I remember the first time I used the internet.
I’d been bugging my parents ever since I saw an episode of Ghostwriter that depicted hackers and cyberspace. I was intrigued. I was vaguely aware that my father’s massive laptop he kept in his office had a modem, the mystical device that could connect me. I even snuck in one day and opened it up, trying to see if I could figure out how to use it. I don’t think I got farther than turning it on before I chickened out. I was eight.
Not long after that, but likely after much pestering on my part, an internet session was arranged. I got to go to work with my father, where my older cousin was waiting for me in a conference room. There was a small black laptop at the front of a large table, with the handset of a phone next to it. I picked up the phone and it made terrible noises – my cousin immediately reprimanded me and told me to put it down, concerned that I had just disconnected us. I sat down and looked at the grey computer window before me. This was the internet? What was I supposed to do with this?
He suggested we look up something I was interested in. My mind was as blank as the screen. He asked if there were any movies or music I was into at the moment – I thought of the Green Day CD my older brother had just purchased. I had heard bits of it wafting from his room in the evenings, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I don’t remember if Green Day had a website, or if we just found an image of the album art, but my first internet experience ended with me getting a printout of the Insomniac cover – the slowness of the download matched only by the slowness of the printer. I was underwhelmed.
Jump forward to the age of keyword: nick and America On-Line, 2-hours free CDs in the mail, “kid safe” chatrooms and being confused that when I clicked on the WWW to go to the internet I got warnings – wasn’t I on the internet? What was the World Wide Web? Was that different? My two siblings and I took turns using a laptop my father brought home from work for us, crowding around a desk in the kitchen, extra phone lines snaking up from the basement. A nice person in a chat room told my sister they were from AOL and could let us know how much time we had left on our trial if we gave them our username and password, and my sister obliged. At the end of the month, we got a bill for almost $300. My parents were furious, and I couldn’t understand what had happened – we had been so careful to keep track of our time.
We got the internet back when my sister went to college. We all received email addresses so that we could communicate with her. The computer moved upstairs, into the old nursery-turned-sewing-turned-computer room, the phone lines now snaking up even more stairs. This was the era of Windows 3.11, Winsock, and Netscape Navigator. This was when we got a 1.2gb external hard drive, and I couldn’t fathom how big that was. I got an ICQ account to talk with the one friend from school who also had a computer with the internet. I talked with all sorts of people I met through the random chat feature. I stayed up late chatting with a boy in Bakersfield, CA that I was sure I was in love with – he was 16 to my 12. I researched my newfound obsessions (The X-Files and Gillian Anderson) using AltaVista, because I strongly believed it was the superior search engine. I saw sites on Geocities and decided to make one before even knowing what that really meant. I picked my address because it seemed cool – /SouthBeach/Pointe/3800 – and once again I was faced with a blank browser window. I followed a mercifully placed link that taught basic HTML, and copied it all into a Lisa Frank notebook. I was thrilled to show my school computer teacher what I’d made; proud of my under-construction gifs, MIDI files of popular songs, and visitor counter.
Over the years I made screen names whenever I thought of a new one, email addresses whenever I needed a new persona, and website layouts whenever I got bored. I graduated into real URLs hosted by friends, and jumped on the apparent train of cool kids using .org extensions for their personal blogs. I raised my nose at anyone using LiveJournal for their angsty teenage ramblings, because I’d made my own cringy corner. I was on Friendster, then MySpace. I laughed about Something Awful and Newgrounds with my friends, and tried to figure out what the hell Subservient Chicken was. I was newly minted Freshman when my college was brought into the Facebook fold, and when people were just starting to figure out that uploading all the photos off the (somehow one-per-friend-group) digital camera into a public album for everyone to check out on PhotoBucket wasn’t such a great idea.
