Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An attempt to connect: my internet memoirs

Part 1. Back in my day, not your day

i. The rant:

I think my generation was set up for failure. Even before the generation occurred, it was devised by the prospects of its potential. On the heels of the internet bubble and explosion of personal computers, the 1990’s were characterized as the information age. And although sharing information has been a staple of this generation via social networks, facebook and myspace weren't even popular when I was in high school. On my senior year, everyone had a xanga, and no one knew what to do with it. We had the beaches before the advent of the sand castles. Mainstream experts could only predict that millions of people would have access to computers and the internet, but no one could have anticipated the impact and utilization of the world wide web.

In a lot of respects, a high school student from my generation would almost appear identical to the current generation of students, but the latter generation would have spent an immeasurable amount of more time on facebook, twitter, and youtube because they just didn't exist back in my day. We endured the lexical gaps of social media and the internet as a whole. Except for porn, there's always been porn. Personally, I believe we were part of a second lost generation where we were on the cusp of social networking, blogs, vlogs, and random kitten videos. And with any attempt, we had the means to create a place and identity for ourselves. It was space for unjustified trust and blatantly fake identities, and for some anti-social introverts such as myself, it was home.

ii. Judge me:

Back in 1999, there was a movie called 'Mystery Men,' which you probably didn't see and I wouldn't recommend it. In the movie, there was a band of second tier super heroes, and one of them could turn invisible, but only when no one was looking at him. Seriously, it wasn't a great movie; don't watch it. I want this post to be honest, and if I'm honest with myself, I'm ashamed of a lot of things I did and didn't do when I was younger. For all intense purposes, I'm going to pretend you're not reading this post. It's easy to do since the vast majority of the internet won't read it, but it's odd that facebook and twitter have starting to hold people accountable for their actions on the internet when it's clearly meant to be a place for anonymity. In high school I could have done a plethora of dumb things, which I did, and no one would have known about it. It was great. No one would tweet it, pictures wouldn't be shared, and after a week or two, everyone would have forgotten about it. It was a simpler time indeed.

Anyway, I’m not perfect and I’ve made a lot of mistakes on the internet. Go ahead, judge me.

Part 2. An attempt to connect:

i. Youth and anonymity:

This is a vague topic, and I want to make it clear that everyone has their own unique stories from the internet. I'll be the first person to tell you that I'm not particularly interesting, but my experiences and anti-social tendencies have helped personify my perception of early social networking on-line. To be completely honest with you, it would be hard to imagine growing-up in any other generation. Maybe I would have been a literary junky or a comic book nerd. I'm not judging or gloating; as it stands now, it would be hard to characterize my youth as anything but a lonely boy with a computer and a prolonged attempt to connect. (Insert dial-up tone here.)

When I was about ten years old, I created my first yahoo account, madmongoose56, which was the name and model number of the bicycle that I received for Christmas. And although it wasn't initially planned, it was an account solely created for escapism and anonymity. As I mentioned earlier, anonymity is the foundation for the internet. It allows users to pursue different personas and express their thoughts and ideas freely, ibid, with or without spell check. And as a shy timid ten year old, chat rooms were less of a masked social party and more of an infinite playground. Remember chat rooms? I know they're still around, but try to find a room where there are more people than spam bots. At the time, it was remarkable to see how accepting everyone seemed. It was literally a place where you could meet older strangers, and they'd believe every single word that you typed. It was so removed from how you would normally meet someone. Instead of seeing someone for the first time and awkwardly making small talk, users would immediately greet someone and ask their age, sex, and where they lived; pictures not included. Of course I lied about all of the above; I usually went to chat rooms for twenty-something year olds and claimed that I was a twenty year old college student. By the way, if you’re chatting to a stranger and they misspell ‘college,’ they’re probably lying about their age. Chat rooms weren’t just mental lapses of escapism, but full-fledged rabbit holes of adventures. Not only could I go into a room full of young adults, but no matter how poorly I spelt words or how slowly I replied to messages, I was accepted as one of them. And I could chat with girls! I was ten years old, it was a big deal for me. At the time, it seemed so weird that someone would even consider that I was adult instead of a socially deprived child screaming for attention, but we were all so interested in connecting. It was the footstone to online communities; we didn’t have the organization or online resources, but more than anything else, we were genuinely interested in getting to know each other. And through time, we personified those short scrolling lines of text and made them into humans, lies and all.

ii. Pokemon:

a. An introduction:

It was a phase, judge me.

When I was in middle school, pokemon was kind of a big deal. It was such a big deal that its trading cards crossed middle school cliques and allowed anti-social introverts to trade with popular jocks until the school eventually banned the cards due to their classroom disruptions. From every facet of popular pre-teen media, pokemon was cool. It bombarded middle school subculture through its movie, tv show, trading cards, and video games.

