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19 years of social media usage from one elder Millennial

At the age of 15, I was desperate for a means of connection beyond the subdivision inside suburban north Tucson. This was 1997. I learned about ICQ, something that I now regard as the skeleton of modern social media. It was basically just a chat platform that allowed anonymity and granular user searches within standalone software. Ubiquitous it was back then, and it has managed to maintain a user base, but now most people just use Facebook.

After moving from the promised land of Santa Barbara to a god forsaken Tucson subdivision, I became a social recluse at 13. That 32-bit chat box was the whole universe for me: ICQ and air conditioning were my best friends.

Classic ICQ screenshot
Classic ICQ screenshot circa 2000

The notion of personal profiles and making friends is at the core of all social media. LiveJournal, invented by someone my age, would enter the scene in 1999, uniting profiles with basic content publishing tools. I never used it, but it remains popular in Russia.

Sharing audio and video online was very difficult. People traded cassettes by mail, online. I remember exchanging handwritten letters with a girl in Sierra Vista, enclosing real film photos inside paper envelopes. SnapChat was far from an idea yet and sexting was relegated to ICQ. I knew people that found their spouse there.

Another great way to pass the time on 56K dial-up was to build websites on GeoCities. Building a personal homepage was widely popular, as were fan sites. It was a place that gave 5MB of free storage and an HTML box to play in, for free. For a teenage nerd in 1997, this was like a sandbox to a little boy. I built odes to my favorite TV shows: Seinfeld and Dr. Katz. I joined a Seinfeld Webring, to get my site noticed and to join a community. Webrings are basically curated groups of sites on a single topic. They, too, still exist, but few use them.

Example of Seinfeld Webring Circa 1998
I remember joining this Seinfeld Webring circa 1998

Times were different. To get audio from Seinfeld on the web, I had to sample it. It required commitment: Grab the cassette boombox and bring it to the television; put the mic up real close, press record, and press play on the VHS tape that recorded the show; bring the boombox to the desktop computer microphone and open up the Windows 95 audio recorder on the telephone preset, because it will not fit on a floppy disc otherwise; upload it at a snail’s pace; prepare the file for use exclusively with Realplayer.

People traded cassettes by mail, online.

Yahoo! acquired GeoCities in 1999 and discontinued the service ten years later, as 38 Million sites, many inactive, were digitally razed. Kyle Drake, one of my past podcast guests, relaunched a similar service called NeoCities, in 2013, with a call to “making the web fun again.” He compares Facebook to Soviet apartment blocks.

I know as the elder Millennial, my stories are the equivalent to trudging in the snow five miles to get to school with one shoe. But perhaps that is the gap between the youngest of my generation and myself. I remember the 80’s, a life without mobile devices or streaming on demand. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how politicians spoke before 9/11. The fact that our digitization has been extraordinary and life-changing has not proven to me to be a good thing. We live in a hyper-capitalist world of surveillance technology embedded into our increasingly co-dependent mobile devices that serve primarily as transmitters for consumer content.

But for me to ask the youngest Millennials to imagine life without the internet, it is the same as listening to my grandparents talk about life before freeways.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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