Social media blossomed and my desire to post updates to my website wilted. I could deliver witty comments straight to my friends on Facebook, and with much less effort. My .org got resurrected in grad school, when I needed to keep some sort of blogged record of everything I was learning, making, and exploring – but then fell to the wayside when I purchased a more “professional” domain for my portfolio website. Things stagnated. I tried keeping work in progress/research blogs for a while, but who were they really for? I was writing posts about art I liked, but it was just as easy to bookmark the artist’s work, or Pin it (despite Pinterest being another network I only briefly dipped my toe into), or write their name on actual paper. I felt like I was performing my research for an unknown audience – “See how well I can think and form sentences about art? I can keep up with this just like my peers!” I hated it.
The stagnation seeped into other parts of my life, and it took a chat with a colleague about his art practice and the self-discipline of making something every day to get me going again. I purchased justmakesomethingalready.com, and vowed to, indeed, just make something already. It worked for a while, but then I found myself posting older work, or random filler images, because I felt like I needed to make daily content. It wasn’t great. I’d linked to it from my portfolio website as a “work in progress” blog, but I was sort of ashamed to include it at all. I know there are artists who keep really wonderful WIP blogs (It looks like she also succame to the blog-rot, but at the time Zoe Strauss was killing it), but I couldn’t. So I didn’t.
I’m not quite sure what the exact moment that turned me was, or if was a slow build. Though my medium was always photography, I was much more interested in art that was embracing emerging technologies and code. I wanted to learn, and was trying, but I often felt like that science dog meme. I began using Instagram more to follow all sorts of digital artists, and saw that some had different accounts for different projects or aspects of their work. I’d also started following subreddits for art and tech that interested me, and joined a few Facebook communities that were fairly active. They were new and exciting – people were sharing works in progress, code, methods of making, and everything seemed fresh and novel. This was in stark contrast to the photo communities I’d been in before. On a whim I made the tongue-in-cheek domain purchase allofthisisrocketscience.com – I knew anything I was making was middle school science fair level at best, but oof was it difficult. I lurked, slowly made stuff, and posted things I felt okay about to Rocket Science. I kept this experimental website separate from my portfolio website. I wanted to be able to share and showcase, but only if I decided to explicitly. For the first time in a long time, I made things and shared them, and it didn’t feel like an excruciating task. Eventually, Rocket Science morphed into my “real” site, but I still kept designations between works in progress and completed projects.
It seems for me to keep up with my work, I need to have the latent excitement of others possibly seeing it, the leeway to show things that I’m still figuring out, and the ability to add to it whenever without feeling guilty that it’s not enough – otherwise I’ll never post anything. Keeping up with my website now feels a lot more like making a website back in my early days – I’m doing this largely for myself, but it’s there for when I want to show it to someone. I didn’t actually have my name on it until a couple months ago, when using it to apply for various opportunities. I like the idea of it being somewhat hidden.
Did anything actually change? Is the only difference the URL? It’s amazing to me that whatever flipped and made me decide to buy that URL changed my whole outlook on presenting myself online, and makes things feel much more sustainable for me. Is my work lacking because I don’t have a blog? I don’t know. But who would I be writing for, anyways? Should I be self-promoting way more? Maybe, but it feels disingenuous. Despite needing this aspect of my digital identity for my career, it still very much feels like it’s on the personal side of the VR map. I’ve seen those profile links where people have websites with a list of all their different websites, handles, accounts, etc. The idea of doing that makes me uncomfortable, to say the least.
This is what formed and informs my digital identity. I grew up when the internet was still the wild west, when people were staking out virtual real estate with silly road addresses, making fan pages with abandon, and all of those things were actually findable, exciting places to go. You could type into the void and see what came back. It didn’t feel saturated. It didn’t feel policed, or carefully curated, or like anything you said would follow you forever. There was no linking the person who made the X-Files fan page with their place of employment, their Reddit posts where they asked for relationship advice, or their Instagram account where they shared pictures of their family.
I feel like I carry a longing for that with me – the ability to be open and human while also being just a name on a screen, without the chance of running into my 3rd grade teacher or friend’s mother. I miss the time when the internet felt like it could be anonymous without being sketchy; when it felt like it had limitless potential, and was possible to actually stumble upon sites and explore. I’m not quite sure how to negotiate that in this era of the internet, and within my adult life and career – but I think in creating a playfully named, pseudo-anonymous website, I’m preserving a little bit of my original digital identity.