If you're not familiar with pokemon, we cannot be friends. I'm sorry.

Essentially, there was a wide variety of wild and mostly adorable creatures across the world called pokemon, and pokemon trainers would capture these creatures and use them to fight other trainers. Through these pokemon battles, professional pokemon trainers would bond with their pokemon and ultimately attempt to become the best pokemon trainer in the world. I don't necessarily remember why pokemon was so appealing; it was probably the cute pet animals with super powers. Personally, that still sounds appealing.

b. A crush:

Before going into pokemon chat rooms, my previous experiences with chat rooms were sporadic. Along with the rest of world, I wanted to test the waters of the interweb, and I loved toggling between feeling anonymous and instantly personal and significant. The previous chat rooms I usually inhabited carried hundreds of people, and at an instant, I could randomly click on a user name and we could carry on a personal conversation in private. And although the meets were usually brief, I tried on different skins; sometimes I was energetic and loud and other times I was thoughtful and supportive. Mind you, thoughtful for an eleven year old pretending to be twenty was probably pretty dull. Essentially, I acted in every way that I couldn't act in real life, and there was nothing particularly tangible or real in anything that I typed. I was a random voice searching for any ear to hear.

Pokemon chat rooms were different. Besides everyone being around the same age, there was actually a common interest besides desperately trying to connect with one another. Not only was there a common interest in the rooms' residence, but there was a common interest that I shared in real life and the person I pretended to be online. In short, it was the first foray into forming my online identity.

When I first entered a user created pokemon chat room, it felt so personal. My favorite room was called, 'Cricket's paradise island.' It was small, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. And even though they had their fair share of regulars, they were so friendly to newcomers. Furthermore, everyone really liked pokemon. Just about all of the users had pokemon themed screen names, and compared to other rooms, people checked their pride, concerns, and egos at the metaphysical door. It was truly an infinite playground, punctuated by its creator cricket_the_mew.

Whereas other chat rooms felt liked masked social parties, the pokemon chat room felt like a mutually created world filled with intricate relationships and care free roll playing. It was the antithesis of escapism, and it's very hard to describe the chat room without making it sound childish and immature. But we were eleven years old, it was meant to be childish and immature. While some pretended to be pokemon trainers with detailed relationships with other users, the most fascinating creature in the room was cricket_the_mew. True to form, cricket_the_mew would only type a variety of misspellings of her species name 'mew,' and since she was a psychic pokemon, she would occasionally include her actual text in parentheses. And to be completely honest with you, she was easily my first internet crush. She was literally a free spirit in her own little world, liberated by concerns and judgment, and a creature in her own terms.

I wanted to be part of this community and embraced it as my own so I converted from madmongoose56 to pika_the_mew. For the next few months, we spent a few hours after school chatting though our one syllable species names, playing tag through our infinite playground, and living on the fringes of our imagination. All was well until one day it abruptly stopped. The marks on cricket_the_mew's report card were low, and she was subsequently grounded from the internet. And I've never chatted with her again.

It's all very interesting in hindsight. At the time, it seemed so natural and innocent, but 'Cricket's paradise island' was literally a place carved from the imagination of eleven year olds, full of deep and compassionate characters and reserved from all that was wrong with our lives. It was escapism and security; it's where I first flirted with a girl and I didn't even know her real name.

iii. Emma:

Nowadays, I wonder if it would be different. Not only is there a greater emphasis on children secure on the internet, but social networking has provided a different spin on how we meet people online. Instead of meeting complete strangers in a chat room, we pick from a list of old friends or coworkers that we see every day. And not only that, but we have to keep our name, our real life names. Maybe I grew-up in a different time, but there's something invigorating about meeting a stranger and being personified by nothing except your wit and stories. I love sharing stories with strangers and finding out that even though we live hundreds of miles apart and have completely different lives, we're the same.

One night I met a girl named vulpix_emma. At the time, we were both twelve years old, and more than anyone else I've met on the internet, we grew-up together. Without even seeing her picture, I felt like I knew her better than anyone else. We would spend all day and long nights chatting, formulating inside jokes, and talking about our pets.

She had two dogs, Keisha and Ashley, and one day she decided they should get married; she was a very progressive young lady. So she assembled a little ceremony in her backyard, sat the dogs close to each other, and used rubber bands around their paws to commemorate their holy matrimony. Afterwards, she lost interest and made some food. A few days later, she noticed Ashley looked sick and wouldn't eat her food. Concerned, her parents took the dog to the vet, and he noticed that the rubber band was still on Ashley's paw and she was losing circulation. The dog had to be on medication for weeks, and Emma was worried the whole time. It was so adorable.

