I often wonder who I would be without the internet – because in some ways, it feels like the internet has shaped everything I am, and given me everything I have.
That might sound hyperbolic, but I’ve made an overwhelming number of friends online, built an entire company that puts things online, and my current career simply wouldn’t exist without the platform overlords. So to say my relationship with the internet is fraught is really only the beginning.
My earliest memories of the internet were of the days that “the internet” lived on a floppy disk. I’ve always been somewhat impatient, so at that time the internet didn’t really compel me. It was clunky, annoying, made an awful noise, and the mechanics of getting online and then being booted off because someone needed to get on the phone were just irritating. I was happier to dawdle in Microsoft Paint. My parents both worked in finance, and then tech – and are on the younger side, so early adoption has always kind of been a family thing: we are somehow always willing to suspend our disbelief and think technology can have inherent goodness, even though in practice it proves the opposite quite often. Once we moved to the Bay Area so both my parents could fully embrace working in tech is when more of my internet based memory comes to play.
I was around 8 or 9 years old when we got a DSL line. Around that time, more and more of my elementary school’s instruction began to ask us to research things online and produce Powerpoints (?!) to report back to the class. I’m not quite sure why a 9 year old needs to master Powerpoint, and I remember despising having to make Powerpoints. Throughout my academic career they were my most despised deliverable and now I work in an industry that operates on decks. If there’s ever a story about me as a child that feels like an indicator of who I am as an adult, it’s this: I would always get in trouble in elementary school because I refused to set my papers and reports in Times New Roman. I found the font ugly and somehow always wanted to use Arial (which is equally ugly, but go off.) It’s at this point in my life that the internet went from something I could opt out of to something that was inextricably linked to doing things correctly and successfully. It was no longer about just doing the worksheet or the homework, it was about navigating the internet successfully enough to get them done.
More of that followed through middle school, with my school building a computer lab and more and more of the resources for school moving online. Around this time came the first smartphones, and came the dawn of the internet as a social medium. Kids around me were getting AIM, texting, etc – it was simply just what you did to maintain a social life that wasn’t mediated by your parents. My parents had a reactionary period around this time, where we didn’t really have cable and we weren’t allowed to use the internet for anything other than school, so to some extent, thankfully, I missed some of the earliest Internet horror stories. At the time it felt oppressive, but I think we all have enough of our former digital selves to be embarrassed by, so I’m happy to have forcibly been opted out of those years.
My present journey with the internet really begins in high school – I got my Facebook account right before I started high school. I was one of the first people I knew to get an Instagram. Around this time, I began to understand the internet in two ways – one, as a social medium and way to connect with the people around me, and two as a conduit for new opportunities. The entire blogosphere was forming at this point, and the idea that you could build a successful business by just posting what you like online felt… compelling. I’m not quite sure exactly when this idea that the internet was a place of possibility inspired me to start a fashion blog, but I did. The blog never really took off (mostly because I wasn’t really into it like that or doing it out of some greater mission) but some of my other social channels did, and that’s when I began to understand the basics of digital publishing and what it takes to make things go further, faster on the internet.
That time period online was objectively wild. That one summer where all celebrities were losing their minds on Twitter? Golden. It felt revolutionary that we could speak to people who had always been behind PR and a carefully mitigated press tour, and tell them how we feel. The voyeurism the internet allowed us slowly began to help us (and me!) realize that celebrities are just… you and me. With more money.
It’s also the time where all of us (even if we’re loath to admit it) moved from the practice of “going” online to constantly being and refashioning ourselves online. Our real lives became an actual second life, represented digitally. It honestly felt like a natural cultural progression after reality TV to meticulously produce our own realities. In real life what was just a moment that felt amusing could be produced to an internet saga that amassed a sizable following. I wasn’t really the coolest kid in high school, and the internet was a portal into a place where people actually liked me, and that was potent: the 4 or so inches of the screen in my hand showed me another life where that was possible and was in some ways, a lifeline, a promise for a better life. That was my reality TV self – someone who was liked.
One of my social channels amassed thousands of followers, and that followed me into college. In my several years on social media, I had made a shit ton of Internet friends, and many of them lived in New York. When I got here, thankfully I had a network of incredible people on the other side of my iPhone. Technology had delivered on its promise. It’s in this time that I was in college that I really experienced the darker underbelly of the internet. You name it, I’ve been through it. At the time my social media channels were experiencing explosive growth, I was at my unhappiest. It’s funny how that works – but there is really nothing to tweet about when you’re happy.
As the darker undercurrent of the internet happened, I walked away. For a few months I didn’t have anything besides a Facebook. I didn’t really enjoy this - because I wasn’t opting out willingly, it felt like I was being forced to opt out. Even though the internet had harmed me, I desperately wanted it back so I could speak to my friends. But the time off was necessary, and I’m glad I opted out, reflected, and eventually returned. It ultimately helped me connect with myself more deeply. I had spent so long trying to connect with others that I had lost who I was and am in the process.
And then gradually, we got to where we are now. In the transition from having a full-time job to becoming an independent consultant to ultimately a founder, I’ve realized I do have to be a little more public-facing. Otherwise, people don’t really get what I (and we, as a consultancy are about.) For a while, this just felt confusing and slightly unfair – I shouldn’t really have to post what I think and feel to be seen as “good” at what I do, but now I just accept it for what it is. I’ve made peace with it in some ways through reframing and reorienting what I’m posting about. At this point, what I try to share online is stuff I find genuinely funny or interesting or beautiful – and when I do write, I write with the goal of sharing knowledge or just being the me I needed when I was younger.
I don’t see the internet becoming a smaller part of my life anytime soon, I run an internet based business, my entire team works remotely. My family lives 2,500 odd miles away. It’s what allows me to speak to everyone I love and care about and collaborate with. And yet, I constantly fantasize about turning my phone off and running away. Being thoroughly unreachable feels like an act of revolution, amongst a sea of emails, Slacks, DMs, and iMessages. I actually turned my phone off for a night last week and it was the first time I’ve experienced true quiet in a decade.
The last few years we have seen such a rapid acceleration in the amount of (quite frankly) absolute shit we’re subject to online, a disgusting Baudrillardian hyperreality, and a roller coaster I constantly want to get off. The same platforms that I looked at with love and possibility are the ones I despise for their god-like power of fashioning our reality, warping perceptions, and enabling evil. But these evil platforms have given me my entire career – I don’t quite know what I would be doing with my life without them, really. At some point the “unreal” internet perfectly collapsed onto my reality, and everyone else’s.
The internet has throughout periods of my life, someone represented a lifeline – and that only feels more true now. As we as a global community live through this pandemic, the internet is the thing that connects us to one another in the time of social distance. In the last few weeks the magic of the old Internet has come back – we’re actually connecting instead of just curating impeccable realities, and that feels so good. I sit here and often wonder if that will stick, or if we’ll go back to performing our internet selves as normal as soon as we’re able to leave our homes and change out of sweats.
I know that my personal history with the internet is a privileged one. I have always been able to access the internet and use it for my benefit, but that isn’t everyone’s reality. And it’s not just about access – it’s also the fact that whether you’re online or not (by choice or otherwise), you’re living in a world that is being rewritten by platform capitalism and platform politics. The last few years have simply proven that time and time again. At some point, we’ll have to negotiate the distance between the internet and our reality, and I’m not sure where to start.
For now, I just fantasize about what seems like the truest luxury – logging off.
Name: Nikita Walia
Occupation: Founder – BLANK
@ name: @nikitaontheinternet//@firstname.lastname@example.org
First time online: Age 6