Content note: American politics, corporate social media, war, destructive drinking, massive nostalgia, unedited brain dump, and probably typos
I remember, vividly, the moment that I first thought, “Well, that’s the end of the internet.” I don’t remember the exact date, but it was sometime in the late ‘90s. I was in the Geocities SoHo Lofts chat room when someone linked to the website for Juicy Fruit gum. Until this moment, I had been blissfully unaware of the existence of any corporations, at least those that weren’t providing internet service, bothering to have a website— never mind a brand of gum. Obviously, there were others that preceded it, but in those halcyon teen years as I met people from all over the world by the glow of my CRT monitor, I had somehow managed to avoid them.
Like most of the kids who got online in the mid-90s and found some BBS or chat room, I felt like I had somehow moved into the hippest house on the planet. It only took a few days before the abrasive fax machine squeal of my dial-up modem connecting sounded like a chorus of supercool roommates saying “Welcome home.” Everyone on the internet was more fun, more fascinating, and infinitely more clued up than I was. They introduced me to music on indie labels I never would have known about otherwise, comic books I’d never heard of before that I quite literally wept when I finished, art house flicks that would never open in my home town but that I could eventually track down on video. (I would list these things, but over two decades later, none of it seems particularly underground— thanks to the internet.) They wrote poetry and stories, meticulously catalogued the details of their niche interests, made comics and took photos with terrible resolution cameras. They had websites that were simple to look at but dense with character and humanity and originality. Everyone had a page on their site that linked to others they liked— which was how we discovered more people, and were discovered, in turn.
Those chat rooms and those websites were the salon, French pronunciation, of the 90s. Living rooms that existed almost entirely in our imaginations, the internet was where the most intriguing ideas were shared. We were certain we were part of a massive, international shift in consciousness, unbound by such petty obstacles as time and space. We could meet people and share our lives with them, across borders, across time zones, across an entire planet. I distinctly remember one friend who was an insomniac Australian, so he was always online in the middle of the afternoon when I was home sick with mono my sophomore year of high school. To this day the first place I think of when someone mentions “Australia” is not Sydney, the most famous and populous city in the country, but Adelaide— a city with little more than one fifth the population— because that was where he lived.
But that day I learned that in my virtual living room, was a corporation, shoving gum at me via a ridiculous photo of a white guy with dreads and sunglasses, looking like a dollar bin rip-off of Cereal Killer from Hackers. The corporations were not just coming. Even the silliest, the least relevant, were already here.
The term “digital nomad” is usually used to describe those who travel the world doing some kind of work that only requires a computer and an internet connection. They can just as easily make their living from the beaches of Thailand or the coffee shops of New York City as from an office they go to every day. Usually white, American graduates of schools regularly in those Consumer Reports top 10 lists, and from at least modestly affluent backgrounds, by all appearances (and Instagram posts).
I’ve always hated that this phrase was taken by these lifelong gap year takers. Perhaps it is the fact that my ancestors were Turkish tribes people who descended into the Middle East on horseback from the Asian steppes, but it’s always annoyed me that this term was applied in this way to people of extraordinary privilege. People for whom “roughing it” is renting a cheap apartment with wi-fi in a beautiful tropical country with a favorable exchange rate. To me, the phrase should belong to people who have moved from place to place across the digital, rather than physical landscape.
If you are over 30 and you were online in the distant, hazy past of the 20th century, you probably know what I mean. As new technologies emerged, we left our old haunts behind, always eager to set foot in another brave new world— though in reflection, we were usually fleeing the settlers who had come to monetize, to promote their brand at the expense of everything that made the platform desirable and populous enough to be valuable online “real estate” in the first place. The world gentrified web.
First, there was BBSes and IRC, Geocities, Angelfire. You had your ISP’s name in your email address. You took your private convos to PowWow (remember PowWow? Google tried to basically remake it into Google Wave, and somehow totally failed to make it nearly as fun or functional).
