My Wired Youth
Last month, a PBS documentary called “Growing Up Online” revealed that kids today create false Internet identities, contend with cyberbullies and visit Web sites that promote anorexia. To my surprise, I felt defensive: the scare phrase “growing up online” recalled nothing so much as my own shady adolescence 25 years ago, when, because of a quirk of early communications technology, a small group of New Hampshire girls, including me, came of age on a primitive computer network — the Internet before the Internet.
The way things worked out, Internet addiction nearly laid me to waste. At 11, I pretended I was 18 and tried to pass off Raquel Welch’s measurements as my own, having copied them from TV Guide. For years, I dated, studied, endured heartbreak and hazing and crossed and double-crossed everyone in a mysterious online netherworld called Xcaliber. By the time I turned 13, I was confident I knew every single person online. Xcaliber taught me to type, talk to adults, experiment with fantastic personas and new idioms, spot lechers by their online styles and avoid ideologues who post in all caps.
Xcaliber was early social-networking technology developed at Dartmouth College. In the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons, its vaguely Arthurian theme appealed to both hackers and preadolescents. But Xcaliber was actually intended as a convenience for the several academic and scientific institutions who shared Dartmouth’s mainframe computer — one of those big, heaving rhinos in a cage of bulletproof plexiglass. Every day a few hundred people dialed that mainframe for an alien signal — the then-unfamiliar squeal and crash of information transmission — and fit their receivers into acoustic couplers, like people in kayaks.
Having thereby turned “dumb terminals” into extremely slow personal computers, real mathematicians probably worked on impossible theorems using machine code. The rest of us did nothing but admire the many figures in pi and practice programming in Basic, the computer language invented by two local professors.
But on a fateful day in 1979, my friend Megan and I met some sysprogs: Dartmouth’s student system programmers, surprisingly cute hippie guys who developed the complex time-sharing system. One of them slipped us a password to Conference XYZ, a live-chat option on the network.
I remember that day by the keystrokes: joi xyz. Between the years 1979 and 1984, I typed that string thousands of times. The joi was short for “join” — commands could only be three letters long — and xyz was the name of the so-called “conference.” Conference XYZ amplified Xcaliber’s fantasy element: each convocation had levels and a self-anointed master who could banish chatters he disliked. Participants often communicated in an odd Led Zeppelin idiom or referred to damsels and steeds.
I assumed the ludicrous screen name Athena (my favorite sysprog called himself Apollo), while Megan’s handle was cooler: the doors. We then consorted — first with the sysprogs and each other, then with Dartmouth students, then with twisted weirdos, merchant marines and college students up and down the East Coast. We evolved a whole cutesy shtick that, in this text-only interface, chiefly meant giving up mixed cases. In the name of enhancing adorableness, we stuck to little letters and as few spaces as English semantics could bear. Our classic squinched-up opener was “hi-howre you?”
At 13, Megan and I introduced our friends to the conference, and as early adapters she and I felt obliged to play the pros and make the whole thing look ungeeky. When someone on the network asked me what I was up to, I replied — without fail — “music, sports and parties,” which was true, strictly speaking, though the parties were still make-your-own-sundae sleepovers, no boys allowed.
The result was attention, sweet nothings and mostly intimate or cerebral conversations — often about loneliness, the central preoccupation of people who stay up late and are drawn to anonymous forms of communication. Things rarely got more intense than “I’d really love to kiss you,” and when the conversations turned openly sexy, I’d beat it, a reaction echoed by the kids featured in “Growing Up Online,” who brag (as we used to) that they can always spot the creeps in their midst.
Which brings me to what nonplayers don’t get about online social-networking: it’s much less a walk on life’s wild side than it is a game like backgammon or — that ’70s favorite — Stratego. Successfully “playing the computer,” as we used to call it, requires a set of skills: social intuition, inventive self-presentation, speedy and clever writing, discretion, intricate etiquette, self-protection. Eventually you get a little finesse: you stop saying you’re 18, and you snub people who ask for measurements. You pride yourself on being able to find cool people, avoid jerks and not make dumb mistakes like disclosing too much, opening spam, talking to impostors and replying to all instead of to sender.
The best part of Conference XYZ was talking about adult stuff — etymology and lacrosse and Ronald Reagan — instead of being dismissed as too young. The worst part was the head games: the people who pretended they weren’t who they were and tried to make you say, “I’d love to kiss you,” so they could make fun of you. Your prowess as a player lay largely in how infrequently you were fooled, but everyone got fooled sometimes.
In 1983, I weathered jokes from my friends (“desperado!”) for going on a date with someone I met online. He was a freshman at Dartmouth, and I was 14, as he well knew, since we’d been talking frankly for months online. We met at a bonfire, wrapped in ski jackets and surrounded by my friends, who whispered to me that he seemed great. He kissed me that night, and we started dating, a little bit, no computers involved. Conference XYZ pretty much folded in 1986, but by then I was over it, like an easy game — tic-tac-toe or a search-a-word. Anyway, I’d been kissed, at last, which had never happened when I sat alone in front of a screen. Real life was apparently going to hold more excitement even than Xcaliber.
Now, this article happens to make reference to Growing Up Online, a Frontline documentary that was aired recently. Although the program is not as sophisticated in its analysis as the material we are covering in class, it is easy to access, since it's been made available on the internet, and therefore it's worth taking a look--just click on the title.
And on the lighter side, I'd also like to throw in a couple of YouTube videos that two of my MySpace friends turned me on to recently. One of them is a great comedy routine about the internet:
And the other is a song about MySpace: