September 2005
The Presidents and the (Jueteng) Lords
Focus on the Filipino youth: The Lost Generation

Virtually yours

Technology has redefined the barkada.

CYBER BARKADA. Teenagers (left to right) Jeric Aragon, Lei Cruz, Roch Lazarte, Margo Flores, and July Tan are the best of friends. They rarely see each other, but the Internet and mobile phones keep their friendship alive. [photos by Alecks P. Pabico]

I’M A CERTIFIED Nethead and I can get down and digital with the best of them. But Rochelle Lazarte and her five friends make me feel as ancient as a rotary phone. Formed only seven months ago, their barkada is basking in its newfound friendship that traces its beginnings — the same way that many relationships among young people are being born and nurtured today — in cyberspace.

With today’s fast pace, my own friends and I have found ourselves relying on technology to keep in touch, too. But our friendships were forged long before PCs and the World Wide Web. Born in the late 1960s, our peer interaction was primarily face to face, complemented by letters and telephone conversations — well, that is if your family was among the fortunate lot to have acquired a landline connection in the pre-“zero backlog” era of a telecommunications monopoly.

These days, people still meet each other face to face. But new technologies, very much an indispensable part of our daily social life, have significantly influenced and altered the way we interact and communicate with each other. This is especially true among the so-called Generation Y, or those born after 1979, who have been “the first to grow up in a world saturated with networks of information, digital devices, and the promise of perpetual connectivity.” Yet while technology has opened a universe of possibilities regarding a lot of things, it hasn’t really changed the nature of friendships and how these are maintained. Which is quite comforting for not-so-old fogies like me.

Take Rochelle — better known as Roch — and her cyberkada. They may have been all strangers pre-chat, but except for Lei Cruz, they did have something in common from the start: they all went or are still going to the St. Joseph’s Academy in Las Piñas. Roch is now a sophomore English major at the Philippine Normal University. July Tan is in his freshman year at the University of Santo Tomas. Jeff Din is a senior at the academy, while Jeric Aragon and Margo Flores are both juniors there. Only Jeric and Margo were already friends before that, although they had been introduced to July when he was still the editor of the academy’s school paper and they were contributing artists.

Actually, they have seen each other only twice since they officially became a group — the second time being when they had a physical get together for this piece (minus Jeff, who couldn’t make it). But just like any other barkada, they are in constant touch. The twist is they do so virtually, meeting daily via the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in a chat room called #rochy.

Begun in the chatter’s realm of IRC’s Undernet late last year, #rochy is obviously named after Roch, who at 17 is one of the oldest in the group and is regarded as the ate, a role she takes rather seriously. But it was really the bubbly chinito July who gave the channel its name, which he says was inspired by a lengthy private chat with Roch via Yahoo!’s instant messaging service about her musings on her trip to her hometown in Batangas during the last Christmas break. Before that, most of what would later make up their group were only faceless denizens lurking in #josephians, the chat channel set up by members of Batch ’99 for fellow students — former and current — of their beloved alma mater.

“When she came back, she immediately started chatting. She sent me a PM (private message) telling me about her problem…something about a budding romance. She met a guy, two boys actually,” reveals July half in jest.

In truth, the source of Roch’s melancholy was her pining for the extremely wonderful time she had (including perhaps meeting some boys on the side) during her stay in the province. Her mood was even spelled out in her online status in Yahoo! — “Ibalik niyo ako sa Batangas (Bring me back to Batangas!!!)”

Because he had to pick up something from Margo’s place, July had to momentarily excuse himself from the sharing session with Roch. Somehow he and Margo got to talking about Roch’s “problem.” So the next thing July did was to create a channel that for reasons only known to him was named in Roch’s honor. That night till the wee hours of dawn the following day, he and the rest of the boys would also listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings.

IT MAY seem odd that Roch and company prefer the Net over mobile phones, the gadget of choice of many Filipinos, young and old alike. But the group does use cellphones as a secondary communication tool. In fact, once they go offline, they make the most of their common telco’s offer of unlimited call and texting among its subscribers.

Anj Heruela, a 17-year-old second year broadcast communication student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, has not exactly sworn off the mobile phone either. She still uses it but mainly for the “practical uses” of calling or sending SMS.

But when she was younger, the cellphone was her lifeline. Originally from Iloilo, Anj went to the Philippine High School for the Arts in Los Baños, Laguna. During her freshman year, she got a text message from an anonymous texter, who turned out to be a friend of a grade school classmate’s friend. Their relationship began with the usual exchange of forwarded “Hallmark”-type messages, witty quotes, and jokes. Much like what sometimes happened between phone pals in pre-digital times, Anj and her textmate soon had a romance going. At its most intense, it had Anj consuming P250 week with her prepaid subscription. Yet Anj and her cyberboyfriend never had a chance to “eyeball” (meet), and it was all over in eight months.

While it lasted, though, the romance gave the homesick Anj the attention and company she craved. Anj now has a real boyfriend. But she also chats on occasion, as well as blogs, which she says is more about “wanting people to read what I write,” which is essentially poetry and other stuff out of spontaneous bursts of creativity. So far, she has authored four blogs.

The yearning for attention and recognition is of course inherent in the youth, who find in the new media the venue for exploring and defining their own identities, and establishing their independence. That is why teeners have populated the blogosphere in droves, using blogs, being essentially personal online diaries, as their podium for self-expression. At the same time, blogs are also becoming hubs of virtual communities of friends.

