Coming of Age at the Dawn of the Social Internet

Coming of Age at the Dawn of the Social Internet

Online platforms allowed me to cultivate a freer version of myself. Then the digital world began to close off.

The digital haunts of my youth—AOL Instant Messenger chats, LiveJournal pages, Ragnarok Online forums, GeoCities subcultures—allowed me a heady new sense of freedom.Illustration by Erik Carter; Source photograph courtesy the author

Like so many millennials, I entered the online world through AOL Instant Messenger. I created an account one unremarkable day in the late nineteen-nineties, sitting in the basement of my childhood home at our chunky white desktop computer, which connected to the Internet via a patchy dial-up modem. I picked a username, “Silk,” based on a character from my favorite series of fantasy novels, with asterisks and squiggles tacked on to differentiate my account from others who’d chosen to be Silks as well. The character in the books was a charismatic thief with a confidence that I, an awkward middle schooler, could only aspire to at the time. But the name was not intended as a cloak of anonymity, because most of the people I corresponded with on AIM were school friends whom I saw every day. Each evening, during my parentally allotted hour of screen time, I’d keep several different chats going simultaneously in separate windows, toggling between them when one person or another went AFK—“away from keyboard.” This was unavoidable in the age of dial-up, when the Internet connection would get disrupted any time a parent had to use the phone line. Being online wasn’t yet a default state of existence. You were either present on AIM, immersed in real time, or you weren’t.

There were strangers online, too, and kids venturing into AOL chat rooms could easily find themselves creeped on or misled. It would still be a few years before members of the boomer generation became fully aware of the risks of letting their children loose on the Internet. But for the moment, among my tween cohort, AOL Instant Messenger felt like a kind of alternative society to the one we inhabited in the physical world. Away messages, the brief customized notes that popped up when a user was idle, became a potent mode of self-expression. Quoting song lyrics was big—Blink-182’s “All the Small Things” seemed like the pinnacle of sophistication—but it was considered a faux pas to copy lyrics that a friend had already chosen. Spotting a copycat, one might make use of another classic AIM move, the passive-aggressive away-message update. “Are you going to be on AIM later?” was a common refrain at school. It meant something like “see you later”—on the Internet, where we were still ourselves but with a heady new sense of freedom.

My second home on the Internet was LiveJournal, an early online publishing platform. Rather than gossiping and dropping hints to one another in abstruse away messages, my friends and I wrote diary entries. Posts on L.J., as we called it, were visible to multiple people at once, so my writing there became a kind of public performance, a way of appearing more self-aware and eloquent than I was in person. Every evening, I trawled friends’ pages to see if they had posted and hoped that others were scoping mine in turn. One night, I stumbled upon the LiveJournal of a friend whom I hadn’t known kept an account on the site, and was mortified to discover that his most recent post criticized me by name. I had evidently complained about not being invited to a party, which the friend considered to be evidence of my jealous tendencies. I closed the Web browser before I could read any more, feeling foolish for not realizing that the kind of scrutiny I aimed outward in my online writings could be just as easily targeted at me.

A slightly older high-school friend named Parker, a budding graphic designer, had built a Web site for herself that included a section for blogging. L.J. allowed us to write about ourselves for an audience, but the nascent world of blogs seemed like something different—an adult pursuit, for those who presumably had something worth saying. (Little did we know. . . .) My friend’s site was personalized and elegant, with intricate HTML page structures and clickable art that she’d made herself in Photoshop, which was then easy to pirate online. She posted thoughts on the artists and bands that she liked. Her Web site seemed like a curated museum of the self, built up gradually and carefully. I was smitten with the site, but also, of course, with her.

I pestered Parker to make me a blog, too. She eventually agreed and hosted it as a subdomain on her own URL, which in retrospect was emblematic of the power dynamic between us. The site has been dead for years, but using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine I was recently able to dredge it back up. Reading the blog (which I had aptly titled Verbal Diarrhea) was endearing and excruciating at once. I published angsty screeds about the boredom I felt growing up in the Connecticut suburbs, marooned in the woods without a driver’s license. “I don’t have any mystery in my personal life, so I make it up,” I wrote in one post. Parker and I carried out arguments in the comment threads, just the two of us sniping back and forth, cryptically, perhaps on the off chance that someone else was reading. “You killed me in public,” one comment reads, referencing some now-forgotten high-school incident. Parker and I were critical of each other’s narcissism, the way we thought every sign in the world pointed back to ourselves—which was a feature of adolescence, sure, but also a habit encouraged by the Internet, which had given every one of us our own audience, actual or imagined.

