How growing up online helped my social life
Technology is constantly talked about in reverent tones. It’s this great new thing; it’s the future. But the internet is also a source of nostalgia for me. The internet is where a lot of my social life took place.
My house got its first modem in the mid-90s which connected to our fax line (yes, MY HOUSEHOLD HAD A FAX MACHINE). Like many people, I first used it as an outlet for my fandom. The first thing I did online was look up information about the Spice Girls. By the turn of the millennium, I had learned to code and I made my own Hogwarts RPG. I found friends through my website and fan message boards. I chatted to strangers who shared my interests. I kept in regular email contact with a number of “epals.”
For a shy kid like me, this connectivity was special. It took me years to find my tribe – people like me – IRL. But I had a tribe online.
This is not to say that the internet poses no dangers. People aren’t always who they say they are — and obviously bullying can spread its ugly tentacles across contexts, online and off. Cybersafety needs to be taken seriously.
But without denying any of these things, my experience of growing up with the internet was mostly an experience of social connection.
And I have to look back on it with nostalgia because some of the most important online platforms in my life either no longer exist or are beyond recognition.
Take LiveJournal for instance, which is a blogging and photosharing platform that launched in 1999. In the early years, entry to LJ (as we called it) was invite-only, which gave it an intimate feel. You read about the daily lives of others. Users could set their journals to “friends-only,” which meant that you read what others had chosen for you to see. Sadly, today, LJ is mostly spam.
Few people I knew from school used LJ, so most of the people I’d befriended were strangers from different parts of the world. I “met” them mostly through forums and message boards. While I couldn’t absolutely verify their identities, I did get a real sense of them as real people by the fears and struggles they shared. While taking the precaution of obscuring identifying information about myself, I shared my problems too: I wrote about academic pressure, my parents not understanding me, and not wanting to let myself down.
People read the things that I wrote and offered me kindness. Some of my LJ friends were a few years older than me, so they had been through similar things. They told me that I could get through it too.
I offered that kindness to others too. I was part of this disembodied, geographically scattered community of people who cared for each other.
MSN was another key platform for me. Also originally launched in 1999, MSN has sadly been discontinued. It’s a chat platform, like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but it felt very different because the conversations were always in real time. You would get home from school, wait for others to get online, and talk to them for hours, often while also finishing off homework or half-watching TV.
Unlike LJ, all of the people I interacted with on MSN were people I knew from school. By typing to one another, my friendships really expanded and solidified. I doubt I would have gotten to know people as well as I did without it.
At school we’d talk about TV shows, make jokes, and so on. On MSN, we had the time and the neutral interface to actually share details about who we were and what we were going through.
In the years I actively used MSN, people told me about their unrequited crushes, the problems they’d been having with their parents, and the cruelties of their part-time jobs. They described coping with the death of someone close to them and feeling depressed. I found out that a friend’s parents were getting divorced because she told me on MSN. Another friend came out to me as gay via MSN. We were better able to be ourselves.
I noticed it in myself too. Somehow, typing into a chat program made otherwise unspeakable things possible to say.
I even got closer to people I knew but didn’t hang out with much at school. On MSN, I could also be a better friend. I could stay up with them all night if they needed me to, online.
I’m sure these intimate spaces still exist on other platforms (e.g. Tumblr or Snapchat) — but for me, using the internet today has none of that intensity. A lot of what I put online on Facebook and Twitter feels like “content,”not my authentic musings.
I don’t feel closer to people as a result of my regular internet use. I feel like I’m talking to too many people at once and that I’m trying too hard to be seen and “liked.” Life online is a little too poised, a little too curated. As we’ve grown up, we’ve spell-checked ourselves out of immediacy.
But it’s important to know that an internet connection can be a social connection. It can support and sustain.
This is what I hope to recover for myself in the future and what I hope for every teenager today.