Talking to Strangers

It felt like Christmas at my house when Dad announced that he’d bought a 500-hour block of internet. This was around 1997: I was thirteen years old and the whole world had been put at my fingertips. It was well before wireless networks, back when you had to dial in on a computer that was physically plugged into your phone line. It wasn’t until ADSL that we were able to make phone calls while we were surfing the web.

I haven’t heard the term ‘surfing the web’ in a very long time. While that’s probably because we collectively came to our senses, it’s also because how we use the internet has changed. Here in 2019, the internet is a carefully constructed trap built to capture human interest and attention. People build online personas to gather clicks, karma, likes, subscribers and sponsors. But back in 97, it was more like an open field we had wandered into. People were starting to pile in and see what we could do. If we wanted to find something, we would type our interests into a search engine (probably AltaVista or Yahoo, this was pre-Google) and see what popped up. The results were usually user-generated content, a modern way of saying personal webpages.

In some ways, not much has changed. We spent a lot of time looking at garbage and doing a lot of reading. We all had a website somewhere as well; how cool was it to make something and tell someone else how to find it (as an aside, I think I finally understand the allure of geocaching)? We would share our URLs at school (carefully copied down on scraps of paper), but really the idea was connection. After school I’d wrestle with my siblings to get on the computer so that I could chat with my friends on instant messengers (IMs). My first IM was ICQ – I still remember my seven-digit UIN (as if anyone knows what that means; your flexes will fade with time as well).

ICQ was interesting in that it had a random chat function. Like matchmaking apps today, you would say you wanted to chat to a random person, and if they said the same thing, you’d get matched up. I will point out that this was pre-digital cameras, let alone phone cameras, which meant that for someone to send you a dick pic, they’d have to take the photo, get it developed at the store, bring it home and scan it. As such, people mostly behaved themselves and talked about boring garbage instead, like the weather and how their day had been. We all used fake names in those days. It was more about seeing how people on the other side of the world were getting on with their days than making real connections.

Over time, people fell off ICQ (I think a Russian company bought it out), and I stopped using it. By this time, I had started spending way too much time playing Neopets, but the game’s public chat boards were very strange and heavily moderated. ‘Amusement’ was banned, for example, as was ‘skill’, ‘canal’ and, for some reason, ‘cake’. Basically, you couldn’t easily chat, and as a site made for children (I was maybe seventeen at this point), they actively tried to block you exchanging contact details. I couldn’t have seen it then, but the internet was starting to put fences up between the paddocks. For all of the Americans who would decry moderation on these boards because of their freedom of speech, they were told they could talk about whatever they liked, just not here.

Time kept ticking and 2005 was rapidly approaching. What happened in 2005? EVERYTHING. Google’s stranglehold on the internet became incredibly apparent, but a few short years also saw the birth of Youtube, Facebook, Netflix (for the US) and, more importantly, iPhones. The floodgates were about to open. It’s now a well-publicised feature of online advertising that if you get enough people together into one spot, regardless of why they’re there, you can attract advertisers. This means that what content producers want is to get as many people as they can into one spot, then pimp them out to the highest bidder. Early internet adopters were no strangers to ads, but we didn’t see ourselves being quietly corralled so that we could provide better advertising returns. Generic communities started to splinter as more people got online and internet audiences were monetised. The tracking and aggressive advertising that’s ubiquitous today started around then, so it became important for the people running websites to have as much information about the real person behind the screen as they could get.

If I wanted to talk to real people about the real world, I could do that without a computer, so I started playing World of Warcraft. I played WoW for a really long time, from 2008 to around 2016 or so. I wound up ranked quite high globally in a few things and fell into some hardcore-ish communities, which was nice. WoW is the only thing for me that has ever crossed the online to offline divide, in that my online friends became real world friends. A few people in my guild even came to my wedding, and I insisted on helping another out a few years later when he was having a tough time. Sadly, all things must come to an end. Eventually WoW lost its shine, and I started to get busy IRL again. As I spent less time on WoW, I moved to Reddit, where I still lurk.

In some ways Reddit is like being in one of those enormous chatrooms again, but the politics are exhausting. You know there’s no point in saying something if your opinion doesn’t align with the prevailing sentiment, because if you do, you’ll just get downvoted into obscurity. Because of the upvote/downvote mechanic your post has an overall score, and if it goes into the negative, your post is automatically hidden from other users. I don’t know about you, but I can live without quantifying how hard a group of strangers disagree with me.

The internet has changed. In twenty years, we went from near absolute anonymity to putting our photographs up next to our name and telling people where they could find us. We went from being able to engage in relatively intimate one-on-one discussions with strangers to dealing with Russian bots and racists brigading public discussions. We went from still photos to YouTube to Twitch. We were social tinkerers, realising that around the world everyone was kind of the same, and now we’re bombarded by people screaming about difference.

There’s some hope. Niche communities are popping up, away from Facebook. We have Discord channels and newsletters that are acknowledging close connections and working on fostering communities of people with shared interests, away from the noise. The trick is now finding these communities; they tend to build up then sever ties because, just like me, they’re sick of the online din ­– we just want to talk about the things we care about, without being used a market segment or platform for personal politics.

The internet used to be a place to escape to, now I feel like that’s the place to escape from. Most people are so tired of being talked at that they’ve forgotten what it is to be talked to, whether online or in real life. There’s so much to do on there that we never need to engage with anyone, we can just endlessly scroll, absorbing content.

Online safety has always been a huge issue, even back when it was new, and that’s especially the case now. It was okay when everyone was lying about things, big or little, because everyone was doing it and no one was really getting anything out of it (not the way I was doing it, anyway). I never went online looking for friends in real life, or vice versa. But now the landscape has changed; people have entire online personas and presences to maintain, and human psychology is so messed up that people are lying for non-transferable, non-redeemable internet points. While it used to be fun to get online and pretend to be someone else, money and insecurity have taken the fun out of it – now it just seems sad.

I still talk to strangers, but not so much online. Last week I had a conversation with strangers at the pub while waiting for a friend to turn up. The difference with that and chatting online is that maybe I’ll see those people again. Maybe I can ask them how pub guy’s business law degree is going. Sure, I have to change out of my pyjamas to talk to IRL people, but sometimes it’s worth getting out there occasionally and doing the better thing, and not the easy thing. And maybe those people are lying to me as well, but I feel like at least it takes some effort to look someone in the eye and lie to them, instead of copying and pasting someone else’s sob story for five minutes of attention.

Back in the 90s, we were looking beyond our neighbours for a feeling of community. This lasted for a little while, but now advertisers and online companies are trying their hardest to reinforce existing connections so that they can pin down demographics and sell shit to you. In some ways, I suppose, that’s business as usual, but I hate that the internet got too big to be intimate. The open paddock has been subdivided and subdivided until now it’s filled with noisy clubs where the music is so loud you can’t talk to anyone.

I wish I had a solution. Instead, what I’ll do is put on pants, and make sure I turn up to my local writing meetings and keep encouraging other people, new people, to come along. We’re easy to find, we have a Facebook page, a website and we send out a fortnightly email newsletter. We’re a community of friends, strangers and everything in between. And don’t worry, we’re not trying to sell you anything.

Picture by from Pexels

Rebecca Fletcher is student, worker and mother who gave up sleep in 2005 to prowl the internet looking for people to send chipper emails at 2am. She likes turnips and Guinness.

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