At 13, it was the internet. I was excited to feed my desire for knowledge. I wanted to be an astronaut, so I spent hours behind the computer listening to the modem make it's musical sounds to connect me to a world where I could spend hours on the NASA website learning about the upcoming shuttle launch. I could also send electronic mail to my one other friend with the internet at home who also had electronic mail (also, she lived next door).
At 14, the hormonally charged teenager in me discovered my first online chatroom. It was on a website that allowed me to play chess online vs. other people who loved chess. I thought this was amazing. I met a guy at the University of Nebraska. We spent a year as pen pals, emailing back at forth. This seemed so extraordinary...I could talk to someone in NEBRASKA! I could tell him all those things I couldn't tell my parents and friends. In fact, I would tell him things I probably wouldn't tell anyone, I mean, he didn't really "know" me after all, right? After a year, I got bored of his stories of college life in Lincoln, and I'm sure he got bored of listening to me complain about how hard it was to be a 14-year-old girl. I mean, is there anything more difficult?
At 15, I discovered ICQ. Before MSN messenger, there was ICQ. I was in grade 10, but in Math 11 (a big deal in a small private school), and made all new grade 11 friends. The circle of us would talk online at night. We could have 3 conversations at the same time (UNBELIEVABLE!) and because we didn't have to say things to each other face we could be more honest, more cruel, and more intimate than any previous relationship I knew. Something about being behind the screen made me feel safe. It was a year of school night 4am ICQ chats when my parents were sleeping and I snuck into the computer room that led me to develop typing speeds in excess of 100 wpm. Of course, from time to time this sense of security would backfire. Someone might reference an online conversation at school, a friend found out her boyfriend was talking to someone else about their relationship drama, or someone would confess a secret that they would immediately regret the next day. The use of ICQ caused our relationships to blossom quickly - at least online. In class, it was like they didn't happen. We talked about Math. The Weather. Maybe the upcoming dance. For a year, I thought they were my best friends in the world. But none of these relationships lasted.
At 16 MSN replaced ICQ. The number of people chatting online increased - and they were making many of the same mistakes I made the previous years. People were divulging personal secrets left and right. Many joined different discussion groups and chats, sharing with strangers online their innermost thoughts and feelings. Being online magnified these feelings. If you were depressed, the chat rooms became a spiral to feed your depression. If you sought out advice on doing drugs or having sex, random strangers would tell you that you only live once, and then walk you through overly detailed or overly intimate experiences. Knowledge was being acquired at an enormous rate, but we lacked the ability to process it. We didn't know how to judge safe from unsafe situations or good from bad advice. By now everyone had email, and the novelty of writing long and personal letters began. It got worse when it was long and attacking emails to the friend you felt betrayed you. It's amazing how mean you can get when given time to draft, edit and improve the quality of your cruelty.
At 17 I was getting ready to graduate. We'd begun to settle into our world of email, online chatting and the information age. I did a lot of research for class projects and applied to college online. I started downloading music for the first time. I spent a lot of time educating my parents and grandparents, friends and extended family on the uses of the internet. I began to see the dangers in online conversations, and frequented MSN a little less. By 18 I was in University. It was only here that the internet because a source of email with professors, setting up group meetings, newsletters, online course registration and a slew of practical purposes. By now almost everyone had a story of a chat room conversation gone weird, a MSN chat that was super intimate, or an email that was sent to the wrong person, or accidentally (or purposely read by their roommate). It was at this point that we started to see that there may just be a problem with being online.
I could continue my story, into the world of IRC, personal websites, blogs, Facebook, twitter and into whatever comes next. But that isn't the point. The evolution of the online community started with an assumption that is was SAFE. That is was the appropriate place to vent without consequence. That it was a solution to our emotional strife. That we could be anonymous. That things could be private. But it's never been true. Through every phase of development we lost more and more of privacy and anonymity. We continue to give up a little more with every email and every website that we sign into via Facebook (Pinterest, Kayak, Voting for Dancing with the Stars....) And yet, I still watch teenagers and adults a like online venting about their friends, family, colleagues, boyfriend, girlfriend, coaches, teachers or mailman. They are sharing personal information about themselves and their emotional states. They get angry or hurt and act rashly, and need somewhere to do or say something. It seems making an emotionally charged statement online is the modern day equivalent of punching a wall. I need to do something permanent. I'm hurt. I'm angry. And I want to do something so big and bold that if for only one moment, I will have made a statement, garnered some pity, or at least feel something other than the misery I am feeling right now. We are all guilty of it. It may be an email response written back too quickly. A poorly decided tweet. A Facebook status you shouldn't have shared. A blog post written in haste. [If you have never made an emotional e-mistake, please comment below]. But the internet is not a safe place for this. Everyone is watching.
And the thing is that most of these moments will pass. Going for a run, curling up with a cup of tea, a good nights sleep will all help. Also healthy conversation with parties involved (if that is the nature) and seeking resolution with an open and fair mind is an appropriate set of actions. Personal journal writing or face-to-face dialogue with a spouse or close friend may help give you perspective. These are all good choices. But being emotionally charged, getting behind a keyboard, and typing is not going to help.
So here is my suggestion. When you are having a bad day, when you are hurt, upset, angry, frustrated, lonely or furious; if you have an issue with a parent, teacher, friend or loved one; if you are looking to hit a preverbal wall.....
Take a Twitter Timeout. Shut down the computer. Put away your phone. Turn off the iPad. Logout of Facebook. And take a self-imposed break. Cool down, reflect, run, sleep, eat, cry, work out, read a book, play with lego, take a photo, play with your sister, do your homework, bake some cookies or any other activity. Seriously.