Growing Up On The Internet

“The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn‘t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

—Eric Schmidt

I’m going to try something new today, because days are nothing if not opportunities to try new things.

I’m going to talk about a past life I’ve never acknowledged, and in doing so, I’m going to acknowledge the bastard offspring of my brain. Because at a certain point in my life, if someone suggested I be myself, my honest reaction would be “Which one?”

Every time I talk to someone about technology or what I do, I always get asked the same question: “Where did you learn all that?”And these well-meaning people are expecting a short, two sentence answer: “Oh, I just picked it up in school”or “oh, I read a book about it”. But I have nothing like that. I have an awkward, lengthy, involved story about my adolescence and growing up and the internet and meeting people and my parents and it’s really quite the undertaking to start talking about anything from that period of my life, because there’s just so much of it, and it’s all interdependent.

It All Started With A Girl

God dammit, stop laughing.

Before I entered high school, I was hanging out as an “assistant coach”on my younger brother’s rec football team. I had just outgrown the league that year, my father was coaching my little brother, and my parents didn’t want to have to find some new way to entertain me. So I “coached”. Meaning I got bored at practices a lot and helped my father carry equipment.

At one practice, there was a girl my age standing off on the sideline. Rather than counting blades of grass some more (a favoured activity of mine during practices), I approached her and began chatting. We joked and talked and pretty quickly became friends. She kept coming to practices (her brother was on the team) and we hung out. During one of our conversations, she mentioned to me that she was writing her own book.

I was pretty intrigued. The idea that writing a book is something you can just do never really occurred to me. I guess I thought you went through some complex rite of passage thing and became An Author, and there was probably a ritual and a lot of hard work in there somewhere, and then you could start writing a book. She showed me that writing is what makes you a writer.

That night, I went home and started my own story. And we put together a folder, in which we passed our rough drafts back and forth for each other to review. And slowly, we got better.

When high school started up, she and I were in the same freshman English class. Go figure. One of the books we read that year was Ender’s Game, a book I had previously read and loved. She shared my enthusiasm for it, and we quickly became the obnoxious kids in class that were way too into the reading. During one of our free periods, we checked out Orson Scott Card’s website. It turned out he has an entire series of writing lessons online, which we quickly printed, stuck in binders, and read as if they were the Bible. It also turned out his site provided a forum for young writers to post their work and have their peers review it—an internet equivalent to the beat up folder of drafts we were passing back and forth.

Obviously, we became staples in the community. I spent more time than I care to consider reading other people’s writing and pointing out style violations, grammar problems, and areas where their writing was just… bad. And in doing so, I learned a long list of things I should not do as a writer.

A Gamer (ha!) Is Born

Around this time, I began playing Morrowind. Well, “playing”is a bit misleading. I honestly started with every intention of playing the game, but the computer version of it shipped with this evil thing called the Construction Kit. And what the Construction Kit let you do is build into the game—quite radically. Some people deleted the entire world that shipped with the game, and rebuilt a new world from scratch.

Obviously, I didn’t ever really get around to playing the game very much. This is, incidentally, why I refuse to buy PC versions of The Elder Scrolls games now, and just get them on the console, instead. No Construction Kit there.

I spent a good amount of time working on various mods and expansions to the game, and I spent even more time hanging out in the company’s forums with other modders. We formed our own little community there, and everything was great.

I specialised, at the time, in writing dialogue and working with the intricate system necessary to get this dialogue into the game. There was a lot of logic to work out, because you had to specify the precise conditions under which certain lines would be used. It wasn’t so much that I particularly enjoyed doing that; it was more that everybody else hated it, and I didn’t really feel strongly about it, so there was a niche for me in the community. I took it. But there was another aspect of building these mods that seemed really powerful to me, something I wanted to learn more about: you could write scripts to be executed. The game shipped with a very primitive scripting language built in, and mods could write scripts that could do almost anything. It was magic, it was complex, and it was mine to play with.

When One Door Closes, Climb Out The Windows

If those were the core of my adolescent experiences with the internet, I think my life would be very different right now. I might not even be involved in the tech community at all.

But then Orson Scott Card’s Writers Forum, the site where my friend and I reviewed and were reviewed by our peers, was shut down. They gave us a couple weeks of notice, but they were very clear: we were losing our home.

Being high school kids with access to public computers, a bunch of free time, and a stack of floppy disks (no, seriously), we sprang into action. This is about when it would have been handy for me to have some basic tech skills. We visited each page of each thread in those forums and saved them to disk, manually. We stored all this information on floppy disks, meticulously labelled.

