It's 11pm on Thursday Night and I am finally settling in to share the post that's been on my mind for weeks. It's the story of how I grew up online.
Inspired by UK Blogger and writer Emma Gannon's podcast which I have been listening to lots lately (it is SO good) where she interviews many women who have a career intersecting with technology and being online, I've decided to step back from the normal posts which I do. I want to turn my attention to a little personal series, inspired by this blog and what I've learnt from it, about life lived from 90's - 2010's, internet culture and how the world has changed.
The right place to start sharing this series (I'm intending on about 3 or 5 blog posts, I haven't really decided yet to be honest) is explaining to you all a bit more about my own journey with technology, starting from where I was around 5 years old. As a millennial, I am one of the generation to grow up with technology as a 'digital native' (i.e. I was a young kid when I began to use computers). I heard somewhere no other generation will have the gap with our parents we have had around technology and being online. This is a little slice of the life that I have forged through, from getting our first computer through to being a 'blogger' in 2017.
"As a millennial, I am one of the generation to grow up with technology as a 'digital native'"
The Beginning: Windows 1995 (ages 5 - 8)
My first memory of tech was standing in my brother's bedroom at our old house in 108 Campbell Street, Karori. We had just bought a Windows 1995 computer and I remember the excitement over it. My mum practiced touch typing on the keyboard, something she had learnt when she used to be a secretary when she was younger. The computer came with three very educational programmes, Microsoft Ancient Lands, Microsoft Dangerous Creatures and Encarta Encyclopedia. Oh, happy days of when educational content was the only option! We also signed up as a family to dial up the internet, which had that horrid chalkboard sound. I can't remember using it very much during the early days, but I certainly do remember spending hours with my brother on Ancient Lands and Dangerous Creatures. The bonding we had over exploring the Greek Gods, Roman Temples and Egyptian Pyramids will never be forgotten.
"We had just bought a Windows 1995 computer and I remember the excitement over it"
At some stage, we must have visited the old Quay Computers shop on Lambton Quay, one of the first specialist computer shops in Wellington. There, my dad bought us Microsoft Creative Writer and Microsoft Fine Artist. Suddenly a whole world opened up to my young brain like a light bulb switched on. While Ancient Lands and Dangerous Creatures were fine - they were mainly text-based and images based - Microsoft Fine Artist and Creative Writer were ENGAGING. I was able to create artwork on a computer (and hence a whole phase of heavy use of comic sans - sorry designers - I didn't know any better and thought this font was the shizz)
The Gaming Years: Windows 2000, Nintendo 64 and Gameboy (ages 8 - 11)
Growing up, my parents continued to upgrade our computer. While we never had many games, we became more internet savvy, learning to search websites. I remember upgrading to a Windows 1997 Computer and then a Windows 2000, which seemed incredibly sophisticated. I played a game I'd found out about from my cousin who lived in America - you'd make fashion outfits for Barbie - and, of course, Sim City 2000. And while we always had the internet for research or other discrete things, through the years of 8-13, it was always second to games and gameplay.
An outstanding memory is of the hours I spent playing 'The Sims'. The Sims became a bit of an obsession for a while. I was unable to draw myself away from the fascinating process of running my own small family. I loved every single aspect of this game, from creating how the people looked to building the house to strategically upgrading their skills. My perfect Saturday morning when I was around 13 years old was getting a McFluffy at McDonald's and then heading to EB Games to pick up the latest Sims expansion pack (oh joy, oh rapture!). When I got the Sims 2, I must have been about 14 because I remember having it on a family holiday with my lovely new friend Maria, who was away with me as a treat. After about 40 minutes of me dominating the Sims 2, I remember she went off on her own because she didn't enjoy the fact I was unable to relinquish my tiny on-screen family (luckily I ran after her and we are still friends to this day).
"The Sims became a bit of an obsession for a while. I was unable to draw myself away from the fascinating process of running my own small family."
