After publishing my first book last year I started on a new one charting the rise of Social Media, and its effects, through my lens. I stopped writing it towards the end of last year as everything else kind of piled up. This first chapter was in the Paperback of my previous book as a taster of sorts. Thought I’d share it here. If you get chance, tell me about how you came about the Interwebs because I know it set my life on a whole new journey.
Do you remember the first time you came across the Internet? I do, it was the summer of 1996, the year the IRA remodelled Manchester with a massive bomb. Just a month after that event – which I was far too close to for comfort – I went to travel Israel with my then-girlfriend and now wife.
After travelling the North of the country we made our way to Tel Aviv to stay with some friends of the family. They treated us to several days of cultural and culinary highlights and on the last night before we were due to move on their 13-year-old son asked if we’d like to see the Internet.
I’d head about the Internet, I didn’t live in a bubble, but as a budding musician in a local band, I was more wrapped up in working to pay for my gear habit than I was in technology. I was interested enough though so we followed him to his room and he performed some unknown magic with a mouse and keyboard. We looked at a few corporate websites, he showed us a chat room, and for some reason, he downloaded some pixelated images of Warner Bros cartoon characters and printed them off for us. I was fascinated to a degree, there was a clearly a whole new world out there I simply didn’t understand.
Then, giggling, he said there were other things you could find on the Internet. Another couple of keystrokes and a full-screen JPEG loaded slowly, line by line. What it revealed was a young lady performing an act of great kindness on a young gentleman who was clearly rather excited by it all. At that point, I think I understood the Internet far better. I was also wondering how in the hell I was supposed to tell his parents their 13-year-old son was giggling over pictures of blowjobs. Oh well, we were all young once.
I wasn’t quite enamoured enough to dive straight in once we returned home. I did visit a computer shop but after being laughed at by the shop assistant twice – firstly for asking if the computer came with an instruction manual and secondly for asking if you had to put your phone receiver on some kind of device like they did in the film Wargames – I decided computers were actually for snotty-nosed pimple farmers who work in computer shops. I’ve never wondered what became of that person, I hope it was crappy whatever it was. Anyway, I wasn’t going to bother. Oddly enough it was the Playstation that changed all that.
After resisting entreaties from my colleagues on the car parks where I was working as security I finally caved in and bought a PS1 when Sony first dropped the price. That evening I played a demo disc and wondered if I could get my money back, as far as I was concerned it was just a fancy Megadrive and I never really wanted one of those (although I will always fondly remember sitting with my college friend Richard trying to play James Pond whilst absolutely off our tits on acid) but the next day my wonderful girlfriend bought Tomb Raider for me. I’ve been gaming ever since.
As with anything I do I became borderline obsessed with gaming. Not to the detriment of anything else, but deeply in love all the same and this lead to a career change where I helped someone who owned a game shop move into wholesaling games. It was while I was there that the owner told me he didn’t really want the new PC he’d bought that I was using solely to keep the accounts and print out price lists, he thought it was overkill and would I be interested in taking over the payments? Oh, hell yes I would. I took the desktop computer home that night.
Oh, how I remember fondly that machine from the now-defunct Tiny computers. Resplendent in hearing aid beige the box itself sat on your desktop with a CRT monitor perched atop it delivering all the glory of Windows 95 in wonderful 640×480. I plugged it in, fired it up, and then promptly pressed something or other which left the computer on but the display turned off. Bollocks. After unplugging, bundling it in the car, visiting a friend who wasn’t a complete moron who would click things without knowing what they do and returning home I was ready to do the thing I’d been waiting patiently for. I was going to log onto the Net, I was going to be an astronaut in cyberspace, I was very excited.
I don’t remember for the life of me what the name of the service provider I used might have been but I do remember there was a monthly fee and then a call cost of up to 3p per minute peak. This was going to be costly but I was young without any real responsibilities and how fast could 3p a minute mount up anyway? Yeah.
The cacophonous noise of connecting to the Internet was fascinating, a sound which over time would literally be the harbinger of a great time. I still can’t listen to that without the ghost of the feeling I felt back in ’97 washing over me. Once connected I clicked on the icon for Netscape Navigator. I didn’t sleep that night, I had discovered something which was so amazing and so massive and had to travel until dawn knowing that I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
That evening, after visiting all the obvious brand name sites, I discovered a text chat room which I believe was called Auschat. It might have been based in Australia but the people in there were from everywhere. I was suddenly chatting with Americans, Australians, Scots, Europeans…all kinds of people. This was mind-blowing to me. I visited that site for a few weeks but then found everywhere else that I wanted to see. I discovered news sites, opinion sites, porn sites, I would travel randomly following links and webrings. I would see the best and the worst of humanity.
Text chat online was my first exposure to communities and how they form in the digital space. Despite none of the behaviour being anything out of the ordinary – to some degree – it was enthralling seeing how people adapted to the space, formed cliques, came and went. I was also very quickly noticing the amplifying behaviour of the Internet. Everything was quicker, faster. People would “fall” for each other faster, people would get annoyed faster, everything just moved at a pace which the real world didn’t allow for due to our social conventions. This was the mind unfettered by the physical. Our inner ghost freed from the meat wrapper that slows us down – apart from my typing which was still a bit hunt and peck at that point – free to explore and move that little bit closer to the speed of thought. The negatives associated with this were plain to see but equally so were the positives.
