I've been online since the 90s. It started with AOL's god awful reign of terror on a 28.8k external beast of a modem on a computer my grandmother had procured for our house, back when CAT5 cable wasn't even a twinkle in our nerdy civilian eyes. Modems screamed with digital handshakes, busy signals threatened to ruin the hour or so of online time you'd get before someone had to use the phone line. The feature you could select to block incoming calls seemed orgasmic, the option to be able to create a user name all your own...stressful and delicious. The web was this unformed frontier, abstract to the mind and eye...for the longest time, I thought AOL WAS the internet, which I'm sure was their aim.
Speaking of AIM, with the dawn of email and personal websites, instant messaging wasn't far behind it. I remember the first time I wandered into my usual AOL chat room ("Ask A Lesbian," which I frequented for years before I was out of the closet) and got IMd by some random stranger. I don't remember what was said, because I kept shutting the chat window, horrified at what I was certain was one of those "viruses" we were starting to hear about. Finally, the stranger asked me in the chat room why I didn't want to "chat".
"I am chatting..." was roughly my response. This seemed self evident. I was in an effing chat room, yes? Yes. Then he explained. He warned me that the window was coming this time, and I remember little else besides a huge smile on my face as I witnessed this technological marvel. I had heard of it before from my nerdy new online friends who used ICQ, but that was over my young teen head at the time.
I've gone by many names since the American online revolution took over my life in the 90s. At first, it was expected that you would retain your anonymnity while online. I was known only as KlydeFrog (Froggy) to all but my 3 closest online friends for YEARS while on AOL. There was something liberating and glorious about having an entirely new identity that no one could question. You could speak with shocking candor about everything...your family experiences, your frustrations, your joys and concerns. Victims of violence or rape found a safe voice and friends who were struggling, too. As for people like me, it gave queer folks the courage and support to embrace their identity; Ask A Lesbian and the wonderful women I befriended there saved my life. It was my lifeline to a world I couldn't touch yet, and as supportive as these women were, many were in similar situations and found solace in the anonymous companionship the faceless internet offered. Eventually, you could even create your own private chat room, complete with custom name and private invitations you could hand out via IM. Slowly, though, the rules began to change.
One day, I noticed that when I clicked on someone's screen name, I didn't just get info like their age and location on their previously rudimentary profile. This was a very intimate profile, full of details like where they worked, what school they graduated from...it even had a PICTURE of them. I was shocked, nearly horrified. I opened the email from AOL I had earlier ignored when I first signed on, and it explained that you could now "upload" a personal picture to attach to your profile. How? How did that person get a picture of themselves on the internet? This predated the popularity and affordability of digital cameras; even on AOL's mainscreens that they ran themselves, it was 95% text....there were VERY few pictures, even in their news articles. There was no Google, no Ask.Com, no Wikipedia to answer such mindboggling questions...again, my nerdier online friends explained this new abomination as best they could.
It was the beginning of social networking, where you were encouraged to be your IRL (in real life) self and not just a screen name persona. I resisted for a while, as did my online friends, until the lure of filling out such a self-centered profile for public view got the better of us. No one had ever asked us what our favorite movies were, or our favorite quote. As AOL's era of internet monopoly ended, you no longer needed a username and password to get online. Suddenly, all you needed was the newest modem and something called a "browser" called Internet Explorer, and BAM, you were on the web. AOL's increasingly high membership fees plummetted as people realized AOL was NOT, in fact, the internet. Online communities like Ask A Lesbian slowly died away, or else turned into online gaming communes (think WoW or EverQuest).
I kept the free AIM chat client, though, until my AOL friends slowly drifted away into the increasingly isolated, murky waters of the internet. I remember finding it useless to install AIM on a new computer of mine at some point, and how surprised I was to feel so sad at the loss of my online community. Years would go by before I discovered MySpace, and more still before Facebook lured me in. But now, it's something different...something a little more dangerous than the innocent, faceless days of AOL, because now it's no longer:
"KlydeFrog wants to chat. Accept?"
"Thea Mars is in your extended network."
My co-workers and former high school friends can find me online and know all of this crazy crap about me. While you can maintain some anonmnity, it's more and more frowned upon. People who use fake names are considered shady or even elitist.
Sometimes, I miss just being KlydeFrog.