It was an agonizing process, but we loved our home and didn’t want to lose it, so we did it.

Once we had our history in place, we registered a free forum on ProBoards and posted a new thread on Orson Scott Card’s forum, saying we had the old posts, we were opening a new forum, and anyone that didn’t want to lose their home could come with us.

We got over a hundred people to sign up for our new forum that way. At the time, that was a really large number to me.

A House Is Not A Home

My friend and I were about 13 or 14 when this happened. Neither of us had any experience building or running a community. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing. In fact, my parents were pretty wary of the whole internet thing in general, and I’m not even sure I told them I was doing this.

But suddenly we had a loose group of a hundred people that we needed to form into a community. We didn’t really realise the responsibility we now had, nor did we know enough to be intimidated by our task. Instead, we naively went ahead and started doing things. Some of them worked, some did not. We tried things, and tried to learn from our mistakes when it became glaringly obvious we had made mistakes. While we were doing this, we were simultaneously learning how to be respectable online citizens. It was an interesting formative experience to dump a barely-teenager into.

During this time, I started building a persona for myself in the community I had inadvertantly created. It wasn’t me; it wasn’t the kid that went to school every day, it wasn’t the kid my parents saw. It’s what I wanted to be. It’s how I wanted to see myself. It’s exactly what I would have been if I had been given the freedom to define myself, because for once, I had been.

I lived in a small suburb. My family was large, and we had lived in the area for a while. Some of my family members were prominent in the area. I grew up as someone’s brother or son or nephew or grandson. I felt responsible for the reputations of everyone I was related to, because it felt like everything I did would reflect on them. There wasn’t much room for me to experiment and decide who I wanted to be.

Adventure Is Out There

As I was administrating my own little community, I turned to the larger ProBoards community to become a better administrator. I learned cool little hacks I could do to my forum—ProBoards allowed administrators to inject JavaScript into various parts of the site, and a community sprang up to create some very cool hacks around this. Which, incidentally, is how I learned JavaScript.

As I became more involved in the community, I found more and more sites that existed to serve that community. I found places where website designers and forum modders hung out, and I joined up. I made friends, I talked to people, I wasted time. I just hung out, chatting and posting and talking to people, learning new things and getting to know the people around me.

Who Am I?

I feel like people, when they read this, will think I was not popular enough in real life, so I escaped into the internet. Like I felt rejected by my immediate community, so I turned elsewhere. Because that seems to be a common narrative to kids who grow up on the internet. In my case, it’s just not accurate. I had a group of friends that were great to me. I was not a lonely child. I struggled with feelings of ostracization, but they were always circumstantial; if the table my group of friends sat at at lunch filled up, I’d have a crushing sense of being under a microscope, that how I responded to the unexpected turn of events would be scrutinized and judged. But I don’t recall any feelings of loneliness.

Instead, I just wanted the freedom to explore my own existential crisis. I wanted to be able to try being different people, and see what felt right. I wanted to be able to invent and reinvent myself at will, as easily as registering a new account on a website. I played the part of obnoxious intellectual, or troll, or child. I added eccentricities that I found interesting, and I created and recreated my own personal mythos.

I wasn’t doing any of this consciously. I didn’t sit at a computer and say “Gee, I wonder what it feels like to be a writer that semi-jokingly worships an invented god of punctuation”. Instead, I did things until I got bored of them, or thought of something I thought I would enjoy doing more. When I joined new communities, I relished the thought of a clean slate, the opportunity to pick a new way to be seen.

Moving On

After a certain point, I stopped being friends with the girl I met at a football practice. My then-undiagnosed depression started to become an issue in my life, and I started doing things without understanding why I was doing them. I hurt her feelings, and we had a falling out. I really regret that, because I couldn’t even explain why it was happening at the time. I just said things. I’m sure it was a confusing, hurtful time for her, and I feel really, really bad about that.

Eventually, I grew distant with my own community. I spent more and more time in the design and coding communities I had found, and less and less time in the community I had originally called home. My parents found out what I was doing, and became alarmed at some of the personas I had created, and started to actively try and curtail my activities.

Of course, like any good teenager, I dove into the internet with a wild abandon.

A lot of people who know me now—who know my propensity for writing software every waking hour of the day, who know my fondness for technology—would assume that I’d find a home in the coding section of these coding and design communities. They’d be mistaken. Ironically, I did my best there, but I never had the confidence to really become known as a coder in those communities.

