What We Talk About When We Talk About the Aughts
My first email address was the dot edu address that came with my admittance to college. That was in the Fall of 1998. I think my parents had some sort of AOL something or other rigged up before that but our family's computer wasn't in my room, so I didn't play around with it that much, didn't IM with friends sitting blocks away via dial up, didn't email completed homework assignments to lazy classmates. (Remember when a computer was a family thing and not a personal thing?) Which is to say, my first introduction to the internet came at the exact same point in time when I was no longer living in my parents' place, at the same moment that everything changed substantively. How perfectly fitting that coincidence was and how long ago it occurred. The world has been so utterly remade in the last ten years that it's hard to even relate to the 90's anymore; our only method of actively dealing with the past has become so largely steeped in nostalgia it's as if those years are much farther away than they truly are. And while it's most certainly true that the presidency of George W. Bush and events like 9/11 altered the reality of the Aughts, when we talk about how the world has changed during the last decade it boils down to one large change that altered all of our lives; indeed, what we talk about when we talk about the Aughts is the internet.
In many ways, the Aughts was a decade of transition. During them, we basically reinvented most of the aspects of our lives. We reinvented how we communicate and deal with logistics, we reinvented the notion of grassroots organizing and political fund-raising, we reinvented the flow (and meaning) of information. The growth and prevalence of the internet tweaked how we watch television and movies, how advertisers attempt to get us to buy their product and, of course, how we date. But, it didn't start out that way, and we didn't start out perfectly equipped to handle it all.
It's amazing how charmingly quaint the internet was back then. IMDB was a database you could enter information into, it wasn't the internet's most trusted source of Hollywood-related information, complete with a "pro" section. Dating on the web was weird and creepy and desperate, now it might be the normal way of meeting someone. Back in those heady days it seems the internet was mostly just for downloading mp3's - even pre-Napster, it was a singular occupation - and watching that video of the beached whale getting dynamited. Considering the way the internet has unearthed some of our darker impulses, it's kind of hilarious that the entire world was so mad at Sean Fanning for a while there. But that's also the genius of the internet. It couldn't thrive and begin to really change our lives until we were able to participate in it.
As it turns out, the participatory element of the internet was present nearly from the beginning. Blogs have always been a key element to the web, obviously, but it only took a few years for user-reliant website-companies to draw our culture's attention. Wikipedia was launched in 2001 and every person with intellectual concerns for what is a real truth vs. what is a perceived truth spent the next two years discussing it until there was no fighting it anymore. eBay was consolidated into its present form in 2002, and bought Paypal at the end of that year, thereby monopolizing the internet auction. I graduated from college that year and spent the Summer periodically checking the jobs section of Craigslist, which had recently expanded from its local San Francisco beginnings. It's kind of mind-blowing to realize that Web 2.0 is more of a baseline for the internet than an advancement; it seems to be the web's natural state. This was only beginning to be fully realized in the summer of 2003, when Friendster blew up.
What had previously been about what we could do for each other and localizing even the most distant of commercial interactions instantly changed to something else. Suddenly, the internet was not just a global marketplace or a virtual meat market, it was a gigantic mixer. People made profiles for themselves and staked their claim, a page on Friendster's server. (As an aside, the profile itself represents an interesting divergence from previous forms of semi-anonymous interactions, the blurb-like personal having lost relevance in the new medium.) I myself never had a Friendster page, so I can't speak to it specifically, but it seems the first time that everyone was compelled to have a legitimate internet presence without the sort of "I have something to say"-ness that would lead to creating a blog. All of a sudden, the only thing you needed to have to say was what you liked and disliked, those things, i.e. being alive basically, were enough to gain you entrée to a place on the web.
It was an essential step to what would push the web out of the basement and onto the main stage of our culture: user-generated websites. The biggest, of course, and most influential was (and maybe still is) YouTube. Launched in February of 2005, YouTube became so large so fast that it was absorbed by Google (an essay unto itself) for a cool $1.65 Billion barely a year and half later. As a repository for everything video-based that we could think of, and discriminating against virtually none of it, YouTube was (and is) both a representation of everything interesting and everything mundane about our society. But more important was that it gave everyone easy access to participation. It was so easy to be involved, either as creator or as a viewer (doling out the ever-important clicks) that to not be was more a choice of self-exclusion than anything else. In the years since, this has become only more true: not having a Facebook page means more than having one; user-generated feedback and reviews make up the entirety of popular sites like Yelp and Citysearch.
