In 2019, many of us look at the internet and see a desolate, joyless wasteland. There are several reasons for this: a news cycle that feels like riding a Tilt-A-Whirl in hell; the commodification of our personalities; and the very real fear that our data is being stolen, among others.
In an effort to heal our broken brains, we attempt digital detoxes. We put our phones away, we go outside, and we take up old-fashioned hobbies like jigsaw puzzles and bread baking. Maybe logging off really is the kindest thing we can do for our minds; maybe fostering IRL connections instead of getting burned out is the healthy choice.
Or maybe the real trick is finding ways to make the internet work for us, instead of against us — creating spaces that enrich, rather than destroy. I spent the aughts exploring online’s kinder corners. Now, I carve brighter pockets out of this wasteland in an effort to recapture those feelings of community and self-expression.
The internet of my youth was nothing like what it is now
In the 90s, I was a lonely only child who loved nothing more than reading. I was — and am — obsessive, fascinated by everything from aliens to crystals to cars. I loved researching, and the first time I went online in the mid-aughts, I was besotted. Until that point, without money or friends who cared about the things I did, the world felt a million miles away.
On the internet, though, I could do more than just read about my interests. I could interact with people all over the world who loved the things I did. When my real life friends got bored of me talking about how cool Avril Lavigne was, I turned to forums. Online, I wasn’t a burden to anyone. My incessant talking and obsessive fandom was a blessing, not a curse.
As the internet snowballed, I ate up every new development. I already diligently kept a journal, but on LiveJournal, I could find others who liked what I liked. Before Myspace, I sat in my room alone writing extensive diary entries about how much I loved Good Charlotte. On Tom’s internet playground, I could tell them myself. Later, on Tumblr, I explored my identity further. Wrestling with my sexuality, I connected with other bisexual women, finding a community who supported me through my experience coming out.
Knowing I could visit spaces in which I wasn’t considered weird changed how I saw myself. For a sad, quirky kid with interests I needed to constantly indulge, the internet was more than an escape. It was a lifeline.
When the internet lost its luster, I started putting the misery-inducing parts in a box
Eventually, something changed. As I grew up, I stopped having time for an online presence I couldn’t market. When I started writing professionally, Twitter and my blog were work, not community. An aggressive, relentless news cycle and a work-based need to be on Twitter burned me out. Where the internet once placated my anxiety, it began to now stoke it. It was no longer a place of respite.
Despite that anxiety, I didn’t want to log off entirely. I missed the way I used to feel about the internet’s seemingly endless possibilities — those indulgent, experimental spaces — so I found a solution: I compartmentalized it.
I’ve found ways of cordoning off the nice, fuzzy corners and keeping them separate from the larger hellfire, firstly by altering my relationship with the things that make me miserable. While I owe much of my career to Twitter, it also sucks. I’ve started treating it like what it is — work — by minimizing the mental damage by muting people who make me sad, following accounts that make me laugh, and logging off when I’m not working.
For a lot of people, Instagram is an enormous source of misery. For me, the only way out is to strictly follow the things I want to see. I follow my friends so we can keep in touch across time zones. I follow nail art accounts to get inspiration to take to my nail technician for my extravagant and frankly ridiculous set of claws. I follow home decor, plants, and vegan restaurants. Most importantly of all, I follow an alarming amount of animals that I will never meet. The Korean Pomeranian community is a big source of joy. By treating my feed like a Pinterest board, I associate very little of my online anxiety with Instagram.
Now, I try to recreate the spaces that once delighted me — and when that doesn’t work, I revisit them
But it isn’t enough to just reduce harm and stress. The thing that made the internet so beautiful in 2006 wasn’t the absence of stressors; it was the presence of pleasure. I have a few places I go where I feel the freedom and possibility of a mid-aughts internet. I still blog. I write freely, post photos I’m proud of, and try to be open. I don’t do it for anybody but myself, something that’s been lost as I’ve monetized my hobbies. Every corner of the internet has been taken over by corporate behemoths, but finding things to do online for pleasure rather than money feels like a small protest.
I also spend my nights on YouTube, because it’s often the only real me time I get online. I watch “storytime” videos of people talking about lives I’ve never experienced: millionaires, women who’ve spent time in prison, former drug dealers. (I also devour long videos by people who genuinely believe they’re being tormented by ghosts.) One channel in particular takes me back to the internet of yore: Emilia Fart, a boa-wearing, theatrical girl who makes ostensibly “weird” videos with meaningful threads running through them. Her candor reminds me of what we’ve seemingly lost online: sincerity.
Sometimes, though, you just need the real thing. When nothing else works, I curl up in the warm arms of the past. I use websites like the Wayback Machine to view old Myspace pages. I watch videos from 2005. I visit websites like Neopets. Ever an archivist, I have many screenshots of my own MSN conversations, emails, and intact Myspace pages. Looking at them gives me some idea of what we’ve lost, and in doing so, I can recall an era when the internet was actually fun. My archives function as a living museum for my former online self, one full of hope for the possibilities of the internet.
We may never be able to log off entirely. But we can at least recapture some of that excitement, rerouting our brains and redirecting our attention away from the hellfire and over to spaces we enjoy.