The Internet I'm Nostalgic For

Von Party Nails

The Internet I'm Nostalgic For

Originally posted on Medium in 2023

Everything is a website. Or a meme. Or an app. I sign up for this one and another one. Sometimes there’s a shortcut, like Facebook autofilling my information. How did we work before there was Slack? I was a barista in those days, so I don’t know what an office was like. Do restaurants use Slack now?

It’s odd to type in a url to do a task like plan a social media post or to make a doctor’s appointment. In my mind these are things that should happen on paper or by phone. If one must use a computer, my brain says to itself, I suppose they could use TextEdit or Microsoft Word to input the relevant information. Because this is where my computer education began, it is still how “real” computer work happens, in my head.

Recently I was spending time with a young friend of mine, someone who is in the 3rd grade and is eight years old. I don’t recall why, but I explained what it felt like to get a phone call when I was a kid. Most people didn’t have caller ID, so you never knew who it was. There was one phone in the house, and when it would ring, everyone in the house would hear it and wonder who it could be. We all hoped it was for us, if it was good, like a friend calling or an invitation to a party. The parents would sometimes dread the phone ringing, if they were worried about bad news or if they were particularly busy. But the excitement of a phone call coming in was still felt among us all—something new was happening, something we couldn’t predict, something we would pick up and talk to and discover in real time the next steps to engage with it.

That sounds so fun my friend said. She suggested that we could delete all of the contacts in our phones so we never knew who was calling. I told her that wasn’t a bad idea, but still it would only be a mystery for us who had deleted our contacts, and not for anyone else. Part of the magic during this time was that no one knew who was calling them, and everyone shared in the experience of the phone ringing. As the caller, you never knew who might pick up either! She agreed. I thought for a moment about how strange it was that she’d never experience that feeling.

Born in 1990, my sliver of Millenials are the youngest people alive who still remember life before the ubiquity of the Internet. We also remember what it was like when we first got the Internet. I make jokes to my Gen Z friends about wild dial-up adventures that blow their minds—Geocities layout websites that would take hours to create, having to wait minutes after every click because of the slow speed, the AOL chatrooms, AIM, MySpace Top 8—and I don’t feel old. I feel like wow, I’m so grateful I have this perspective. As much as the nostalgia for pre-Internet time can be painful or just sad, remembering how we were before is important in the same way that history itself is important.

When I was in high school, genuinely perplexed I asked my mother why we had to learn history. It’s already happened, I said. Why do we need to know about stuff that is over? So we don’t make the same mistakes twice, she said. History is important so we can learn from our past.

Now that we are officially an era where pretty much everyone in the US has had the internet at home for about twenty years, information on how this affects us is beginning to become available. We are seeing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation; depression, anxiety and suicide among teens as a result of social media use; the dismantling of nations as a result of inherently polarizing algorithms; prior tech employees speaking out against the very technologies they helped build because they are terrified of the ramifications we are quickly barreling toward. It’s one thing for a nation to be glued to TikTok during a national election—it’s another for elections to stop happening completely because we neglected to address huge problems like radicalization on Youtube and Reddit, misinformation on social media, and the news-feed-as-an-echo-chamber issue. In short, it doesn’t work for us, as humans in a society together, to have instant access to a worldview that is presented as truth but which is actually a carefully curated (via algorithm) feed for exactly the person looking at it, based on insane amounts of data points which are gathered with your unwitting permission to collect them and then used to target your exact brain and interests and age and background and to then serve you exact the stuff that will keep you glued to the screen for as long as possible. That’s the truth. Your feed is designed to keep you there. That’s the only thing that is always true about your feed. Again: the only thing that is always true about your news feed, is that an algorithm made it specifically for you, specifically to make you keep looking and scrolling.

We love to celebrate what the Internet gives us. I love memes too! I love meeting new people, and I love that I can theoretically market myself on social media (this is becoming less possible too, as the algorithms shift to acquire even more of our attention). But there was an Internet before social media which could still give us some of the good stuff, and way less of the bad stuff. I’m not suggesting we return to ’98 and dial up. I’m suggesting that this idea that we live in a magical time because the Internet and social media have changed all of our lives for the better may not be true. In fact, we may have actually had more empathy before social media proliferated our entire society.

I find it hard to want to be part of social media in any capacity lately. The content that goes viral rarely touches me the way (I assume) it touches all of the people who liked and shared it. TikTok reminds me of cringy early adopter Youtubers. Including numbers next to every post seems fundamentally silly and wrong, like a continuation of a popularity contest from middle school. Same with numbers on Spotify. What’s wrong with publishing streaming numbers like we use to do record sales? As in, every so often, rather than in real time in huge characters next to the primary place we all stream music? If using numbers in this fashion doesn’t beg us all to compare and despair then I don’t know what does.

When I log on to my apps and websites, or reference a meme as if it were included in Merriam-Webster: America’s Most Trusted Dictionary, I do so with one foot out the door. Here we are in yet another era: one that seems like it will last forever, because it is simply too awesome not to. We all thought the same thing about AOL, and we were wrong. The only constant is change. I look forward to the change that is imminent in our current Internet era, but I really hope I don’t end up nostalgic for this one too. That would mean we got worse. Let’s try and do better, hey?