Then you moved to LiveJournal, Blogger and WordPress, DreamHost and Flickr. You got a Hotmail address. AOL opened up Instant Messenger to everyone, and now you were there, too, posting away messages with lyrics from breakup songs you downloaded on Napster, then AudioGalaxy.
You registered for MySpace with your new Yahoo! email address. Then Facebook popped up and you were in college or grad school. You no longer had email, but Gmail. And Gchat. Facebook opened up to everyone, and now the high school bullies and your parents were there, too, posting pictures of their kids and getting in arguments about gun control.
But you had Twitter, where you could say what you wanted. There were even a handful of celebrities who would talk to you like they were regular people. Then regular people ended up becoming celebrities because of Twitter. Then the brands and the journalists, and your boss, and god help us, the politicians showed up, and suddenly, like the frog put in cold water set to boil on the stove, you realize that everything is so very, very far from what it was when you jumped into the pot, but the walls were too high to get out again.
Even if you did, where would you go? Is there anywhere left where the water is clear and cool?
And how would other friendly and inviting amphibians ever find you?
My father worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in the late 70s or early 80s when Al Gore, newly elected representative for Tennessee, came to visit the lab. He was there to talk about opening up ARPANET to the public. My dad and his colleagues didn’t think much of the idea, spending a huge chunk of federal funding on giving everyone what would come to be known as the internet.
“We all thought it was a terrible idea,” my dad remembers, as he imitates his past self, making a “Puh” sound like he is spitting out a cherry stone, “I thought, ’No one is going to want this crap.’ But he was right, people wanted it. Everyone makes fun of him for saying he invented the internet, which is really unfair. He didn’t build the thing, but it really was his idea.”
My dad will tell this story, unprompted, about once a month these days, usually in the midst of talking about the current US political crisis. Perhaps because he’s never been on any social media site, he traces our current leadership nightmare not back to Twitter or Facebook, but to the election of George W. Bush. An election he believes, with absolute conviction, was unquestionably stolen.
But lately, when my dad says that his colleagues all thought the internet was a terrible idea, I can’t help but think that they were right but for the wrong reasons.
When Bush II decided to follow in his daddy’s footsteps not just to the White House, but to Iraq, his decision sparked the largest protest ever recorded. Millions of people in over 800 cities marched against the war on the same day, February 15th, 2003. The event was a coordinated feat that took off not only in large metropolitan areas, but in small cities, suburbs, even rural towns.
Because of the internet.
I had taken the semester off of college that spring, and was extremely active in the anti-war movement in my small, conservative city. I protested every Saturday on the grass next to a busy intersection in front of the mall. I protested every Tuesday afternoon with a group of grey haired women, mostly retired professors or the wives of current ones. My mother, who had protested the Vietnam war when she was in college, joined me a few times. There were rarely more than 20 of us, but sometimes as many as 50. But that raining and sleeting day in the middle of February, there were 150, at least, in a city, in a state, that couldn’t even bother to vote for its native son because Gore wasn’t a republican.
I spent hours reading online journals of those who lived in Iraq, poring over the photos that they posted. An image that will never leave me was of three young boys, perhaps no more than 8. The one in the center was holding a soccer ball, all three cheesing for the camera with their eyes crinkled in the way that denotes a sincere smile. One of them was missing a baby tooth. Contrary to the propaganda with which the US government bombarded us on a daily basis, the vast majority of people were not starving and dressed in rags, or cowering in their homes in fear that Saddam Hussein’s Elite Republican Guard would leap out of shadowy corners to grab them and throw them into secret dungeons. This was a country where little kids, who didn’t even have all of their adult teeth, played soccer. Outside. Wearing brand new Adidas.
Something I learned because of the internet.
Thirty-seven days after the world said no to war, the US began bombing Baghdad anyway.
At the fine dining restaurant where I was a server at the time, dinner service was wrapping up for the evening, when the small television the chefs kept in the back showed explosions of light over a dark city. It was just before dawn. The newscasters proclaimed that the invasion had started. The men in the kitchen cheered. I went outside and smoked a cigarette while my tables were eating their oyster stuffed filets and whole fishes.
