Molly Crabapple: I remember getting online for the first time when I was 14. For me the early Internet was Usenet. I was obsessed with three forums: alt.anarchism, alt.goth.fashion, and alt.nethack. I basically survived middle school by playing one of text-based role playing games where you’re represented by an @-sign and dragons are d’s and you type in commands. I still get tremors sometimes when I see an “and” sign because that was the demon.
I basically spent all of my time posting on these Usenet forums and sort of developing relationships with people. It was a really interesting thing because it was this time where you were kind of just judged by your writing style. Like, you would think someone was hot based on how well they wrote. You didn’t know what people looked like. You didn’t know how old they were. I remember when I was 15, I went to a hotel party that was hosted by some mods from alt.satanism. And I just remember thinking, “Oh wow, they’re really short. They’re so much shorter than their prose style seemed.” And because you weren’t really judged by externals, I wasn’t really judged by the fact that I was 14 or 15.
It was also a time when no one really used their real name online. Which I’m very thankful for now because I made really extravagant political statements then that I would just not like to be tied to me. They were really obnoxious.
In addition to spending all my time on Usenet, I remember just a variety of like these kind of very clumsily hand-done web sites. There was one called Gothic Martha Stewart that I really loved that would tell you how to make like a coffin purse, or how to decorate your bedroom all like techno style in a way that your parents wouldn’t kill you over?
I also remember amazing Satanist GeoCities pages with these GIFs of flames going up and down. And also that under construction GIF, which like never was lifted from sites.
I think feel like old Internet, what it really was was it was just so much more text-based. It was really much less of a domain of graphics, and there wasn’t really video? as far as I remember. Maybe there was. I just wasn’t an advanced user. So you were really just reading scads and scads of writing.
I would like correspond with people. I would use the Internet in this way that’s probably how parents are really afraid of their 14 year-old daughters using it. Which is that I would use it to have flirtations with older men. I met my like 20-something boyfriend when I was 15 online. And I would use it to read snuff porn because I thought it was really really funny. And look at bomb recipes. And basically look at every single thing that I wasn’t supposed to look at because that was just how I kind of defined myself as a human, by looking at things that I wasn’t supposed to look at.
The Internet also gave me access to the adult world in a way that wasn’t authoritarian, where it wasn’t like, this is a teacher creating a youth-based activity for promising youth. Or you know, this is something where there are rules because you’re young. At that time it didn’t matter that I was underage. I could talk like an equal to people. And that was incredibly important for me.
I don’t think I used the Internet for anything wholesome or useful while I was a young girl. I think I used it mostly for illicit flirtation and political grandstanding and playing video games and learning how to you dye my clothing black with Rit dye.
What do I think is lost? Well, then your Internet self had nothing to do with your real self for most people. But not in this way where it was like Gay Girl in Damascus, where you were building up a lie and tricking people. It was just no, the Internet was the gnostic realm of ideas. Your gnostic, ideal self, that had nothing to do with the fact that you were 15, or the fact that you were really really short, or the fact that you weren’t conventionally hot, but rather the self of words and ideas could live there. And it could be divorced from your everyday reality.
I don’t think that’s possible anymore. I think that if you’re someone online…you have to sort of own your ideas. And that being anonymous is very associated with like being a hacker, or being a troll, or being someone looking at porn sites. Or being someone who has a reason for their identity not to be known. Whereas then, your identity not being known was just a default. It wasn’t something that was really interrogated.
I love being my real self online now, but I’m really grateful that I didn’t have to be my real self when I was a teenager. Sometimes I think it must be really really awful to never be able to make the break with your past that you used to do when you left high school, because your Facebook is always just lying there waiting to haunt you with your opinions from ten years ago. I wish that we could— I wish that teenagers could be issued new names, or new identities if they wanted to when they turned 18 so that they could start their lives over. Of course maybe some people don’t need to break off from their past in the same way that I did. But I wish that there were still that option.