When I was 7, I remember faking sick to stay home so I could play word games on AOL all day. I loathed school, so it was a win-win for me. After winning rounds of off-brand Boggle and Scrabble, I would brag to the other players about how young I was, and then be disappointed when no one was impressed.
I would hop on my brother’s IM accounts and talk to literally any of their friends that would respond. I would go into all sorts of chat rooms and try to understand what was going on. I remember emailing a pen-pal through Juno a few times a week, then later learning that she was schizophrenic and thought that the government watched people through their TVs. (sidenote: it amuses me that this is probably among the more plausible and less offensive methods of surveillance available in 2017)
There was so much raw curiosity, no inhibitions whatsoever. I didn’t care what was being talked about, it was all interesting and I just wanted to talk to anyone and everyone about anything. I liked the challenge of being interesting enough to much older people that they wouldn’t mind talking to a small child.
Later, when I was 12, I was homeschooled. I would spend entire days in my bedroom, alternating between reading textbooks and timing myself to see how quickly I could rebuild my Star Wars Lego sets. At that point I was already obsessed with computers, but we only had the one family PC, so my time was always limited, and I usually spent that time on games.
Once we got a second computer that I could hoard for myself, I explored further. The first forum I ever got invested in was on a site called YouThink. It was a place for debate, where people would submit questions and polls that you could vote on, ranging from opinions about the best action movie to whether abortion should be legal. I had hundreds of lengthy posts where I defended my nascent concepts of fundamentalism.
In high school, I got into blogging, and I delighted in building up a blogroll and a readership. I was super invested in the off-topic forums for the games that I played, and made lasting friendships through those engagements. I had half a dozen different chat clients – ICQ, YIM, AIM, gChat, IRC, each connecting me to a different set of people.
In the past, I had lots of people to talk to from around the world. A diverse network of friends I could hit up at any moment, ask for advice, shoot the shit. If I was up at 4 am wrestling with anxiety again, my friends in Greece would be probably be awake, or maybe my friends in Australia. I didn’t worry about whether I was boring people with my petty problems, whether I was interesting enough to hold their attention.
There were multiple spaces online where I felt at home. Fluent, comfortable, in my element. I no longer have that. Facebook is not, and has never been that place for me.
Objectively speaking, I have spent the majority of my life in solitude, what with spending easily 10+ hours every single day on a computer since I was a child. But it hasn’t been until the last 6 or 7 years that this solitude meant isolation.
Some of it is just the facts of growing up. Children aren’t burdened with stereotypes and presumption. They can freely engage and connect because they’re blissfully ignorant. Adults have motives, schemes, scars, and responsibilities.
I know that some of this shift is from my end. Events in my life lead to me become more aloof. I started worrying a lot more about what other people think, because I knew some people were thinking very poorly of me. I crave respect almost as much as I enjoy attention, and I have often remained silent when previously I might have reached out.
There’s also the premise of connection. Games are no longer my primary hobby. They’re a frequent curiosity, a point of interest to me as a designer and an artist, but my brain can no longer justify the absurd waste of time that’s baked into most online games. But shared interest and experience is the foundation for most relationships in our lives.
I live now in the heart of Brooklyn. I can go out onto my roof at any point in the day and see a hundred other human beings out on the sidewalks. But I have no connection to these people. I have never met my neighbors, and likely never will. This does not bother me, but I acknowledge the irony of it.
I yearn to be a part of an online community again.