Friday, 5 November 2010

My love affair with the internet

Of all the drugs I've ever taken (and you, oh constant reader, will realise that's a few, although not any more... six months and counting, she says, taking a big old swig of white wine), I think the internet is the most potent, the most appealing, the most unputdownable. It's the first thing I do in the morning, the last thing I do at night. If I were ever to tally up the amount of time I spend in my office working vs the amount of time I spend on the internet, I think I would be in for a very nasty surprise. I'll probably be doing my PhD for a year longer than I need to because of the internet. I hope to god I never get a real job (something that seems increasingly less likely I'll ever need to worry about, as the ConDems set about tearing the universities to shreds and then gnawing on the carcasses), because if I do, I'll be sacked for excessive internet use more quickly than a goth would rush to the dancefloor when "This Corrosion" came on.

From the moment I saw my first email, I was hooked. It seems hard to believe, now, that I somehow lived until I had started my first job without really having the internet. I first heard of the internet in my first year at university, as a wet-behind-the-ears 18 year old in a Morrissey t-shirt, and, at that point, I only got the vaguest grasp on what it was. I heard about it from this emo-looking third year who liked Sheep on Drugs and who I thought was the greatest thing since sliced forearms. In my first degree, a sorry affair called 'Creative Arts' which I went to for the writing but had to stick around on for the conceptual art wank, the third years had to do arty farty 'honours projects,' which the first years were obliged to help with. Obviously, I volunteered to help the skinny goth boy with the mohawk. He was going to make an installation that was somehow a representation of cyberspace. I had never heard of cyberspace before and really had no notion of what he was talking about, but nodded keenly with my tongue hanging out and drool dribbling oh-so-attractively down my chin anyway. Sadly, he dropped out and it never happened... but that was my first introduction to the internet.

By the time I was in the third year, the library had two or three (count em!) computers that were connected to the internet, and the then boyfriend showed me how to look up pictures of Hello Kitty, and so I passed a good few hours doing that, but then basically decided that was all the internet was really good for and that it was probably a passing fad, and went back to making compilation tapes, getting fivers out of cashpoints, making VHS copies of Dawson's Creek and doing all those other things that now age me so.

As I started to say before, it was when I got my First Proper Job, aged 21, I guess, that I suddenly got the point of the internet. Emails... oh, emails! That job, as with pretty much every job I've had since, was mostly characterised by being very very quiet and leaving me with Nothing To Do. (NB - a question - is everyone on earth just pretending to be busy at work, like, all the time? Or have I just got really unlucky? I know it must seem, if you've never done it, that being paid to do nothing is the ultimate dream, but it is a) soul detroying and b) makes the nano-seconds feel like millenia, in the way even the dullest physics lesson never did, so it's really not that great. And seriously... it seems to happen to me in EVERY JOB I EVER DO. I'd love to imagine that it's because I'm some kind of Rain Man style genius and that I just finish work super quickly, but this is not the case. I don't get it! Anyway, ahem, back to The Point...)

So I'm at this job with nothing to do, and, fortunately for me, I make a couple of friends. A friend called Lucy and a friend called Jenny. And we spend our time emailing each other on the very primitive internal email system (this is just how primitive - if you wanted to send an external email, you had to write something different at the beginning of the address, like pressing 9 for an outside line. Can you IMAGINE?). This email system used to warn you when something was coming - the top right hand of the screen would say something like 'collecting message number 1... 2... 3...' and so on and on, maybe even up to 7 or 8 if it was a really lucky day.

Never so quickly did a person take to the medium of spelling out every tiny, dull detail of their day in the dim-witted belief that others out there were reading and interested, rather than just skimming and responding with their own mealy minutae (surely the basis of all internet forums everywhere, no?) than I did. I was a woman possessed. The days when the email broke down - and they were all too frequent - were days when I genuinely felt I may as well have stayed in bed. The crushing disappointment when I saw I had a new email, dropped everything, rushed to greet it and discovered it was something actually do it with work is impossible to convey.

The joy of email continued to punctuate my life through my first and my second jobs. At some point during this time, I got my first internet-at-home... if you could call it that. My brother, who I lived with at the time, bought this contraption that somehow gave us the slowest, most basic black and white internet through the TV. Did anyone else ever have this? When I think back on it now, it seems like a remote control on a wire - impossible that such a thing was ever not laughed at, and yet it seemed like a revolution at the time. We both set up Talk 21 accounts, but mostly used the internet for reading Daniel Drennan's superbly funny wrap-ups of 90210 and then watching the show again with eyes that the scales were freshly fallen from.

(An aside - if you've ever watched any 90210, I beg you to visit this site and read some of what you find there... it's just the funniest thing you'll ever come across.

I was excited enough by the internet already at this point, but when I got my third job and we all actually had the internet on our own computers, rather than having to go to the library to use it (job number one) or there being one computer in the office online that we had to share (job number two), I could not believe my luck. I was like a kid in a candy store - or at least, I would have been, if I had any ideas about where to look.

