Though I grew up primarily in the Midwest, living in Wisconsin for most my life with a detour into Illinois for a few years, I use Middlewest to invoke the idea of the time when the Midwest was the frontier. Like the Midwest in the Little House On The Prairie era, the late ’90s wasn’t the pioneer days of BBS’s and coding new programs out of magazines, but it was wilder than the civilized web of Facebook and smartphones.
It was the days of dial-up and super low-quality audio streams. Chat rooms were where teenagers worried their parents and shared shocking music. I’m fond of relating stories of swapping FTP connections to trade MP3’s in the early days with people you’d meet on a forum. (Don’t ever do that now, ever, for any reason, hell even if you know someone, don’t do it.)
It was a weird era, especially for teenagers. The AOL and Yahoo chat rooms, instant messenger, and a whole host of kingdoms rising and falling in those early dial-up days. We had forums, webrings, webcomics, tailing off through Napster and filing sharing that didn’t immediately turn your computer into a dumpster fire. Well, that last one didn’t hang around too long, as in the wake of the RIAA suing Napster into new definitions of bankruptcy dozens of programs leapt up that were adware disguised as an MP3 delivery method.
I am digitally native enough that I feel at home with technology. I have friends I only know via forums and now social networks. I worked with some of them during my days as a pretend journalist, and others I just got into random conversations with. It used to be a lot more work, but I understand the impulse nonetheless.
It seems almost cliche at this point to blame Twitter and Facebook for the state of the world. After all, they keep enabling all of our worst behaviors. Because as much as you pine for the days of “civil discourse” everyone reading this loves to get into arguments with people and “win.” Even if winning is just getting the other person to stop responding out of exhaustion. (Totally guilty of that one, pointing out the inconsistency of ideologies used to be a hobby of mine.)
But even that is nothing new. Chat Rooms and IMs were full of dumb arguments and people randomly trying to provoke people. Even the pioneers out there can tell you the Internet was full of assholes when all you had was cathode ray green text and a BBS.
I might not have been on there in those days, but I feel a kinship with the pioneers. I was here when the city had streets, a bit of decorum, but not much else. Now that we live in a town with a lot of rules, and an array of masters, it is a different place online. Culturally speaking, this is the center of the world for now.
The last few years you see even the most ardent citizens of the internet question their own techno-optimism. Making a place full of an anonymous people that can connect all of the lunatics that believe in everything from antivax to the flat earth amplified the idiocy.
We made skinner boxes that fed us our every impulse and was wired to entertain constantly. No one is wired to deal with that much overstimulation, and the entire culture is chasing the dopamine highs of screaming at strangers and loved ones alike. I hang on to the idea that like teenagers learning to drive, civilization will learn to handle talking to everyone all at once.
What that looks like, I don’t know. We’re going to need to be better skeptics, and we’ll need to learn that social networks aren’t the place for reenactments of Home for the Holidays.
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