It is tough to say what first drew me to the internet but I imagine it must have been a hybrid of music and mystery. My family got a computer for our house in the middle of 1999, at the intersection of two moments: First, this was the time of the internet’s second major evolution, from a place to simply gather information to a place to form what seemed like meaningful relationships. Beyond simply existing as a beacon of possibility, the internet — specifically the people using it — started to be about figuring out how to build and sustain communities which felt real, and doing it for people in all corners of the world, from all backgrounds. Chat rooms, comment sections, and Instant Messenger were finding ways to shrink distance, or make it obsolete altogether. On top of that, it was the start of the file-sharing boom, with Napster having been released earlier in the year. The moment was still fresh, in the “this seems too good to be legal” way (which, of course, it did end up being too good to be legal).
The second thing this computer purchase coincided with was a very particular point of teenage curiosity for me, enriched by the fact that I was at an age where I spent the majority of my time at home, save for the rare night at a friend’s house. I was too young to drive, but still old enough to seek mischief and some idea of adventure, and the internet was the perfect place for me to come into my own. While my older siblings would be out on weekend nights, I would be in the makeshift office space my father graciously set up as a home for the computer, face awash with the light reflecting off of its screen.
Napster was a true social network — one that allowed access into the collections of strangers
Joy takes many forms and manifests itself in many ways, though for some of us, the ways in which it manifests become narrower as we age. There is an age where wonder is replaced with a type of righteous cynicism, which robs the body of the joy of discovery, which can echo for days. I was a child of Napster’s earliest phase. Looking back, the download times were what we’d now consider criminally slow — I would start to download an album and come back four hours later to see that it was only 57 percent done, if I was lucky. But it was the ability to rapidly accumulate music at no cost which gave me the most excitement. I was raised by parents who collected records in milk crate boxes that still sat in our basement, and I had siblings who purchased cassette tapes and kept them piled high in pirate chests, and so it serves that with an entire internet opening up for my consumption, I spent most of my time amassing music. Searching archives for old and forgotten songs. The true joy of Napster at its peak was that because it wasn’t monetized, any and all songs were up for grabs. If someone, somewhere in the world had an underground remix of a song from a second-tier pop group, it could be yours for the price of only your patience.
We pretend that we can tell a lot about who a person is by what they listen to and value, and sometimes we can. With that in mind, Napster, or the idea of file sharing at large, was a true social network — one that allowed access into the collections of strangers. People opening their closets and showing off the things they found most precious.
Before the fact that you could be anyone behind a computer screen became treacherous, it, too, was something of a joy. Sure, on the nights my pals and I had nothing better to do and were confined to rooms in our teenage homes, we would jump on AOL Instant Messenger and stay up for hours turning the houses of our parents into an imagined space where we were all kicking back with our familiar jokes and our familiar chatter about girls and sports. But what intrigued me beyond this was the concept of the chat room, or the message board. Which first, to me, seemed like a harmless place to find like-minded exchanges.
When people today talk about self-fashioned internet bubbles, I often laugh to myself. It is true, of course, that our engagement reflects our ideals and beliefs and is sometimes a monument we cannot see past or through, but in my earliest exploration of chat rooms and message boards, the finding of a bubble was almost encouraged, a way to find your place in the world despite the fact that your place might be rooted in something entirely unremarkable. The place became remarkable by your proximity to it and your inability to find it anywhere else. There were specifics at play: this chat room for teenagers who loved jazz fusion released in the ’70s, or that chat room for people who preferred chocolate chips in chewy granola bars, as opposed to plain. Now there are corners of the internet that make this experience common, but that moment was an era of discovery. The hyper-specificity of the chat room context made it so that everyone could imagine a world where their people were just a click away.
Chat rooms gave me a place to feel like I had willing ears of people who didn’t care how old I was
I don’t want to fully romanticize this, as it also opened internet users up to risk and a heightened level of danger, interacting with people they didn’t know, sharing personal information. Both the newness of the experience and the youth of so many of those consuming it made this otherwise extremely risky mode of communication seem safe enough, or at least so good that it was worth risking a world in which strangers knew intimate details about yourself and your family. In the moment of my most eager youth, I found myself building connections that were thrilling. I was a music nerd who, often times, didn’t have a lot of people to discuss music with in the ways I wanted to. Not many people my age around the time wanted to have in-depth discussions about Fleetwood Mac or Papa John Phillips. It’s the kind of thing that gains cultural capital on today’s internet — discussing music of the past with precision and emotional investment, sharing nostalgia as a way to create community, beyond the record store, or the early-aughts corridors of high school, where it was far less of an interest point. Chat rooms gave me a place to feel like I had willing ears of people who didn’t care how old I was or wasn’t.