My brother and I were never bought a Nintendo 64 or Playstation, but whenever we'd go to friends houses, we'd circle like vultures. I remember around 1997 or 1998 my friend Lucy Lindsay's brothers had Nintendo 64 (I was 8). When I'd visit her house, I simply adored spending time playing Mario Kart. Lucy would tire of after a while, forcing me to learn that not everyone felt the same as I did and wanted to play for hours on end.
Similarly, I remember begging a family friend of my parents who had bought a Playstation from America to buy me the Spice Girls Playstation game when he went away for a business trip. The reason was that the New Zealand version wouldn't work on their console so it needed to be bought from overseas (this was before such things were freely available online to buy). He very kindly obliged and I spent hours and hours on end, while the adults chatted in the next room, getting Baby Spice's dance moves perfect. Playstation and Nintendo, because they were rationed, only being available in other people's homes, were a treat to be relished. 'Tomb Raider 3' to 'Bust a Groove' introduced me to how females were viewed in online games - busty, feisty and fit (unlike me).
"I learnt all the words to the 'Poke-rap' and would spend my lunchtime in the library at school drawing pictures the various Pokemon"
Gameboy brought a new obsession. My parents bought a Gameboy Colour for my brother before going on an overseas trip, mainly to shut us up on the flight I suspect. We had the Goldeneye James Bond game and Pokemon Red. I could write an entire book just about Pokemon and how much I loved the show and games, but I'll keep it brief. It started a long-term obsession, temporarily bonding my brother and I over Charmander and Raichu, trading creatures through our Gameboy 'trading cord' and jumping on trampolines together yelling out the names of the Pokemon and their attacks. I learnt all the words to the 'Poke-rap' and would spend my lunchtime in the library at school drawing pictures the various Pokemon. It was my first obsession with a fantasy world, akin to how some people fell head over heels for 'The Lord of the Rings' and Fantasy Fiction. Sadly, I missed the Pokemon Go craze last year, knowing that it could only ever be a slippery slope towards addiction.
Discovering the Internet: Neo Pets and MSN (ages 12 - 15)
At some stage, I found out about Neo-Pets, an online game where you could create creatures and play various games, earning points. I forget the finer details of Neo-Pets now, although I remember loving it at the time. One thing that as interesting about it was how it introduced me to online communities. I remember loving the gameplay aspect of the game, which was similar in some ways to Pokemon, but also being fascinated that there was something called 'Guilds'. I found out that Guild meant club, and that all over the world there were kids (or other people) playing the game, building these online communities. While I was never very good at the game, as far as I could recall, it did lead to me starting to get interested in online chatting and basic HTML (so I could customize my page with music and templates). Eventually, I migrated to experimenting with chat rooms on Windows MSN, which was probably quite tame, but I remember I felt was very risky. I used to click out of it in a rush if I heard anyone coming towards our family study (we didn't have computers in our rooms of course - just one shared one for everyone which cause no end of fights between my brother and I).
"It did lead to me starting to get interested in online chatting and basic HTML (so I could customize my page with music and templates)"
It was also around this time I joined up to MSN Messenger. MSN was THE was people chatted back then online. There was no Facebook and Myspace and Bebo were still a few years away. Texting was expensive at 20c for every text you spent. So when I got to school each day my peers would all be discussing animatedly what so and so said to so and so on MSN last night. My mother wasn't happy when I begged her to let me join. She was a teacher and had heard about bullying and ganging up behaviours online via MSN. Eventually, a friend from Drama class signed me up for an account. My mother reluctantly had to accept it was happening.
