Like most of my generation, I've spent a great deal of time logged into the world wide web. I wouldn't be far off, I'm sure, if I hazarded a guess that I spent thousands of hours online over the last decade.
I first got logged in at the age of 16. I was a junior in high school. It was 1998. Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer were the only browsers I was aware of at that time, and frankly, I have no idea what business I thought I had surfing the web, but it was fascinating.
Remember when Lycos and Hotmail were the two major email providers? I had an email account at both. I had multiple accounts, actually. This was in the days before bots took all the good names. I was browsing Classifieds2000, chat rooms on AOL and finding cool new email signatures at coolsig.com before I graduated high school.
Luckily, this was before the vast majority of pervs discovered how to stalk kids on the internet.
Unbeknownst to my parents, I had a profile up on the personals at Love@AOL.com (the precursor to Match.com) at the tender age of 17. "But," you ask, "wasn't there an age minimum?" Don't act like I was some kind of innocent - I knew how to add a year to my birthdate when signing up to make it look like I was 18. I might even have added two, just to make it 'believable'. I was web-dating-savvy far before I really understood anything about dating IRL. (In Real Life, that is.) I learned early that men usually lie about their height, just like women lie about their weight.
I’m not the only one who got into this world so young, and it seems that people are getting sucked in deeper at ever younger ages. Heard of those iPhone babies? Terrifying.
The internet is pervasive - absolutely anything and everything is at your fingertips when you fire up your computer. You need sports facts? There's a thousand websites with averages and stats. Then you can bet online, watch the games online, build fantasy teams online and win money online. You want to build a house from the ground up? Fix the one you've already got? There's a wiki and a how-to guide for beginners and expert carpenters alike. Lay carpet, build a window frame, eradicate termites and nurture a worm-composting bin under your kitchen sink. All without putting clothes on. What? 67% of internet users admit to surfing the web naked. (Personally, I would put money on the number being closer to 75%, but some people can’t even admit it anonymously.)
These days, EVERYONE is online. Your mom is online. My mom is online and *still* has an email account at aol. (I've given up trying to change that, though.) While this is sometimes a blessing, it's mostly a curse. In the information age, traditional dating rituals are bypassed in favor of expediency. 'Getting to know you' is becoming passé and boring. Communicating with friends and family has been reduced to scrolling through their tweets, RSS headlines from their blogs and the news feed from the ever more ubiquitous Facebook.
Now that there's information overload, it's ruining our ability to start and sustain a new connection with another human being. The relationships we build are often swiftly established on a glut of selectively processed data. These affairs are begun, explored and ended in the amount of time it used to take to meet someone over squeezing grapefruits at the local Stop and Shop.
Once, going on dates was the time when we would tentatively meet a new person a couple of times a week and spend time asking questions and weighing the answers against our own beliefs and understanding, learning about them as we built a foundation of friendship and affection. These dates would grow into 'dating' (a verb rather than a noun) and a relationship would progress from there. Now, it's common practice to suss out a person's name and stalk them on Google. If this unsuspecting individual, for some reason, doesn't have their Facebook settings on lockdown, you can learn everything you'd ever ask about them in the first ten dates in a couple of hours spent exhaustively clicking. (Not me, the most you’ll get is that I like yoga and am from Charlotte, NC.)
Gone is the excitement and anticipation of getting to know someone new and finding out if you're compatible. In the span of time it takes to have coffee with someone, you've judged them on every picture they were ever tagged in, compared their alma mater to the list of Top 100 Universities in the US, compared your astrological signs, made note of when they went from 'in a relationship' to 'it's complicated' to 'single', seen that they’re still friends with their ex and discover through the masses of photo albums that you secretly think their roommate from college is hotter. You’ve ended the relationship before it had the chance to begin.
While we’re on the subject of Facebook, here’s another fine example of why the internet is ruining your life: I just met a man the other day who decided I was the perfect therapist to whom he’d like to describe why his marriage is failing. (Dude, I just want to drink my rum punch and watch the game, but you were going to keep talking anyway.) His wife of twenty years has ‘met her soulmate’ on Facebook. “He’s a poet in Syria, and I really think he’s the one for me.”
Lady, have you lost your mind? You are married to a well-off, interesting and dedicated man. You have two teenage children. You are provided for and given every opportunity to flourish (she’s an ‘artist’, whatever that means, and recently spent two weeks in the South of France, paid for by her husband because she ‘needed some time to herself’). Why do you suddenly think some random creeper who found you on Facebook is the man who is going to make all of your dreams come true?
There’s the problem: the internet is offering people choices that didn’t exist before. These choices are exquisitely presented in a sterile online environment (kinda like magazine food layouts. You know they use hairspray to make it that pretty, don’t you?) which allows people like this stay-at-home wife to essentially write her own romance novel. In her head. Starring her. This Choose Your Own Adventure sounds amazing from your comfortable upper-middle-class house in the suburbs of Dallas, but the reality is, this Syrian guy probably has a goat farm and will expect you to move in and help milk them. Do you know how hot it is in Syria?
