The internet has been social since the beginning—it was originally a government project intended to connect military computers and eventually research institutions so that they could communicate—but why did “normal people,” people who weren’t academics or techies, start engaging with the social internet? It wasn’t just because AOL sent millions of discs to households around the world, encouraging them to sign up for a free trial. What was the appeal that not only got people to sign up for the internet, but made them keep coming back? It depends on who you ask, but almost every answer revolves around the promise of community, exploration, and, at least at first, anonymity.
Before it became customary for social media companies, like Facebook, to require a real name (or at least something that looked like a real name), the most popular corners of the social internet, like AOL communities or website message boards, required just a username. Users would regularly create and delete usernames, profiles, and content when they wanted to recreate themselves, casting themselves as a different character in the online universe. Joanne McNeil, in her tremendous book Lurking, writes about what was so freeing in being identified by a username rather than your real name, “A username assumed the apprehension and ballast of a first impression; it was the skeleton that others on the internet had to start with to assemble a notion of your identity.” Donning a username and logging onto the social internet was like going to a costume party with thousands of people you didn’t know, and just a handful of people you did. Virtually zero social pressure existed in this anonymous environment. The worst case scenario was that you would make a fool of yourself on one username, stop using it, and start up another one minutes later.
The idea that one could escape the troubles of the real world and pretend to be someone else entirely on the internet was definitely an early appeal. I have very clear memories of having a rough day in middle school—otherwise known as a “normal day” in middle school—and looking forward to going home, logging onto the internet, and assuming a different identity, totally disconnected from the awkward, nerdy kid I was stuck being at school every day. The early, anonymous days of the social internet provided a fantasy world vaguely connected to our own to which people could escape however they were cast in real life to take on a character of their own making. McNeil writes, “Why on earth would I be myself online—a person I hated?” A lot of teens logging on to the early social internet of the late 1990s and early 2000s shared this sentiment.
For many, like an awkward middle school boy unsure of himself, the anonymous internet was an oasis in the middle of a social desert. It was a place to explore the wonders and curiosities of the world in a costume, away from the social stressors of real life.
Along with anonymity, the prospect of vast exploration called out through the dial-up tones that flooded our computer rooms. The harsh “eeeeee-rrrrrrrrr-eee-rrr” was like the sound of a rocket engine launching us to a virtual space demanding to be explored. The internet was a vast fantasy world, vaguely connected to our own, where you could don a character costume and explore the wonders of the world, connect with people who believed very differently than you, and learn what the world was like far beyond the walls of your home and the bounds of your daily life.
The world was on the internet, and all it took to explore it was hogging the phone line and waiting a few minutes for each webpage to load. You may never make it to Italy in real life, but you could discover anything you wanted to know about Italian culture and perhaps even chat with some actual Italians. McNeil writes of her experience, “We went exploring together, following internal hyperlinks to desolate corners of AOL, to squat there, and use the chat and forum setups as our own semiprivate group communication tools.” It was like the virtual version of a secret hideout you shared with your friends in the woods behind your house. But instead of skipping rocks on a pond and catching frogs from your secret hideout, you were exploring the world...virtually.
Even more than just exploration, though, the earliest days of the social internet provided an opportunity to build community with others. Though the anonymity of the social internet has waned, and the shine of exploration may have worn off, the appeal of community that was present at the first remains now, and it's the strongest appeal of all.
The social internet provides a sense of belonging for anyone, regardless of whether or not you can find that sense of belonging in your life offline. That is what makes the internet so special for so many. Anyone can find community on the internet, and for people who find it difficult to find community in real life for whatever reason, this is what kept them coming back in the dial-up days of the 1990s, and it’s what keeps them addicted now, thirty years later.
For a young person, the early appeal of community on the social internet was the ability to find others who were enduring similar life experiences. We could meet people who not only had the same interests, but also the same fears and insecurities. For those of us who were the first to have the internet in our most formative, teenage years, the internet was able to show us that the difficult, uncomfortable feelings we had were not unique to us, but just what life is like for a teenager. The earliest forms of community on the social internet served as a collective voice saying, “You’re not alone in this,” for an entire generation of teens. That’s what was drawing so many of us to keep logging on years ago, before addictive algorithms came into play.
A form of that community is what is keeping people connected to the internet even still today. We need affirmation. We need attention. We need community. Finding community online can be refreshing, even when we have a solid community of friends and family members around us in our offline lives. However, when we don’t find community and affirmation in our offline lives, we scratch and claw to find community and affirmation online. This can have some negative consequences, as we explore here regularly.
In the early days of the social internet, different kinds of users were drawn online by different appeals. Some wanted to escape their difficult offline lives, don an anonymous identity, and play a character on the internet. Others didn’t care so much about assuming a new identity as they did about discovering the great frontier of information that was now at their fingertips for however long they wanted to click and explore. Almost everyone was logging on to experience community of some kind, even if they had a healthy community offline.
A Lot Has Changed, But Also Not Much Has Changed
These three factors—anonymity, exploration, and community—were what allured those of us who were alive for the inception of the early versions of the social internet. Since those days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so much has changed, and at the same time, so much hasn’t.
Many of us still crave anonymity online, even if it isn’t quite as ingrained in the online experience as it was in the early days.
The thrill of exploration and intrigue is still present to some degree—who doesn’t love the occasional Wikipedia rabbit hole?—but it, like anonymity, isn’t quite as central as it maybe used to be.
And we all still long for community online. That community has changed, perhaps for the worse, but we still pursue it.