It makes perfect sense that the web has developed this way, that it so quickly has become the place where the whole world comes to think out loud. This is because it tracks nearly perfectly with the Millennial generation's understanding of the world and our readiness and ability to contribute to it.
Those of us who had limited interactions with the web before college but never had to retrofit post-collegiate lives to it are a special generation and we have a special relationship with the internet. Though more loosely defined than other generations, our identity is tied to the history and development of this thing, similar to our parents' generation being tied to World War II and the resulting baby boom. We didn't have adult lives without the presence of the internet, we didn't have to shift what we thought we knew about how to conduct ourselves in light of this all-encompassing change. And we didn't grow up with the internet as a staple of life, we weren't born with a Facebook page made for us in utero or expect a cell phone by age ten. No, we grew up along with the internet, found ourselves as it found itself, and that makes everything different.
The beginning was just more information. As we moved away from home, literally and intellectually, there was the internet to open us up to as many ideas as we could click on. Alternative news sites started to crop up and gain popularity and importance, Salon, Slate and the Drudge Report, even Ain't It Cool News, were all founded in the late 90's and became seminal publications. And we ate it up, because it differentiated us. A few years later, when we were ready to contribute, when we had accumulated just enough life experience to say something interesting (or fail miserably trying), the net was conveniently all about that; it was just teeming with places for people to spew their thoughts. And just when we were mostly ready to face again all those people from High School, there was Facebook, to ease us into thinking about the ten year reunion, the brightest beacon of web as personal exploration and representation. It's undeniable that the web's development mirrors our own, reflects the phases of the transition from college student to adult, through the hazy twenties to more solid ground.
What, then, might be the the net result (as it were, pun intended) of all this? For people older than us, the web divided people into two camps, those who could retrofit their lives and those who couldn't or didn't want to. For those who could and did, the web made them younger and more hip, they went from being standard issue media types (for example) to cutting edge writers exploring a new medium (Andrew Sullivan comes to mind). Those who didn't instantly aged, became technophobic curmudgeons who could only see the internet as collection of Cheetoh dust-covered nerds. (Regardless of whether the prevalence of the web forced these people to reconsider doesn't change the aging effect of having initially and virulently refused.) For people much younger than us, those with their pre-natal Facebook pages, the rise of technology has been unquestionably aging. Kids are much older than they used to be and it's clear that technology in general and the internet specifically have contributed greatly to a young generation about as experienced and equally jaded and nihilistic as the people ten years older than them, a lot smarter but also carrying a lot more childish resentment and anger. (In all fairness, this might also have to do with all the hormones in the chicken these days.) For us Millenials, the outcome is a little less obvious.
While the particular juvenalia of the internet is well documented, the FAIL videos, the LOLcats, etc, it's a little lazy to say that we've grown up into a generation of children, though it certainly seems plausible, especially if one happens to peruse the comments section of any well-trafficked website. And while the absolute truth of that sentiment remains to be seen, it's also true that the internet has increased our curiosity and our creativity. It takes so much less logistical effort to take a concept to some form of execution that we get to see a lot more actual work these days, and it's definitely true that the ideas that shaped this decade are the result of the imagination and ingenuity needed to expand the internet and keep it moving forward. No other institution can grow and evolve the way it can, and that growth is driven by ideas that only the internet itself could have spawned and require the imagination only people this generation could have brought to the table, the Sergey Brins and Biz Stones of the world. And while the web's continual evolution makes it somewhat cold and merciless (who can't feel a twinge of loneliness on behalf of poor Tom Anderson as he grins at no one?), it just makes sure that there will always be room for the next great idea. And that keeps us, as a generation, centered, both fully engaged at the present and ready to adopt the next development.
Ten years from now, the web will surely be a completely different thing. Facebook will have long ago given way to something else, kids won't believe how we got along without some amazing new advancement. But nothing will change the fact that we came of age when the internet did, that our years of early adulthood mirrored its infancy, that we knew how it was back then. To remember that internet will be to remember when it was, like us, still finding itself and it will be that internet that we talk about and reflect on and have nostalgia for when we talk about the Aughts.
**originally posted on stevesword.com