LiveJournal, ICQ, Forums & Fan Sites: What Happened to Our Internet?
The other night, a friend and I took a brave trip down memory lane into our first years with LiveJournal. What we found was, unsurprisingly, horrifying. Eleven years ago, we were completely different people. We over-shared, we over-emoted, and felt no fear in doing so.
But so did everyone else. The internet was a very different place, back then.
Our generation had the unique position of growing up with the internet. As we first began to find our voices, define ourselves and finally venture out into the world, so too was the internet still finding its legs. Not many people even knew what to do with the internet, beyond knowing that they should have an e-mail address (so you can forward chain mail). We ran no risk of running into our parents on social networking sites. There was no worry of your employers seeing the post about your bad day at work. It was rare to even find your friends on-line. The internet was a refuge from all these things.
My aforementioned friend and I met on-line, through another friend I likewise had never met. I made dozens of friends in similar ways, and these friends were more important to me than most of the people I knew “in real life”.
We shared freely, without consequence, and connected with people we never could have met.
As embarrassing as my early blogs were, they chronicled what were – hands down – the hardest days of my life. If I hadn’t been able to write those, and if I did not have the support system of these friends I’d never met, I’m not sure that I would’ve made it. That was the beauty of the internet then. It was about connecting with the world. Finding people like you, sharing your life with them, and becoming stronger together.
This kind of sharing was not limited to LiveJournal. I was a member of a handful of forums, where I chimed in and shared every bit as freely. There was even a forum that I built and maintained on my own, a ragtag group of Animorphs fans that posted long after the series ended just because we enjoyed each other so much.
I was always on ICQ, MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL Instant Messenger. Yes, all of them. All at once. We didn’t just send quick messages to each other – we had full blown conversations, often lasting all day. The kind of shit “brb” was made for. When was the last time I even said brb, outside of a video game?
Eventually, my closer friends arranged to meet each other. Some of them even moved here and were promoted to prestigious “real life” friends.
Despite this, I feel that we’re more distant now than when we lived on opposite sides of the country. The detailed accounts of their daily lives are gone, replaced by the occasional check-in on Facebook, or 140 character update on how great their weekend was. Sometimes I’ll see a picture. We don’t have conversations on messengers any more. My perception of these friends is a snapshot of who they were when networking first began this shift. This person checking in, in that photograph of a summer barbecue… I don’t know them.
These were the last true friends I made on-line. There are more people social networking now than ever before. Almost anyone you meet has a Facebook profile. And yet, I can’t seem to meet anyone new or interesting. I can no longer connect with anyone as I had in the past.
It’s strange how that works. The more people that started social networking, the less of a community we became. As our parents, extended family, and employers seeped in, our filters went up. What we share now is even more mundane than it was before: pictures of dinner, group shots of a night out, pretty skies.
Simple. Not personal. Safe.
So what happened?
Beyond everyone you didn’t want on the internet getting there anyway? I blame three things: Facebook, the loss of anonymity, and smartphones.
Facebook pulled everyone you sought refuge from and put them front and center. Every aunt, uncle, distant cousin and potentially dangerous co-worker is privy to anything you post. It closed off that sense of expanding community by boxing you within your existing network. You do not go there to meet new people, unless you’re a creep. You go there for the people you already know, to casually update them on what you’re doing at an arm’s length away.
I think Facebook’s biggest downfall is the sheer size of their network. The content is tiny, but there is so much of it to keep up with. Your audience is so varied that you don’t really feel comfortable sharing what you really want to – only a fraction of your friends are interested. You must keep things broad and simple for the maximum number of likes. Features like lists, notes, and communities could do wonders to ramp up the quality of content on Facebook… if anyone used them.
Smartphones put the internet in our pocket. Since then, it’s become rare that anyone dedicates on-line time at an actual computer. We check our social networks during cigarette breaks, awkward pauses in conversation, while we’re waiting in line at the grocery. We no longer have the time for lengthy, personal forays into our friend’s lives. What we have time for is two sentences, a few pictures, and the press of a “Like” button. Facebook is perfect for this, and that’s why they’re on top.
While I enjoy the convenience of having the internet in my pocket, I’m often wishing I had more time to contribute to a conversation. With the advent of “helpful” news pushing algorithms, topics I’m interested in are usually buried by the time I get home and have time.
Loss of Anonymity
There is power in a name, and that is the one thing almost no one shared on the internet in the 90’s and early 00’s. Withholding that power granted us the freedom to expose ourselves to an unprecedented degree. Mental breakdowns, the stress of school and work, fall outs with friends and lovers – no topic off-limits. It didn’t matter how dumb you sounded – no one knew who you are.
Which is a completely false notion. We were truer to ourselves than ever before, and the people we shared with, even if on an epistolary level, knew us better than anyone else.
Somewhere along the way, we lost that anonymity. Social networks began to ask for our real names, and we started signing into everything with our social networks. Suddenly, everything on the internet became linked to our hard identity. Suddenly, we had to be careful.
Just as we put on a face for day to day social situations, we’ve done the same in social networking. We want to identify as happy, successful people. We want those co-workers and distant cousins to be envious of how incredibly happy we are. We don’t want anyone to know that we have problems. Every status update must be carefully curated to support that and, as a result, the raw connections we made in the past have been lost. Presenting only the Greatest Hits have made us less interesting.
Could identity really be so powerful a thing that it means the difference between honesty and idealism? I’m reminded of Robin Hobb’s FitzChivalry Farseer, who was only able to find freedom as Tom Badgerlock in Withywoods. Deeper still, he shares the name Beloved with the person he has the most profound, intimate connection with. It comes as no surprise that Hobb, who writes under two pseudonyms (neither of which her own name), writes at length of the varying levels of identity and how they dictate what’s expected of us.
What a curious effect, for a false identity to result in unadulterated honesty of who we are, as opposed to who we’re supposed to be.
What if I want to go back?
The age of total anonymity on the internet is pretty much over, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever have that sense of freedom again. But that doesn’t mean we have to embrace the shallow interactions that networks have become.
I’ve made the choice to take a step back from Facebook. While I appreciate being able to keep up with distant friends and family, I find the experience filtered and plastic. There’s no depth to it, and the amount of stupid I encounter when I venture into their communities is unrivaled.
In fact, I try to limit my time spent networking on my phone to Twitter. If I don’t have time to properly engage, then I’m probably better off enjoying the life happening around me. Our friends are worth more than a quick glance in the palm of our hand.
Services such as Tumblr and WordPress emulate the old LiveJournal experience, and are heavy media/content friendly, but lack the built in community. Reblogging isn’t connecting. On WordPress, I feel like I’m pitching my thoughts into the void. Is there anyone out there?
The closest I’ve come to rekindling the feeling of “old internet” is Google+, which strikes the happiest medium between LiveJournal and Facebook I can find. In fact, one of the original developers for LiveJournal blogged that Google+ is what he envisioned LJ evolving into.
Google recently retracted their stance on pseudonyms, and it’s relatively ignored by the people you were probably trying to avoid in the early 00’s. There’s a vast number of communities to join if you’re looking to make friends with similar interests. Thoughtful content and discussion is encouraged.
It’s not perfect, but a combination of Google+ and WordPress seem to be the best combination for me.
I know, and I hope you’re right. In an age where everyone knows who you are, the only hope for people like me are sites that just aren’t going to “happen”.
What about you? Are you happy with social networking as it stands? Do you think the drop in thoughtful discussion is due to more a lack of time than changes in the scene? Have you found the perfect solution? Is everything the same and I’m just crazy? Let’s hear it!