The Internet: a Memoir.
Once I started writing, I considered splitting this post into several parts but have since decided to leave it in it’s entirety. This post is my love letter to the internet. After all, I spend a lot of time on it. I’m a millennial. It’s what we do™. And like most of our generation, my love affair with the internet started when I was young.
I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit that I first started learning about HTML and CSS on neopets when I was 11, lying about my age to obtain an account with permissions granted only to those over 13.
This wasn’t my first experience with the internet, but it was the first one that truly mattered to me. Your boy had ‘petpages’ to design, little HTML pages that were linked to the names of your neopets. I was fascinated with the ability to make anything you could imagine out of a few lines of english and some fancy punctuation. I spent weeks reading W3Schools and Smashing magazine and asking jeeves whenever I had questions. I soon realized you could do the same thing on ‘user lookups’ and guild home pages. And even more exciting, was that if you had this gift, you were important. The better your guilds looked, the more people joined.
I had a time limit on computer usage, and I would sneak on while my mom was at work or the gym. During the school year, as soon as I got home I’d run to the computer. I had the times of when she got home scheduled by the days, and I’d wait until the very last minute to log off. Sometimes I’d wait until I heard the apartment door open before logging off and dashing across the hallway.
I spent every minute on neopets, and most of that time was spent creating, managing, and coding for guilds. The best part of it all, the part I really laugh at these days, is that I didn’t even have photoshop. I made all of my images in MS Word. I became a wiz with the photo editing and placement options. I’d finish layering and colorizing and cutting out text and images together, then screenshot, copy, and paste into MS Paint.
The early 2000’s were… rough. My mother was recently divorced and we were constantly being stalked by my step father, who went as far as installing hidden cameras in out new home. The internet — and at the time, specifically neopets — was an escape from that reality rivaled only by my love for Harry Potter. Combining the two together in various HP-themed guilds meant I could perform my own magic, changing the look and feel of the guild homepages so I could truly escape to Hogwarts.
When I eventually made it to High School, I took a web design class my freshman year. Here, I was finally able to excel at something. I was the only one in my class who had any experience beyond copying and pasting into myspace and xanga pages. As the nerdy teen reading Harry Potter everyday and designing webpages for a kid’s game site, I stroke up a relationship with my teacher where I was allowed to finish the project of the week while she was teaching the discussion points to the class, and any time left over I could devote to whatever I wanted. (She would later ask me, quite incredulously, what had happened to me when I came out a few years later, but that’s beside the point.)
Which, for me, the extra time meant learning one thing:
After school I taught myself everything there was to know about Photoshop that could be used in making the all important guild layouts, and I put that knowledge to use in my free times during class. My methods were crude but effective, my knowledge base a hodgepodge of sketchy tutorial sites. I’d post the images to free sites like Photobucket or tinypic to live on anonymously forever.
I started winter break accepting that, at least until I was old enough to get a job, my work from home was all about MS Word. And then, my birthday and Christmas came. Bundled together was a new iPod Nano (the previous one had broken, like those before it, when it’d found it’s way into the washer some months before) was a copy of Photoshop Elements (what a #blessed year).
With access to photo editing software only fettered by my computer curfew, I was making layouts left and right. The freedom. I was a High School Freshman male on neopets, and I was a KING. My coding and ‘graphics’ ability meant I was able to amass friendships from people who complimented my work and appreciated me, even if they were all other young preteens with no social lives who lived on an online game site for kids 13 and up (9 and up with expressed parental approval).
But I quickly wanted more than neopets. I wanted to learn to make REAL WEBSITES, where REAL PEOPLE could see my talent and everything I’d learned (back then, as an ‘emo’ teenager, everything was about being real, dude). Which, looking back, was shit. Time passed and I found my way to freewebs, which no longer exists in it’s original form (it’s just ‘webs’ now).
Over the months I started realizing people my age who had discovered coding were making their own websites with their own URLs and helping each other by offering subdomains, which offered a mutually beneficial relationship. These were MY PEOPLE. On these blogs, people just like me where sharing everything about their lives, often running on indie blog services like cutePHP or the ubiquitous wordpress. And more importantly, they were sharing everything from tutorials to files to help each other learn graphics and coding, a concept popularly known as Free Resources, where the gods passed down the fruits of their labor to the lesser beings. And these gods did not offer subdomains lightly. They wanted proof of your holy allegiance to the mid 2000’s blog religion. They wanted portfolios.
Eventually, I had the content to prove my worthiness. Every couple of weeks was a new design layout, and every couple of months a new subdomain, as my art required constant attention. I was always in the search for perfection. I’d talk about my life and what I was working on and the things I loved. Blogs were what social media couldn’t be: they were self expression, funneled through art. And for a teen who struggled so hard with being alternative and different, my blogs were everything, so much to the point where the idea clearly still resonates today.
