Children writing "The Lost History of the Internet" on a chalkboard

Russell Lee/Library of Congress (Public Domain) Remix by Jason Reed

Can we ever get back the excitement of logging on?

Millennials who knew a 'better' internet are incurably nostalgic for it.

 

Marianne Eloise

Internet Culture

Published Nov 12, 2021   Updated Nov 11, 2021, 5:26 pm CST

The line between Gen Z and millennials is blurry, but a key generational indicator is how online your childhood was. Those born between (roughly) 1997 and 2012 tend not to remember life without smartphones, social media, and hyper-surveillance; for millennials, their childhood memories are ones of transitioning from an offline life to dial-up internet. That clear distinction between on and offline is a distant memory—and it’s driving nostalgia for a simpler kind of social life.

In the late ‘90s to early ‘00s, the advent of “web 2.0,” an accessible internet of user-generated content, marked a key shift. Our early experiences online were formative: fan forums, LiveJournal, Myspace, Neopets, and other early platforms changed us as people but were still perceptively separate from our “real” lives. Today we are constantly reachable, our professional, personal, and familial selves inextricably intertwined, our every move tracked by algorithms. Everyone is negatively affected, with 48% of Gen Z saying that social media makes them “anxious” and many boycotting it entirely. Millennials who knew a “better” internet are incurably nostalgic for it, specifically the platforms themselves, whether it’s the customizability of Myspace or the candor of LiveJournal. The reasons for mourning that era, however, are deeper than yearning for a platform itself—a platform can be mimicked, as Spacehey, a website designed by a then-18-year-old to look exactly like Myspace did in the mid-’00s, demonstrated. 

While Spacehey functions like Myspace, few millennials found that it satiated their nostalgia. What they’re really pining for is a totally different world. Web 2.0 was supposed to be democratic, and for a while, it felt it.

Ideas and communities were widely accessible for the first time, and outsiders could find corners of the internet where they were accepted. Those who were ostracized in their real lives for their obsessive nerdiness found a home on fan forums, connecting with people who wanted to gush about the same thing that they did. LGBTQ+ people, similarly, found comfort and camaraderie in online spaces that empowered them in their daily lives.

Another contributing factor to our nostalgia is context collapse, a sociological concept attributed to Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd wherein we have to speak to an impossibly broad audience at once. We are all different people in different settings, but on a platform like Twitter, we have to be ourselves in a way that makes every one of thousands of potential readers comfortable. It’s an impossible task, and one that leads to paranoid readings and pile-ons. Context collapse has made 30-year-old Mariah, one of several millennials interviewed for this story, feel as if she can’t ever be that vulnerable online again. “We live on Rihanna’s internet and anyone can be the main character of the day. It’s still an escape but it’s also hell, and sometimes it feels like the only way to go back is to retreat into our respective corners of the internet and find safe places to be candid,” she says.

Dr. James Cohen, a digital culture expert and educator, says that the internet was originally built in an accessible framework. He believes that what makes social media now so distinct from, say, 2006, is more than a feeling but the impact of technology. “In 2006, humans curated the majority of social media sites. YouTube had actual human beings that would find videos and put them on the front page,” he says. With the rise of algorithms moderating content, tracking our every move and predicting outcomes, people now can game those systems and how they work: “Many users are well aware of how the platforms operate and leverage themselves making content that fits the machine algorithm rather than content that serves the few,” he says.

The commodification, sanitization, and commercialization of social media has made being online a chore. We miss the naivety and excitement that we once felt, but how can we be vulnerable when we are being sold something at every turn? Platforms like YouTube reward content—both financially and algorithmically—that is clean, inoffensive, and family-friendly, and after 2008, when they enabled the partner program that allowed users to make money from their videos, Cohen says that “creators made content for the platform instead of the users.”

“We live on Rihanna’s internet and anyone can be the main character of the day. Sometimes it feels like the only way to go back is to retreat into our respective corners of the internet and find safe places to be candid.”

Creators have to censor themselves, and that which is penalized or “shadowbanned” is often content by sex workers, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, and activists. Cohen calls this effect “platform capitalism,” saying that both the platforms and how we use them have changed. “The entire system is based on money and profit now,” he adds. That creates a weird dichotomy wherein both the blandest and most extreme opinions are rewarded: “The entire system has built a profit model around amplifying the most fringe points of view for attention,” he says. 

The impact of the internet’s omnipresence cannot be overstated. “I’m not sure whether I miss ’00s internet or the younger version of me that spent a lot of time on it, but the transition of ‘the internet’ from being something one had to log onto into a constant resource probably plays a role,” says Sam, 39. “The internet felt more walled off from the real world. That separation, real or imagined, helped us perceive the internet as a safe space,” they add.

