Probably the first thing I ever used the internet for was to look up REM lyrics. I was in the ninth grade (1997? 98?) or so, and did not have a computer at home. I would use it at school, again, almost entirely to look up song lyrics (I still have, in some folders somewhere at the bottom of a box, all the lyrics to all the REM albums from Chronic Town through New Adventures In Hi-Fi) or to work on goofy Geocities or Angelfire websites with my friend Lance, or to buy albums (Under The Bushes Under The Stars) on Amazon.com. I didn’t have a debit card, so I had to mail a check or money order to Amazon, wait a few days for it to be processed, and then they would mail me my purchase. These are the stories I will tell my grandchildren as we huddle around the fire on cold winter’s nights.
I found the internet kind of interesting, but only for its most basic uses: buying things I couldn’t buy locally and looking up information on musicians and authors. Using it for any social reasons was pretty far down on my list, though I did like to sometimes visit message boards and cause trouble, make fun of people, be disruptive, whatever dumb things sixteen year olds like to do online. I didn’t expect to ever own a computer.
Then during my senior year, my friend Josh somehow got hold of an ancient desktop unit—I don’t remember the brand, if it even had one—and rigged it up so that it would run, and gave it to me. It was a supremely sweet gesture on his part. Even sweeter was that, thanks to his job at the local ISP, he was able to slip me the password the school used to get online, allowing me to use the internet for free. I was now able to download music—it only took a half hour or so to download a song, which I could only listen to on the computer, because it didn’t have a CD burner—and I went crazy. There was a lot of stuff to discover back then: Richard Buckner, The Handsome Family, Silver Jews. Basically any band I read about in the Bloodshot Records catalog or CMJ.
Still, I didn’t do that much online socializing: I would go into chatrooms, but mostly to talk about music: I was big into Radiohead at the time, and there was no shortage of conversations to be had about the upcoming follow up to OK Computer. But it wasn’t deep, or personal. I’d chat online, but rarely with the same people, or in the same rooms, and I would drop it in a second if there was something interesting going on in the real world.
It wasn’t for another year or two that things got really serious. I’d moved back to Texas to go to what was supposed to be some kind of college, and was living with my grandparents. I went to school all week, and then worked the graveyard shift at a gas station during the weekends. I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination that far away from where I had been living—barely a 90-minute drive, and considering how recklessly I drove back then, probably closer to a 70-minute one—but it felt like an insurmountable distance. I barely saw any of my friends for nearly four years, and during that time I did not make a single new friend. This is not an exaggeration: there were a handful of people I talked to now and again, people I would see at school, but I did not hang out with them or socialize with anyone at all.
The friends I had all lived on the internet. Again, this was, initially at least, a music thing: I had already moved considerably far from my teenage Alternative Rock days, and was headed straight toward the Last Days Of Indie Rock—this was late 2001 and people really cared a lot about things like Selling Out, and Emo, and something called Electroclash—heady times, man! Serious business. Anyhow, I made my way to the MSN chatrooms, mostly out of boredom, I suppose, and I started hanging out in this one particular room. It never had an official name: it was mostly called Indie Rock Will Destroy You!, though sometimes it was Indie Rock Vs The Brain Eating Zombies (and note this was years before zombies were all over the place: prescient), or some variation of the two, or whatever the person who created the room wanted to call it—usually it was Indie Rock Will _________.
It wasn’t like most chatrooms, mainly because the people who visited the room weren’t stupid, and were mostly civil, and they had good taste. It also remained small, so it wasn’t difficult to have a conversation. People weren’t stepping all over one another to make some dumb joke or get their point across. At its busiest, I’d imagine there weren’t more than a dozen people or so in the room. There were about eight or nine regulars, and it was somewhat rare for all of us to gather at once—typically it would be four or five, tops. Music was a starting point, I guess, but it was rarely the point of whatever we were talking about—it was just a single common thread we could agree on, and then move on to other topics, which were generally pretty typical nerd shit, movies and comics and jokes and TV shows.
And we were so tight. We were all young and for whatever reason had nothing better going on in our lives at night, and were willing to sit up late and fuck around with strangers online. I was going to school, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to sit down at midnight or so (I waited until this hour because we had dial-up and I didn’t want to tie up the phone) and not log off until four in the morning, sleep for a couple of hours, then head out. And while it’s true I initially started hanging out in the room because I was bored, and wanted companionship from people closer to my own age than my grandparents, it’s even more true that I loved hanging out in the room, with those people. On the rare occasions when I got to go out of town and hang out with my real-life friends, there would inevitably come a time when I wondered what was going on back at home, on my computer, in the room.
The internet then was still a really private thing. It was still something you had to sit down alone at a computer to participate in, and I didn’t talk to anyone in my real life about what I was up to online. There was still something of a stigma attached to it—people who used the internet were weird friendless nerds who hung out in their parents’ basement!—and you felt strange bringing up people you knew or things you did online. It was hard to talk about, and for the most part I didn’t. It was only when the internet became untethered and turned into a thing you could carry around with you that people stopped acting like you were a weirdo if you had friends you only knew online, or if you met or dated people from the internet. It’s strange to me now how things have almost completely reversed: in the year 2000 you would seem weird if you spent all your time online, but barely a decade later it’s strange if you don’t. I don’t own a smartphone, and I don’t have an internet connection, and my friends treat me like I live in a log cabin and communicate through messenger pigeon.
So…yeah, Vanderslice is really on-point with his assessment. I’m really not sure how I would have made it through those four years—I would have, of course: people have survived things a lot worse than loneliness—without those people, some of whom I still keep in touch with, and none of whom I ever met. I don’t know if any of those dudes know how much they meant to me. They didn’t save my life exactly…but close enough.