Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Writing online when nobody is reading

On all of the various websites I have had (starting with free Geocities and Angelfire hosted sites in the late 1990's/early 2000's and continuing through this site) I have done very little promotion of my internet presence. I have told a few friends and family members about some specific things over the years, but almost all of the things I've written or put online (including this site) were always just meant to be a creative and technical outlet for myself.

Before the widespread use of the internet to post every minute of every day from your smartphone, I (probably like many others around my age) had notebooks of doodles and stuff I wrote that nobody had ever seen. I had physical photographs of myself with people I'd met and places I'd been. It was amazing to be able to put some of the stuff out somewhere (somewhat anonymously) to share with people that I didn't know in real life and didn't feel like were judging me. When I put things up back then I always assumed that nobody was looking at it (and nobody really cared) but still posted somewhat cautiously because anyone could be looking at it.

There was a brief time in the early 2000's where I was a member of an online community that had journals. Through that site I met a ton of really cool people. People that I didn't know IRL, before I got to know them online. People would come around to your journal on the site and ask for updates and share stories and recommendations for things (movies, music, what to do after a breakup, how to cope with a shitty job). They'd come around just to say they missed you and ask how life was. I'd regularly make posts with boring little life updates. When I had nothing to write about I'd ask people to share random things with me and people really did. I'd spend hours reading what my friends has posted and commenting back to them individually. Towards the end of that time period I was busy with work and real life relationships (spending less time online) and short on cash (paying back student loans) and I stopped paying to be a member and very quickly lost touch with everyone there. For a short time after leaving, I tried to keep in touch with people by email and later I tried to keep that online community feeling going briefly with free options like LiveJournal, Friendster and MySpace (remember them?) but they never really went anywhere and I struggled with posting anything regularly enough to keep people interested in coming back on those other platforms.

During the early part of those years, though, I remember chatting in various chat rooms and ICQ (and later, AIM) with people from all around the US and Canada, all hours of the day and night. People I met online who were interested in stuff I'd written or profiles I had on websites that just randomly reached out for whatever reason and we started talking. It felt less weird back then to just randomly say "Hello. I really like your [picture]/[poem]/[story]/[profile]/[whatever]." or "I also like [author]/[band]." and then end up talking online sharing stories, pictures, trials and tribulations, relationship and family drama. Pretty much anything you'd end up talking to a good friend about.

People were a little worried about online stalkers and weirdos, but many of the platforms today are tied a little too closely to the real world to feel safe about posting a lot of things or just randomly commenting to strangers. (Not even going to get on the topic of trolls.) Back then, if you wanted to avoid people you just made a different ICQ/AIM name and shared it with a smaller group. I didn't post my phone number, address, where I went to school, hometown, who my real life friends and family were, what I ate for breakfast and where I ate it... and that was the norm. I picked funny city names to live in for profiles like Eek, AK or Boring, OR (real places) but told online friends where (roughly geographically) and eventually real city/state when I had talked to them for a little while. A few even knew my full name and address (as we mailed physical gifts, mix CDs and stuff to each other) but I think what made it fun for all of us was the ability to connect with people easily based on genuine interests instead of primarily based on physical location.

I bring my personal internet history up, because lately I've been thinking about how the internet has changed over my two decades of using (or not using) evolving technologies and platforms. I'm sure a lot of it is just me growing up and out of my teen (and twenties) angst and drama. It's been quite some time since I've ranted about a bad breakup or raved about traveling hours to see my favorite band(s). It's been even longer since I posted an extremely cryptic one line post and had multiple people I've never met in real life who knew instantly what I was talking about (and laughing with me or being supportive, whatever was appropriate). I rarely write about politics or religion due to the fear of offending someone I have to sit near at work on a daily basis. The remainder for me is the fact that online is much more like (and intertwined with) real life now. If I wouldn't talk about it with someone I don't know that well at work, I don't post it on Facebook. I don't like liking things because they're just using the information I give them to sell advertisements. The different groups of people that are friends on these platforms don't overlap on many/most interests and I don't care enough (or have the time) to break them into groups to post to different groups, anyway.

Most of my online friends now are people I actually knew IRL before connecting with them online. Facebook (and Instagram) are shared with family, friends, coworkers, classmates and the occasional person you didn't really know all that well in college/high school/middle school and even probably even some parents of your friends and acquaintances.

There's obviously nothing wrong with any of this, but these days my feeds are primarily posts about real life friend's families and pictures of their children, lots of doom and gloom about politics, and so many pictures of food. Some of it is interesting, some of it is infuriating and some of it is just shares to scroll past, but it just doesn't feel like it used to. It feels like a curated glance into the good parts of someone else's life and things that they want you to be [happy]/[sad]/[angry] at with them. It's nice to have a convenient way to keep up with people's lives but I feel like there's little to no actual interaction short of clicking the thumbs-up (or now long press for the heart, etc...) and typing a quick "Congratulations." post on major life events.

I feel more disconnected even though I know more about what's going on in friend's lives now compared to when I actually saw a lot of them every day in school, work, etc.

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