I didn’t understand yet in middle school, but in the years that followed I began to think of my online presence as a shadow self. Those aware of it could see it, and I could see theirs—the reflection of their avatars and icons and away messages, the tone of their instant-message chats or L.J. posts. But, for other people who were not so online, it was still invisible, insignificant. I’ve been thinking a lot about this early version of my online self lately as I’ve been writing about latter-day digital culture and taking stock of just how much the landscape has changed. The so-called open Internet has consolidated today around a handful of platforms that serve users content according to the numbing logic of algorithmic recommendations and feeds. Passive consumption is encouraged. Every interaction is surveilled and commodified through targeted advertising.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the way things were when you were a teen-ager. I grew up online, but time inevitably moved on, and younger generations have become the prime demographic for a new wave of technology. As the writer Max Read recently posited in the Times, perhaps millennials have simply aged out of the Internet. Still, I think something more fundamental has been lost for all of us as social media has evolved. It’s harder to find the spark of discovery, or the sense that the Web offers an alternate world of possibilities. Instead of each forging our own idiosyncratic paths online, we are caught in the grooves that a few giant companies have carved for us all.

Gradually, I realized that the Internet was not just a localized community of people I knew in person but a vaster civilization, with virtual cities full of other people constructing and managing their own shadow selves. Early in high school, I began playing Ragnarok Online, a Korean multiplayer role-playing video game that allowed me to commune with thousands of other users playing at the same time. The game, a predecessor to ones like World of Warcraft, turned the Internet’s burgeoning interactivity into full color, motion, and sound, literalizing the idea of a “virtual world.” I was hooked; there are years of my life from which I have more memories of playing Ragnarok than I do of going to school. Still sitting in the basement of my childhood home, I was now hanging out with people from all over the world. The players from Thailand often wrote “555” in the in-game chat room, which I eventually gathered was phonetic in Thai for “hahaha.”

During study-hall periods at school, I headed to the library or the computer lab and covertly logged in to Ragnarok discussion forums. Any time I see a color combination of green and gold, the pixelated design of a forum called Merchant Guild still flashes in my mind. What we’d now call being “extremely online” was still a clandestine activity for nerds; there was no social capital to be gained from a facility with the customs of the Web. Talking in the forums, to players I knew only by their pseudonyms and avatars, was the first time in my life that I felt like other people were interested in my opinions. I had developed unmistakable expertise in such matters as which monsters to hunt to gain “experience” points, or why thief characters should always equip themselves with daggers. (I didn’t say it was useful knowledge.) My online shadow self possessed a sense of authority and agency that I lacked elsewhere.

The Ragnarok forums sent me on my first trips down the online rabbit hole. The people I chatted with there would name-drop other sites that they frequented; exploring one led me to yet another. There was a forum about playing guitar (Ultimate Guitar) which sent me to one about the Dave Matthews Band (Ants Marching) and, soon enough, to one for disaffected Dave Matthews fans (UFCK, legendary for its cranks). Perhaps other teen-agers got the same feeling playing on a sports team, running drills or training in the gym together, experiences that I scrupulously avoided. I was inept, undisciplined, and unprepared for those collective activities—except online, where I didn’t need to exist in a body.

By the time I was finishing high school, the digital world I’d grown accustomed to was starting to transform. The proliferation of home Wi-Fi was making it easier to go online. Cell phones, like the 2004 Motorola Razr, became trendy accessories and promulgated the language of text messages—like AIM chats that you could hold in your palm. Social networks as we know them today were emerging. MySpace, which launched in 2003, was the first Web site that my IRL friends introduced me to, having caught wind of it from their elder siblings. (Friendster, MySpace’s predecessor, seemed to be for an older crowd.) When I made an account, I was surprised to find that MySpace tethered my shadow self to my physical person. I was no longer just a pseudonym and a cartoon avatar; the site asked for my actual name and a photo of my face; it told me to list my interests for everyone to see. Before, going online had felt like being a solo hiker, exploring unknown territories. Now I felt like I was putting out a billboard for myself on the highway.

MySpace linked the digital geography of the Internet to the offscreen world in other ways. You connected your account to your friends’ accounts by “friending” them, building a map of your preëxisting IRL relationships, and the site prompted you to choose a “Top Friends” ranking of eight people whose names appeared first in the list. The feature became a source of drama—picking someone for your Top selection was no guarantee that they would pick you—but this wasn’t a problem for me, since I didn’t have more than eight friends in school anyway. Looking back at my long-defunct MySpace page, now populated by broken images and empty frames, I found that I had only fifteen “connections” on the site, including MySpace Tom, the site’s co-founder and president, who was friends by default with everyone who joined.