It's hard to emphasize the impact Emma had on my adolescence. Not only was she a constant companion, but a faithful friend that shaped my early values and persona. And it's very liberating to tell a complete stranger everything about yourself, and still have them accept you. In real life, I was still shy and timid, but Emma helped me realize a better version of myself. Through the witty banter and countless conversations about nothing, we shared a moment and time usually reserved for close friends and newly acquainted lovers who've spent hours on the phone together, finding every grain of information about the other person fascinating.

There's a darker side to this story. Although we fluently chatted for three or four years, we eventually lost touch. And when we did occasionally chat, I felt like she should have tried to make more time for me in her life. Although it's perfectly natural to grow apart in real life when someone changes schools or starts making new friends, it's slightly skewed online. On my computer were hundreds of emails and conversation logs that had the exact words and feelings that personified our relationship. At the time, scrolling through those conversations was not just nostalgic, but in a very real sense, it was reliving the past. In my mind, I was possessively preserving our past while Emma changed in her transition from middle school to high school.

On one weak and lonely night, I wrote Emma a scathing email essentially saying that I thought about her constantly and I could not believe our relationship didn't mean more to her after everything we've been through. It was not my finest moment and at least half a page long. I regretted it immediate after I clicked send. Not only did I blatantly admit to being obsessed with a girl I met online, but I jeopardized one of my closest friendships. It didn't even cross my mind that I could have read too much into our relationship, and my lack of a social life could have impaired my perception of how much she really liked me. Maybe she just chatted to me because she was bored and had a lot of free time. To my surprise, she apologized to me. She said that she never meant for me to feel that way, and she still hoped we could meet someday because I was a very important figure in her past and we shared so much when we were younger. It was a reality check, and even though I wrote an email that would have frightened most people, she still wanted me to be a part of her future. It validated that our past was not something that I conceived in my lonely, twisted head, but it was something that we shared together. Somewhere between the white background and black san serif font, she felt something too.

iv. The Rune Archives:

At the time, I had a social life too. In high school I joined the track and cross-country team where I settled in the middle of the pack. I wasn't the fastest runner, but I fluctuated between junior varsity and varsity teams throughout my four year stint.

While on the team, I couldn't help but notice the narratives developing amongst my friends and teammates. As a freshman I noticed the struggles of a new couch develop his system; I watched the changing of the guards between new and older runners; and I saw the comradery of friends. For six days a week, we ran countless miles through hills, neighborhoods and parks, and we did it all together. On my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to remember those moments. I wrote it all down, and I named the few hundred page document, 'The Rune Archives.'

Again, I wouldn't recommend reading it. Currently, I wouldn't consider myself a great writer, but in high school, I was a pretty terrible. I had a condition where I loved to write, but I hated to read. It didn't help develop my writing skills. And even though it lacked polish and coherent articulation, my high school friends were self-absorbed enough to read it.

Through writing 'The Rune Archives,' I learned a lot about computers. When I wanted to print the document, I learned how to adjust the margins to conserve pages. And when I wanted to share the document via floppy disks, I learned how to compress files and embedded pictures with text boxes and captions with hyperlinks to different chapters and sections. It was really quite elaborate; if I spent half as much time on learning how to write instead of fiddling with the technical stuff, it could have been a half decent book. As it stands now, I'm just Really good at Microsoft Word 2003.

After I wrote ‘The Rune Archives,’ I established an identity outside of the internet. Until I wrote the document, I was considered a shy, timid wallflower by anyone besides my closest friends. I've heard there are perks to being a wallflower, but I digress. Regardless of whether you write something good or bad about someone, people just like being noticed, and more importantly, remembered. A lot of times, the pages were just filled with short clips of dialog. And although most of it was dumb and trivial, it was a faithful reminder of a time when we were all young, stupid, and hopeful.

v. Meghan:

a. Responsible for what you have tamed:

Even though I had a better social life with friends and an exhausting hobby, I still enjoyed chatting on the internet. I liked the romanticized idea of meeting strangers, someone I could trust and comfort through words. With my latent social revival, I wanted to maintain a certain level of maturity, and I didn't allow myself to be relaxed or vulnerable around other people. On the internet, it was socially acceptable to greet someone and immediately attempt to be friends. In short, I wanted to find someone just as broken and desperate as myself, and maybe if I could fix them, I could fix myself.

