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Extremely Online In Real Life

On old friendships and new loneliness

Summer 2022

The realization that first dawned on me when I signed up for Facebook in 2007 was that contrary to many previous online fora, this wasn't for making friends - it was for keeping them. I haven't used it since 2019, but I doubt it's changed much since then: you typically "friend" someone on Facebook after you've met them, not before. Quite the opposite of my early days online, spent on IRC. I wonder, how does that shape the life of someone born into our current web of Mammon, rather than stumbling, in their teens, onto a net largely constructed for fun away from profit?

My early years on IRC was before web communities as we know them, before the meme format was honed on the Something Awful forums (Stairs in my house, you ask? Yes, I was at one point in time protected.) and certainly before the time of budding megasites like MySpace. The Internet was local as much as it was global and the idealist nature of the services offered and those running them meant that truly disorderly, decentralized communication was standard fare - not a fringe activity among a shrinking group of stubborn old-timers.

You could stumble in anywhere, say hello, and start yammering away. A surly channel operator might kick you for not understanding some particular online social code, but that was about the worst that could happen. Conversations were struck up left and right, without fear of repercussion or lasting negative consequences. A naïve sentiment, perhaps, but also true for the vast majority of all of those early online interactions.

***

It was exciting, in a way, to communicate with people halfway across the globe and forge online friendships - but this was also a time when the phrase In Real Life carried some kind of weight. Expensive dial-up connections and low bandwidth text communication meant that however rewarding such activities were, the net was in many ways about finding people close by or at least within reasonable travel distance. The Internet wasn't really real back then - and what was the point of it all if you couldn't hang out for real?

We soon found the cheapest bus fares possible so we could visit friends in other cities. We hitched our way across Sweden, touring its length and breadth to meet in the flesh and thus, if nothing else, make it official that yes, we really were friends. We found love, not on apps designed to keep us swiping for as long as possible while sharing our habits and vital stats with ad agencies, but on text terminals full of nothing but our thoughts expressed in ASCII.

What happened online could surely carry great weight to us, because it happened within a community in its true sense. We may have been a gang of teenage fools who dreamed about being always online, but we were a tightly knit gang of fools with the innate insight that the net was a place between places, and that real experiences could only come from the real world. I've spent part of my summer visiting some of those friends, whom I first met more than 25 years ago: One showed up at small computer nerd gathering after having seen an advert on a local BBS. Another one I first spoke to on IRC.

***

Today, the Internet is impacting real people in real ways in a very different sense. It's where lives are ruined by doxxing, cancelling or fraud. It's where "journalists" fabricate "news" out of tweets from yesterday or a decade ago. It's where those who rule broadcast their propaganda and censor those who'd prefer a different set of rulers. It's where sponsored influencers feed us lies about a life we'll never live, making us give up the one we could have in the service of a downward spiral, spinning so fast that even utopian visions of a world similar to that of a mere decade ago will momentarily steady our dizziness.

It's where everyone's either a grifter or gets their content stolen by one. It's where clout and fortune is gained and lost. It's where rent-seeking megacorps map our every move in order to show us more ads for locked down apps we don't need, providing convenience that isn't to solve problems that aren't, so we can free up more time to consume pointless trinkets and binge watch TV shows about an offline past full of real world relationships, instead of nourishing our own.

***

In other ways, the Internet seems to be more unreal than ever. We can "go viral" and get thousands of likes - but not a single friend. Does IRL continuation of online acquaintances still happen now as they did in my youth? I don't know - but I do know that a lot has changed since then. Those who have monetized and commoditized our identities have done so because they want us to define ourselves and our relationships though products and franchises we've been fooled into thinking reflect us. We obediently wait in line outside stores for days and nights to buy phones that let us chat with other people with similar phones about how great it is to own a phone of a particular brand. Some people are so atomized and alienated they turn into monsters, killing themselves by first killing those that could have been their friends - real friends, not just screen names in a place between places.

Perhaps I'm just old and out of touch with how the net is used today, when even efforts presented as alternatives to the surveillance-industrial complex (Mastodon, Friendica, etc.) are creating incentives for gamified communication with "like and share". I'm sure there are beacons of meaning online, still. Pockets of healthy communication filling the gaps between real togetherness, fighting a battle against all of that which makes our brains as numb as fingertips forever tapping against unyielding glass screens.

Is that enough? Evidence, as they say, suggests otherwise. We are finally always online and, as it turns out, lonelier than ever.