We were always restricted in the amount of time we were allowed on the computer as teenagers, but I remember talking almost for the first time ever to boys on MSM messenger. This was the first time I heard 'A/S/L' which used to be some kind of unnecessary short-hand for 'age? sex? location?'. Boys who you met at school dances would add you, and suddenly having an email became a THING. My first email was 'firstname.lastname@example.org' which probably accurately sums up how likely I was to get a boyfriend from such endeavours. I remember thinking that some of the boys were hideously forward, asking sexist questions ("do you shave") and sending grotesque images. Nevertheless, the thrill of the occasional normal chat, and catching up with my friends online drew me in. Chatting on MSN was COOL.
"Chatting on MSN was COOL"
I always played it safe and our family never had a webcam (this is before they came built into all computers) so there was never any risk of going too far, turning to video. Despite technical limitations, however, I think I always had a healthy fear of the internet and creeps online, built into me by my parents. I remember making up an email address and putting in a word which I didn't know had a second meaning. Somehow, my parents found out and told me in no uncertain terms to delete it. Similarly, I updated my status once on MSN with the title of a 'Nirvana' song 'Rape Me', not fully understanding what it meant. Again, my parents found out and told me in no uncertain terms to change it and why. Together as a family, we all grew up through these years, willingly or unwillingly, with the help of the internet. Our loving family which shared one computer together (albeit sometimes irritatedly), meant that there was little chance to be secretive about what happened online.
Building an Identity: Myspace vs Bebo
By the mid-2000's, everyone in High School was online. In 2005, YouTube started, although it wasn't as sophisticated as it is today. Videos could only be 10 minutes and often had to buffer for aagggees before you could watch them. Somehow I remember getting into this fake series online called 'Lonelygirl15' which was, in retrospect, incredible. It was the first online web series that made people think it was really a girl at home in her room, web-camming when it was actually a scripted show. You can read more about this here. I already knew it had been outed when I first watched it, but recall thinking it was brilliant - that the 'realness' of the internet had exposed itself as fake, bringing everything else into question.
At some point, websites began to pop up which classified as 'social media'. I think the first one I joined was called 'Hi-five' or similar (not to be confused with the kids entertainment show). It was quite basic and very chirpy in its layout. You couldn't customise your background (clearly inferior to Neo-Pets, then) and not many people were on there. At this time, I was obsessed with a new friend called Hayley who was kind of punk/goth in her outlook. It maybe was Hayley who joined up MySpace first, along with some of her friends who went to Wellington High School. I have fond memories of MySpace. Unlike the slightly harrassive and anonymous nature of MSN, MySpace was all about expressing yourself through your music preferences and personality. Best of all, you could customise the background! Out came my limited HTML again, ready for action.
"MySpace always felt like an incredibly safe community, where you were with like minded people"
MySpace always felt like an incredibly safe community, where you were with like minded people. This may be because it attracted arty types. While I wasn't really at home being a goth version of Lucy, I did love some of the people who I felt I knew better on MySpace than in real life, like friends of Hayley and another friend, Darcy. People used to add you randomly, based on your music taste and appearance. You didn't have to accept but we frequently did. We learnt to take selfies on our huge family digital cameras (we never called them selfies), and rudimentary photo editing using our sibling's copy of Photoshop. I learnt to shape my online personality into who I wanted to be through MySpace. It was all about looking cool, but also GENUINELY being cool, introducing me to music and friend who I know IRL to this day. MySpace is how singers Lily Allen and Katy Perry were discovered and how Sophia Amoroso started her E-Bay shop 'Nasty Girl Vintage' (there is a whole TV show about this on Netflix 'Girlboss'). It was very earnest and non-ironic.
"MySpace is how Lily Allen and Katy Perry were discovered and how Sophia Amoroso started her E-Bay shop 'Nasty Girl Vintage'"
MySpace was the last time that the internet still felt a bit special and niche. Not long after that came along another social media website, 'Bebo'. Bebo was horrifically lame, in my eyes, but there were far more people on there. I refused to join but must have caved at some stage. I think it was starting to feel isolated as my online friendships on MySpace changed and online became a bit more boring. This is what I have learnt from those times: Online only stayed interesting as long as there were enough offline people you ACTUALLY knew, on there.