I bought a fifth of Jack Daniel’s on my way home from work and drank it, in bed, in the dark, sobbing. Unable to sleep, I finished the entire bottle trying in a vain attempt to knock myself unconscious, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those three little boys.
Sometimes, connection can cause unbearable grief. Something else I learned because of the internet.
I stopped believing that the internet would save us. That the amplification of our voices when we could hear one another would be loud enough to have any impact on people with power.
Like a real nomad wanders the landscape in search of better grazing, better weather, better nourishment, but often returns seasonally to see if an area they’ve visited before has improved, I’ve returned to digital places I abandoned before.
The first platform I left was Instagram in 2012 when they announced their ownership of all of your photos, but I came back soon afterward in 2013. I quit Facebook on New Year’s Day 2013. I came back on June 13th, 2016. I left Twitter sometime in July, I think, of 2017, and came back briefly, after a friend’s wedding, in October of that year— soon enough to keep my username and password, but long enough to have lost all my tweets and my followers. The world doesn’t need another essay on why someone deleted their Twitter or Facebook account, or why Mark Zuckerberg or Jack are evil. There are dozens upon dozens of pieces online you can read about this, and most of what I would say would be similar (though with a much smaller follower account who would care about the details of why I left).
One of the reasons that I’ve stayed on Facebook despite new revelations every week of how evil they are, is that I am acutely aware of the reach I lost when I deleted Twitter the first time. When I came back, my experience with only 50 followers was blessedly troll-free. But I also felt like I was shouting into a vacuum. Even the people who did follow me, even my friends with whom I communicate often outside of social media platform, who I see in person, didn’t engage with me. Probably because there was no one to RT me into their feed if they’d missed what I’d said before.
And everything felt different after a few months away. There didn’t seem to be any real conversation happening. People quote retweeted one another, but no one really talked to each other unless it was to have bitter, vicious arguments.
And there was the endless promotion. What had once felt like the office water cooler for people who didn’t work in the same office, now felt more like a “quirky” version of LinkedIn.
So even though I launched Screen Test of Time just a few months later, I re-quit Twitter.
I had somewhere around 6,000 followers when I first left Twitter, a modest following by celebrity standards, though it had taken me a decade to build that audience. If I’m being honest, though I don’t actually miss the place at all, I do sometimes find myself wishing I had a way to reach a whole lot of people at once. Friends and acquaintances, who had fewer followers than I did when I left, now have tens of thousands, an audience for their projects that I frankly rather envy. But I now know it would take me another 10 years I’m not willing to invest in a platform everyone crows is “dying” and “terrible” in order to rebuild what I once had.
That is, if I could get a word in edgewise over the cacophony of outraged quote RTs.
My main complaint about Twitter, aside from the constant barrage of Trump-related bullshit, is that it feels like a series of billboards. But I still find myself wondering how, without it, you let people know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into making something? How do you remind busy people on a regular basis that it exists, so that at some point you hit them when they finally have the bandwidth to pick up their phone, open their podcast app, and hit subscribe?
I’m still on Instagram, but it’s the most worthless for advertising something that is entirely aural, unless of course you have a verified account or a business account with over 10K followers— the requirements necessary to put a link in your stories. Otherwise, any “links” you might provide require your followers to remember and type in a URL in their browser in order to visit outside of Instagram’s walled garden, or reminding everyone “link in bio.” Not that the Instagram browser even works for me more than 50% of the time.
And personal websites, even this one, no longer have any character, humanity, or originality— they’re just landing pages with your headshot, some way to contact you, and a resume that is always hopelessly outdated.
“For my most recent work, please check out my social media.”
But is that all that “social” media is anymore? A place not to be, you know social, to interact with old friends and make new ones, but a place for us to shout what amounts to advertising back and forth at each other? Is that it?
Like my dad when he thought opening ARPANET to the entire world was a terrible idea, was I right when I thought the internet was over, but for the wrong reasons?
Have I just become Juicy Fruit after all these years?