De Elizabeth, 33, agrees that the internet felt like a separate world. “There were things that my LiveJournal friends knew about me that my IRL ones didn’t, and it felt safe to keep that part of myself separate and online,” she says. Preserving that anonymity was important to De Elizabeth, and she misses the decisive action of logging on and off, something that was key in preserving that divide.

Many have sought out spaces that feel separate from the “main” internet. Discord, a relatively new platform wherein users get together in private channels known as servers, has emerged as a more direct successor of early to mid-’00s internet than hollow shells like Spacehey. “When the pandemic hit I wound up on a Discord server with a bunch of people I’d never met before as a way to ride out what we thought would be a few weeks of working from home,” says Brandon. His experience on Discord felt similar to his years on forums: “It turned into this special, intimate forum where people got really close. They are the closest friends I’ve had for the last year and a half.”

Jane, 28, still uses the virtual pet community Neopets, but she also uses Discord, finding that it evokes a similar feeling to the “old” internet: “Discords are the closest thing we have to LiveJournal communities and a circle of folks you can trust,” she says.

Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, a researcher and expert in digital culture, is currently working on a paper with a colleague about what she calls “Myspace Nostalgia Discourse,” wherein users miss Myspace specifically because of how it uniquely compares to the internet of today. She believes that people aren’t nostalgic for Myspace simply because it was one of the first platforms of its kind, but because, “it gave greater control and creative agency to its users and it wasn’t embroiled in global debates.” While Discord, forums, and newsletters can imitate some of that “walled-off” feeling, Gerrard believes that we will never be able to replicate the unique enthusiasm of that era. “The ‘Web 2.0’ discourse and excitement far outweighed any warning cries that user-generated content might be problematic,” she says, which is no longer the case.

She does, however, believe that some contemporary digital technologies have recreated Web 2.0’s innocence, particularly where social media intersects with gamification, like Pokémon Go: “There were valid concerns about who owned our geo-locative data and where it might end up, but for the large part people just simply had fun with it,” she says, adding that in terms of technology itself, not much has changed since the mid-’00s. “What’s different is the time that has passed, and now, social media companies are powerful in ways we couldn’t really have foreseen in 2006,” she says. “We’ve spent the last 15 years telling tech giants everything about ourselves: Who our friends are, where we live, what we like to buy, what our favorite porn genre is. This level and depth of information—and, crucially, how it gets used—in large part explains why we’re seeing so much pushback against social media.”

“I’m not sure whether I miss the ’00s internet or the younger version of me that spent a lot of time on it.”

However, Gerrard warns that our nostalgia might be misplaced: “When folks yearn for the Myspace era, it always makes me think of the context in which Myspace sat: Lower acceptance of those with marginalized identities, less awareness of systemic social problems, greater stigmatization of mental health conditions. So, while we’re pining for a pre-Facebook world for understandable reasons, we’re seeing good social progress in other respects.” Dr. Cohen echoes this sentiment, adding that the safety of current content moderation is a good thing. “What’s forgotten is how exclusive the web was back then. It was supposed to be a [liberating] space that enabled those marginalized from traditional media to have a creative outlook, but new media was just perpetuating the previous structure. While the internet is still filled with trolls, we can now catch cyberbullying or at least mitigate some of it better than we used to.”

All generations of internet users, regardless of when they grew up, crave a degree of anonymity or just a separation of their on and offline lives. It’s impossible to log off entirely, so people are trying to carve out safer, smaller spaces. Dr. Cohen sees this impulse in the curatorial web, a version of the internet wherein newsletters and personal curation reign and “each user gets their own internet”. A new app, Herd, promises to be a “non-toxic” social media app that by omitting likes “ditches comparison”. Shrinking circles mitigate the risk of being misunderstood, and “Finstagrams,” close friends lists, and alt Twitter accounts provide spaces for people to post without worrying about context: They’ve curated their following list in a way that at least gives the illusion of safety from their vulnerability being leaked.

It’s understandable that we miss the so-called “old” internet: it was formative for many of us, and we felt truly vulnerable there. We were candid to the point of being naïve, sharing our feelings and thoughts while exploring our identities. We may never return to a time when we felt truly excited to be online, and perhaps what we miss is a naivety that can’t be recaptured. We can, however, take what we’ve learned and create new spaces that have the accountability and awareness of now as well as the curation of the past, fighting against monopolization and encouraging vulnerability.

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*First Published: Nov 12, 2021, 6:30 am CST