Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Guest Blogger Erica Watson: Why I’m Not Ashamed to Love the Internet

I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to blog again (and you’re not done with me yet, since March has a fifth Wednesday and I have a minor injury that will keep me sedentary for a little while, so I agreed to take it on). Thank you to 49 Writers for the change to get into blogging again, which has inspired some reflection on my own relationship with the medium.

In junior high, before the internet was something most people knew or thought much about, I’d make one of my best friends sit and listen to me read from my journal. We’d already covered most of the documented territory in more conversational form, but I wanted her to hear the written version: raw, unedited, crowded with the run-ons and long parentheticals that still plague me. This was not an exchange of any kind; she didn’t, nor did she wish to read me her murkily constructed secrets. Sometimes she groaned. Often she made excuses to go home earlier than what I knew was her family’s dinner time. This was very much something I did to her (and may have had something to do with the eventual strain in our friendship.) My journal was not interesting. There were boys and questions about God and extraterrestrial life (often conflated), and I had nothing of what I might now call “voice” that was not directly borrowed from Anne Frank or Anais Nin (how does a pubescent American know what a diary should sound like?), but I was determined to have an audience, and she resented being cast in that role.

The advent of blogging made an audience more attainable through means other than coercion. I’m simultaneously proud and embarrassed to say I was blogging before “blogging” was a word; they were called “online journals,” I was fifteen, and my first was hosted by angelfire.com and read by three or four college-aged strangers who gave me great validation by linking me back on their own sites: social media circa 1998. I inserted myself into their community of writers deliberately and as forcefully as a teenager with limited HTML skills could. And I succeeded. For a time, we linked and referenced each other’s posts about mundane and mildly humorous topics: awkward moments on either end of customer service. Family interactions. Animal poop. I tried to veer away from any topics that would overtly reference high school. The anonymity was freeing; I was sillier, more crass, less angry on the young internet than I was in daily life.

That was the first of several online journals I had on host sites that are now defunct (edit: diaryland.com is still out there, and people are still using it; apologies if you are one of them). During college, I settled into a blog that, though it’s been imported from blogger to wordpress, is still alive and kicking, though I’ve stopped writing in it much, due to the shift to Facebook, taking myself somewhat more seriously as a writer, and a few incidents involving misunderstandings with the federal government. As I slowly transition that site from traditional blog to something resembling a professional website (and if you’ve followed the link from here, you’ve seen that it’s a work in progress), it’s been interesting to see how the purpose and the audience has shifted over the years. For me, the opportunity to write for and be accountable to an audience, even if for years the audience was only three friends, my mom, and some lurking government officials (though these categories are not mutually exclusive), was invaluable in removing some of the fear and mystery of sharing less-than-perfect work.

I read something recently suggesting that social media has turned its users into cyborgs, who physically wake up and tend to our digital selves before our own physical needs. This is obviously a creepy prospect. But I can’t deny my own warm and fuzzy associations with its creative potential.

It’s intriguing to recognize the nostalgia I feel for something like an outdated website—something that isn’t a real person, place, or thing, yet made a certain sort of expression possible. For all the negatives about technology, I have mostly fond memories of being in places of relative geographical or emotional isolation and sharing or connecting with others through these media. Angelfire, I’ll always be grateful for you.

Anyone else have aspects of social media autobiography to share?  

Erica Watson is an essayist living on the boundary of Denali National Park. She completed her MFA in nonfiction at UAA in 2014. Her work has appeared most recently in PilgrimageThe Fiction Advocate, and Denali National Park’s Climate Change Anthology, and she is a recipient of a fellowship to Fishtrap’s summer 2016 program. She will eventually update her website at ericawatson.wordpress.com.

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