I will never forget the first time I logged onto the Internet.
I was in 4th grade. My dad sat me down in front of his brand new see-through blue iMac G3 and clicked on a tiny AOL icon. A screen appeared asking for a login and password.
"I made you an e-mail address," he said while my eyes scanned the screen. I had already explored the worlds of Pokémon on my Gameboy and Mortal Kombat on Nintendo64, but this seemed like something so much more.
"What's my e-mail address?" I asked, my hands already reaching for the keyboard.
"Magnet123@aol.com," he said. My nickname in hockey was "magnet" because I was incapable of playing my designated role on the ice. I went where the puck went, like a magnet.
From that fateful day onward, I have been a child of the Internet. This is where I was raised.
I laughed hysterically at videos on eBaum's World like "Here Is The Earth." I listened in awe as kids in my 5th grade class proclaimed they had found web sites with topless women. I spent hours reading forums with video game hacks and secret codes. I never once went to the library for a research project, instead always reverting to Google. I would sneak downstairs to the computer in the middle of the night and practically have a heart attack when AOL would start back up, the volume of the computer maxed out, sending a screeching sound all throughout my house as I connected to the Internet.
I learned how to read on the Internet. I learned how to write on the Internet. I learned how to sell things on the Internet. I learned how to forge meaningful relationships (through the World of Warcraft and chat programs like AIM) on the Internet. I watched everyday people rise to fame on the Internet. I was exposed to art I never would have seen, information I never would have learned, stories I never would have heard, people I never would have met, and ways of life I never would have considered--all because of the Internet.
And then I watched advertisements slowly clutter my favorite websites. I watched big brands buy up and take over. I watched the government step in and try to regulate our free world. And most of all, I watched this vast and distant world I considered to be a second reality slowly take over the primary.
I have watched this thing we call "The Internet" infiltrate real life, so much so that we no longer know the difference.
As someone who has, by every definition, truly "grown up on the Internet," I want to remind you of what's real and what's not. When I was 17 years old, I was e-famous through the World of Warcraft. I had more people reading my blog every single day than most professional New York Times columnists. I learned how to build a personal brand before I knew how to properly fill out a college application. And I also learned, at a very young age that on the Internet, perception is reality--and that can be both extremely powerful and extremely dangerous.
This is my open letter to "us Millennials," the demographic that has been labeled everything from lazy and over-privileged, to forward-thinking and naturally creative.
I want us to be aware of just how rare of time period we have been born into. We are the only generation that, quite literally, is the same age as the Internet. When the Internet was an infant, so were we. When the Internet hit adolescence, so did we. When the Internet went off to college, so did we. And when people started taking the Internet seriously, we graduated, stepped out into the real world, and suddenly people started taking us seriously, too.
The generation after us, they don't have this. The first toy their hands ever touched was an iPad. The generation before us didn't have this. To them, the Internet is still primarily a confusing place of which they have very little inherent knowledge. We are the only generation that has experienced life before the Internet ruled everything, but at the same time, can speak the language fluently.
That is a tremendous gift.
But I'll be honest, I think we've forgotten that.
When I log into Instagram, I see wannabe role models that I know personally, who don't have a clue what they want to do with their lives, preaching how to find "that one thing you love most in life." I open up Facebook and see people who are in no way masters of their craft selling courses on that craft. I see ad after ad of a guy standing in front of a Ferrari trying to tell me that a seven figure passive income is easily attainable in just 3 Easy Steps. I open Snapchat and watch gorgeous girls pout at the camera with this untouchable look in their eyes, and then I talk to these same girls in real life and hear them confess how insecure they are. I go to YouTube and watch guys talk about how they are shredded at seven percent body fat and "all natural," and then I go train with them they confess they just say that to market themselves.
All these things are besides the point.
What I want to talk about instead is how this distorted reality makes us feel.
And a lot of us feel like failures.
Twenty-three, 24, 25, 26 years old, a few years out of college, and the overwhelming question is, "Why aren't I a millionaire yet?" We look at what we see on the Internet and wonder why we don't have a camera crew following us around too. We wonder where our gold watches are, where our Ferrari is, when our vacation to Bali will come.
Here's what I want to say:
If you want that to be your reality, you can create it. That's the power of the Internet, and I'll be the first to advocate for that. If you want to be an influencer in your field, go partner up and collaborate with other influencers. If you want to be a thought leader, hang with the thought leaders. If you want to motivate people, go create motivational content. If you want to teach people, go create really cool stuff that teaches people.
But just like our relationship with the Internet, don't forget the life that exists outside the Internet. Don't forget that what you're portraying, you should also be living yourself.
It's our choice. We can either use the Internet and all its tools to actually create things of value, or we can fall into the dangerous trap of trying to create the perception of something that is in no way true. We have been given an invaluable opportunity here as Millennials. We are, like the Internet, old enough to be taken seriously, old enough to start companies and create movements, old enough to create true change.
But also, like the Internet, we are still comparatively young and reckless. We have just stepped out on our own in the world. We know what we know really well, while at the same time, we're not entirely aware yet of what it is we don't know.
This recklessness is what gives us the naive confidence to do great things, like create sustainable foods or find new sources of energy or invent social media platforms that connect people all over the world.
And it is also the very thing that can quickly cause us to spiral out of control.
So, to all my creatives, all my aspiring entrepreneurs, all my peers and those of us with the demographic title of "Millennial": I'd like to remind you that the author of this article, an Inc. columnist, a published writer, an editor-in-chief, is also a 25-year-old boy who just loves to write, and is writing this sitting at a coffee shop wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The air conditioning is turned on too high. My cup of coffee is empty. The girl next to me keeps coughing and I really hope she doesn't get me sick. The girl opposite me keeps making weird faces at her laptop, which makes me wonder what she's working on. The couple two tables away seem to be on a first date and are doing their best to conceal their nerves. The man who owns the coffee shop is British and listening to him talk to customers is amazing--"Aaaand what'llya be havin'?"
This is our reality.
My description and expression of it is extended into this article, shared on the Internet.
Let's all express ourselves.
But let's also not forget where that expression comes from.