Ye Olde Internet — in memoriam

It’s funny, losing an anchor, isn’t it? Something that’s always been there, set in stone, defined and fixed — gone. In an instant.

Representative picture of me shared on the internet, circa 2002

Back when I was a kid, the internet wasn’t big. It was a fairly small and friendly place, where people were open. They’d share mundane details of their innermost feelings, all the while hiding behind masks of anonymity. I never encountered malicious intent. Any underage cybersex I might have participated in happened with very enthusiastic consent on my underaged behalf. And, since getting digital pictures of yourself often meant that you needed to scan something, all my sexy teenage escapades looked mostly like letters in a chatroom window.

Chatrooms — remember those? When I first stepped my virtual foot in one, I was about 10. It was mind-blowing. There were people there, kids my age, from all over the world! We could talk about anything so, naturally, we mostly talked about nothing at all. Age and height featured in our conversations, as well as whining about parents and schoolwork. Perhaps we also discussed important cultural phenomena such as the Backstreet Boys, though I honestly don’t remember. The subjects didn’t matter as much as the format of these conversations. I could use a purple font to chat to a boy in the United States! That’s when I truly started learning English. You see, back then, I thought spelling and grammar mattered online.

By the time I was 13, I had my own website. It was called “Sonic in GR”, it was dedicated to “my little brother” and included things like cheat codes, gifs and wallpaper downloads. My best friends were woven spider webs, comprised of black letters. Constellations of words formed their personalities. Their faces stayed well-hidden behind avatars showing elves, communist symbols and animals. They came from every corner of the world. I made the best friends I had on an Echo the Dolphin forum. Then, on various “micronations” forums. Then, on a Russian diary website which, I guess, as a third culture kid was my version of MySpace.

Once, a friend of mine from the US went to Japan. He bought me a t-shirt and sent it through the post. Revealing my actual postal address on the internet was a terrifying prospect, so I did what any 14 year old kid would do — I gave the address of the building across the street. Then, as some sort of secret agent, I went to pick it up under the guise of night. I had a plan to distract my mum’s attention by taking the dog out for a walk and then leaving him “parked” at a tree as I rummaged the building’s hallway for a package marked with my name. It was there and it did indeed contain a t-shirt. It was black, with a picture of a sneaker and the words “Attract — Get active in the pack with special lunch today”. To this day I have no clue as to what it means.

At 16, I took up smoking. It was the done thing in my peer group at school. So I did. I was discovered. I was grounded for months on end. I spend so much time with the letters on my screen that I almost lost the ability to make words with my mouth. I took up smoking, and a friend of mine who lived in Portsmouth, UK made me a cigarette holder from a willow plant that grew in his back garden. By this time, I was more confident at intercepting parcels. My mother never knew. I was the fanciest girl at school for a while. I remember that friend from time to time: we used to listen to A-ha mp3s (downloaded from Napster) and talk about Communist theory. At least, the little Communist theory we understood. I made a grainy picture holding a book by Marx. It was an instant hit.

Me with my fancy cigarette holder, circa 2004

We shared ICQ and MSN Messenger details as though they were pieces of our body. This was a huge level of trust. We’d spend night after night plastering our innermost feelings all over pale chat windows. As an isolated third culture teenager, I felt most at home on forums and amongst friends in these messengers. I even had a constant outlet Sometimes, adults would read my diary. I say diary, instead of that fancy word “blog” because it was just that — a teenager’s diary. I was writing about my angst, my first loves, my questions to the world and the unbearable anxiety that being me entailed. It was a funny feeling. I could say anything, since I wasn’t really myself. And, as such, saying what I truly thought made me feel the most at ease.

So, adults came along. Adults engaged with my little avatar. Adults thought that what I said was important. Adults commented and gave me encouragement to become more and more myself. They also pushed me to try harder. I read voraciously. I spell-checked obsessively. I constructed well thought-out, logical arguments. I tried hard to reach “their level”, as you do at 16. Back then, it seemed as though these people, who talking to a 16 year old girl online had their shit together. It seemed as though they knew all sorts of things about life and I aspired to be like them. Well, here I am now..

Back when I had my first heartbreaking love, a friend of mine gave me a link. This was about 12 years ago now. Using these numbers really makes me feel my age… 12 years ago, my friend gave me a link. It was a simple fortune telling website. It had clean, though now incredibly dated web 1.0-style design and somewhat longwinded, though thoughtful narratives. It gave answers at times where answers in logic were impossible, when believing in random combinations of texts was the best that you could do. At least, it gave you hope. And when the draw gave you something bad, at least, it gave you something definite. Over the years, I kept returning to that silly website, while nursing a broken heart. And my heart definitely has been broken on numerous occasions over the last decade. Time after time, I would take a breath, close my eyes and click the picture of a deck of cards which would decide my fate.

I went to that website again for the first time in three years. See, here I am, again, shouting my feelings into this vacuum that is the internet. See, my boyfriend and I have been fighting. We’re fighting exactly in the way that you’d expect two people who love each other immensely to fight. It’s sad. It hurts. We’re nearing 30 and we should know better by now. That is not something proper people say on the internet, in this age when we grasp at the last straws of privacy. But here I am. Times have shifted. It’s all about keeping up appearances and segmenting your audience to your biggest advantage. We’ve been fighting and all I wanted to know was something defined. Something that’s for sure. I typed in the address. The website loaded up with its usual, eternal (as I thought) design, but something wasn’t right. There were weird numbers at the bottom of the page. Some bits of text were underlined. When I followed the links to the picture of the deck of cards, it was just that — a picture. You couldn’t click it. It was broken and I had to make my own decisions.

I suck at keeping in touch. Over time, my internet friends have fallen off me like layers of dead skin. Sometimes at night, I miss them like a person with a broken leg would miss their crutch. I wonder how they’re doing. What happened to the socialist guy I met on the micronations forum? How about the sysadmin from California? Or the raven-haired lady from Moscow? These descriptions sound so frail compared to the weight these people’s characters had. Yet, all they have left in my life is a bunch of disused email addresses and a website that no longer works.

I don’t believe in God. I believe in a damn website with tarot cards. And it’s broken. I’ve had lots of “coming of age” moments over the years, but this one feels immeasurably more important. It feels like you coming back to the town where you grew up, only to find your old home demolished and everyone you knew — gone.

And you’re standing there — changed, but the same — and there is this great sadness all around you.

I suppose I’m an adult now.

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