Growing Up Online

Growing up online

It feels almost weird to say it, but the internet is so very tied up into my identity and who I am as a person. I mean, I went to university via searching ‘internet’ on UCAS (yes, seriously). I work in web development, a skill I started learning as an 11 year old for fun, because I wanted to customise the pet pages on Neopets. Besides a job, I see my time online studded with milestones or people, or the tools I used to share who I was online. Even these days, I am a regular over-sharer on twitter because it is part of the habits I grew into.

Let’s go back. We got a computer when I was 10, in 2000. I experienced the internet for the first time through parental controlled AOL. Aside from discovering Neopets (my first internet obsession), I also ventured into the AOL chat rooms. I don’t think any serious conversation happened here. My vague memories are of one that was strange restaurant role-play and I met a girl named Sarah, who I became email friends with. She was the kind of friend I wished I had in real life and was the first real experience I had of chatting to someone my age who wasn’t a person from school, growing up in East London. ……I met up with her a couple of times in my teenage years

The first time I met someone from the internet, I was either 13 or 14, I can’t quite remember. I’m fairly sure I was in year 9 at school, so this was around 2003/2004. Back when it was still deemed weird and taboo to say you had friends online, let alone to actually meet people from the internet.

I remember getting on the tube to go meet two girls, Anna and Lila, that I had originally met on Habbo Hotel. We were friends on msn at this point and I think also Skype (just voice chat back then unless you wanted a 6 pixel webcam image). I hadn’t told anyone and I was a little terrified. Not only was I meeting strangers, it was also the first time I’d been on the tube, into central London alone. My memories are vague and muddled of the day and the couple of times we’d met after that, but I remember at that time their friendship online and even our few meets in person had really opened the idea up that you could be friends with anyone. I got on with people at school fine, but nobody was really ‘alternative’ at school and these were people I’d met randomly as little pixels in a chat room, that listened to similar music and we’d meet up in our teen emo outfits and from then on, even if I didn’t quite belong with my peers in school, I could always go home and log on to talk to the other friends that I had made. We had our own inside jokes

The ‘Post-Habbo-Hotel’ era was defined by Livejournal. If you don’t know, Livejournal is a sort-of blogging site. It was a site you had to register with and could write your posts to your own ‘journal’, but there were also communities you could join and make posts on and be a part of. Actually, Diaryland pre-dated Livejournal for me from an online journal perspective, but there wasn’t such a social side to it.

Having somewhere I could write, rant and truly embarrass myself online was incredibly cathartic to an emo teenager who thought they had lots of problems and nobody to talk to about them in real life. Probably because they were embarrassing. But shouting into the abyss online and actually getting responses back from my group of online friends was incredible. If I were to read the posts now I would likely cringe until combustion, but it was the same as writing this. Putting my life onto the internet via little tidbits. If something was bothering me, I’d put it on my livejournal, the same way I might tweet my frustrations now. What was once cathartic still is, in an instant, gratifying way.

There are people on twitter who I have known for a decade. I joined twitter in 2008 and a lot of the first people I followed were via livejournal. Now maybe these aren’t friendships, after all I don’t think I’ve truly had a conversation with any of these people outside of 140 character limit messages, or maybe via blog comments or instagram. But through their own self-expression via tweets, I feel an affinity at least. I know bits about their lives. I want them to do well. I notice and feel for them when things are shit. I notice when they disappear. When someone I follow tried to take their life, it really impacted me. I got her address so I could send her a care package, because even if it’s just via the internet, her life mattered to me. I have Lila, my first online-becomes-real-life-encounter on twitter – and while we aren’t close now, she formed a part of my growing up and it’s nice to see how she is doing.

So yes, I love the internet. I overshare on the internet. As a socially awkward teenager who still wanted to talk to people, it gave me a safer place to just communicate without the panicky internal monologue. If I didn’t want to talk, all I had to do was type ‘afk’ and reply a bit later when I felt like it. Infact, it wasn’t at all rude to just disappear and log out of conversations. It might be 12/13 years since I first met someone from online, but the interactions I make with these online friends still remain valid and important to me. The joy of hearing tales and stories and making connections outside your immediate circle never stops being refreshing or interesting, even if these connections are fleeting.

I’m so glad to see the disapproval of making friends online has disappeared. It’s incredible now to see the relationships that form via social media, to see bloggers meet up after brief chats because that’s what we do now. We aren’t just restricted to friends we have physically met. Although for me, I haven’t actually met anyone from the internet in a long time. I guess as a teen I had more time and motivation to, plus I was braver. Or maybe I was too concerned that I was breaking plenty a rule back then to worry about what the people I met thought of me. Now my self-esteem would give me a thousand anxious reasons to not go.

For teen me, I think I should try put my fears aside.

This post was inspired by Emma Gannon’s book, ‘Ctrl, Alt, Del – How I Grew Up Online’. I haven’t read it (I’d like to), but seeing it about got me to thinking about my experiences of growing up online.