Facebook, blogging and beyond (ages 17 onwards)
Sometime in 2006 MySpace lost its lustre. In 2007, I heard for the first time from some American family friends about something called 'Facebook' on their New Zealand holiday. Around the same time, my school friend insisted my hotmail account was lame and signed me up for Gmail. She also signed me up for a Facebook account at the same time. So, in 2007, I waved farewell to MySpace forever and embraced the brave new world of Facebook.
I remember being so annoyed that once again you couldn't customise your background. Also, no one I knew was on there (that would happen the next year in 2008). However, I used it mainly to chat with this one friend, posting on her timeline and writing to one another. I can't remember whether messenger was available then (it probably was) but I do remember that you could, weirdly, 'poke' people you wanted to get to know. If they poked you back, you could see their page for about a week. It was a much more basic community and, while fine, never had the sense of excitement that MySpace did for me. Social media grew mainstream, not just for kids or emos. Over the years since, Facebook has continued to dominate, growing into one of the world's most powerful companies, owning data about all of our lives. It is constantly innovating and reinventing itself, much like I sought to do online as a teen.
"In 2012, bored in my final year of University, I started a blog called 'The Residents'"
In 2012, bored in my final year of University, I started a blog called 'The Residents'. I had been watching some YouTubers around that time, and I remember reading blogs a lot, especially between 2010 - 12. People like Issac Likes, a Kiwi men's fashion blogger, were getting better known. I had an Instagram account but that was just for taking goofy photos of friends. I started 'The Residents' inspired by Todd Selby's book 'The Selby is in your place' thinking his intimate portraits of people would be perfect for Wellington and that I should try and do something like that.
Unfortunately, I lost confidence quite quickly in my blog. Not many people liked it, I hated how it looked (I used Blogger which already by then was a Dinosaur) and I felt embarrassed to ask people to share themselves with me. I had a digital camera but in 2012 photo cameras were still quite rough and ready (Fliptop phones were the rage). While I didn't have the heart to delete the blog, I semi-abandoned it, unsure of who I was. It was only when I got a life-changing email from a small cider company, 3 years later in October 2015, asking me to review their cider, that I decided to re-launch my blog, pouring my whole self into it (even losing some friends along the way). The rest, as they say, is history.
As a girl who grew up at the same time as the internet itself, we have learnt from each other and changed. I found the internet at the same time as I was figuring out own identity. The internet and games helped me to build that, allowing me to freely socialise and create. Without the internet, I wouldn't have had a platform to make things for other to enjoy, but most importantly for myself to enjoy. Like playing with Playdoh helps a child build an idea of their own ability and empowerment, each game of The Sims helped me realise I had good ideas (and bad ones) that with time and creativity would pay off (and, lets be honest, I loved doll houses IRL and online).
New Zealand is an isolated country and the internet has been, for me, a window to the world. But also as a teen, it was a window to a life I couldn't yet live, because, you know, I had to go to school and stuff. I've kept my love of the infinite possibility that came with the internet. Now I've used it to make a blog and build and online community of my own. For that, I'll always be grateful to the internet. If a proper writer is one who writes almost every day, the internet made me a proper writer.
"I've seen the internets darker side too. Of course, not everyone is who they say they are online. I've felt pressured by boys and humiliated."
I've seen the internet darker side too. Of course, not everyone is who they say they are online. I've felt pressured by boys and humiliated. I also knew there was porn online and gross stuff that others weirdly liked. Thanks to healthy offline relationships with my family, and sensible friends who didn't have much of an interest, I was never drawn towards the metaphorical fire.
When it comes to making good choices online, communication was always key and secrecy was almost impossible. These days it is far more difficult with a smartphone to keep kids from keeping things a secret. However, the internet shouldn't be looked at as a dangerous creature. Instead, it is a place where you can discover ancient lands, become a fine artist or ever a creative writer.