I Miss the Anonymous Internet

I can’t stop thinking about this article in The Atlantic about a group of women who met online and became friends in an Internet forum, eventually meeting in real-life and staying friends.

I miss that kind of internet. I missed the MySpace phase, but had both a blogger and a LiveJournal–under pseudonyms, of course. I loved that they were journals, and it felt sort of secretive and powerful that they were also available for real people to read. But eventually real people I knew were reading those, and an element of self-censorship. At least one college friend forgot he had told people about his online journal and made some awkward confessions with bad ramifications.

But then I found my way to semi-private Internet forums. There, I could be myself (or not), and talk about the things weighing on my heart. I could be honest. And the forum was moderated, which, although it led to a good amount of complaining, meant that overall the conversation was positive. People were friendly. Relationships were forged. It was a place to connect–while staying safe and protected. You only had to reveal as much as you wished.

The downside was that others looked down on you for having internet friends. You couldn’t go around telling people you spent all your time talking to strangers. You’d just tell the real-world people in your life, “a friend of mine…”, leaving out the pertinent detail that you don’t know this friend’s real name, location, or face. You know them by an affectionate but goofy-sounding username.

I even got so far as making a friend in another country. He invited me over–and I visited him in England.

(I told my friends he was a pen pal, which is about 80% true.)

But that kind of community doesn’t seem to exist now. Or, at least, if it does, I’m not part of it. Facebook and Google, and to a lesser degree, Twitter, are the big behemoths in the Internet, and they decided to make the push for transparency. Real names became the mandate (once, when I forgot my password, Facebook required that I upload a copy of my drivers’ license in order to unlock my damned account.)

But with that kind of transparency comes a loss. There are things you don’t want to broadcast to your whole network. So you self-censor, show less than everything. In a world where everything you say it shown to everyone you really know, you say less and less of the whole truth.

Sure, transparency in social media seemed like it would be good, but in lieu of the ability to wear our masks, we have made our lives look like the masks. I’ve made and kept far fewer friends with those kind of deep connections since the transparent social media era–even as my friends list and Twitter followers burgeoned.

I miss those small, safe pockets of unfamiliarity.

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