01 September, 2009

Looking back on a decade in the Internet--how the World Wide Web has affected me

I entered the Internet World over a decade ago, on March 23, 1999.

It was not the first time I had set foot in the World Wide Web that was the topic of so much discussion then. I had dabbled at school and at friends' homes, but never for more than brief periods. In early 1996, for example, was the first time I ever saw pornography on a computer screen, standing around a desk in a living room dimmed by drawn blinds beside two boys with a lhasa apso frantically trying to sniff my asshole through my pants. It was suggested in less precise terminology that I imagine the small, hyperactive dog were a woman giving me a rimjob, but I no more wanted to imagine that than I wanted to see the pyramid of faceless vaginas formed by half a dozen nude women lying on top of each other, legs spread.

I'd seen the Internet before. I'd been captivated by the stream of stupid but live remarks that people across the world could post in a chat room. I'd already learned the importance of typing "a/s/l?" when you enter one, though I hadn't quite figured out why the answers to such questions were really necessary.

On my fourteenth birthday, however, with eighth grade drawing to a close, I became a badge-carrying member, and my new official name was El-Queso@webtv.net. My mom had gifted me with a WebTV, a VCR-shaped box that would broadcast a simplified version of the Internet through my bedroom television. It had a small, wireless keyboard that I could only hunt and peck at, and it droned ragtime midis that I actually somewhat enjoyed. The load time was atrocious and the connection would sever anytime the phone rang, but it was the Internet. I finally had the Internet at my disposal. All those alluring URLs that were fashionably plastered on everything back then--www.pepsi.com, www.burgerking.com, www.nick.com--were finally mine to consume. All those, of course, turned out quite dull, but I had also eagerly anticipated IMDb--something I had read about in a section of the Yellow Pages dedicated to surfing the web--and though it wasn't quite the dreamland I anticipated it to be, it's still a website I visit daily even after ten years. I can't say that about any other webpage.

My mom had purchased me the WebTV to help with my schoolwork. It did, of course. My first productive use of the Internet was to research background information for a paper on To Kill a Mockingbird. I learned that Braxton Bragg Underwood, Maycomb's newspaperman, was named for the old typewriter that Harper Lee wrote on, a gift from her father. That had impressed my teacher, who had grown accustomed to giving me less than stellar grades when previous research assignments (define "Moral Majority," define "Big Brother") proved too difficult to complete merely by hunting through indexes at the Kempsville Library.

Research is still a major part of my Internet life. I spent today trying to hunt down literature from the Falkland Islands (there isn't any, except for some short, jingoistic poems), Easter Island (there's none, and the rongorongo glyphs of the Rapanui remain one of the last undecipherable languages, assuming they are in fact a language), the Galapagos Islands (there's nothing native, but a penniless Herman Melville did write a fiction-esque novella about the "Encantadas," which he considered brutal and hellish), Svalbard (in 2007, British novelist Georgina Harding wrote a novel about the Arctic island, called The Solitude of Thomas Cane), and the North Pole (in 1912 Matthew A. Henson published a short memoir titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which (aside from the title) is controversial for two reasons: 1) his associate Robert Peary accused him of being merely a servant and stealing glory from what was rightly his discovery, and 2) some researchers today suspect that Peary (nor Henson) never actually made it to the pole).

But I digress... which is a substantial, though unfortunate, habit that the Internet has accustomed me to: digression. How easy it is to lose oneself in the endless labyrinth of links. One way to kill a few hours is to follow an endless trail of information through Wikipedia. When I'm feeling less studious I use IMDb (trivia for Spider-Man 2! goofs from Pulp Fiction! quotations from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! an entire message board of jokes about I Know Who Killed Me!).

I even invented my own game that's something like Six Degrees of Wikipedia. Here's how to play. Pre-select a topic--let's make it Patrick Swayze. Go to the Wikipedia homepage. Without typing anything into the search bar, follow the available links until you get to the entry about Patrick Swayze.

Here goes: Nazi Germany--Adolf Hitler--Valkyrie--Tom Cruise--Minority Report--Academy Award--Academy Award for Best Original Song--Dirty Dancing--Patrick Swayze. I'd get a score of 8. Can you do it in less?

I'm sure I wasn't the first person to think of this game. Aside from being an endless distraction that merely bankrupted my attention span, the Internet has also given me firm proof that we are never alone in the world, that most of what we do, when compared on a global scale, is never truly unique, no matter how eccentric or innovative. That can be a disheartening thought--imagine having a great idea for an invention or a story or a website, then searching for similar results on Google and discovering that it's already been done. Almost everything has already been done. Even nonsense phrases have often been said before.

(There's another game--which I didn't invent--that involves typing an unusual search phrase into Google and trying to get one--only one!--search result. I think I've only succeeded once, unless you count "flim flam creature," which is on multiple webpages all citing the exact same quotation. Now that I've typed "flim flam creature," however, it'll be on two separate webpages, which alludes to the evanescent nature of the "googlewhack"--as soon as it's discovered, it ceases to be a rare and hidden creature. I'm still wondering why anyone other than me would ever utter "flim flam creature" other than to affectionately describe my boyfriend.)