Like the forgotten layouts on neopets, the many URLS of my life have mostly been lost to time. I have a shit memory, making even the wayback machine a useless tool. But what I can tell you is, just like my peers, they were lame, because I remember the culture, and I remember myself. Making a blog was our version of making music, and it shared a lot of the same forced naming schemes and artistry. Adults can barely do these things well, and we were teens. Blogs were our albums. Posts were our songs. We linked to each other on pages devoted to affiliates or friends, much like a following list today, as if they were featured artists. And… don’t worry, I’m done with this analogy.
I had a lot going on in High School. I barely slept at night, no matter how hard I tried, and when I did I had night terrors throughout the night. I felt isolated and alone. I was openly gay in High School, a breeding gown for homophobia. I was the only child of a single mother and we had some serious shit to go through. I had no friends, and the acquaintances I did have were more drama than I could handle.
But I wasn’t all an innocent victim of circumstances. During classes, when I wasn’t sleeping, I was openly, defiantly reading books, propping up my textbooks to hide the library books placed between the pages. I was a socially awkward, moody gay kid. I spoke out at any perceived injustice. I was emotional and cynical and mean.
All these reasons were in part why I was such a terrible student. I hated homework, mostly because it took time away from what I wanted to — which, mostly, was listen to Blink 182 while coding my blog — but also for a lot of the same reasons I fail to do things today. I was lucky enough to be a D student in most of my classes, even though I did fairly well in most tests. In my math classes, which had the most homework year after year, I failed, year after year. But my computer classes? A’s.
Sophomore year came, and with it, a programming course that only covered visual basic. I did well, but I hated it. I was forced to follow along (with the class!!?), partially because I didn’t know what I was doing like I had in the previous year, but also because I was expected to work with people in groups. The horror, I know.
When Junior year rolled around, I decided that programming wasn’t for me, anyway. And besides, I’d tell myself, there’s too much math. I’m bad at math. I keep failing math. I was going to focus on web design and ‘graphics.’ I finally took a graphic design course, and once again I found myself with a teacher who let me roam free with my skills, because I already knew what I was doing.
That year, I finally got a job working part time at Michaels Arts and Crafts, and having a job meant only one thing: I could finally afford my own hosting and domain.
I found a blog with a reseller hosting account and paid my tithes. I bought my first domain and hosting. With CPanel as my holy book, I was the god of my own, self-hosted blog.
Though I’d given up on learning programming at school, I discovered PHP at home. At one point, I spent weeks coding my own social network. It was basic and ugly and cobbled together with bad code and had no sense of security whatsoever, but I thought I was the shit. And then a server issue hit, wiping out everything. I was 17 and I didn’t know about backups, ok? Over all the horrible, real life shit I’d gone through as a child, this hit my soul. #CapricornProblems. Beyond piecing together wordpress themes, I was done with PHP, and I was done with back end code.
The county had special courses called academies, where students could be bussed between high schools for special courses. I knew I would never be allowed to bus across the county with my dismal grades, so when I discovered that the computer arts course was in my school, I was elated. The next year, my final in High School, I found myself talking both the computer arts academy course and another computer course. I honestly have no memory about what it was called, but it was simple design-oriented work. I was in heaven.
During that year, I discovered Tumblr through a blogging friend. Tumblr was in it’s infancy, not even two years old at the time, and nobody knew about Tumblr except the kids who were cool enough to know about Tumblr. Tumblr was Fight Club, right down to people actually quoting Fight Club: The first rule of Tumblr was, you didn’t talk about Tumblr. The second rule of Tumblr was, you didn’t talk about Tumblr.
Tumblr brought everything I loved about blogging and smashed it against a social wall. Suddenly, I wasn’t using photoshop to create things for my blog layouts. I was creating things for blog content. And people were recognizing me for it. Notes were the new approval. My most popular content was created for the Harry Potter fandom. Again, I thought I was the shit (there is a running theme from my childhood to only a couple of years ago where I think I am cooler than anyone else while also also feeling like The One True Scum of the Earth™).
Halfway through senior year, I found out that I’d gone to far. I was failing school, and emotionally I was more screwed up than ever. Over the years I’d fake sick like many other students, but I did it to get sleep that I’d miss the night before. Don’t tell my mother, but sometimes I’d sneak out of the house and roam the town at night, going for walks that lasted hours before sneaking back into the house. Once, I planned on running away, leaving the laptop gifted to me under my mattress to ensure it’d be a while before it was found. Taped to it, so that it wasn’t completely impossible to find, was a suicide note so they’d be looking for a body and not a runaway. I’d like you to know this was way before Gone Girl.
I locked my bedroom door from the inside and snuck out the house. I went to the gas station twenty minutes down the road and withdrew all of my cash, some couple hundred dollars, before realizing I had no place to go and no idea what I was doing. When I returned a couple hours later, I snuck back into the house and waited thirty minutes for my mother to wake up. I told her the door had locked behind me.
