When the web was in its nascent years I was too young to understand the possibilities it held. Although I did grow up digitally, and I think it helped that my dad was a computer programmer and our basement was packed full of PCs (at least 6 or 7) that he was constantly rolling his chair back and forth to. The whir of the fans was audible from the hall. Aside from coding he also ran a blog, one of those original blogs that Kottke reminisces over. According to my mom it was a place for him to vent and rant about all the things he disliked about the world, and there were other bloggers who hyperlinked to him and joined in the conversation. These are the times Derakhshan, Kottke, Meyer and Kolbert are nostalgic for, that they remember as golden years where the web was the next open space to pioneer. My personal anecdote was taking place in the late 90s and early 2000s to give context. To me, reflecting back on this now I see my dad as the equivalent to a cranky old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn (digitally). At the time, I was none the wiser and was tinkering away on my own digital expeditions, dutifully typing in the URLs I knew by heart to take me to the websites deemed safe by my parents.
Since I was five-years-old I was learning the way of the World Wide Web and discovering the places I fit in. There was always something tangible about the web for me, that each webpage had its own feeling and some were more welcoming than others, so when reading Frank Chimero’s “The Good Room” I deeply identified with connecting physical space with digital space. At eight-years old I was already coding my Neopets page to my liking with simple HTML (putting in a little MP3 player, changing the background and type colour etc). At 10-years-old I was starting to explore beyond the designated websites to meet my curiosity and needs. I was (and am) a writer, and I wanted to find other writers because I wanted to get feedback and not feel like I was just writing into the void. A need to find a digital space that meets my current creative needs is always what has pushed me to migrate from platform to platform.
This is when I found a community of writing RPGs, where you could collaborate with other writers and develop your characters in the agreed upon setting. The platform we used was a repurposed chat-board (for the life of me I can’t remember the platform’s name), but the URL would look like www.RPG_name.platformname.com. There were limits with the look and construction of the website, but as I got older and found more digitally experienced communities it went from the default structure and colours, to a more customized platform where programmers had worked their magic with HTML to the point where these platforms barely retained their original structure. Of course, this added to the “feel” of the place, but what made the website home or not was the community who existed on the platform. We never knew each others real names, only our created monikers (which is a whole other tangent I could go on, about having the ability to rename yourself and create a persona that you want without judgment). But what we did know, was that we were a supportive network of likeminded writers who helped each other hone our writing styles. Where are they now, who knows? And those URLs have long since expired or turned to digital ghost towns.
With the fallout of these RPGs I migrated to Tumblr at 15-years-old, where I began to code the digital nook I’d carved out for myself. The complaint here, as discussed by Alex Singh, is that this nook isn’t really mine, that this nook that I’d created really belonged to Tumblr and I was a visiting guest while they profited off the content I created. Which is true, because look at that nook now. Since Tumblr went on a censorship kick it removed over half of the content I’d curated, and so what if I’d spent hours coding my “blog” to look and feel the way I wanted it to because Tumblr didn’t care. They don’t care about artists’ creative expression or the need to have a community to express that, all they (aka Yahoo, who owns them) care about is turning a profit and getting back on the App Store. These benevolent overlords are only benevolent so long as it serves them, and this is what happens when they decide a venture is no longer profitable: you get kicked off your digital plot of land. Now here I am, wandering the digital landscape again. I’ve been a nomad all my life, and the metaphor I’d use is more like a traveling bard hopping from village to village… and moving on when I either get evicted or the village burns down.
As time goes on I find myself seeking more and more “open” spaces where I’m free to build the place and community that I like, or to at least create my space where an already established community exists. This is why I currently feel un-homed, because for the first time in nearly 20-years I don’t have a digital space that feels like my own. Alex Singh’s twitter thread claims that we’re working under a digital feudal system––Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. where we create the content and the platform reaps the reward. Alex pines for the time of digital nomads, where we were free to roam. I can understand the desire to have a non-commercialized webspace that is that limitless space of possibilities it once claimed to be, instead of feeling like your choices are limited to bouncing between the various social networks. Because what happens when you don’t fit into one of those networks? Where does your digital-self belong? I’m still searching.