One Filipino collective blog of adults is aptly named blogkadahan. Teen blogs in Live Journal, for instance, are only accessible by bloggerfriends. Members of the Rochy gang are themselves bloggers who make it a point to visit and post comments on each other’s blogs as a way to maintain the flow of communication.

WHAT MAKES information and communication technologies (ICTs) alluring to children and teenagers, says Kathryn Montgomery, co-founder of the Washington-based nonprofit group Center for Media Education, are three basic elements: interactivity, convergence, and ubiquity.

SO YOUNG AND SO HI-TECH. These teenagers have only met each other twice, but their gadgets ensure they remain the best of friends.

Indeed, as a more interactive medium, the Internet provides several ways for young people to communicate with each other, interact with what is on a site, and create their own content. Combining new technologies with existing ones are also expanding the scope of computer-mediated communications to include personal and professional interactions. And the new media are becoming more pervasive, touching all aspects of the lives of the younger generation.

But the young are also using ICTs far differently from the ways they have interacted with the old media of television, radio, and newspapers. They are likewise relating to the new technologies in a manner that their parents never did — keen about the complexities and challenges of the technologies, as well as about being able to learn them. This attitude Idit Harel, a noted new media expert formerly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has summed up in the phrase “High tech is now my tech.”

Since they themselves are helping define the uses of the new digital media, teenagers like Roch, July, Margo, Jeric, and Lei are really adept at — and comfortable — conducting a great deal of their lives online. For most of them, computers were already a fixture at home and in school at an early age. Jeric, Margo, and July were sixth graders when they first experienced surfing the Internet to do research for their homework, as well as acquiring their first cellphones.

Jeric and Margo derived so much satisfaction just from getting cheat codes for the PC games they were playing then until they discovered IRC. They were introduced to chatting only in their third or fourth year in high school, with July confessing to developing an addiction to it just last year. In a week, he’d be online for 50 hours, costing him P200 in prepaid Internet cards. There came a point, though, when he got bored of chatting. But then he met his new gang.

Lei, the only one in the group without any connections to St. Joseph’s, also started chatting last year, initially with the chat rooms in Yahoo!. Then she found her way to IRC and stumbled upon Roch in #makata.

“I met Roch when we took turns composing lines for a poem in #makata,” recounts Lei, a psychology sophomore at Polytechnic University of the Philippines. “Then, someone using the nick (alias) ‘anak ko’ entered the chat room. That prodded me to ask Roch to become my virtual mom and adopt me. She took me to #rochy and that’s where I eventually met the others.”

Roch and July’s friendship started out through an even more peculiar encounter. Narrates Roch: “I came to know July when I commented in the main channel how ugly the current issue of Josephian was. I was expressing concern because I also wrote for the paper before.”

July replied to Roch in private, agreeing with her comment but without telling her that he was the paper’s editor. “She eventually learned who I was,” he says. “After that, we arranged a meeting at the school patio. We have become close since then.”

OUTSIDE OF the church confessional, baring one’s soul in a faceless encounter may seem unimaginable to many grown-ups. Today’s youths, however, are at ease with such a situation, and take advantage of the “always on” peer interaction allowed by the technology. As Roch puts it, “It’s easier to open up when there’s no eye-to-eye contact. When the exchange becomes very personal, you can cry to your heart’s content without the other person seeing you. That way, you don’t embarrass yourself.”

The others agree. “As far as I’m concerned,” says July, “I hate to approach somebody and cry on that person’s shoulder. It’s fine with me to just have someone there listening to me, even if it’s not personal, only technological.”

Yet hearing him and the rest of the rochy barkada attest how they have known each other more intimately, becoming closer than siblings from their online interactions, gives me the impression that there is more to the social networking than just the technology. Of course, ICTs are helping them a lot to keep in constant touch with their intimate community. But these young people are also seeking out those in whom they find a genuine interest, individuals with whom they have something in common, people who are much like them.

In this regard, they are no different from us who made friends in a pre-networked world. Only that in forging their cyberfriendships, they don’t check out someone’s physical attributes first, though they may send each other scanned images of themselves later or post avatars on their instant messengers and blogs.

So who are we to argue that our generation nurtured far more meaningful and dynamic relationships only because ours did not need the intervention of machines? Of course, some may argue that relationships, whether of the filial, fraternal, or romantic kind, require the personal, face-to-face, human touch for them to endure the test of time. But even without this, relationships may thrive if there is one remaining constant: communication in whatever form and manner that generations may choose.

That is why I can’t say I still have a relationship with my friends in high school. We haven’t been in touch for a long time, despite the emergence of the cellphone, the Net, the virtual chat rooms. The communication lines have been broken. The technology is there, but we have simply not used it.

All these have led me musing over how technology would figure in my two young daughters’ future relationships. My eight-year-old and three-year-old will be teenagers sooner than I expect and will be exposed to a digital culture even more different from what we have now. Roch herself says that while relationships of all sorts are still possible offline, “it’s hard to communicate and maintain them without the use of new technologies because they are a major part of our generation.” If that’s the way it is today, my daughters could be looking at relationships that are highly wired — and wireless — and “forever on.”

Well, so long as they don’t get too tied up as to greet their parents “good morning” in a chat room.