This stripped-down world helped level a social playing field, while also reaching deep into the human need for anything we imagine as connection, even if it is behind a fence, where no one needs to know our real name or our age or what brought us there. Where no one asks why we’re at home on a Friday night, talking to strangers about songs. Where those strangers are your people, and your people don’t talk about loneliness, lest they make it real.
I do not recall the first time I was called a racial slur on the internet, but I do intensely recall the first time it stopped causing a reaction. I remember this because my hands didn’t tremble, and I remember this because my breath didn’t quicken, and I remember this because I didn’t rush to think of a response. I simply looked at whatever it was I found myself being called this time, and scrolled past it.
The other side of being able to be anyone you want on the internet is that while you have access to a wide range of joys, you also have access to a wide range of violences. And you can inflict those in equal measure, if you choose. Yes, of course this was happening in the early 2000s, when I still viewed the internet as free and romantic. But the pace at which it happens now is more accelerated, particularly for those visibly presenting as marginalized on the internet.
For years, I would push back against this, vocally and visibly. Someone would reply to a tweet of mine with some insult, and I would spiral into a war of words with them. Looking back, I wasn’t angry at whatever the insult was, but angry at the idea of having this space violated. I still viewed the internet as a haven. Even through the earlier modes of social media — MySpace and Facebook — so many of my interactions were limited to people who I chose to exist in the space with. What I thought Twitter represented at first was an evolution and modernization of the chat room. I believe it still does, largely, without the specificity. There are factions of Twitter where one can go to find very specific interactions and information (when suitcase shopping the other day, I knew I could reach out to the people on Twitter who are often on the road for advice), but there is also no way to insulate oneself from the rest of it. It acts, at times, like trying to hear a clear song through waves of guitar feedback.
I simply looked at whatever it was I found myself being called this time, and scrolled past it
Because I entered Twitter with this idealistic view of what it could be, rooted in some flawed nostalgia, when I first began to endure insults from strangers on the site, I fought to maintain what I hoped the site would be for me: a comfortable, safe, and fun place to engage. In the early days, I imagine I thought of this as some type of heroism. Don’t worry, I will fight back against the trolls so that we can talk about the small things in our lives free of them. A foolhardy task, but one I was committed to. My idea was that my community — my “we” — were still the very same people I’d discuss the specifics of music with in chat rooms, and at no point did I imagine that there was any overlap between those people and the people who might be trolls on a platform like Twitter. I still found myself eager for connections with people who could be my people if not for the distance between us.
I admit that I don’t find myself exhausted with Twitter today, though I understand why some people may be. It was around 2013, three years after I’d joined, when I got a tweet in response to my opinion on a movie insulting my race and level of intelligence. I don’t recall what the tweet said exactly, but I recall reading it, and scrolling right past it. As if it were anything else. I don’t know if I’m arguing for that as virtuous, but I am arguing for it as a way I found to survive in a shifting internet landscape. If you can be anything, consequences are often invisible, after all.
A person on Twitter who I’ve never met but think is kind and generous posts a picture of their baby, smiling at their partner. Another person on Twitter who I worked with once posts something new they’ve written, and I eagerly click it. Another person in a whole other country who I’ve only met in passing posts a screenshot of a meme, and I laugh, save the picture, and send it as a text to some friends. All of this is very small in the grand scheme of Twitter — one arm of an internet that certainly will become more fraught with toxicity as it evolves. But I still hold on to the parts of it that cause me to shake with laughter or offer some pride in the work being done around me. Even when I scroll past the noise from other rooms.
There’s a video I love. It’s a video of Tian Tian, one of the Pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo. In the video, Tian Tian discovers snow and is overtaken by a childlike wonder. He falls into the snow and begins rolling around, slowly lumbering his way through it and making what I imagine might be the panda version of a snow angel.
This video came out in 2016, and I have watched it every week since its release. Sometimes I watch it on Mondays, sometime on Fridays, sometimes at random in the middle of the week, when I can feel the days bearing down on me. What I like most in the video is the moment of seemingly childlike discovery — the witnessing of what wasn’t always there, but now is and asking for you to explore it. There are hundreds of videos on the internet like this. Animals, young and old, playing in snow for the first time, or perhaps for the 10th time, but a time that might as well be the first all over again. The internet is still good for this, too.
The joy, for me, is no longer in the excitement of the internet’s vastness. I have looked out into that vastness and only seen more vastness echoing back, so the thrill there isn’t as rich as it once was. Instead, I look to the smaller joys. The 30-second clips that hang with me for a day, or a week. The animals, running out into the snow and watching the shape their footprints make inside of it. Once, the joy was in discovery, and now, the joy is in watching the discovery of others. The magic of small, brilliant moments.
This essay is part of a collection on the theme of POSITIVITY. Also from this week, Olivia Rosane on how solarpunk aims to cancel the apocalypse, and Sasha Geffen on how games simulate the everyday scorekeeping of social media.