Instead, I became known as the literature guy. I’m not entirely sure why, but every single design & coding community had a literature forum. It seems really random in retrospect, but at the time, it was simply a thing that was. At one point, I was the moderator for the literature board in literally every well-known forum. Forums with thousands of members. I chose an identity, joined up, stuck around, and did what I loved. And in time, responsibility and power came on their own.

Throwing Up Walls

During all this time, I never mixed my online life and my offline life. My parents were kept as far removed as I could deceive them into being. My friends had no idea that I had a set of completely different lives on the internet. My internet friends never got my real name, or any identifying characteristics about me. I never shared photos of me. I never hinted as to where I was.

This was partly because of the internet safety things that were spouted at me at every opportunity. I soon developed my own opinions. The trick wasn’t, as people would have me believe, talk to nobody online, it was to always be aware of who you were talking to and what you were telling them. And what they could do with that.

But it was also mostly because if I had tied my real self to these identities, they could be linked. I liked that they weren’t tied to that skinny kid in suburban Upstate New York. I liked that I could throw them away when I got bored with them, and nobody would be able to find me again.

I had imposed a wall between my identities, and I liked it that way.

Real People

I like to say that I live on the internet, and I think that’s a pretty accurate statement. I’ll never forget when I first realised I had a crush on one of my male friends; the first person I talked to about it was an internet friend named LadyWriter. She was a college student who gave me her cellphone number, and I called her from a blocked number to chat with her whenever my parents left me alone for long enough. She was what my parents would have called “an unsavoury character”, and I found her fascinating. She was deviant, she was weird, she had a quirky sense of humour. She opened my eyes to a viewpoint that I would never have gotten in my conservative little town. Not that her viewpoint was better, necessarily, it was just different. And in a town where everyone is the same, I was really interested in the different.

There was also a Morrowind modder that adopted me as her internet son. There were friends all over the world that would chat with me at all hours. Hell, at one point there was even a “boyfriend”I had never met. We basically just talked a lot. We cared how each other’s days were, told each other secrets, and gave each other gifts on holidays and birthdays. Never anything physical—we never exchanged mailing addresses—but I would write for him, or code up a cool hack for him. He was a digital artist, and made me the most amazing paintings.

A gift from my “boyfriend”

A lot of people say that they never thought of people on the internet as people. I had the opposite experience. I remember all these people, all their quirks, and they were all very real to me. Sometimes, after years go by, we get in touch again. The guy I “dated”was diagnosed with cancer, and despite “breaking up”and not talking for a few years, he still sought me out to talk with me as he battled through treatments. I was the first person he told when the doctors told him he had won.

These people were always very real to me.

Tearing Down Walls

As I started college, I began outgrowing this phase in my life. My identity had cemented a bit, I had a better understanding of who I wanted to be, and I began to want to build a trail, a history for myself that was whole. Something I could point to and say “That’s where I was five years ago, and look where I am now”. I wanted my name associated with what I spent my time doing, because I wanted people to be able to Google me and get a sense of who I was. Now that I knew who I was, I wanted everyone to know who I was.

I started using my name as my username. I started to be consistent with the self I was presenting. I never tried to be anything or seem a certain way; I just engaged honestly. I became a multi-faceted whole, instead of several single-dimensional entities. I started sharing information about myself. Now you can really easily find my email address, my cell phone number, my home address, my name, my date of birth, pictures of me, where I’m going to be, and more. All these things I’ve knowingly and willingly published to the internet, and that doesn’t bother me at all.

A Different Kind Of Friend

My friends changed, though. They aren’t less real, and they aren’t more real, they’re just more complicated. I can scroll through my contact list right now and see people from all over the US, Canada, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa that I’m fortunate enough to call friends. But I don’t think of them as internet friends anymore. They’re just friends. I may never meet many of them, but I will meet a lot of them. The world has shrunk a lot in the last ten years, for me at least. Planes can take me anywhere, to any of these people. Instead of changing identities when I get bored, assuming a new self, I now look to change locations. To change my surroundings. I’m extremely resistant to setting down roots in any single place, because I don’t want to be stuck there, any more than I wanted my name to anchor my identities when I was growing up online. Not knowing what city or even country I’ll be in this time next year is something that has become really, really important to me.

Less than ten years ago, I never thought I’d get out of a little suburb in Syracuse.