A Digital Bildungsroman

Or: Don’t Worry Guys, This Isn’t A Horror Story About Chat Room Predators, I Promise; It’s About How I Came to Be a Social Media Junkie and Writer
Or: Love in The Time After Floppy Discs But Before DVDs

myspacelogoWhat’s the loser-ish-est thing you did as a teenager? Me, probably hanging out in the Myspace literature forum. Did you even know MySpace had public forums? It did. I guess they were kind of like Reddit is now, except less terrifyingly chaotic and cutthroat.

The Internet was different in my high school years. This was back in the dial-up dark ages of the early-mid 2000s, when privacy and blacksmithery were still things people cared about and handles were a creative exercise in identity protection. Maybe three people in the whole world used their actual, real, full names on their email and social media accounts. (Was “social media” even a phrase yet?)

Being the sort of somber nerd-child who liked newspapers (Remember those? Made with the remnants of dead trees?), by the time I hit puberty, I’d read trend piece after trend piece about the dangers of the World Wide Web. I was properly terrified of revealing personal information online. A Reader’s Digest feature especially stuck with me; it was about one of those Dumb Teenagers Who Talked With Men In Chat Rooms and ended up pregnant or dismembered or on “Maury” or something. I swore I’d never be a Dumb Teenager Who Talked With Men In Chat Rooms.

I went onto Myspace, initially, because summer camp and school pals were there, filling out those surveys about their favorite colors and lunchmeat. Sometimes, though, my friends weren’t online, and when I tired of scouring the band pages for the newest, most obscure indie songs, I’d click on the forums tab. It started with the Philosophy & Religion section, but even a pretentious 16-year-old who fancies herself a burgeoning philosopher can only read a bunch of people who fancy themselves theologians screaming “ad hominem!!!1!” at each other’s arguments about Creationism and free will so many times, so I soon moved to the Literature & Arts forums.

Mostly, I lurked. I read. I clicked on page after page of debates about F. Scott Fitzgerald or Orson Scott Card and stories written collectively, one word or sentence at a time. A lot of it was dumb. A lot of it devolved into bullshitting and namecalling, as online anonymity so easily allows. And on occasion some of it was more adult than my parents would have liked, though nothing inappropriate was ever directed at me. It was the Internet, and the Internet, like anything involving humanity, is a mixed bag.

But some of it was real and interesting and, somehow, increasingly, meaningful. See, there’s this funny thing that happens online. People are just pixels, until one day they’re, well, people. One day you see their avatars and names and they’re not just information. They’re not just users; they’re hims and hers and thems. They’re friends, or at least someones you’d like to be friends with.

For reasons sad and silly, I often felt disconnected and out of place among my adolescent peers IRL. My few, close same-age friends were great, but felt like exceptions rather than the rule. I didn’t like being a teenager (does anyone?). But in the lit forum, though I listed my real age, I felt equal, and I felt connected. These were my people, in some small and tenuous way.

So I started joining in some threads. Not as much as I read, and not nearly as much as The Regulars, but often enough that I was included in some of The Regulars’ secret, private groups where we’d say the same stuff we said in the forums, but with fewer trolls to interrupt us. And, best of all, we’d do writing exercises.

I hadn’t ever just written creatively before. I had journaled a lot, and journaled some more on online diaries I called weblogs (just kidding, we were calling them blogs by then; sheesh, how old do you think I am?), but the silly writing prompt kind of writing, that was new. Haikus, imaginary letters, flash fiction, finish-this-group-story-one-word-at-a-time, I loved it all.

I loved those forums, and those groups. I loved that a few of The Regulars, unknowingly affirming my old soul complex, thought I was really a twentysomething pretending to be sixteen as part of some social experiment. I loved that on this weird, democratic forum called the Internet, my opinion on “War and Peace” were just as heard as some fortysomething lit prof’s from London, who may or may not really have been a fortysomething lit prof from London, but it didn’t really matter.

For worse or probably for better, the dread of being a Dumb Teenager Who Talks With Men In Chat Rooms kept me from revealing anything too personal or getting too friendly in private messages (even though I took comfort in this being a “forum” rather than a “chat room”). I know a lot of The Regulars became friend-friends, and a few in-person meetings and a long-distance relationship or two happened among them. Those people may or may not remember my presence in the forums, but I remember many of them. They were my sort-of-almost-friends, at least, and they taught me to love writing, regardless if I was ever to become a world-changing philosopher or best-selling novelist. And they taught me to practice writing, for kicks and self-improvement.

This week, that’s a lesson, and a thrill, I remember as I take time away from social media and consider its place in my life, as I work through my writing class and refocus on the discipline of practicing.

I think I became a writer on Myspace. It may be unglamorous, but it’s true. I am here, today, on this blog, with notebooks filled with words and a journalism diploma buried somewhere in my closet, at least in part, because of that silly, stupid, wonderful literature forum, circa 2004.

I logged back in today, the first time in years, and I don’t really get “the new Myspace,” and I don’t think the forums still exist; but I found traces of the old version on my profile, connected to the long-inactive accounts of old forum pals, those ghost faces who populated my loser-ish adolescence. They’ve grown up and moved on, too, apparently, but I remember them fondly, and owe them a lot.

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4 comments

  1. This was fun to read! I can relate, I started out on LiveJournal. But I’m still active there and it remains my online refuge. I don’t care that it’s not cool anymore. :) Some “strangers” I met there have become some of my best friends!

    1. Love that. I missed out on Livejournal somehow, but I was sure into Xanga for a while. You Livejournalers deserve some sort of award for being the original bloggers!

  2. Never had a live journel. Only xanga (which was a blast), then myspace.

  3. Some of us may have grown up and moved away but I like to think of myself as a timeless continuum of sarcasm that appears when least expected and vanishes before anyone can whip out their copy of Strunk and White. *hugs

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