Like pretty much any other teenager in the Midlands, my life wasn’t very exciting or romantic. I was shy and awkward and – or so I remember it now – my free time seemed to be made up of two choices: stand around by the lamppost at the end of my road or sit in the living room watching Noel’s House Party.
But then, in 1996, I went online, from the desktop PC in my dad’s study. I wonder what lies I told my parents about the internet’s educational value, to convince them to let me install that AOL trial disk? Because I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that what I actually wanted to do was look at pictures of Anna Friel with no clothes on and pretend to be people I wasn’t in chat rooms.
I find it funny and interesting that, back then as a young teen, I just seemed to know instinctively that the internet was more interesting that real life. And by the time the month-long trial had ended on the AOL disk and my dad had refused to pay the subscription fees, I was totally hooked.
During my first year at University, at Nottingham Trent in 1999, I didn’t own a computer. I spent a lot of time in the communal clusters, writing emails, typing up essays, and Alta-Vista-ing obscure indie bands; after all, it was a place only really suitable for SFW activities.
But just before my second year, as I was to transfer from halls to a large, cold bedroom on the third floor of a dilapidated student house, my dad decided to upgrade his computer and gave me the old one. It may seem unimaginable today, but back then, I remember it being like some kind of thrilling, magical accident to be suddenly given my own PC: the once-shared family computer, now transformed into my very own private internet machine.
As 1999 turned into The Year Two Thousand, I vomited into a bucket at the stroke of midnight, too drunk from this grim 90%-proof spirit drink someone had brought to the party to actually see any of the fireworks. And the next morning, while there were no people floating around on hoverboards in silver pyjamas, in one small way it did feel like I’d arrived in the future.
Because that year I finally found myself alone in a room, with a computer, able explore the internet for as long as I wanted – no parent timing me on a stopwatch (back home I’d been allowed 20 minutes per session), no stranger sitting at the next PC over, threatening to peer over my shoulder at whatever embarrassing question I was about to ask Jeeves.
Here it was, I realised: my chance to start again, online. To finally become the ‘better’ version of myself that I knew I could be, if I just tried a bit harder.
So, on Livejournal (a blogging community, still active today), I began to fashion an embarrassingly sincere version of myself as ‘literary intellectual’ – keeping an extremely humourless blog of aborted creative writing experiments, and joining a thrillingly frosty book club where people discussed Henry Miller like they were the only ones who’d ever heard of him, all subconsciously in an attempt to impress whichever manic pixie dream girl might stray across my blog.
Meanwhile, on MakeOutClub (almost as embarrassing as it sounds; a kind of early MySpace/dating site aimed at emo kids), I uploaded a picture of myself with an asymmetric haircut and filled in the ‘About Me’ box with an alphabetical list of the most obscure bands I could think of, also in the hopes of meeting a girl. But searching by location, the only other people in Nottingham who ever seemed to use the site were a boy I already knew and a girl I’d seen around town a couple of times. They soon started dating.
And these two identities – Chris_LiveJournal and Chris_MakeOutClub – weren’t quite the same, but were both still parts of me; elements which I could now isolate, polish and refine, independently of each other, not to mention independently from my ‘real’ self, who still socialised mostly by standing at the side of the dance floor at the indie night, clutching a £1 blue drink, far too crippled by anxiety and self-consciousness to actually dance.
Then of course came MySpace, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter; all of which I joined. And with each new social medial profile I created, I was able to take the most embarrassing online mistakes from my past (Too sincere! Too humourless! Too asymmetric!) and fashion slightly more nuanced, slightly less pretentious versions of myself, versions a little more closely aligned to the person I wanted to be, IRL.
But all those hours spent working on my MySpace page, adding/deleting songs and interests and photos to create a certain effect while furiously smoking roll-ups: was that really any different to spending an evening in front of the mirror, pouting, working on your ‘photo face’?
It’s still just narcissism, right?
And even more annoyingly – well, for me at least – the more nuanced a social media experience gets, the more it begins to replicate real life, the more everyone you know is online, the harder it actually seems to pull off these fractured identities anymore, anyway.
These days whenever I receive a new friend request, before accepting it, the first thing I’ll do is look at my own profile from the sender’s imagined perspective. And it’s exactly this kind of self-scrutiny that stops me from posting almost anything on Facebook anymore, where I have 746 friends: literature friends, filmmaking friends, music friends, university friends, people from school, family.
Imagine sitting around a dinner table with your boss, your Auntie, someone from America who you’ve actually never met but who reportedly liked your novel, a guy who you used to be in a band with, a girl who you’ve not seen since secondary school, and a stoner you once met at a house party; and somehow you have to say something that will entertain them all simultaneously.
That’s what it feels like, whenever I try to write a new post.
All my carefully curated online selves don’t quite work together in one place anymore: I’m not a novelist if I’m tagged in a family photo/I’m not in a band if I’m posting about my novel/I’m not the person my mum wants me to be if I’m tagged at a house party gurning.
So what do I do, now that I can no longer type a single keystroke without wondering how it affects my ‘brand(s)’? Now that the very same thing that got me so excited back in 2000 is the exact same thing that’s painted me into this miserable, dark blue corner? Now that I’ve spent so long thinking about how to curate my personality via social networking that I can no longer just post anything value free?
But this is also just narcissism, isn’t it? Imagining that anyone outside of myself is actually viewing my page with the same level of interest that I do?
No one actually cares, I remind myself, constantly. All your posts are just for yourself. No one is going to light a candle for you while you take that “month off from Facebook” that you keep thinking about.
Maybe I should just go all the way:
Delete my account.
Delete all my accounts.
But if I did that, then how and where would I receive all those lovely small validations and reminders that people know who I am that I’ve begun to rely on and crave so dearly – the little notification-shaped treats that I use to get me through each day?
Counting it out on my fingers, I realize I’ve spent just over nineteen years online, and guess what: it turns out I still don’t know what to do with myself.
But at the same time, some of my nicest memories are of things that happened on the internet, too: receiving my first short story acceptance, making friends with people in other countries, seeing my wife’s Guardian Soulmates profile for the first time.
So I guess what I’m saying – for want of more insight or eloquence – is that ultimately these experiences seem no different to my experiences IRL, in that they’re all part of the same thing really: my life.
words by Chris Killen