I grew up in the Silicon Valley in the height of the early 90s to mid-2000s dotcom boom and bust. My father was an engineer who worked in fiber optics and later wi-fi, and my mother did documentation for tech products. Unsurprisingly, we had multiple computers in the house and use of the computer was highly tolerated, even encouraged, by my parents. Our immediately family culture relies heavily on email—a common scene of late adolescence was my mother, father, brother and I sitting on sofas in the living room, each with a laptop, doing work or surfing the internet. I’ve even emailed and texted my parents while in the same house. None of this seemed strange, and I don’t think it has affected our ability to relate to each other on a deep conversational or emotional level—tech has simply functioned as another component of our relationships.
Of all the products and platforms I grew up with, the internet has been the most significant. In relation to my peers, I was always a really late adopter when it came to laptops, phones, e-readers, etc—but I’ve always spent a ridiculous amount of time online.
The internet has shaped me in a lot of ways, but there are three ways that really stand out to me.
First, it’s shaped not only my style of communication, but my subjectivity itself. Given my age at the time that I started going online, my private persona was necessarily shaped by its interpellation into a public format of communication and self-representation (with its particular constraints and capacities). This was a phenomenon of form: my coming-of-age from middle school through high school was mediated by my internet use—in particular, my use of AIM. The techniques of self-presentation that I developed in chatting—from ways of conveying sincere emotion to styles of writing humor to careful decisions about which Dashboard Confessional lyrics or (not) hilarious inside joke to put in my profile box—have influenced the ways in which I am able to understand and present myself today, both “in real life” and online.
The anonymity of the internet also provided a safe space for me to try out new selves and search for information that I’d otherwise be embarrassed to request—this was a kind of privacy within publicity itself, a kind of personal development within public format. It especially applied to my sexual development—my parents steadily avoided talking to us about sex, and there were few places for me to turn with my questions and anxieties (I’m pretty sure some variation of “Is this normal?” made up a large part of my search history). By allowing me the space to articulate my questions, the Internet has actually shaped the way I seek information across spheres of my life.
Second, the public nature of chat, blogs, and social media have shaped my understanding of my own race and gender. The Internet made geography irrelevant. People could be brought together in community in ways that would otherwise be very difficult. When I was growing up, there were very few other Indian kids at my middle school. In the Bay Area as a whole, there’s a network that builds up between South Asian kids at different middle schools and high schools. In part this is based on existing relationships between families, but it’s also something that is built by kids themselves over time. There were all sorts of ways to hang out—at the amusement park nearby, at a ‘culture show’ or talent show held at one of the high schools, smoking weed in some kid’s car a Safeway parking lot. But a good portion of that was organized through AIM—you could chat with kids you hadn’t met but knew through a friend of a friend. This was complemented by texting (on Nokia phones at the time, or two-way pagers…I remember when getting a Motorola Razr flip phone was the height of cool). AIM became a way for us have a social network outside of school—maybe you weren’t cool or understood at your school, but you had a whole other set of options via Browntown (…which is literally what we used to call it).
When I got a little older, blogs really became a widespread, mainstream thing—I remember a time when there was no Jezebel. Communities that are built on niche (but very openly accessible) blogs like Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Jezebel, The Hairpin, Angry Asian Man, etc have educated me, pushed my thinking, and have made me feel understood. So has Twitter. I’m now able to articulate my own views on race and gender, and I’m still learning—this has meant far more to me than anything I’ve learned in school. None of that would be possible without the platforms that the internet provides for marginalized communities to educate and self-organize. Case in point:
…Mainstream news can’t do that.
Via Facebook I’ve maintained communication with people of color across the country (friends who I otherwise probably would not send detailed emails or call), and have been able to commiserate with them on issues relating to race—for example, one of us will post an anecdote of a microaggression or an article about race, and the rest of us will come together on the post, showing support by ‘liking’ it, commenting on it to affirm the poster’s feelings, and add our thoughts. A few of my old colleagues and I have a personal hashtag, #fraughtwithtangles, a direct quote from an experience one of us had in which the manager of a restaurant told her that the issue of a server’s actually very blatant and clear racism was “fraught with tangles”, and that to discipline the server would be to stymie her “whimsy”
The space that we create in organizing discursively on Facebook been extremely meaningful to me precisely because it is public and not just conducted on a private email chain. I think this is because it’s a way of re-claiming space on the Facebook platform. When most of your Facebook friends are white, this is a way to say to them: ‘We’re still here, and we’re often angry, and it’s okay if you’re uncomfortable with that anger. This post is not here to teach you to be less racist. It doesn’t have to be nice. It’s where we’re allowed to be angry and sad and laugh and roll our eyes and shake our heads. This is not a place for you to leave a comment asking us whether or not we were fair to the white server who made an Asian slur or the white woman who crossed the street when one of us approached. If you do, your comment will be torn apart’. The publicity of Facebook provides a way for us to be visible to ourselves, to each other, and to outsiders, without having to be conciliatory. Without having to control our anger or hurt.
The third way that I’ve been shaped by my internet use is perhaps the most significant. I’m terrible at keeping an actual diary. Instead I have this sort of archive of material that I can piece together, from to-do lists, to Google Docs, to complaints in Gchat conversations, to emails I’ve sent and saved, to entries in my calendar.
Email and chat in particular have become the best way for me to record my life—I’m still reliant on emails and chats I’ve sent and received as evidence of what I felt and what I thought. It’s much easier for me to record things when I’m trying to communicate them to someone else, and much harder to record things when I’m writing for myself. This has been essential to me. I have a mood disorder and often don’t remember what exactly I was feeling or thinking in past mood states. Having a record with time stamps has literally been a life-saver in allowing me to track the course of my illness and collect evidence as to what’s going on:
I was web born and raised. I’m skeptical of calls to “unplug”, skeptical of claims that internet use precludes meaningful connection, skeptical of the notion that real personhood is what’s developed offline. I’m just not me–not articulate, not connected, not emotionally safe–without the Internet.
I could never have become myself offline.