So, I would travel chat rooms in between random flitting around sites and watch in awe as things developed. I don’t remember any of the people I spoke to during my first year or so online though I’m sure there were some I chatted with regularly. I have vague recollections of a couple of them from Lycos and Yahoo chat rooms but I couldn’t put a name to them. I was too busy wallowing in the demented wild west nature of the Net. I remember Cybersex being the in thing in so many of those chat rooms. Now, I’m no prude but I freely admit never understanding how you would get off while typing to people, also if you were getting to a particularly exciting point in the conversation how did you keep typing anyway? I often wonder if people used to hone their skills offline using Microsoft Word. I rather hope they did, it makes me happy to think so.
This meant chat rooms were also meat markets, but ones – in this pre-streaming video age – where a mild panic was almost present. We’re you masturbating with your free hand to the words of the F/21/FL as promised or was it just some hairy Dutch truck driver? Roll the dice and take your chances I guess. I fully approved of all of this, of course. Mostly because I was a troll.
Nowadays trolling is seen as a negative and destructive choice. Back then it was just something that happened. Disruption was fun, people just either bit and then went off in a huff or ignored you. Nobody claimed it was “actual violence”, it was just trolling. I was banned from more chat rooms than I care to remember. I recall one occasion myself and the small group of miscreants I would mix with (some real-world friends, some people I knew only online) came across something called Muti City Chat (I think that’s right) a whole series of chat rooms named after cities which we -and this is the important part – almost completely without moderation. We tormented the users of those rooms for weeks. Am I proud of this terrible behaviour? No. But I’m not ashamed either, it was fun. I recall my girlfriend not being terribly interested in the Internet whatsoever but one night I suggested she went online while I was doing something else. I came back to discover she had found a Judas Priest chatroom and had been banned from it. I was proud then, let me tell you.
The Internet was wild, it was without direction and most governments and departments hadn’t really given it enough thought. You could see and do whatever you liked. Sure, if you were out surfing the net (damn, that makes me sound OLD!) you might find a site about how to construct a working model of the Hindenburg one moment only to stumble onto a den of Jew-hating morons the next but that was okay. You just kept moving one. It wasn’t your problem, it was just another website.
My friends and I, as I mentioned earlier, used to meet on ICQ and then take each other on tours. These would invariably end up being an attempt to gross each other out and it turns out I was quite adept at sniffing out some truly awful stuff. I know that some people believe I must be a horribly twisted human being given the sites I’ve been involved in but I had to study pathology books in college and I’d always loved horror films so there was a natural curiosity there. And yes, we would joke about what we saw. I know people think you should simply be horrified and repulsed and demand the offending material is removed immediately but the phrase “Whistling past the cemetery” was invented for a reason.
Dark humour is a perfectly reasonable coping mechanism, it’s not unhealthy. The material was always awful and repulsive but you’d found something to gross your mates out. That was a win! I chuckle thinking about how people respond to me talking this way. “Don’t you know those are human beings?”. I know they are, but don’t you know you wouldn’t miss an opportunity to have a look if you drove past the scene of an accident. The moral flaps people get into over this is so overly dramatic and hypocritical at times. It’s not like I – or anyone I knew – was sat there masturbating over images of death. I realise that’s a low moral bar to set but, hey, it’s a bar! Strangely I find that sort of material harder to handle as I get older, I just don’t really want to see it any more. I don’t judge people that do, though. They’re just curious, curious is normal.
I became the guy who knew where the “naughty” stuff was. Not just Rotten.com but finding sites like JustMeat.com which – and this is mind-blowing – featured a video every Tuesday. For some reason, I always remember it being the same video which I’m sure can’t be the case. I was also good at getting people into porn sites. Finding the back door. Not something, again, to be proud of but there we go. On one occasion, just before a gig, a young guy (definitely WAY too young for what he was about to ask for) approached me carrying two CDRs. He first told me he loved the band and then asked if I could burn some “stuff” onto the CDRs for him. I asked what it was he wanted, it turned out he wanted one filled with porn and one filled with gore. I took the CDR’s from him and said I’d see what I could do. What I could do, it turns out, is keep the CDRs. As I said, I might set a low moral bar but it’s a bar none the less. I’m not sure how moral it was to keep the discs but I suppose life teaches you hard lessons. One of which being don’t ask strangers for porn and gore.
For years the Internet really wasn’t taken that seriously at all by either the public at large, the media, or our governmental overlords. There were rumblings about how it was full of disgusting material and something should be done but no real desire to do anything about it. Not to mention that everyone was getting a website. I did make some income from working with a friend of mine who could code. My job was to take care of the design. It was during this time I became more acquainted with Photoshop (oh how that program has always fascinated me) and dipped my toe into the world of 3D with the likes of Studio Max and Bryce. All the time indulging my nightly forays through cyberspace.
My utter fascination with communities never wained throughout this whole time. I was a member of a digital art forum and several guitar forums to the point I knew people on them really quite well. Forums were the social media of our time (I suppose more correctly you’d call it social networking). I adored forums. They were of course designed to allow for longer-form discussion. Melting pots of ideas and opinions where people from massively different backgrounds could come together over a common cause or from polar opposites. It was a format I was very comfortable with and they were thriving. No matter the topic there was a forum, and therefore a community, for you to take part in.
I quickly noticed I was spending more time at specific locations and less time randomly darting around the Internet. You still had to go and find something new, you couldn’t just wait for it to drift past you on some timeline, but I was getting comfortable. This went on for quite some time, indeed I’m still a member of one of those forums to this day, but at some point in ’03 I found Ogrish.com. When that happened, everything changed.