A few leftover habits from when the internet was still a skill that could be learned.
The interview is over. I ask the director for her email so I can send her the reference I mentioned.
She blushes. Why? It turns out she still manages her professional communications via her decades-old Hotmail account. Among certain adults, this sort of internet faux pas tends to elicit an embarrassing response—not entirely unlike the reaction you might get after admitting you still live in your parents’ basement at age 32.
I make a confession that she finds instantly reassuring: not only do I also handle my business through Hotmail, but the address I use reveals a very awkward teenage attempt to come across as cool (firstname.lastname@example.org). How come I never got myself a Gmail account, like almost all of my cohorts in cultural journalism who, every week, make first impressions by email with the likes of writers, musicians, and filmmakers, who have shaped their careers out of good taste and professionalism? Because I’m lazy.
—The first song I ever downloaded on Napster was “Get Naked,” by Methods of Mayhem (the Tommy Lee rap-rock project that, a few years later, would go on to make Papa Roach look like the Beatles).
—My old mIRC username was dcobain (yes, for Kurt Cobain, obviously.)
—I had a MySpace page for a long time, but I’ve never had a Google+ page.
—The first interview of my career was with the manager of Polyson, a long-deceased record store in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec. I remember very clearly having asked him if he thought that developments in technology would throw a wrench in the future of CDs. (From what I hear, it didn’t turn out so well.)
I was 10 years old when I created that email account. That was the year I attended an “internet camp” organized by the Rouyn-Noranda municipal library for its younger members. Today, putting those two words together sounds like a throwaway idea for a comedy sketch, but in 1996 the internet was still considered a skill that could be learned, like pottery or Mandarin Chinese or knowing how to tie flies for fishing.
Over the course of a few dull Saturday afternoons, older teens from the area showed us how to send an email and use a search engine (AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo!: choose your weapon). Entire sessions were sometimes devoted to brainstorming strategies for unearthing interesting content. Even in its infancy, it was a laborious and complicated task to untangle the, well, web of information on the internet and find what we were looking for.
We also had to write articles at internet camp—articles we would post online ourselves. An early introduction to the world of unpaid labour: perhaps the universe was trying to warn me against the precariousness of my future life as a freelancer, but I was too busy waiting for my photos of Dave Grohl to download to pay any mind to that.
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The tips we gleaned from our counsellors would turn out to be completely useless when, many years later, I had to teach myself how to get over the disappointment of having only received a handful of likes for a post on which I’d spent a tremendous amount of energy.
They would be made even more irrelevant when a violent spontaneous combustion event eventually incinerated all of the MP3s I had carefully collected over a span of 10 years, provoking an odd and unfamiliar sense of loss.
My friends’ exes: to block or not to block them from my social networks? Posting the same joke on Facebook and Twitter: tolerable or reprehensible? How often can I change my profile picture without coming off as a hopeless narcissist?
No one would have known how to answer these questions at internet camp.
In the beginning, the web was not yet as atmospheric as it is today. The web was a place we visited, as in “I’m going to the store.” As in, “I’m going online.”
I once interviewed a legendary writer in her nineties who, in attempting to draw up a list of her hobbies, stated: “I like going on the computer.” I had to tighten my face muscles to keep from giggling. Although touching, this manner of speaking is diametrically opposed to the apathy and occasional adrenaline rush that we’ve come to associate with spending time with technology since those early exploratory years. I have a hard time remembering what life was like before the web. But I do remember that in the beginning, the web was not yet as atmospheric as it is today. The web was a place we visited, as in “I’m going to the store.” As in, “I’m going online.”
And so I guess my first experiences using the internet boiled down to the vague but exhilarating impression that I was going somewhere—like I was going on a trip every time I typed in h t t p colon forward-slash forward-slash w w w…
Internet camp ended when the summer of 1996 rolled around. For the next few months, my generous mother would let me spend an hour behind a computer at the municipal library, where I’d browse to collect the meagre (but precious) information the web then held about my heroes: the hosts of Québec’s version of MTV, MusiquePlus.
Late last year, music critic Claude Rajotte liquidated his sprawling collection of compact discs. I often justify my own ridiculously excessive purchases by telling myself over and over again that tons of music was never pressed on LP, and that I’ll be vindicated one day when Apple and Spotify go bankrupt or decide to bar our collective access to their databases. I’ve been known to pseudo-theorize like a post-musical-apocalypse survivalist too.
My newly acquired second-hand CD library, salvaged from a fire sale held by my childhood idol, was thus destined for the same fate as the web pages my mother allowed me to print out at the Rouyn-Noranda municipal library (for 10 cents a page!) and which I archived in a binder when I got back home.
This is perhaps the image I would use to convey to my kids (or anyone who would never know what life was like without the possibility of re-re-re-re-watching Prince’s solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on YouTube) just how bewildering our maiden voyages on the internet really were: a 10-year-old kid bringing home pieces of the web on sheets of letter-sized paper from the centre of town.
Once upon a time, there was a guy who was watching his favourite band perform, and who, between the opening band and the headliner, was unfortunate enough to check his social media notifications. In the comments under an article he wrote, a troll had posted a snarky comment, aggressively calling his journalistic integrity into question. Sweet words from his girlfriend, a shot of whiskey at the bar, there was nothing to be done: the evening was ruined.
Once upon a time, there was a guy who sometimes forced himself not to listen to a new album by a band he liked on Spotify—who would wait until he got home to sit comfortably down with the vinyl—without being able to adequately identify any real point to this little game at all. Once upon a time, there was a guy who wondered whether it was the internet’s infinite stream of content that had made a dent in his enthusiasm for finding new music or whether it was simply a by-product of turning 30. Once upon a time, there was a guy who’d been checking his smartphone for the past several minutes, without really knowing what he was looking for. Without really knowing, either, how the thrill of going on a trip had given way to such hollow boredom.
Dominic Tardif was born in 1986 in Rouyn- Noranda and now lives in Montréal. He contributes to various publications, including Le Devoir, and has often been heard on air on ICI Première.
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