Jason Becker

Missing the vulnerability of a smaller, pseudonymous internet

I think the internet stopped being fun for me when I was 18 in 2005.

Our family signed up for America Online (and WOW by CompuServe, and MSN, and various other ISPs that gave away hours) starting from about 1996 when I was 9. Putting aside chatrooms and the emergence of messaging services, what I remember most about the internet from my time in middle school through high school were pseudonyms, personal websites that we would now call “blogs” (and their further development with things like LiveJournal), and fan sites.

What was so attractive as a pre-teen and then teenager about the internet was that it was somewhere you can connect with other people in a deeply personal and vulnerable way. You could meet someone with the same interest you thought was obscure. You could share ideas that seemed bizarre, or even radical, and find out that someone else felt the same way, or didn’t, and you learned from that conversation. You could try on personalities and traits that were unlike your own. And because the internet could be anonymous or pseudonymous, and because sites and services and data disappeared, you could do these things without repercussion.

As the world caught on to the internet, there were more and more incentives and requirements to move toward using your “real ID” online. First, and often, as virtue signaling about the seriousness with which you held believes on forums and in chatrooms and on blogs. Second, as a means to ensure that you and only you defined what would be found when increasingly easy and common searches for your name were conducted. And finally, as a strong requirement of the internet services and applications we used which want your real identity because without it you and your data hold little value to them.

I greeted a lot of this with open arms. I remember when I was 18 changing my online pseudonyms all over to my real name. Because I grew up, and the internet grew up. Rather than liberation, anonymity/pseudonymity and acting without repercussion morphed from enabling profound vulnerability to enabling profound harm. It was time for the internet and the real world to come together.

But I miss those early days. It was important to my development as a person to experiment with identity and ideas and to be vulnerable “in public” with other ideas and identities on the web. It was healthy. But it would take a monster amount of work to access the web like that today, and even then, with the internet operating as the largest surveillance apparatus ever constructed, I don’t think I could ever have that naive trust required to be so deeply vulnerable again.