I started using the computer when I was seven years old, playing a game that I think was intended to teach me how to tell time. Although I don’t remember why, we kept the computer under the foldout table in the kitchen, which meant I had to lie on my stomach under a table to see the screen.
It wasn’t until I moved from California to Indiana to a real house that we got dial-up Internet on our clunky computer (which is still in our basement under the same table). At that point, I was obsessed with the Harry Potter books, so the first thing I did was Yahoo! search Harry Potter. Up popped FictionAlley.com, and thus began my love affair with fan fiction, a strange medium of writing where fans create content within or based on a particular fictional universe that often extends or reinterprets the original material. If you so desire, you can check out the largest clearinghouse for fan fiction at fanfiction.net.
Thus, before the Internet became useful in an educational/interpersonal sense, it was a source of reading material for a young fan desperate for additional stories about her favorite characters. (At that time, the Harry Potter books were still coming out at the pace of one book per 1.5 years, which was obviously unacceptable.) Because of fan fiction, I was able to explore side stories, alternative couple pairings, and epic retellings imagined by writers from all around the world equally if not even more in love with the universe than I was. Youtube provided another medium for fan creativity, spawning this staggering work of heart breaking genius in 2007:
Outside of the world of fandom, Internet’s uses became rapidly more relevant as I approached young adulthood. My family left dial-up behind and got a new computer soon after moving to Indiana, which meant using the Internet involved less screeching noises and interminable waits. I got my first email account in 5th grade with my mother looking over my shoulder for a school assignment.
Simultaneously, I began using the Internet for more informal conversations. I was on AIM, or AOL Instant Messenger throughout middle school, where I was able to chat with friends. After getting a Gmail account later in middle school, I transitioned to Gchat, a messenger feature built into the email account, to complain about school work and talk with friends. Then, despite my parents’ concerns after hearing about predators lurking the Internet to lead young girls astray, I got a Facebook in my freshman year of high school (I wanted to be able to see the pictures my friend took of our homecoming outfits).
At this point (I am 21 years old and a senior in college), I feel like a large portion of my life is spent staring at a computer screen. I still use Facebook, perhaps less for pictures and conversation but more for news and keeping up with friends in distant locations. One of my favorite websites has to be Tumblr, a visually rich blog interface that has become an online community for many women/people of color/queer folks. I am also on Twitter, which has played a fascinating role in activism and spreading information about various social justice issues in the past few years, though it is the online platform I use the least.
Despite the ever expanding sources of amusement on the Internet, my primary Internet usage is practical. I access course readings and assignments through Harvard’s intraweb. As my primary form of communication, I send at least 15 emails per day to schedule thesis interviews, organize meetings, or just forward interesting articles friends; on the flip-side, I receive at least 50 emails per day through my multiple Gmail accounts. In addition to simply communication, I am able to collaborate with others on presentations or written work through Google Drive, which is conveniently linked to my email.
As the Internet has become more and more present in my life, the tension between its role as a creative space for writers, artists, activists, and thinkers on the margins and its potential to replicate and cement social inequities has become an increasingly visible. Right now, the issue of net neutrality has raised alarms around the corporatization of the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission will be deciding soon whether to allow Internet Service Providers like Verizon to provide “fast” and “slow” lanes on the Internet depending on whether a website has paid a certain fee to the company. The differential ability of a company like Youtube to pay for a fast lane service compared to a grassroots advocacy organization or even a fan fiction site thus immediately raises concerns about how this shift would hinder innovation and make the Internet less friendly to marginalized voices.
In addition to access to Internet services, the expanding role of digital tools in our everyday lives, from public transportation cards to Twitter, has expanded opportunities for unwanted groups or individuals to access our personal information. Companies can buy information about your personal habits and preferences from third party data harvesters with impunity since the law has not yet caught up to the technology. Recognizing the potential for big data exploitation to differentially affect marginalized communities, this year a coalition of civil rights organizations developed a set of “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data” to put this often overlooked aspect of the conversation on policy-makers’ radars.
Over my 21 years, I have witnessed some pretty drastic technological changes, both in terms of the hardware available to the general public and how digital resources are used. As the digital world continues to evolve, it will be fascinating to see how society, in developing new laws to address their impact and by forming virtual communities, will shift the landscape of how human beings relate to one another.
Cicierega, Neil. “Potter Puppet Pals: The Mysterious Ticking Noise.” Youtube. 23 Mar. 2007. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.
“Civil Rights Coalition Releases Core Principles on Civil Rights and Privacy Online.” ColorOfChange. 2 Feb. 2014. Press Release. 14 Sept. 2014.
“Home Page.” Fanfiction.net. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.