I was on the Internet way before I was old enough to be there.
It started with a message board for fans of Superman comic books. I was 12. I’d go on every day after school to read what people thought of the latest issue, but I didn’t become full-on addicted to the board until the premiere of Smallville, the WB’s teenage take on the Man of Steel’s mythos. There was a lot to discuss.
My username included the word “angel,” but somehow no one guessed I was a tween. I never hid it, but it never came up. Beyond the superficial superhero conversations, I was finding real people. One of my online friends was an Australian twenty-something struggling to come to terms with being gay, one was a tattooed rock singer who lived somewhere outside Boston, one was a 30-something woman raising a son with autism.
Before everyone decided that ‘It Gets Better,’ I was a teenager hiding a burgeoning queer identity while living in a small religious community. I desperately needed to know there were people out there, living in the world, who thought like I did, who appreciated the same aspects of pop culture I did, and especially, who loved like I did. I needed to know it was better (already!) in cities I’d never been to, and for people I only dreamed of being friends with in real life (IRL). I needed it to be better now, at a time when I didn’t know anyone who openly supported gay rights. This was only possible for me through my dial-up modem.
Like a lot of people (and Ben Folds), I grew up in the suburbs feeling isolated. The painful reality of my solitude was obvious: I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. A lot of people, adults and children alike, told me I was “weird” and so I believed I was weird. The only one. Alone.
It very well could have gone like this:
I remember being made fun of during a fourth grade class. Sadness welling in my tiny chest, I asked to be excused. I ended up standing at the top of the staircase of my school, looking at the floors below.
“I could jump right now,” I thought. I was ten years old. “I shouldn’t exist anyway if no one else is like me. I should just die.”
I stood there for a long time. Until the bell rang and students filed out of classrooms. Two years later, I found the Internet.
There, people were different. They loved art, books, music, films, paintings, and stage performance. More than that, I can never remember thinking being gay was wrong — if anything I always seemed to identify with LBGTQ people in movies and TV. Meanwhile, my friends in real life used “lez” as an insult. I gravitated to the strange and the off-beat. I loved aliens and ghosts, I listened to stand-up comedy, I wrote short stories where the uncool girl became an international soccer star or got invited on to the Spice Girls tour bus. But I desperately wanted to fall under everyone else’s definition of “cool.”
I even crushed on the “right” boys because the geeks (and girls) I really liked were, to borrow a phrase, “social suicide.” But I always felt two steps behind — like everyone else in my middle school class was receiving a nightly transmission with “how to be cool” and I somehow always missed it because I was too busy organizing my rock collection.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was out-right laughed at by the people I considered my closest friends. “Why do you read so much?” “Are you actually writing stories in that notebook?” “Can’t you ever just be normal?”
I had questions for me too: Why did my friendships with other girls make me so nervous? Why couldn’t I just like what everyone else liked? Why didn’t I know how to act or what to say? Why did I always feel like I was wearing a mask? Why couldn’t I just fit in?!
One time I was so embarrassed about having no friends that I told my concerned parents I was going over to someone’s house when really, I walked to a nearby Starbucks and read by myself for two hours. When I came back, I told them all about hanging out with my “friend.”
I was desperate for companionship, and these online friends liked me. We talked for hours about our lives, shared inside jokes, planned group chat hangouts, watched TV shows together on AIM, talked each other down off the ledge (metaphorically and literally) and basically lived complete friendships with our computer screens between us. Sometimes simple, kind social interaction makes all the difference for a kid.
Some might say this is indicative of the weakness of our generation. Queer kids and “weirdos” in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, had to make their own way, had to fight with no weapons, had to quite frankly, survive each day. Alone. I know, for me, if the Internet hadn’t existed, I would not have gotten through middle and high school. Maybe I should be embarrassed about that. I used to be.
Without the Internet, I never would have known the potential I had for a full, crazy, diverse, amazing life. There would have been no one to show me. That bleak scene on the fourth grade staircase — and others like it — repeated throughout my adolescence. Without my online friends, I probably would have jumped.
Look, I’ve seen Law and Order. I know that any time a teenage girl talks to people online she ends up in the Slovakian slave trade. But for me, having access to the Internet at a young age was a completely positive experience. In fact, as Dr. Phil as this sounds, I unironically believe it saved my life. And I stand by that: unashamed.