I grew up online. Not my entire life, but most of my formative years. I’m not sure if this makes me Gen Y or Millenial or part robot, but it’s what I’m used to. I wanted to share the impact this has had on my life and friendships I’ve had through the years.
Let’s take a quick trip back to 1997 America Online. I remember this commercial, I’m sure you do too. Or at least one like it. They advertised connecting with anyone in an instant. I was a kid who watched a lot of Nickelodeon and they’d always advertise “use AOL Keyword: ‘Nick’ to access all things Nickelodeon!” I begged my parents to get AOL, because I thought I was missing out on some crucial Rugrats funtimes that everyone else in the world had.
We lived in Latrobe, PA at the time and I still remember the first time I connected to the internet using AOL. I was 9, and had little to no idea what I was doing. I just wanted to log on and type keyword “Nick” and get cool things. Side note: I don’t think I ever used AOL Keyword again and if you know what the selling point of using that was, LMK. My first screen name was “MnEm8” which was a direct ripoff of two of my other friends Eminem-related screen names. At this time, chat rooms were still being advertised as a fun and safe place to find like minded people. I joined several ~NSYNC FOREVER~ chat rooms and I remember the thrill of connecting to strangers about interests we both shared. I was hooked.
The following year I moved to Lancaster, PA and was starting 6th grade at my new school. My first day, I repeatedly was asked for my screen name. At the time, my screen name was Hannahspark28, which begged the question if my name was Hannah or Katie. It was an interesting anecdote, and one that pledged my allegiance to my REAL BEST FRIENDS back in Latrobe. That group of girls that all had the Eminem screen names, we also were in a “band” a la the Spice Girls. We were the Tulips and borrowing from 2gether (our favorite boy band) we had alter ego names. My band name was Hannah, and all of our screen names followed the formula: fake name + sparkly verb + a combination of 2 and 8. For example, two of the other screen names were mindiglitz28 and mandiglam8. Regardless, our screen names were a badge of honor—a symbol of our friendship. And no matter what school I went to, my real friends were accessible online.
I kept in touch with those girls not via the phone, or text messages, but exclusively through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Enough that we still visited each other, and our friendships remained in tact. Time passed, and we fell out of touch as I got settled into my new surroundings and new friend groups, but it wasn’t easy to make new friends—and I am grateful for the transition period of holding onto those old, familiar friendships. I shed my Hannah alter ego and emerged Katie831.
The Joys of Teen Angst
By this time, I had moved again. We moved to a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. This was at the end of my 8th grade year, and making new friends was really hard. Interestingly enough, at this time I was a cheerleader. I like to say I had a Janis Ian transformation that summer, where I had no friends and dyed my hair black and emerged in high school a mall goth. The truth was, I did have friends. I had online friends. A lot of my friends in Lancaster had gotten on Xanga, where we’d blog mundane thoughts about our days. I joined Xanga, and this was the first time that I had connected with friends that I hadn’t actually talked to in real life. I found friends of friends, and we all started following each other. It felt safe, because I knew who they were. I knew we used to go to the same middle school. Now that we understood the dangers of those online chat rooms of my youth, I was a little smarter about stranger danger. Xanga was the first avenue that I felt I was myself online, creating my own online persona. I could be that goth-y girl, writing angsty posts, and project that image online. And meet like-minded angsty kids, sharing music back and forth. I heard of many new bands solely because of Xanga. I still keep in touch with one of my Xanga friends, we’ve visited each other several times over the years.
Around the time of my sophomore year of high school, Myspace started ramping up. My best friend had her first real boyfriend, who she met online—though in a neighboring city, so they actually hung out. Her boyfriend told us to get on Myspace, so we did. Kyle, that online boyfriend of hers, later went on to be one of my friends later in life when I moved for my first job—and we’re still good friends today. Some of my first Myspace friends, complete strangers in my area with like-minded interests—are people I still see around today, still catching up with when we run into each other. My Xanga friends stayed connected on Myspace. I met my first real boyfriend on Myspace. I met most of my high school best friends on Myspace. I wasn’t confined to only being friends with all the ~preps~ at my high school, I could expand to the network of other weirdos around Columbus. We went to shows together. I found new bands on Myspace. Everyone knew each other. It was a beautiful, online and offline community.
Myspace started to decline my freshman year of college. Facebook had begun ramping up. My Myspace was still is a melting pot of new, weird college friends and old high school Myspace and Xanga friends. The social buzz had largely moved over to Facebook, where I was able to keep in touch with my high school friends as I navigated art school. If I met a person at a party, it was too forward to ask what their number is—but not too forward to ask if they’re on Facebook. Facebook was different, though, in that I wasn’t finding new friends online. This was mostly used for my established network of friends, and simply maintaining those relationships. It was fine, I figured the internet friendship had served its purpose in my life, and I was now a functioning college student with some solid friendships.
Professional Online Friendships
My junior year of college, I was forced onto Twitter by a few of my friends. I didn’t quite “get it”—and it felt cold. I didn’t know many people on there, I didn’t know how to find new connections. It laid dormant for the better part of that year.
The end of my senior year of college, as I was starting to get serious about a career in design, I started following big names like Jessica Hische and Jon Contino. I found more designers to follow. And then more. Soon, I had a really interesting resource at my hand full of designer news, and Twitter grew on me. I used Twitter to reach out to potential jobs, I used Twitter to internet creep future employers. Twitter was a tool that wielded immense power if used correctly. I started working at Happy Cog because of a Swiss Miss tweet.
At Happy Cog, I worked in the Austin office. When we switched to teams, I was the only person on my team in the Austin office. I lived and worked online. I loved my team members, and we grew incredibly close. They felt like some of my closest friends, even though we had only spent a couple of days together in person. I honestly believe we were able to maintain that fluidity and closeness in our work, remotely over the internet because 3 of us grew up in this age of internet-friendships.
I’ve made a bunch of incredible professional friendships over Twitter. I can go to conferences, and still meet online friends offline. I just experienced this last week at ConvergeSE and Generate. It’s such an amazing feeling. Now, Slack seems to be the new internet connecting tool. I have a Slack with 3 of my best friends, and we talk to each other almost every day. Two are in Austin, and one in Philadelphia. We get to meet up sometimes, but I don’t feel like we are any less close by not being in the same city. I am in a Slack with a group of wonderful women in tech, where we talk about everything from makeup to career advice. We get to meet at conferences and different events, and it’s like we’ve always been friends. I have a Slack to meet new people talking about web performance, that I started with my podcast co-host who I met on Twitter. Slack is really amazing for fostering these connections. Twitter is really great for facilitating these connections.
Thank You For Being a Friend
My rollercoaster of online personas and friendships have been a major part of my life, and people will continue to come along for the ride. I still love to make new friends on Twitter, or at least to maintain casual acquaintances on there. I love having online friends, especially as an introvert that prefers to stay indoors. Luckily, it’s becoming less and less weird to say “this is my friend from Twitter!” versus the days when I’d shamefully try to describe my Xanga friendships.
I don’t know what my life would be like without these online connections. My online friends have been there when I’ve needed someone most. They’ve supported me, they’ve been honest with me, they’ve listened to me, and I love them all. They’re some of the best friends I’ve ever had, because it’s not always easy to connect with people in your surroundings. It’s important to remember all that the internet and these social tools have done for us. It’s easy to get caught up in the trolls, the negativity, the backlash, and the hurtful words. But at its core: the internet has been the spine of my social circle. I’ve done what those 1997 commercials promised I’d do: connected with people in an instant. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.