It's not always disheartening, though. Sometimes it's very important to realize that we're not alone. It prevents us from feelings of insanity and hopelessness. Since before I was forming memories, I've been a bed rocker. Most of my life I rocked myself to sleep, lying on my back, with my left leg flat, my right leg bent, and my right foot flat on the bed controlling much of the sway. Since I started sharing my bed I've learned to eliminate it; though it used to be impossible, I can now fall asleep without rocking. Sometimes I still do it unconsciously in my sleep, which has frightened unaware boyfriends. It's an embarrassing admission, and for most of my life I considered it a result of some freakish developmental disorder or lurking mental impairment. I still don't know what its etiology is, but I know that it has a name--Rhythmic Movement Disorder, one of several Stereotypic Movement Disorders--and I know that many normal adults share the exact same experience with me. It's nothing to be afraid of.

When we were at the store purchasing the WebTV, the teenage clerk made a half-serious reference to my mother about installing certain security measures on the box that would prevent me from seeing adult material. My mother, trusting in my maturity, assured him that she needn't worry about me doing things I shouldn't be doing, and the clerk--knowing the habits of teenage boys better than my mother apparently did--assured her that she shouldn't be so sure. He was right, but my mom never bothered trying to figure out the privacy measures, instead eliciting my promise that I wouldn't do anything illicit.

That first night, being the fourteen-year-old that I was, I couldn't wait to get my hands on pornography. I had seen pornography before--my brother had found magazines in dumpsters, had stolen magazines from stores, had ordered catalogs from 1-800 numbers, had hijacked the cable box into unscrambling the Playboy channel--but I had never seen the kind of pornography that really interested me. The kind that didn't have any women.

In those first days in March I had a crucial mystery to unravel: I had to determine once and for all why I was more interested in boys and penises than girls and vaginas. I'd been captivated by them since third grade when I realized that Travis, who rode my school bus, was more than just the funniest storyteller. I had tried to unlock the reason Stand By Me made me so sad (it was because I wanted so desperately to hug Wil Wheaton and tell him he'd be okay). I had rationalized why I skipped the parts of my brother's magazine that had just huge-breasted women and went straight for the parts that had men fondling those erections: I merely wanted to compare myself to those men, nothing more! When a boy in my theater class described being sweaty and naked beneath a toga during a performance, I wasn't quite sure why my crystal clear images of his description horrified me so--but I knew that they horrified me. They depressed me utterly. That happened right before Christmas in 1997, and in lay in my dark room staring at the ceiling and crying. Something was wrong. My popularity had been steadily declining for some time, and I knew it had something to do with me being different from other boys, but I had no idea why and the fact that I masturbated to pictures of Leonardo Dicaprio from Titanic didn't quite clue me in.

I knew what "gay" was. It was an insult. I'd had it directed at me (mostly from my brother), and I had directed it at others (one popular game in third grade was to place your hand on a distracted boy's shoulder and quickly start counting out loud; the number you were able to reach before he violently shrugged you off was the percentage of gay he was). It wasn't something that anyone was, any more than people were "dumbasses" or "buttholes." I would no sooner admit to being gay than to confess that, yes, I was an idiot and a dork and I smelled awful.

But then why was I going to websites that openly and proudly announced that they held gay content? Why was I hesitantly violating the law by clicking the link that said "Yes, I am over 18"? (I tried clicking the "No" once and ended up on Disney's website. I quickly backtracked and chose the dirty path.) Why did I know what a "twink" was when I'd never heard it used by anyone in speech?

In those early days of Internet I had to admit--if only to myself--that I was gay. I mildly fought it off at first--refusing to continue my enrollment in theater classes despite loving theater classes--but soon acknowledged that there wasn't much I could do about it. As cool as they could be, I simply didn't want to date girls. And here's where the small world of the Internet came in handy--though I couldn't discover many gay kids at my high school (the ones who were most frequently labeled as gay were also the least cool and the most obnoxious), I could find them on the Internet. I essentially had no friends in real life (except for a boy at my bus stop who, I later learned, was also gay and had a crush on me), but in the cyber world I frequented a chat room for gay teens. I could openly express my thoughts. I could be honest about myself. I even had a boyfriend from upstate New York named travis227, who I shared affection with by hugging him like this: ((((((((((((((travis))))))))))))))).

Looking back I realize that Travis was probably a middle aged married man. My suspicion of that was the reason I broke up with him after a few months. In either case he was probably a lot uglier than the blond soccer player he made himself out to be. Other friends I knew were real, including a handsome older boy in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, who assured me that--despite my present loneliness--one day we could "fuck like rabbits." Our friendship went beyond lewd expressions of sexual desire--but it was important to know that one day I could have someone in my life, even if it meant moving from the barren queer-wastelands of Virginia Beach to the paradise of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, where there was someone else like me.