This surplus of choice in the excess of fantasy that make up what is the internet is super-charging a base human nature: The search for the Bigger, Better Deal. My dad always told me to beware the BBD, because it’s not always what you bargained for. Even if you’re happily married, there’s still a desire to know what else might have been.
Online dating is the best example of this. Your profile is built and reflects, as accurately as you allow it to, the Real You. You spend days scrolling through pictures, occasionally reading profiles (going back to the pictures to see if they’re as tall or as fit as they claim to be) and eventually sending messages to a few likely candidates. Some of them write back. Of those that write back, you eventually, through messages, sort out that there’s one you’d like to actually meet. So you do. You go on a date and hit it off. You go on a second and a third date. It’s going well!
But that Bigger, Better Deal tingles in the back of your mind. Secretly, you’re still sending messages to other people because ‘You Never Know’ what might be out there. The same thing goes for reconnecting with old friends and flames from high school and college on Facebook. It lets those ‘what might have been’ thoughts sneak in, and bam – again, you’re allowing the internet to ruin your life.
I even have a personal example: I met the man I thought was my soul mate on a messageboard in 1999. We finally met in person six years later in 2005, fell in love and got married. He ended up having an affair that also began online, an affair which ultimately ended in our divorce. He went for the Bigger, Better Deal. I didn’t. Conversely, I’m still very good friends with people who I met online a decade ago. We kept in touch. (Actually, the internet and travel has allowed me to lose touch, but I’m working on rebuilding those friendships because they’re worth it.)
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or not the internet ruins your life. The reality is that you always have choices, but you run the risk of losing what you already have and once lost you may never get it back again. I’ve always said I want to live my life without regrets, but that means weighing information, making an educated choice and living with the consequences. Both sides of the coin have existed for me, so I really all I'm trying to say is find your moderation and stick with it.
Maigen is simple. is smart. is wholesome. is skeevy. is spicy. is delicate. is better. is purer. is 100% more awesome than yesterday. She';s traveling the world and writing about her experiences with life, love, yoga, food, travel and people. Mostly people. Because they';re funny. hear more of her random thoughts @maigen on twitter.
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1.24.11 @ 11:51a
This column brings back a lot of youthful indiscretions and brainless relationships. It also makes me feel old, knowing that I was online a good 10 years before you were, back in the days before browsers and dating sites. But even in the days of the dial-up BBS, people were looking for the BBD. The dance may have added a few steps, but it's still the same dance.
1.24.11 @ 2:15p
I was newly married when we first got online. We were all, "awwwwww, honey, we have E-MAIL! Whatever shall we name it so that it includes both of our identities?" :D
Fast forward to when the Intrepid Media gang got to meet each other in person! Some of us for the first time! Ever!
Now it's fat baby pictures on Facebook. Amazing.
1.24.11 @ 5:14p
Russ, how did one get online before browsers!?
Tracey, you're right, we do have some amazing experiences that only came about because of the internet. Granted, next time I will be AT the Vegas thing!
1.24.11 @ 8:11p
How did one get online before browsers??? Wow. . . you guys really are noobs! ;-)
Before I continue this tongue-in-cheek perspective on your version of "back in the day", I did enjoy your column, Maigen. I don't frequently read pop culture pieces, but glad I found this one. Points well taken, though much of that social stuff was a problem long before the Internet. (I sat in front of things naked long before there were computers!)
Now, back to having fun. Not only are my kids' parents online, but their Dad had an email account in 1980 (Telemail; I worked for GTE Telenet). We used an ASCII terminal and a modem, usually with an acoustic coupler. (You still don't need a browser to use email, BTW, but I'm sure you know that. Email clients work better.)
I've been on Twitter for nearly four years and FB longer. I have six blogs on different topics.
I subscribed to a Bulletin Board System (BBS) in the early 90's called The Well (again, modems). In fact, I worked with an original founder of AOL, Mark Seriff, while I was at GTE. Mark developed Telemail. I was one of the first users.
I eventually made it to AOL in late 1997 and was there 10 years. Let's just say AOL was very, very good to me and I will NEVER be shamed into giving up dirkcotton at aol.com.
BTW, BOTS aren't the reason there are no good email names. All of the early email providers learned quickly that by the time they reached about a million subscribers all the good names were gone. AOL had 5 million customers when I joined the company in 1997 and had 30 million before I left. That uses up good email names pretty quickly.
I earned a computer science degree in 1975, so yes, I'm old. One of my classmates from high school saw my photo on FaceBook the other day and said, "Damn! You got old!".
"Yes," I told him, "yet, I somehow feel luckier than my classmates who didn't."
So, thanks for the discussion of the good ole days, guys. Put me in the mood to listen to some oldies from WAY back in the day.
Now, where did I put that Coldplay CD? :D
1.25.11 @ 8:24p
The following are standard procedures. Although it is the last to say there is one problem and one quick fix, the crux of the matter is the huge chasm between policy makers.
I would consider this a beautiful blend of action and romance.
This is how I understand your writing.
To conclude: I once watched a person knit a pair of gloves from beginning to end during a long lunch. It was a similar experience. Small pieces of textile, similar but different, finally woven into something familiar...