As a Young Misfit, the Internet Was My Safe Space. When Did It Get So Mean? | Opinion

I got online shortly before my 15th birthday. The first thing I did after the 90s modem shrieked me into cyberspace was navigate to Yahoo! and click a link to "Chatrooms." My parents, of course, had cautioned me never to do that, but I was a weird, nerdy loner with a target on my back in the hierarchy of high school, and I'd heard that you could make friends in chatrooms. So I picked something that looked neutral enough and went on in.

It turned out to be incredibly easy to find people to talk to, once you had ducked out of the confines of high school reality. People who didn't judge you because you had the wrong backpack or jacket. People who liked the same weird music and books that I did. And, contrary to my parents' fears, although there were the occasional proposals to "cyber," a polite rejection was always taken in stride, and often led to a civilized conversation about something completely non-sex-related.

Most of the people I talked to were (or credibly claimed to be) older than I was, generally in their 20s. But they were surprisingly gentle with my fragile teenage soul. They told me they understood how I felt about life, and that it would get better. They told me I was funny or clever or reminded them of a little sister they loved. They reassured me that, eventually, I would find my people. In a sense, they were my people, though I never knew their real names, or what they looked like.

I discovered mailing lists. There were so many mailing lists. You could find one tailored to almost any interest, including RPG-by-email or interactive collaborative fiction. Sometimes people had disagreements, but we handled those with relative politeness and consideration for one another. If anyone was deliberately rude or used the mailing list to disseminate annoying chain letters, they were summarily banned.

It was the infancy of social media, though no one called it that: a social experience separated from real life. And as more sprang up—community sites, message boards, blogs, messengers—I was delighted by the opportunity to meet all sorts of people from completely different walks of life than mine. I found that I could express myself online more boldly than I could in real life; the shyness that had plagued me throughout my teenage years seemed to disappear when I was typing jokes rather than speaking them out loud.

Much later—after Friendster, MySpace and all the rest—I discovered Facebook and Twitter. I made real friends with a far-flung group of women who shared my interests. The internet brought us together. The internet, we believed, would make the world a smaller, cozier place. It would broaden perspectives. It would make us smarter, more open, perhaps even kinder. Our motto might have been, "Only connect. That was the whole of the [internet's] sermon." (Apologies to E.M. Forster.)

And then, as so often happens, corruption began to set in. A state of connection turned into a state of surveillance. The choice not to accept a friend request (even if this was a person you had only met for a few minutes and perhaps didn't quite like) was something that might come back to you in an unpleasant conversation with a mutual "friend." Failing to "like" something that one friend posted—especially while clearly being online, as evidenced by "liking" something a different friend posted—could cause tension. If social media showed you as being in a certain town on a certain day and you failed to check in with a casual acquaintance who happened to live in that town, a small but tedious reckoning was all but certain.

cyber bullying

Worst of all was the invention of re-posting or retweeting, freeing everyone up to generate posts without generating content. My feed went from being an intimate timeline of friends' sincere or humorous thoughts and personal life events to an overwhelming, rapidly-refreshing avalanche of opinions expressed by no one I had ever met, dogs that belonged to no one I knew, and glamorous photos featuring no one I recognized. This was before the possibility of "muting," so your options were to just accept the flood of irrelevancies, or to commit the unambiguously aggressive act of unfollowing someone.

It all began to take on the feel of those awful late-90s chain letters, and it wasn't fun anymore.

But the network kept exploding with more and more strands, and now friends of friends could see your posts. And comment on them. Sometimes, the comments sought to initiate a debate in which you had no interest. Sometimes, the comments made a statement you disagreed with and didn't particularly want to host on your own page. What to do then? Should you ignore (thereby silently condoning the behavior), or block (an overt act of war)?

Social media began sprouting an ever-evolving code of "correct" behavior, policed at all times by self-appointed enforcers. Now, if you were to reply to a good friend's retweet of a sentiment you found silly and you posted that snarky comment knowing that your friend would get the joke, you often had to contend with a complete stranger who informed you that your comment had offended them, and that you were the reason the world is going to hell in a hand basket. This person's network might then see their "clapback" and, if they felt it was worthy, they might retweet it, thus elevating visibility of your throwaway comment, possibly making it go viral, possibly leading to you getting publicly humiliated, maybe fired, maybe doxxed—or, at least, giving you heartburn, all for the crime of engaging with a friend.

The internet had gone from being a warm, friendly haven to being a place that is, well, mean.

I left social media long before any of that happened to me, deleting or making private as much as I could of my digital footprint. I left because it no longer felt like a safe space. It became a place to be bombarded by creepily targeted advertisements, soulless photo-brags, shameless self-promotion, and an endless stream of unsolicited opinions, many of them unwarranted in their aggressiveness.

I retreated to meatspace—where people exist in person, rather than online, and where people still mostly retain the ability to be somewhat considerate of one another in public.

I'm lucky to have an analog social network that is robust, supportive, and warm, where I quickly got over missing the dopamine hits of "likes" or "lol"s. I kept several of the "Facebook friends" I made as real friends.

Not everyone has that as an option. Some people are lonelier than anyone might guess. Some people are shyer than they seem. Many, many more people than anyone might imagine are in need of a virtual safe space.

I certainly did as a young person. And I'm sad it no longer exists.

Renata Sokol spends more time on social media than she would like you to think. She lives in Brooklyn and lurks everywhere.

The views in this article are the writer's own.

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