I started my online journey through AOL Instant Messenger as a millennial. One day in the late ’90s, I created an account on my to a website; used “Silk” as my username. The character in the books inspired the name, and I added asterisks and squiggles for uniqueness. My screen time was limited to an hour in my parents’ basement with AFK chats due to the disrupted dial-up connection. The early Internet was a world of its own, with AOL serving as an alternative society for kids.
Away messages were a mode of self-expression on AIM, with quoting song lyrics as “the thing”. However, copying someone else’s lyrics was a faux pas. AIM provided a sense of freedom, where we were ourselves but with a new heady feeling. LiveJournal was my second online home, where I publicly aspired to be more self-aware and eloquent. It also had a downside, as one of my friends criticized me publicly. Then came the world of blogs, which seemed like a pursuit for adults. The blog Parker created for me was a curated museum that reflected my thought process.
We had an audience, actual or fictional, and often carried out our arguments in the comment threads. Everything pointed back to ourselves, encouraged by the Internet, which gave us our audience. The early version of my online self was like a shadow self – visible only to those aware of it and an embodiment of reflections through avatars, icons, etc.
The open Internet has evolved into a space dominated by algorithms and passive consumption, surveilled and commodified by targeted advertising. As Max Read posited, maybe millennials have aged out of the Internet. I grew up online, but the internet has changed, and younger generations are now the prime users.
The internet gradually revealed itself to be a virtual civilization outside my localized community, similar to the vast virtual cities where everyone was constructing their shadow selves. I spent years playing Ragnarok Online, a multiplayer role-playing video game, often spending more time with it than in school. The game allowed me to connect with thousands of users worldwide. My memories of it are much vivid thant the time I spent at school. It was a clandestine activity for nerds, and being “extremely online” didn’t gain you any social capital.