In April of 2017, I joined Mastodon, and I’ve kept an account on a few different instances since then. On Mastodon, being nomadic is encouraged— having a home on multiple different servers is considered healthy and people worry less about splitting their audience, because people worry less about their audience. The barrier for entry is pretty high, so there are very few people I know from my old days on Twitter who are on the platform. Reply guys and trolls are few. People respond to each other because they have something to add or just to be up lifting. For the most part, an assumption of good faith is not misplaced, even when someone disagrees with you or asks you a question. The atmosphere is generally supportive and engaged. Self-promotion is minimal, and outright advertising is anathema— it’s banned on most servers. Conversation happens, and it happens regularly.
In the last year, though, as Twitter makes more and more allowances for fascists and hate speech while blocking and banning more and more leftists and progressives, waves of Twitter users have crashed into Mastodon. These exoduses have been so large that the new users come to dominate Mastodon communities faster than the existing culture can resist. Even on instances where there are still codes of conduct that forbid advertising, the damage of years spent on corporate social media platforms is evident in the way these Twitter refugees post— shouting 160 character jokes (despite the platform’s 500 character limit) into the void, with no desire for conversation. Just throwing things at the wall in the hopes of more faves and more boosts (Mastodon’s version of RTs). And they feed one another. Worse, it’s easy for those of who left Twitter years before to fall back into those same patterns of clout fishing, casting lines until the bait gets enough bites to go viral.
When these waves started showing up, I said, “Well, that’s the end of Mastodon.” It hasn’t been true, yet, but after over two decades of being in online social spaces, the writing is on the wall for me. This time, it won’t be sponsored ads that turn the salon into the market. Corporate social media has conditioned us so thoroughly that we can’t keep brands out even when we explicitly try.
Because now we have become the brands.
I probably spend more time on Instagram than any other social network, and I wonder if it’s because it’s the hardest place for myself and my specific friends to advertise— even on Mastodon, with its anti-corporate culture, it is easy to fall into patterns of promotion.
Few people I know make a living creating actual objects— they are writers, dancers, theater makers, musicians. (Though my friend Nell is an exception to this. She makes absolutely amazing art and jewelry, and you should go buy some.) It feels like, in many ways, what Twitter used to be— a glimpse into what’s behind the constructed and promoted persona. The mundane breakfast, the extraordinary trip somewhere, the books they are reading, their dogs at the park, their cats asleep in boxes. Selfies in bathrooms at restaurants, at the gym, at home.
While Instagram tends to get the most criticism for making people miserable because their lives don’t match up to the pictures they see, it’s the one that actually makes me feel the least anxious and depressed. Maybe I don’t get the “compare and despair” experience because I follow very few celebrities. My friends are all gorgeous and lovely and exciting and interesting, but they’re also, you know, my friends. I’ve seen them at their worst, so seeing them at their best, far from depression inducing, is a source of genuine joy.
Of course, I rarely look at my actual timeline. The algorithm games it so much that it’s essentially useless. Mostly, I just watch and reply to their stories. Or don’t reply at all. Even without the interaction of a <3 or a comment, it makes me feel connected to people I love, admire, or just think are interesting, but don’t see very often in person.
Their stories make me feel I’m an everyday part of their sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating lives.
I don’t know how to return to the old days of the internet.
I honestly don’t know if we should, even though I do feel a profound, deep nostalgia for them.
In the first flush of love on a new and not yet overpopulated platform, when everything feels possible and unbounded, when the rules are not yet written, and the culture not yet poisoned, I will inevitably compare it to that GeoCities chat room that was my first portal onto the internet. Even though corporate social media has failed and failed again so many times, that I now know it can never be the Land of Milk and Honey where I will finally settle down. Twitter was the longest lasting mirage thus far, and Mastodon may prove to be just as illusory— indeed, the facade is already starting to crack. Perhaps it is time to abandon the idea that any social media garden, no matter how low its walls, will ever be as lush and fecund with dreams, and ideas, and idiosyncracies as what lies outside of it. Perhaps it is time to return home, once again, to the actual web.
I wonder if it’s still as wide as the whole world out there.