The Internet That Once Was
I didn’t expect to feel old on the internet this quickly. I thought that as the human lifespan expanded that we would feel younger for longer instead of becoming older earlier. My childhood, colored with freebie AOL CDs and screeching modems is tucked firmly in memories that have been plied with to the point of unreliability. I feel slow and unresponsive in the present as technology evolves at a pace that I don’t have the stamina or desire to keep up with. I’m reminded of those sunflower yellow spiral wishing wells ubiquitous in central Florida malls. You dropped a coin to watch it revolve around the funnel with increasing speed. No matter how long it took, the end was always abrupt. Youth runs out the same way. Plink.
The hallmark of being middle aged appears to be less about the amount of time spent encircling the sun and more so how far away childhood feels. That distance breeds idolatry. Sweeping declarations of how things were different and mostly better, “when I was a young.” What I lacked in open wheat fields and local swimming holes I made up for with the Geocities websites and a deep proclivity towards the creation of fanart. A world of sharing pre-algorithm. A space that no longer exists, just like childhood.
I started using the internet as a preteen in an era when A/S/L just seemed like a logical set of questions versus a predator’s checklist. Our family computer was in the back corner of the den and thankfully ill-supervised. After a brief family mealtime sabbatical I would slip back to the computer under the guise of “homework”. Meanwhile, the only use the computers had at school was to occupy students with Snake while the teacher took a well deserved break to stare into nothingness.
With one eye trained on my parents to make certain that they were fully ensnared by America’s Funniest Home Videos, I printed out hundreds of pages of Buffy fanfic, working quickly to staple the papers into neat piles with a robust feeling of success.
My parents’ abundant confusion about what the internet was swung wildly between the computer as salvation and harbinger of death. They were scared and as such access to the internet was temperamental at best. Even after shrinking the font size I burned through reams of letter sized paper to accrue my late night stash. At bedtime I went to my room on the other end of the house, where I lived more or less alone. A home meant for a family of 8–10 and instead occupied by 3. With a flashlight under the covers I slipped into a world of OTPs, hurt/comfort, and Mary Sues. A world where the awkward girl is always told that she is beautiful. Where she is seen, held close, and cherished.
Internet use became more normalized right around the time when my parents realized that it was possible to make a career of it. I quickly graduated from content consumption to content creation although we didn’t call it that yet. With a bootleg copy of PhotoShop 4, I spent the remainder of my childhood creating X-Files fanart on DeviantArt and LiveJournal. The internet helped me feel less alone through the pivotal years of teenage arrogance and narcissism.
It gave me a cathartic space to link identity and interests when geography was at odds. I made a friend on a Star Wars message board that still sends me yearly Christmas cards updating my address every time I move. My internet friends made me feel normal and understood. It sounds simple but at 14 it can be a lifesaving act of insurrection.
I used the internet as a refuge, a haven, when the reality of being a child in my home was too much to bear. It was a world to escape into without having to actually put in the work of running away. When my father canceled AOL I cried. At the time I was brushed off as being a melodramatic and now firmly fixed in my own adulthood I can see a pleading child yearning for safety and connection. That was my formative experience with the internet. It held me when no one else would.
As a child I used to describe the internet to my parents as if it was a library that they didn’t have to drive me to. The world was just so much bigger than what was presented in front of me and that gave me hope. It’s hard not to grieve the loss of what the internet has become and spiral into the waxing platitudes of someone so deeply disconnected from the present that they can only speak of the past. It was just a moment in time that was so much shorter than any of us anticipated. A childhood forged in the wilds of the internet.
Searching was once the active process of hunting and foraging. Now it’s an onslaught of promoted content, Machiavellian SEO, and algorithms that serve to promote divisiveness and commerce. Social media gamified sharing causing even the most casual user to curate their self expression. We ranked our friends, gave thumbs ups to acknowledge existence, and learned to summon a heart from the depths with nothing more than double tap. The long-form comment died around the same time that the word engagement became jargon.
I’m told that all swimming holes eventually get spoiled. They become discovered, polluted, and too often monetized. The internet has become a game where both user and content creator are exploited to the benefit of companies whose money is made on reach and impressions. More words that have become diluted in meaning. The hollow abundance of an audience instead of a small cohort of like minded internet strangers. We all have thousands of posts to engage with and not a single card at Christmas.
It’s endlessly strange to wake up and realize that your generation is no longer synonymous with young. To realize that the tire swing no longer exists and instead you have to describe what it once felt like to tuck your feet into the well, lean back, and grip the chains so your fingers don’t get pinched. The internet of my youth is gone. However, my experience with it was formative and lives within every long-form comment I leave and every internet friend I made. My absurdist belief that it can be a place of community and comfort. That safety is found where you make it and not necessarily where you live.