The Internet taught me to be skeptical and honest. My first night in a chatroom I talked extensively with a stripper from Atlanta who had huge breasts and who had just been beaten by her drunken husband. I was a twenty-nine-year-old film critic who wrote for The Virginian Pilot and was currently working on a column about my Oscar predictions. When I became a regular in a movie trivia chatroom and other regulars started asking about the man behind the El-Queso nick, I adopted the life of a twenty-four-year-old furniture salesman bachelor. At that age it was difficult for me to think of occupations that twenty-four-year-olds could realistically have. Now that I'm twenty-four, I'm glad I'm not a furniture salesman. I do, however, wish that a newspaper would publish my movie reviews.

I became good friends with a woman from Queens named Margaret. She was essentially my best friend in ninth grade, and we would engage in a lot of hijinx online and on the telephone. She was the first person I came out to, technically. We were as close as two people could be on the Internet, but she thought that I was ten years older than I was. Eventually that lie became too much for me to continue handling. I severed the friendship without explanation--not a difficult thing to do on the Internet--and only later, after panicked emails from her, did I confess my true identity, though by that point the friendship was unsalvagable. I remember her fondly and try to never let deception and lies interfere with my personal relationships.

I've broken up with a boyfriend on Myspace. I've met a boyfriend on Myspace. The first isn't worth mentioning, but the second caused six months of my life to be drastically different than they would have been otherwise without the Internet, for better or for worse. I like seeing the bright side of cause and effect, and though there was nothing disastrous about that short-lived romance, its most positive outcome was that it helped me to realize how much I preferred my present love (who was then just a beloved friend) more than all other boys.

I was on the cutting edge of the ebb and tide of Internet trends in high school and college. I started actively listening to music--and, soon after, good music--when I downloaded Napster. Coming from a poor family, I couldn't have listened to much music otherwise, and I already thought lowly of the radio and much of what was on MTV. After Napster, through which I was able to get the entire Elliott Smith discography (after seeing Good Will Hunting, I hopped on Audiogalaxy, which introduced me to Okkervil River, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Belle and Sebastian, Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, and other bands I would have never heard of in 2000. I followed Audiogalaxy's collapse with KaZaa, and KaZaa with Soulseek, which is still going strong, though my qualms about stealing from artists tend to prevent me from downloading too much music these days. Now I use MySpace Music to listen to music I don't own, and that works pretty well and is legal and free.

I was on Friendster before it got so popular that the server started crashing. In September of 2003, I spent all my time on Friendster. I coined the word "fakester"--to describe a fake Friendster profile--and entered it in the Urban Dictionary. It's been voted on 816 times and was the Urban Dictionary word of the day on March 30, 2007. That's probably the one single thing I've done that's had the widest impact. "Vaginal diarrhea" hasn't had nearly has much staying power in the English lexicon (36 votes, 20 of them positive, though I think a few of those votes are from me).

I transferred to MySpace. I wrote clever things in my About Me, actively thought about what I could change my headline to, bought a camera mostly so I could take profile pictures, bragged about all the cool bands I listened to in my Music section, and befriended all the local bands. Once my profile picture was stolen by somebody in North Carolina, and I learned the simultaneous narcissistic pleasure and impositional discomfort of Single White Female syndrome.

As I've aged I've become more discerning of fads. I joined Facebook only after everyone stopped using Myspace, and only years after it became popular. I originally resisted because it only allowed college students and many of my friends weren't in college. Now it's more egalitarian, but I still think about canceling the account every so often. I'm too verbose to Tweet, and I'm too meticulous about grammar and spelling to use chatrooms. But I do have this blog, which seems to be about the only hope I have that anyone will ever read what I write, and I'm using the infinite resources of Google to improve my life--managing my money responsibly by setting up a budget spreadsheet on Google Documents, using Google Sites to promote my quest to explore and popularize world literature. I use the submissions tracker and the literary magazine database at Duotrope Digest in my quest to publish my fiction. I've watched Wikipedia grow from a poorly written pet project (my first encounter was at my college library while trying to cram the essentials of Indian history) to a massive text with the (almost always accurate) answer to just about anything. I look forward to what Google Books can do to the world of literature. I've saved tons of money by buying used things on the Internet--books and textbooks especially--rather than having to buy them new and overpriced at the store.

I've pretty much stopped watching television, and I've therefore cut off most of my exposure to advertising (I've learned to ignore most of Internet ads), which always bothered me before. I don't even have cable, which is one less bill to pay and one less time-consuming distraction to deal with. Granted I fill a lot of that distraction time with time spent browsing the Internet, but at least now I'm learning more than I would be watching repeats of "Hanging with Mr. Cooper."

The Internet has guided me toward better things--better music, more diverse books, better movies. They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? has introduced me to some great films from history and from around the world, which sure beats watching 88MM and thinking that that's quality filmmaking.

The Internet has instilled in me an obsessive quest for completeness (I can find out infinite trivial things about anything now) and listmania, and those are mixed blessings. It's probably ruined my posture and my eyesight. Rather than make me more reclusive, though, it's introduced me to more people, helped me to bridge social gaps, and allowed me to broaden my interpersonal horizons. It's made me more knowledgeable, more discerning, and more honest. It's saved me much money. And it's granted me extensive laughter by allowing me to countlessly watch the video I've posted below. Looking back on ten years of the Internet, I guess it's been a pretty good friend.


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