Compared with the fragmented, D.I.Y. Web I knew, social media felt strangely predictable. User profiles on new sites like LinkedIn or Flickr were templated and surrounded by ads. They offered preset options from categories and drop-down menus—age, location, institutional affiliation—and quantified influence through friend and follower counts. The networks were no longer an escape from the power structures of the physical world but a way of reinforcing them. When Mark Zuckerberg started TheFacebook, as he initially called it, he allowed only Harvard students, then the rest of the Ivy League, to join. In the spring of 2006, all college students were invited, and I eagerly awaited an official e-mail address from the university I would be attending.

If using AIM was like being left at home alone for the first time, then Facebook was like borrowing the family car to drive to a party. On our profiles, we listed our home towns and “relationship statuses.” We planned IRL meetups, which marked the first time that I would encounter someone in person whom I’d previously known only from the Internet. What brought us together online was not our interests or affinities, as on the Ragnarok forums, but our age and education levels. Using Facebook felt like “networking” in the way our guidance counsellors meant it. Our online profiles telegraphed who we aspired to be in the real world.

The digital and physical worlds were slowly overlapping, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had my first exchanges with my future wife, Jess, on Facebook in the summer of 2006. She’d found me in a group for admitted students of our university and noticed that we both listed the same band, the raucous-but-nerdy Minneapolis group the Hold Steady, among our favorite musicians. We chatted back and forth on the site, anticipating our first semester. That fall, when Jess walked up to me on the quad, all I could think to say, as she made the leap from profile photo to flesh and blood, was, “You’re tall!”

Our digital lives began to have repercussions beyond campus, too. There was a moment when it seemed to dawn on every college kid that photos of us on Facebook might be visible to our future employers; a whole generation rushed to scrub their accounts of evidence of keg stands and beer pong. The Internet was suddenly connected to the professional sphere that we were on the cusp of entering. From Facebook, I moved on to a newer platform, Twitter, around 2008, because I was preparing to study abroad in China and had read about an American student in Egypt who’d been arrested and had sought help by tweeting via S.M.S. text message. (I still remember Twitter’s now-defunct number: 40404).

My own use of the site turned out to be much less dramatic but no less effective. I tweeted about the articles I was reading on Gawker and the reality shows I was watching on Bravo. I complained about the censored Chinese Internet and tweeted through a vicious early-morning hangover that I still remember, to an audience of whoever was awake online. I shared the art reviews that I was writing for the college newspaper and interacted with the critics and bloggers whose work I followed. Twitter was smaller and quieter then, and its reach was a revelation. Because anyone could publish in the same space, a hundred and forty characters at a time, even much more established writers felt like peers. I could tag journalists I admired and end up in a conversation with them. My Twitter activity was enough to get the attention of a Brooklyn-based art blog, which offered to hire me as a staff writer.

Getting a job through compulsive tweeting marked my first exposure to the digital attention economy that was beginning to monopolize the Internet. I grasped a new formula: content = attention = followers = profit. Anything that made enough noise online could be monetized in one way or another. My online presence increasingly felt like a carefully crafted display of what I wanted to show off, rather than a reflection of my unfiltered curiosities. I accrued a reasonable number of Twitter followers and came to see tweeting as a professional necessity, part and parcel of building one’s “brand.” There was always an audience waiting to give feedback, but what they rewarded was rarely what I cared about most.

This commodification of the self accelerated with the advent of Instagram, which turned the visual trappings of our personal lives into fodder for the feed. In 2012, now living in Brooklyn, I began posting heavily filtered photos of gallery openings, cocktail bars, and Manhattan offices, plus romanticized photos of the writing life—my laptop open in my apartment at night or posed beside a cappuccino on a coffee shop’s reclaimed-wood table. Scrolling back through my early postings, I see that my most popular images earned only a few likes each from close friends—which at the time seemed like enough. Yet there were glimpses of where social media’s increasingly visual orientation would lead: selfies clearly got more reactions than anything else; hashtags and corporate accounts began infiltrating my image captions. On Instagram, which established the archetype of the influencer, cultivating one’s shadow self could become a full-time job.

What we saw and consumed in our feeds was no longer exactly our choice. Beginning around 2015, the sites that I spent so much time on became increasingly governed by algorithmic recommendations, showing us what the platforms had calculated we wanted to see. The byword was “engagement”: whatever was popular would be pushed to become more popular; whatever didn’t get immediate attention was deemed undeserving and allowed to slip quickly into the void. Algorithms sought to “personalize” our feeds, but the effect was that social media began to feel less personal. Updates from my friends and family were crowded out by advertisements, brands, and news stories that the platforms promoted, whether they were accurate or not, because other users had clicked on them. The newest major social-media platform, TikTok, would soon beat out Facebook and Instagram as the go-to Internet hangout space. The platform’s “For You” feed spewed short, addictive videos by strangers that I absorbed by the hundreds almost without realizing.