Like most of my plans, I didn’t go through with it. But I think it shows what kind of headspace I was in. I was so fucked up that the idea of faking a suicide seemed like the best possible solution, until I realized it’d be hard to pull off, a mere hour into the plan.
This wasn’t a one off instance. My mental state came to a point where I wasn’t even roaming these suburban streets at night anymore. I was cutting, but not deeply, because I didn’t want to die and leave my spirit trapped there of all places. My depression and insomnia were affecting me to the point where in senior year I was in danger of becoming truant because I was too tired and depressed to get out of bed.
But I had the internet. The one safe space before safe spaces were a thing.
Because of my truancy, the school told my mother and I that there was no way for me to graduate if I stayed at that school. Within a couple of weeks I found myself boarding a county bus everyday headed for an alternative high school in another city. It was no academy, but something greater. It’s limited structure meant being treated like an adult, it meant no homework.
I took one class once a week at night, and the other three during the day. I finished my geometry class — math!!? — in six weeks with a perfect grade, so within two months I was down to only two courses a day, with the one night class a week. And suddenly, I was a perfect student. And I was even a little happy, though I’d have never admitted it then.
I was still having insomnia, but I was going to school later in the day anyway. I was still depressed, but I had new experiences to focus on. And I still had the internet.
And then, I graduated. The day after graduation, I was suddenly living with my grandmother. I’d had to quit my job, and I still wasn’t driving. But I had metro access, and a goal. I was going to become a web designer.
My first goal was to get another job. But in the mean time, I had internet access and a dell laptop. A shitty dell laptop, but it was an internet machine regardless. Without a job and not yet in college, I had no schedule and spent nights in photoshop and on Tumblr. By this point, the blog scene had waned, but Tumblr was growing stronger and still wasn’t as big as it would become. I was making friends online and living on Tumblr. Tumblr wasn’t my distraction from life. Life was my distraction from Tumblr. I’d fall asleep after insomnia kept me awake for days, and my night terrors would be bookended with visits to Tumblr.
Tumblr fueled my one other love apart from design, one that truly outshines it: television. Television is my soul. And the communities around it that I found online were my everything. They shaped how I viewed the world as much as the shows themselves did. Maybe more, because they provided a completely different way of viewing television — not physically, of course, but emotionally. The sense of community made every show an event, a thing every week to cherish and behold. No matter what I was going through — from depression to insomnia to night terrors — the shows and the communities were there.
It was these communities that made me realize I didn’t want to just consume television. I want to create it. Television is what makes me want to write, within and outside the medium. It’s what brought me to look for greater meaning in the shows I enjoy. I always enjoyed television, but online communities brought the appreciation to a whole new level.
When I started at the local community college, I was taking online courses and struggled through my first semester, plagued by the same demons that haunted me as a teenager, because I still was one. I eventually started using public transportation to get to campus, hoping it’d help. I continued to stumble through it, a lot, until I was eventually on academic probation. The last two semesters I attended, I actually didn’t do bad, but they wouldn’t take me off of academic probation and I let my anxiety control me.
For the entire second half of my last semester, I tried to do everything right. I had to get my grades in person from each professor, which seems like something that would be simple enough. For weeks I was stopped by everything from absentee teachers to water main breaks to snowstorms. But in the end, it was a new policy that stated I had to attend a group counseling session that gave my anxiety control. I finished the semester, got my final grades, and when the website wouldn’t let me schedule classes for the next semester, I never went back.
Times change. I don’t visit Tumblr that often, and the community there has faded away. But some of my closest friends and the moments we’ve shared remain from those times. The main websites I visit today are still a part of my television viewing habits, from subreddit discussions to twitter hashtags.
I’ve had several URLs and hosting plans since those old blogs, but I always tend to fall away from them. Nothing can recreate the emotional resonance of a teenager when they’ve grown up and become adults. Especially for a millennial like me. We’ve dealt with so much as the generation that grew up alongside the internet. Essentially, we are the internet.
This is honestly the longest time I’ve gone with a single website, especially with any sort of frequency, even if that frequency is a piddly couple of months between postings. During the time of this blog I’ve continued to battle the same issues I did as a teenager. I still lack motivation. I’ve luckily grown out of night terrors (finally), and my depression has lessened to more of an annoyance. I actually sleep now, even if for fewer hours than I’d like. Every day even.
I’m over 3400 words in and I think it’s time to post. In all honesty, I don’t think this post amounts to much, but I do think I’ve talked a lot here about what I want to do with my life, about the struggles I’m dealing with, and owning up to my own problems and self doubts. But even so, I can’t imagine where I’d be without the internet, without all the things I’ve learned and felt because of it. There’s a lot I didn’t include here, as I’m sure pretty much every aspect of my life could be related to the internet, and maybe someday (soon, perhaps?) I’ll attempt to climb that mountain. But in the mean time, this blog is the living testament of my journey’s present, and I hope a beacon towards my future. Is that too corny? Someone speak up and tell me if so.
Originally published at Seagoat.