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In John Green’s new book, The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, the author reviews different aspects of humanity on a five-star scale. This article is adapted and reprinted from the book with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by John Green.
When the internet first came to our house in the early 1990s, so far as I could tell, the internet was inside of a box. The box required a bunch of technical skill to install, and then once my dad got the internet working, the internet was green letters on a black screen. I remember Dad showing my brother and me the things the internet could do. “Look,” he would say. “The internet can show you what the weather is like right now in Beijing.” Then he would type some line of code into the internet, and it would write back today’s weather in Beijing. “Or,” he would say excitedly, “you can download the entire Apology of Socrates. For free! And read it right here, in the house.”1
To my dad, this must have seemed like an actual miracle. But I was not a fan. For one thing, we couldn’t get phone calls while my dad was online, on account of how the internet used the phone lines. Admittedly, 14-year-old me wasn’t fielding a ton of calls, but still. More than that, it seemed to me that the internet was primarily a forum for talking about the internet—my dad would read (and tell us about) endless user manuals and message boards he’d read about how the internet worked, and what it might be able to do in the future, and so on.
One day, Dad showed me that on the internet, you could talk to real people all over the world. He explained, “You can practice your French by going to a French forum,” and he showed me how it worked. I messaged a couple people on the forum: “Comment ça va?” They responded in real time, with real French, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t know much French. I started wondering if there might be an English-language version of the service, and it turned out there was. In fact, there was one built just for me: the CompuServe Teen Forum.
On the CompuServe Teen Forum, nobody knew anything about me. They didn’t know that I was a miserable, cringingly awkward kid whose voice often creaked with nervousness. They didn’t know I was late to puberty, and they didn’t know the names people called me at school.
And paradoxically, because they didn’t know me, they knew me far better than anyone in my real life. I remember one evening, in an instant message conversation, I told my CompuServe friend Marie about the “night feeling.” The night feeling was my private name for the wave that crashed over me most school nights when I got into bed. My stomach would tighten and I’d feel the worry radiating out from my belly button. I’d never told anyone about the night feeling, and my heart was racing as I typed. Marie responded that she also knew the night feeling, and that she sometimes found comfort in listening quietly to her clock radio. I tried that, and it helped.
But most of the time, my Teen Forum friend group did not share our secrets. We shared inside jokes, and learned/built/borrowed/created together. By the summer of 1993, the CompuServe Teen Forum was a vast universe of mythology and references, from jokes about the TV show Barney & Friends to endless acronyms and abbreviations. The internet was still just green letters on a black screen, so we couldn’t use images, but we arranged text characters into shapes. The idea of ASCII art, as it is known, had been around for decades, but we hadn’t been around for decades, and so we felt like we were discovering it as we built everything from extremely simple images—like :-) for example—to ridiculously complex (and often obscene) ones. I don’t recall using a word to describe what we were doing, but these days we would call this stuff memes.
That summer, with school out of the way, I was able to devote myself full-time to the Teen Forum. I even got something called an email address—a series of randomly generated digits @compuserve.com. Back then, the internet charged by the hour, which became a real issue because I wanted to spend every hour on it. Now it was my parents who complained about the phone line being tied up. They loved that I was making friends, that I was writing and reading so much, but they could not afford a $100 monthly internet bill. At this point, a lifeline appeared when I was “hired” as a moderator for the Teen Forum. The payment came in the form of all the free internet I wanted, and I wanted a lot of it. CompuServe even paid for a separate phone line so I could be online constantly. If a single event in my life occurred outdoors that summer, I do not recall it.
I fear I’ve been romanticizing. The early-’90s internet had many of the problems the current internet does. While I recall the Teen Forum being well moderated, the same racism and misogyny that populate today’s comments sections was prevalent 30 years ago. And then, as now, you could fall very far down the rabbit hole of the internet’s highly personalized information feeds until conspiracy theories began to feel more real than the so-called facts.2
I have wonderful memories of that summer, and also traumatic ones. A few years ago, I ran into an old friend, who said of our high school, “It saved my life. But it also did a lot of other things.” So, too, with the internet.
These days, after drinking from the internet’s fire hose for 30 years, I’ve begun to feel more of those negative effects. I don’t know if it’s my age, or the fact that the internet is no longer plugged into the wall and now travels with me everywhere I go, but I find myself thinking of that Wordsworth poem that begins, “The world is too much with us; late and soon.”
What does it say that I can’t imagine my life or my work without the internet? What does it mean to have my way of thinking, and my way of being, so profoundly shaped by machine logic? What does it mean that, having been part of the internet for so long, the internet is also part of me?
My friend Stan Muller tells me that when you’re living in the middle of history, you never know what it means. I am living in the middle of the internet. I have no idea what it means.
I give the internet three stars.
. One of the weird solipsisms of American life, especially toward the end of the 20th century, was that the news almost never talked about the weather outside of the United States unless there was some natural disaster unfolding. I guess I should also say that it is still kind of cool that you can download the Apology of Socrates for free on the internet.
. I lived this experience, actually. In the early ’90s, I became entranced by something called the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which held that around 300 years of time between the 7th and 10th centuries never actually happened and were instead invented by the Catholic Church. I was originally turned on to this idea by one of those memes that is itself not sure whether it’s ironic. The conspiracy theory, which was pretty widespread at the time, held that I was really living not in the year 1993 but instead around 1698, and that a bunch of years had been faked so that the Church could … maintain power? The details of it escape me, but it’s amazing what you can believe when you’re down the rabbit hole.