When I was Young On the Internet, we didn’t really have social media.
Well, I mean, we did–LiveJournal existed, just, and MySpace was sort of creeping in around the corners–but it wasn’t, like The Thing. Not the place where all the Cool Kids™ hung out. Instead, Cool Kids™ has websites. Personal websites. If their parents were affluent and/or indulgent, these were custom domain names hosted by shared hosting companies like DreamHost. If not, you’d be talking subdomains at someone else’s site.
Content back then consisted of a mish-mash of stuff like fan pages, review sites, message boards, graphics and tutorial sites, and–few at first but more and more as the years wore on–personal blogs. It’s hard to describe. Partly it’s hard to describe because very few artefacts of it still exist, though it’s possible to dig some up via the (now aptly-named) Wayback Machine. (Note that these are mostly even “late era” sites; the really early stuff, from circa 1999-2003 is even harder to find.)
Go and browse through some of those links. In some ways, they’re not very different to what, say, Tumblr looks like now. In others…
See, here’s the thing. The communities back then? They were just as wonderful and cliquish and inviting and bitchy as online communities are now. In that respect, not much has changed. And I was never a Cool Kids’™ Cool Kid™, but I got into the odd slap-fight here and there.1
Good luck finding much evidence of that, though.
Because those fights? They happened on blogs and in forums whose domains have long since lost their registration and whose hosts have long since folded. Because that’s the thing about the decentralisation of the early-naughties web. It wasn’t free; end users had to pay. And because end users had to pay, as soon as they stopped paying, the content?
Things back then, in other words, could be a hell of a lot more transient. Which was good, in a lot of ways, because we were young and young people do… ill-advised things. Part of growing up is being able to move on from the cringe-worthy stuff you did when you were fifteen or sixteen or, hell, twenty. Obviously there are some, uh, more serious issue that transcend this (like, yanno, long-term harassment and stalking), but, in general, I think this ability to “forget”–and to be forgotten–is pretty critical to personal development.
It’s also radically in contrast to the business model of modern social media.
While the old personal blog scene was A Thing, LiveJournal was reaching the peak of its (English-language) popularity as well. In the same way I was an also-ran nobody in the former, so was I thus in LJ’s SFF and fandom communities. This group experienced just as many dust-ups as the other, but there’s one critical difference: over the years, LiveJournal hasn’t forgotten.
Unlike personal domains, maintenance of a LiveJournal is zero cost. If you posted something back in 2004, it can easily still be sitting in your archive in 2014, even if you haven’t logged into LJ since 2009. Doubly so for content posted to communities rather than personal journals.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, particularly with the fallout over Requires Hate. Putting aside the (admittedly very big, and not unrealted) direct issue of stalking and harassment, there’s been all this grudgewank coming out of the woodwork in response to it. Again: not the stuff about RH/winterfox and her victims. I’m talking about all the other stuff; the personalities not directly affected by the issue that are latching onto it as an extension of previous fights fought five or even ten years ago.
Without necessarily going into the “rightness” of said grudges, I’ve been wondering if their, uh, persistence is, at least in part, a consequence of the platform of LiveJournal itself. It’s a different world, I think, when archives of fights from years ago are still readily available, tagged and indexed and cross-referenced, as they are on the LJ-and-LJ-clone wank communities. Happen to maybe make one shitty blog posts back in 2006? Well. I hope you’re going to enjoy being reminded about it for the rest of your life, because it seems that’s what’s going to happen.
It’s not new to note that social media platforms can turn the entire internet into a tiny village. Everyone likes to extol to virtues of this, but sometimes I think we don’t talk enough about the drawbacks. Especially when said “drawbacks” are a direct consequence of profitable business models implemented by a very small handful of billion-dollar companies.
Twitter and Tumblr and LiveJournal and Facebook want you to keep your content online, indefinitely, because, to them, more content = more eyeballs = more $$$. So they sell it to us as something magic, something that benefits us.
Except, a lot of the time? I’m not convinced it really is.
(Tumblr, incidentally, I think is the worst for this, because of how its reblogging system works. At least on LiveJournal and Twitter you can delete content you regret or want to move on from. On Tumblr? So long as one single person has reblogged your post? Good fucking luck. I think there are a lot of teenage Tumblrites who are going to be in for some nasty, nasty shocks in a decade or so, in the same way there are now a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomething LiveJournal alumni who’re still being hounded over stuff they did in their teenage years.)2
So… yeah. These are some superficial scratching on the surface of issues I think are only going to get bigger, as the internet gets older and the content piles up. Particularly regarding how we make determinations as to what sins are “forgettable”–and in what way–versus what aren’t. It’s not a coincidence RH has been the catalyst of this thought-jumble, since she’s pretty much the epitome of the tension between someone being allowed to move on from past transgressions versus the desire of their victims for justice. I don’t think we–“we” as in “society as a whole”–are very good at being able to determine where that balance is, at least inasmuch as it relates to activities online.3
Of course, it’s also no coincidence we live in a world where a lot of very, very powerful vested interests are trying to convince us that permanent, radical transparency of all our personal data–identities, thoughts, conversations, whatever–is A Very Good Thing. The fact that these interests do this while, themselves, largely existing in incredibly private, tightly PR-controlled bubbles is something that’s probably worth thinking about…
- Mostly, I am old enough to admit, because I am, in fact, a jackass. [↩]
- That being said, Tumblr fandom does seem to lack the dogged dedication to archiving everything in wank comms that LJ did/does. [↩]
- This is also where I think some of the “yeah, well [Harlan Ellison/James Frenkel/Vox Day/Roman Polanski/whomever] has been doing way worse and getting away with it for decades!” pushback against critics of RH comes from. Putting completely aside the entirely relevant point that RH also allegedly “got away with it” for a decade, it’s not a coincidence that a lot of this stuff is coming out now, both for “new media” abusers and for their more “traditional” counterparts in meatspace. [↩]