How the Internet Is Saving Gen Z in Flyover Country

The 2030 Project is five residents from around the U.S. who are working on various teams at Vice Media Group. They’re exploring how young people are re-thinking the traditional structures that define us as individuals. Read more here.

Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, my friends and I would run around cornfields on Friday nights as lights from the city five minutes away shined above the grain. We’d wait in hour-long lines for shows at First Avenue as the temperature dropped below zero. We’d talk about our dreams of leaving “Middle America” and moving West or East, placing us closer to cultures that represented who we were.

And we were spellbound by the internet. 

We wanted clothes, music, art, and culture from coastal cities and lived vicariously through California skateboarders on YouTube and music video shoots in New York City. But we lived in “flyover country,” where we felt like vibrant individualism was discouraged and the status quo was the law. 

Internet access has shaped Gen Z’s identity and physical location is becoming an irrelevant factor in this formation. While everyone is an audience to this digital ecosystem, Gen Z is being raised on its fibers. Media has long provided young people with aspirational content and creative inspiration, but those born after 1996 have experienced unparalleled immediate access to people and communities all over the world, in a way that requires fewer gatekeepers.

This unlocks a less-curated, more immersive, and limitless view of cultures and subcultures. For people living in places where everyday life is seemingly bland and diversity-dry, they can easily log on to any given platform and transport beyond the borders of their hometowns to craft and define their own identity. 

For 20-year-old Kymon Palau, the internet is a place to find both people with shared experiences and a platform to amplify his own identity. 

Palau is of Navajo and Tongan heritage and attends the University of New Mexico. He’s also a famous TikTok creator with 7.8 million likes on his content. With the platform, he educates viewers on Native American experiences and representation. 

“I use the internet to find a new love for myself, a new appreciation for myself; my body, my skin color, my facial features, my identity,” Palau said. “I began to see that there are people who have gone through similar experiences growing up in a world that tried to demonize their culture, their way of life, their identity. And because of those shared experiences, I was able to use the internet to find my friends, my people.”

The aspiring filmmaker said the internet was crucial in democratizing his creative freedom. He said he was exposed to new ideas from everywhere, and this not only gave him inspiration, but also a newfound creative confidence that has no boundaries. 

“People’s thoughts and opinions can’t be stopped, my thoughts and opinions can’t be stopped. If something is missing—if representation is not there, if there is a lack of truth—someone is going to call you out,” Palau said of the digital communities he inhabits. “Someone is going to educate you. Having the internet is important to unlearn things and learn new things from people who have experienced it.”

Palau also acknowledges there are drawbacks to the internet. Namely, it’s a digital ecosystem that can spark positive inspiration, but also hate speech, discrimination, and radical group think. 

One need only look at sites like DLive, a far-right-wing streaming site, which was used by rioters at the Capitol, as well as by the racist MAGA teens who destroyed a mysterious monolith in California.

But when used for navigating a young person’s burgeoning identity and ideas of self, the internet has unparalleled power. 

“Of course where we live and the things we’re close to shape who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are,” said Natasha Chuk, a communications and media professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “The internet has broken up geography for us, it’s created a new language that allows us to adjust our identities accordingly and by design, the way that we use it we can expand on the things we’re exposed to in the physical world.”

Particularly for Gen Z and BIPOC individuals from smaller communities, Chuk said the internet can spark new ideas about who they are and who they want to become. The professor points to a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein for explanation: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

“One of the opportunities of the internet is connecting with people who are not living in your geographic space, they’re not part of your local community,” Chuk said. “This has a lot to do with identity—who we see ourselves aligned with in terms of our own personal make up, our race, our cultural values, but then also interests. So much of what we’re doing is aspirational when we go online.”

Rich Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who specializes in ethnic minority studies, explains that a desire for cultural and racial connection—especially among immigrant communities who live far away from their region of origin—is almost universal across Gen Z. 

“We are increasingly understanding how people whose families have been displaced from their homelands are still finding ways to maintain those attachments and in other ways recreating them virtually—something we call ‘coethnic solidarity’,” Lee said. 

He explained that through the internet, young people have broken away from previous generations’ desire to assimilate to “the norm,” particularly in places where they may be seen as the odd ones out. For example, Minnesota has a large Somali community and for those children in white-dominant suburbs, this is starting to be celebrated.  

“Historically in the U.S., there has been a strong push to assimilate—meaning a push to become white,” Lee said. “Now we’re at a place where this new generation is not as pressured or bound by that because you could be watching a YouTube show of some kid in another country. Or you can watch your Korean dramas on Netflix—none of that was accessible before. It’s as if you don’t have to be embarrassed or hide that facet.”

Online access also allows multicultural young people, especially those in homogenous communities, to connect with people who share their circumstances or background; two first-generation immigrants, for example, might naturally gravitate toward each other because they understand the similarities of their experiences. 

“When you are a part of a group that feels isolated or marginalized—one of not many—you’re going to look for that,” Lee said. “The internet and technology provide more ease of access to this.”

This sort of “looking out to discover within” approach is even creating self-made success stories. For previous generations raised in ‘flyover country,’ relocating was seen as the key path to success and boosted financial opportunity

Now, Gen Z is able to find success from their bedrooms. The rise of streaming sites like Twitch are putting them front and center—whether it’s for gaming, or “Just Chatting,” as the site calls it. Teen role models are also shifting: from hometown quarterbacks to political commentators, online influencers, and DIY designers. 

One such creator is 24-year-old Sam Fleming. An artist from Minneapolis, Fleming drew inspiration from a trip to New York and virtual exposure to artists from around the world, specifically Tokyo, since childhood. 

He used the internet to grow an online shop that in its prime helped him earn more than $16,000. He eventually had to scale back to focus on school, where he’s now studying to be an architect. But the internet gave Fleming the ability to launch a side hustle that wouldn’t have been as easily possible years ago. 

“I found other organizations that helped me get in touch with other communities that are online,” Fleming said. “When it came to that, the online stuff came second to the immediate connection.”

Fleming said that early exposure and growing up on the internet primed him to be excited and open-minded—particularly around international art styles and culture. He said this mentality manifested itself in his work and encouraged him to keep creating.

“For me, I’m some random college kid who likes to draw and I was able to make a good amount of money just selling my work and making clothing in my room,” he said. “That otherwise wouldn’t have been available to me, and I don’t know what else I would do.”

“Without all the bad on the internet, the good wouldn’t be possible.”