Artifacts of the Internet Old: the digital dig

Part I of an as-yet undetermined series.

Further to my last post, Gretchen McCulloch’s book got me thinking about the history of my own experiences getting on the internet. I’ve been threatening for a while to do posts about the lexicon of Fandom Olds, but McCulloch’s book made me realize that for this era when the internet is new, the time at which you got on it is itself an artifact worth examining — worth, even, recording for the benefit of people who study these things.

When John Keats died in 1821, he wrote his own epitaph which his friends duly inscribed on his gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. It was a reference to his perception of the fame and immortality he had achieved in his short life. Ironically, of course, Keats’s name and work turned out to be far more durable than his perception: people thought enough of his poetry to canonize it, thought enough of his letters to save and collect them, thought enough of his life to write biographies of it, and 200 years later you can take a class at nearly any university covering Keats as a subject in himself, or together with his set, or as an indispensable part of a survey of the Romantic literary period.

But in our own era — with the rise of the internet and the informal writing we use to navigate it — our usernames are writ in ether, and that can be a bug or a feature depending on when we joined the online world.

McCulloch divides the internet generations by adoption rather than age. Old Internet People are the early adopters, the techies and people with specialist interests who used bulletin boards, Usenet, and listservs as their platforms when they joined the internet. Full (and Semi) Internet People joined a bit later, in the late 90s and early 2000s, using blogs, LiveJournal, MySpace, GeoCities, and the like to create their web presence. The teens and young adults joining the internet now don’t remember a time when there was no internet; their first platforms were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or later Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

The fact that new platforms (together with their new practical uses) are continually rising to replace the old ones means that there is a lot of digital archeology building up. Some of it can be dug — and some of it can’t.

My first job out of graduate school was a temporary gig as a library tech working in the manuscripts and special collections department of my alma mater. I was also working on a novel at the time, and I was aware that the emails and AIM chats I was exchanging with my friends about the project, not to mention the chapter files themselves, stored on a handful of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks that were maddeningly subject to random corruption, were less easy to archive than the 20th-century manuscripts and correspondence I was handling at work. I made a haphazard effort to print out a lot of these, sometimes cutting and pasting chats into Word documents, but I wasn’t very thorough, and I don’t know where that file is, and as I recall it is very thin compared to the virtual reams of communication that died with my defunct AOL and Earthlink accounts. (I should probably archive my Yahoo email account, now that I think about it; but I never think about it.)

I identify myself as one of the Full Internet People McCulloch describes, because I am by nature a late adopter of new technology and new platforms, delaying to join until a critical mass of my acquaintances have already done so. I wouldn’t have known online fandom existed, much less gone looking for it, if a graduate school friend hadn’t liked a series I recced to her well enough to find a listserv for it.

But the fact that what she found was a listserv, and the fact that most of the people I met there were early adopter types who were already versed in BBS and Usenet, already had their own websites, were getting into the brand-new craze of blogging (“Blog — it’s a web log! Geddit?”), means that everything I learned about the internet I learned from Old Internet People. I learned enough HTML to code my own GeoCities website, followed my online friends to LiveJournal and learned to use Photoshop so I could make icons, absorbed enough CSS to tinker with the theme I was using, and occasionally joined chats for multi-person discussions.

More than that, I was in continual engagement with people who were older than I was, both online and off. Most people my age were not participating in fandoms or hanging out in chatrooms; they were launching careers and starting families. If it seems weird now that one would be doing either one or the other, it was even weirder to the people I knew offline what I was doing. For my older friends — fellow members of my religious community, coworkers, friends’ parents — I was wasting vast tracts of time communicating with people that would never be proper friends, about things that were by definition ephemeral. I wrote half a million words of fanfiction when I could have been writing original work of my own.

Bearing battle scars from arguing my case against this offline disapproval, I find it incredibly odd now that the internet — and fandom with it — are ubiquitous in “real” life, as if these arguments had never happened at all. You can hear phrases like “spoiler alert!” on the radio or television, and nobody is confused. News isn’t just discussed on Twitter, it happens there. My mother is on Facebook.

It’s my lifetime — not the lifetime of my parents, and not the lifetime of young people now — that has seen the full effect of the internet as a new and massive accelerant of change. When I was a college freshman, you checked your email by going down the hall to a small room of terminals in your dorm, typed “vax1” into a command prompt on a green screen, then put in your username and password. When I was a graduate student four years later, webmail came in, and I finally had an email with an @ sign and domain name, and accessed it via a browser. Ten years later, when my brother started at the same school, my university had graduated to using a Gmail client, and he probably had built-in DSL, too.

It sounds like I’m singing the old song “when I was in school we walked uphill both ways, over broken glass!, etc.” — but that’s not what joining the internet was like then. We knew it was new. We knew it was an innovation. We built our mental ships to take those waves, and willingly charted the new reaches of online communication. And, maugre the opinions of my offline relations, my online friendships are the ones that have lasted longest: they were formed from the start to withstand physical separations and other vicissitudes that make intimacy hard in the modern era. Erica, my most longtime beta and the one who gave me McCulloch’s book, I met on that first listserv in 1998. (Or thereabouts; we didn’t really get close till after we’d both joined the LordPeter list, so the details are hazy.)

So if this were an episode of Time Team, consider this Trench 1 in my digital dig. We know what kind of site we’re on; next, we’ll see what kind of finds we get.

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