Under the screen name meter1600, I met Meghan when I was sixteen years old. She was fourteen, and by most accounts, she was from a broken home with a single mother on disability. And even though she had ADD, we would spend long nights chatting and playing reversi. I tried to be supportive; we discussed the troubles with her mother and happenstances at school. In a way, it must have been nice as a fourteen year old girl to have an older boy listen to her trivial problems and banter, and it was only a matter of time before she developed feeling for me. Unfortunately, I was a sixteen year old boy, and whether it was conscious or not, I took advantage of her. Along with my patience and supportiveness, she adopted my perverted sense of humor and became more open with her sexuality, which was compounded by her originally innocent decision to get webcams.

For years we chatted on a regular basis until one day her mother couldn't afford their internet connection, and we abruptly stopped.

b. The other parent:

While I chatted with Meghan, she developed other friends online. Even though she chatted with several other girls, her best friend was Megan. They had a lot in common. Although they lived in different states, both were raised by single, disabled mothers and had trouble in high school. It was worse for Megan; she suffered from depression, and most times, her mother's mind was so sporadic that Megan needed to take care of both of them. One night, Megan forgot to turn off her webcam while she cut herself, and Meghan cried for her to stop. She stayed in a hospital for a few days.

I first met Megan a few days after Meghan lost her internet connection. On our first conversations, she blatantly stated, 'We can be friends, but you have to promise to not fall in love with me. Meghan really loves you, and I could never do that to her.' I was sold. Megan is amazing. For the next few years, we chatted and talked on the phone. At the time, I just started college, and I felt completely alone and self-conscious. And even though her life was so much worse than mine, she was always there to help.

Initially, all we could talk about was Meghan. Megan provided updates, but they just solidified my guilt. On a daily bases, Meghan fought with her mother and cried over an ex-boyfriend who used her for sex. For about a year, I was nearly incapacitated with guilt. Since I was older than Meghan, I felt like I should have raised her differently. I should have encouraged her to be more assertive and independent, and I shouldn't have pressured her to become sexually promiscuous. And although Megan listened to my confessions, she thought it was bullshit. As her dear friend, Megan encouraged Meghan to date and eventually have sex with her previous boyfriend, and if she didn't meet me, she would have just found another teenage boy to take advantage of her.

We were both guilty, and after a short pause I typed, ‘Well if there’s one thing we learned, we cannot raise a child together.’

c. The fallout:

Eventually, she said Meghan's mother wanted me to call their house phone to see if I could help. And even though I supported Meghan’s opinions for years, if your mother entrusted your house number to a complete stranger who you met on-line just to comfort you, she really cares about you, and she’s desperate to make you happy. It helped to some extent. A few years prior, Meghan gave me her house address, and we wrote each other letters and words of encouragement. Whenever we talked on the phone, it was never for very long or carried much substance, but I wanted her know I was there for her.

Since Meghan avoided spending time at home with her mother, I talked to her mom a lot. Even though Meghan claimed that her mom was being over protective, it was hard to blame her mom. Besides being depressed and having trouble in school, Meghan was recently arrested for under aged drinking, even though she said it was her first drink and I still believe her. What? She might read this blog; I need to cover myself. Overtime her mom talked to me about Meghan, and she mentioned how they used to get along until Meghan started sneaking out of bed to go onto the computer and she started hanging around new friends and having sex with her boyfriend. And more than anything, I wanted to apologize for any influence that I had on her daughter. But I knew that I had to live with the consequences, we all did.

One night Meghan said that she planned to stay late and party with her friends while her mom went to a concert, and I casually mentioned it to her mom. Subsequently, her mom came home early from the concert, and Meghan was livid. She had a point. It wasn’t my responsibility to take sides and interfere with their lives. It wasn’t my fight, and I stretched my boundaries as a supportive online friend.

I had to move on, and I haven’t spoken to Meghan or her mom since then.

vi. YouTube:

When I started making YouTube videos, I had my fair share of baggage. As a sophomore in college, I felt alone and unable to cope with my guilt and the pressure of classes. I reached the point where I didn’t want to be pitied or comforted, but I wanted my pain to be meaningful. I created characters and stories to express an emotion and preserve a time when it all of it meant more to me. I wanted to remember a time when love felt tangible and real, when guilt felt warm and crisp, and when I found every little detail about a certain girl fresh and interesting. And through this very isolated and detached pastime, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I’ve received the most enduring messages and comments from viewer, and I was surprised that people not only watched the videos, but they embraced them as their own.

Part 3. Conclusions:

I grew-up in a different time, and it’s not a bad thing. Facebook and twitter have allowed users upload their lives and identities directly onto the internet, and YouTube and forums have established the means to foster a community of people with common interests.

Back in my day, identities were split between several different screen names, and most times, none of them actually represented how the user acted in real life. It was a time of blatant lies and unwavering trust. And through years of anonymity and several different yahoo accounts, we created an identity for ourselves. We were all bored and desperate and lonely, and all of us were ready to connect.