lives in San Mateo, California, at the center of Silicon Valley, but we'll get to that later. Back when he first got the computer, Shawn was an avid baseball, basketball, and tennis player and was, by his account, surrounded by friends. "I was never the typical computer type from a social perspective," he says.
But then this technology dropped into his life, and it absorbed him. "I don't think it was a conscious decision," Fanning says. "It was more of an addiction." He abandoned sports so he could concentrate on programming. He'd get enthralled with projects that kept him up all night and not have time to go to school. His parents frowned on his fascination, but they didn't really understand it and were helpless to stop him. "My mom and I get along pretty well, but I didn't seem to fit in," Fanning explains. The computer became his secret craft, an exercise in selfhood.
Then Fanning discovered the benefits of control. He noticed a regular on IRC (Internet relay chat) with a strange sort of sovereignty. "When somebody got on and started arguing with the guy, he would kick them off," he recalls. "And I thought, How the hell does he do that?" He spent two months tracking him down to learn how. It wasn't video games or instant messaging that got Fanning hooked -- it was authority. "A lot of my interest had to do with the power thing," he says, "and the ability to have real effects on people just from sitting in your room."
Most of us would be happy simply to get our software to run, much less have control over the ways others use it. But Fanning is the kind of person who wants to shape the experiences of lots of other people. In a world where 19-year-olds are, more than ever, adults in training, the computer gave Shawn Fanning an expertise and a chance to steer things. Which, I should mention, he's actually doing. Last year, Fanning dropped out during his freshman year at Northeastern University in Boston to found Napster, the phenomenally popular site for trading MP3 music files. An enormous music repository, Napster lets fans locate, share, and download free tracks from one another. It is one of the fastest-growing new media properties: In six months, Napster accrued 9 million users. It took America Online 12 years to rack up that many. In testament to Napster's rising profile, the Recording Industry Association of America, along with bands like Metallica, has taken notice and is suing Napster for copyright violations. But this legal détente may simply be the transposition of a generation gap. The powers that be are terrified of Napster, a company that has yet to present a business model. The powers that will be are transfixed by it. Fanning, the chief software designer in the company he started, is now surrounded by managers two decades older than he is. On this age issue, Fanning admits, "Yeah, it's pretty weird."
These days, we're all living with the weirdness. Teenagers -- and, at 19, Fanning is a fogey -- are at the helm of the largest sociologic shift in a generation. Raised on e-mail, instant messages, and Internet time, teenagers are developing into young turks of technology. Don Tapscott, who interviewed more than 300 teens for his 1997 book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, concluded that 85 percent of teenagers know more about the Internet than one or more of their parents. "This is the first time in history that children are an authority on something," he says. They lobby to get the computer in the home. They are some of the heaviest users of the Internet. And, as a soon-to-be-published study makes clear, their passion and facility is flipping the organization of the American family.
In a three-year, pioneering research project called HomeNet, social scientists from Carnegie Mellon University gave computers to about 100 families to examine their social effects. The results suggest a dramatic inversion of authority. The latest HomeNet study, slated for publication this winter in the peer-reviewed journal Human-Computer Interaction, tracks the emergence of the "family guru" -- the resident technician, teacher, and occasional tyrant -- most often a teenager. "It's not just that teens have a vast choice of...content and interactions" with the computer, writes Carnegie Mellon professor Sara Kiesler, the study's head researcher. "With the advent of the teenage guru, the child in the family plays a new role of child-as-technical advisor, a role...that confers on the teen authority and probably independence as well."
The scenario sounds familiar, but the consequences are not. We can see how the Internet is rattling the economy, the media, and the music industry (thanks to Fanning), but the societal repercussions may be much more immediate than we think. This adolescent technical expertise that Kiesler observed translates into a broader cultural savvy -- it's expertise with a clearly defined destination. It sparks whip-smart teenagers to found their own companies and inadvertently turns their parents into bystanders, a sort of vestigial hardware.
The lanky, animated Michael Furdyk is the 18-year-old founder and business development manager of BuyBuddy.com, a Consumer Reports about computer devices. BuyBuddy is the second company Furdyk has started. He sold his first dotcom, MyDesktop, when he was 16 for a reported $1 million. "My parents are really supportive of what I'm doing," says Furdyk, who now works as a consultant for Microsoft on the side. Furdyk, like Fanning, is a poster boy for young entrepreneurs. I caught up with him in March in Seattle at a busy networking opportunity called the Bootcamp for Start-Ups, where he was working the room in the middle of a school day. Asked if his parents worry about him, he answers casually, "I think they kind of leave that to me to think about."
Fanning and Furdyk are only the most visible members of this vanguard. It won't be long before they have company -- and competition -- as the technology reaches saturation point. But the social impact will become increasingly subtle and profound. These are critical days, when the audiences for computers cross the threshold between, as they say in social science, "early adopters" and "early majority." One of those years was 1953. That's when more than 50 percent of American households with children under 5 years old had televisions, thus marking the point at which TV's social influence -- its ability to blur public and private behavior, to educate and to alarm -- would be felt forever after. Baby boomers raised on television began to have their "situational geography" remapped in 1953, says social theorist Joshua Meyrowitz in his book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Television mixed all conducts relentlessly -- the public, the private, the proper and improper -- into one teeming cauldron. Meyrowitz argues that you can almost count the days from 1953 until 1967, when that first TV generation hit 18, rejected all roles laid out for it, and ignited the "youth movement" of the late sixties. This year stands to become another threshold. According to a study released in May by the Pew Research Center, roughly half of American families have Internet access. The PC has become a standard appliance, but it is also a carrier of social change. It will soon be woven into the fundamental fabric of the culture.
This fact intersects with the other giant demographic reality: the rise of the so-called echo boom, the generation comprising the baby boom's children. There are more Americans turning 18 now than ever before, says William Strauss, author of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. About 78 million Americans are between the ages of 0 and 22, accounting for 28 percent of the population. "In the last couple years, America has gone totally teenage," says Strauss. What television was to their parents, computers are to them.
But a computer, unlike a TV, requires skill, with authority following close behind. Sheri Parks, an academic at the University of Maryland who studies the impact of electronic media on families, believes the current social climate is prepared for a radical shift. Since World War II, teens have accumulated more and more financial power. "They already directly control millions of dollars and influence many more. They heavily influence what computer the family buys, what second car the family gets," Parks says. But now, as technology becomes woven deeper into families, where the parents are working and often absent, "kids are taking on new kinds of power" in the invisible, elusive electronic world, she says. "Parents can't control what is invisible."
Send a .