See, to me, the internet has always been about communication. MTV child that I am, I have neither the patience nor the interest for long pages of text that can teach me this or that (unless it's hilarious things about 90210, clearly). But there was, for me - and, let's face it, there still is - something intoxicating about writing something down, pressing send, and then (in theory) the whole world and her husband being able to see it and respond. So I mostly spent my time on the guestbook of the website of a club I went to a lot, responding to everything anyone said, no matter how trite or tiny. (Remember - all my jobs ever have filled up about 20% of the time I have to be in the office... I had a lot of time to kill back then.)

This got pretty old pretty quick, but there was nothing else for me to do. This was some time before I discovered Ebay... a very dangerous discovery when I did finally make it, as I would literally, whenever bored - and that happened A LOT, type 'hello kitty' into it and buy pretty much whatever I saw, being fooled on some primal level by those clever clogs in charge who tell you that you've WON. Not that you've purchased - you've WON! Aren't you clever? Haven't you done well? Let's slip that cash out your back pocket while you're not looking, check you OUT for beating all the competition!

Salvation soon became mine, though, when a friend of mine started a Yahoo group for the people posting on the previously mentioned club message board. All of a sudden, my working life had a purpose - talking to these mysterious people with made up names about anything and everything under the sun, and keenly waiting to see if they'd commented on the brilliance and beauty that I was spouting forth. Mostly about what sandwich I'd had that day.

An aside - sort of - on the topic of made-up names, or internet handles, or whatever you want to call them. My own - mangakitten - came about because when joining another Yahoo group about the TV show Once and Again all the names I originally wanted to use - variations on Hello Kitty, mostly - had been used up. Mangakitten felt very much like a poor cousin by the time I got to it. And yet, now, somehow, it seems like a persona I have created, like the bigger half of me, like a role that I play up to which I think was always there but somehow, by naming it, it's taken over. Johanna is shy and awkward and humdrum. Mangakitten is extrovert and confident and melodramatic. Johanna hangs around in the corners and looks at her feet. Mangakitten takes over and won't let anyone else get a word in edgeways. I'm not sure which, out of Johanna's ridiculous reticence or Mangakitten's brassy brashness, I loathe more.

So anyway, I finally got the internet proper at home, in my room (gasp!) around the time this Yahoo group came into existence, and very quickly, it seemed to become, along with shoes and American television, one of the driving forces in my life. And, I must say, with very good reason. I am blessed with many gorgeous, wonderful, clever, generous and amazing friends, and the ones that *haven't* come from the internet I can count on 4 fingers.

The Yahoo group became a PHBB (or whatever the hell it's called - I live my life on the internet, but its workings are a mystery to me and frankly, I like it that way, I don't want the magic to die) bulletin board, and I am the highest poster on there by some million miles and I love, love, LOVE it.

I had a brief dalliance with a different board when my home board pissed me off for a while - we all know what rows on the internet are like, how incredibly personal they seem and how ridiculous they really are - but I soon came home to roost. It's my happy place and I cannot imagine life without it.

For years, that board and email were enough to sustain me... but then, unbelievably, given how it now dominates everything, just three-ish years ago I heard the words 'Face Book' strung together for the first time.

Who remembers FaceBook back then? Remember how every time you wanted to post anything, you had to fill in one of those annoying 'what does this box say?' BrSO!&*CB with a line through it, and you couldn't read it properly half the time, so it would take approx 5.7 hours to post anything... your status had to start with 'is' (making it oh so much more of a challenge to get song lyrics in there, my favourite game ever)... you couldn't 'like' posts... uploading a photo took a week... and yet we all stuck with it, didn't we? And who among us can imagine a life without FaceAche now? I know I can't!

There are other things I quite like on the internet. Lolcats are very funny, although I loathe the way people talk as though they are lolcats... it's only funny when it's the CATS, goddamn it! I've recently been introduced to Hyperbole and a Half, which makes me sick with envy because it so puts my own blog to shame, and yet I still have to like it because it's so funny... I couldn't live without imdb to check that I'm right about knowing which obscure Yank TV show I know the minor character in the film I'm watching from... Wikipedia will of course be the most cited reference in my PhD... and yet it's the 'social networking' (yuck) sites that have my heart. Apart from Twitter. I can't get on with that, for some reason. Maybe one day. (NB - actually, I say 'for some reason,' but I do in fact know why. I'm not that interested in communicating with celebrities, or faux celebrities, or wannabe celebrities online. I'm only interested in talking to friends or potential friends. Given my lifelong thrall to celebrity, I have literally no idea why this is but... I just can't bring myself to care about what even the celebrities I like have to say about their lives in 25 words or less, or whatever it is, and all my friends that are on Twitter can express themselves more fully on FB or the aforementioned board. So yes. That's why.)

I wonder what it is that makes it so much easier for me to spill my guts online than in person. (Not that I'm backwards about coming forwards in person either... I'm not really one for hiding my emotions, you'll be shocked to learn.) I guess it must be the anonymity. Maybe it's the fact that if you don't like the answer, you can just skim it and move on. Maybe it's the fact that I can talk for as long as I like and kid myself people are still listening. I'm really not quite sure. Whatever it is, though, I really can't imagine that even crack is as good as it still feels for me now to see that I've got 4 new emails or 6 new FB notifications or that 8 people have replied to a thread I started on my board. My love affair with the internet has lasted longer than any other love affair in my life. And I can't see it ever ending.