It’s been 21 years since I first started making websites. I liked the internet a lot more back then. Those early years drew the best kind of weirdos and geeks: people who were passionate enough about something to learn HTML and deal with FTP and find other oddballs on IRC. (There were a lot of acronyms in the mid-’90s.)
If you weren’t there (“there,” as though it was an actual place!) it’s probably hard to understand how wonderful the web could be. It was slower, for one thing. No Twitter, no comment forms, no memes, no hashtags. Google didn’t exist yet. Most people didn’t have cell phones, much less digital cameras—I remember taking photographs on film, having them developed, scanning them, and uploading them. It took days, literally, to get a few jpegs online. Today, it takes seconds.
Because the amount of content was closer to a languidly moving brook than the tsunami it is today, you could take a while to discover things. So much of it was unpopular and nerdy. Niche-y. Plus, if you knew what it took to create a website, your subconscious realized that it was a human doing the work. Maybe it’s just me, but that made the web feel much more personal and valuable, and there was a genuine thrill in being able to email someone who lived on the other side of the world. A message to a stranger, delivered in seconds!
I made a lot of friends in those years, and some of us now enjoy the comfort of well-worn, decades-old relationships. For that, I am deeply grateful. I also made some mistakes, whether due to youth or folly; in emulating some of my most-admired writers by “writing what I know” with reckless transparency, I hurt people. Truman Capote was an undeniable talent and an unforgettable character, for instance, but I didn’t appreciate how miserable he could make others.
My enthusiasm for—or, more accurately, my obsession with—the internet began to wane in the early 2000s. I struggled with the balance between writing openly and craving the freedom to figure myself out. As Blogger and Livejournal (and Diaryland, if you remember that) opened the floodgates of digital publishing, the web began to feel crowded and claustrophobic. My writing process became less creative and more performative. I felt as though I had been too open, had put myself out there too much, and I needed to retreat.
Simultaneously, I started working my way into the editorial career I’d always dreamed of. When you start getting paid to write, those assignments typically become bigger priorities than personal stories. Years passed and I never regained my zest for the internet. I wrote more in my paper journals than online, and I took up hobbies like photography and calligraphy. Even as I worked at digital startups, I tried to make more time for offline activities. The web, with its pace and hype, drained me. Living offline restored me.
Since the iPhone’s debut, I started to deeply dislike what the internet, especially social media, was doing to people. I noticed how it was rendering our relationships transactional, corroding our empathy, and turning us into self-promotional #brands. I hate how, if you’re out with a bunch of people and one person picks up his phone, everyone else follows—and if you leave your phone untouched, you somehow come across like the jerk who can’t follow social norms. I find it depressing when, for example, a family of four sits silently at a restaurant, vacantly tapping into their phones. (Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the days when a family stopped talking during dinner because of long-held, simmering resentments.)
And yet, HERE WE ARE. For the past few months, I’ve been driven to write. It’s like a tiny electric charge that needs to funnel itself into something. So you’ll find me writing here, every now and then, and in the spirit of the early internet, I hope it finds its way to the best kind of weirdos and geeks. I think you’re out there, still.