On all of the major platforms, algorithmic recommendations insured that I would always have something new to look at, regardless of what the people I chose to follow had posted. I began to feel as if I were being constantly force-fed, but with no sense of satiation at the end of each scrolling binge. Social-media platforms were commercial products, the same as cars or cable networks, making money on our voluntary, uncompensated participation. Yet they had become more like the weather, a seemingly unchangeable facet of our reality—or the limit of reality itself.

During the COVID pandemic, I decided to see if I could temporarily purge my life of the feeds. The experiment felt simple, practically speaking—all I had to do was delete some apps from my phone and sign out of some sites on my laptop. But it was also, in a way, unthinkable; FOMO was too light of a phrase for what I felt at the thought of totally logging off. I had spent more than a decade cultivating my presence on these platforms. The conceptual artist On Kawara, for years, sent out telegrams printed with the message, “I am still alive.” Posting online every day accomplished something similar. If the Internet’s algorithms were not registering me, then how could I prove I was still here?

I began thinking of my experiment as an algorithm cleanse, an information detox that would ideally leave me with a more balanced digital diet than before. I kept putting it off until, one week in August of 2022, the prospect of keeping up with the feeds finally felt like more of a hurdle than abandoning them. The prospect of Elon Musk buying Twitter was looming; the mood on the platform had turned even more sour than usual, and many longtime users were fleeing. When I left social media, on a Friday, I didn’t make a farewell announcement. To publicly acknowledge the cleanse would have been to jinx it, not to mention an example of the kind of self-aggrandizement that social media encourages. The truth was that no one cared when you stopped tweeting; the algorithm would simply slot in the content of some more forthcoming participant. When I finished the workday, I simply cut myself off. My phone, previously a 24/7 portal, now felt, suddenly, like a static brick.

I’d expected to feel relaxed in the digital silence, like a yogi on a retreat, but at first I just felt unnerved. I had gone from receiving hundreds, or even thousands, of individual bits of information a day to receiving just a handful. I had stomped on the brakes of my online consumption, and now I felt a disorienting kind of whiplash.

In the subsequent weeks, I became increasingly aware that the Internet was no longer designed to function without algorithmic feeds. The big social-media platforms had become the digital world’s vital shipping lanes, insuring that various forms of content reached their intended targets. Blogs and other Web sites whose function was to aggregate headlines or highlight trends, like the original Gawker, had vanished in favor of a network of feeds. The New York Times app, which in the absence of Twitter became my primary way of checking the news, featured a “For You” tab, much like TikTok’s, that suggested articles based on ones I’d clicked previously. It served me mostly arts-and-culture pieces, with the odd item of real-estate porn, which I appreciated. But that kind of algorithmically guided consumption was exactly what I was trying to avoid.

What I was after, most of all, was a little bit of the feeling I’d had online in the early days of the Internet: a sense of creative possibility and even of self-definition. My purge lasted only a few months, but my distaste for the state of social media has continued. In recent years, I’ve occasionally found flashes of the old feeling of being online. Before runaway financialization and capitalist gambling ruined the non-fungible-token boom, N.F.T.s reminded me of my Ragnarok days, obsessing over pixelated digital commodities that imparted a sense of ownership. On Discord, a chat-room app created to serve online video gamers, I found that small social spaces could still thrive away from the algorithmic tide. The mood-board app facilitated the kind of niche curation—of brutalist architecture, say, or medieval manuscript doodles—that could once be found on sites like GeoCities or Tumblr. Mostly, though, I’ve had the sense that the Internet is in a state of limbo, suspended between the remains of an aging, broken system and the nebulous beginnings of a new one. One of the Internet’s best qualities remains that anyone can start over, at any time, with a blank Web site, and create whatever they want.

Among my formative online discoveries was a sci-fi anime series called “Serial Experiments Lain,” designed by the Japanese artist and writer Yoshitoshi Abe. I would never have found the show at my local Blockbuster, but, after reading about it on a TV-discussion forum, I used BitTorrent to pirate episodes that fans had captioned in English. I waited for the files to download, sometimes for days on end. The show, released in 1998, centers on a teen-age girl named Lain who discovers a virtual realm called “the Wired,” which she accesses through an elaborate personal computer. The palette of the show is dark but soft; Lain is most often seen in her dimly lit bedroom at night, which reminded me of the basement nook that held the desktop in my own home. The series was prescient about the extent to which the virtual space would encroach on the physical one, even come to determine it. The Wired interconnects all communication on Earth, with television, telephone, and cyberspace forming one synthetic reality. Lain slowly realizes that she is partly a creature of this network, a kind of omnipotent deity with the power to make anything happen. In the end, she must decide whether to embrace this new world permanently, giving up her humanity to merge with the Wired. Online, Lain becomes a bolder version of herself. But that doesn’t mean that she wants to remain plugged in forever. ♦

This was drawn in part from “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.”

This post was originally published on this site