Living In The Beautiful Bubble Of The Not-Quite Internet

When I started college in 1999, the digital revolution was in its awkward infancy. That awkwardness gave rise to moments of lovely serendipity — and pockets of blissful ignorance.

There was a guy who occupied most of my thoughts through the first semester of college. He lived upstairs, in the only single in the entire dorm. He had chestnut hair and the muscled arms of a rock climber. He was the first person I saw, really saw and locked eyes with, when I arrived on campus. He was helping someone hang a tapestry on their wall. Of course: This was 1999.

He had a long wall of CDs in his dorm room, and he introduced me to the soundtrack from The Piano, which I downloaded from the shared Ethernet that connected every music library in the 200-person dorm. He never answered his dorm phone. His AOL Instant Messenger username was his initials (ATM) plus his birth year (80). He never chatted but was always online, his yellow dot teasing me with inactivity.

The real way to get his attention, which I always wanted but only fitfully received, was through email, sent the way we all sent email on campus: telnet. It was black and white, devastatingly simple, with one-letter commands to delete, forward, reply. You couldn’t attach photos, at least not without a great to-do; you couldn’t use bold, or italics, or underline. The best feature was a secret widely told: FINGER.

You’d type in the command on the telnet homescreen, and then the six-letter username of the person you were trying to, uh, finger (the first four letters of the last name + first initial + middle initial). And then the screen would proffer the best/worst thing a lovesick college freshman could ever want: the date, time, and location from which person-in-question had last logged into their email account.

In effect: stalking. In practice: just wondering if someone had opened up that very finely crafted but very casual three-sentence email you’d sent. (Usually: not yet.) But Finger wasn’t just for crushes; you could use it to pinpoint which computer lab someone was in, or figure out if someone was back on campus after break, or, as my friend did junior year, figure out that the guy you were dating wasn’t actually still living on a beach in Thailand, but using an IP address somewhere in rural Montana!

Finger was a precursor to current technologies like texting, read receipts, and GPS tracking that now fully structure our daily interactions. But 1999 was a sort of limbo land, with just enough digital tools to affect — but not transform — our analog understanding of what a relationship, an interaction, or a friendship meant.

In 1999, the internet was not yet real life. 

In 1999, the internet was not yet real life. The way we were online was not yet who we were, which is to say that most of what we did in the digital world (emailing, using very slow web browsers) did not yet have a direct effect on the physical one. Your offline identity and your online identity, if you even had one, had yet to merge.

These nascent digital technologies, in other words, were contained and controlled: There was internet in the dorms, maybe even Ethernet, but no Wi-Fi — which meant you stayed tethered to your desktop. There was Napster and file-sharing, but it was slow and legally fraught. There was AIM and ICQ, but both required sitting in front of a computer. Websites took forever to load; the distances you traveled online were shorter and far more difficult to navigate. There were few, if any, cell phones — especially not in public spaces. You had wireless phones, but still used phone cards. There were DVDs, but they were shelved alongside VHS tapes; there were Winamp playlists and burned CD mixtapes, but intermixed with actual CDs.

There was no social media, or cell phone cameras — or, for that matter, digital cameras or video recorders. There was no Google Maps; there wasn’t even Google. Computers and the early internet had made life, in some ways, easier, but they had yet to make it substantively different. Finger told me something, but it didn’t even come close to telling me everything.

There was something playful and magical about this demi-connectivity, like having a new toy you loved, but knew you could put down at any minute. And for a small sliver of the population, including me, this period overlapped with college: one of the times when you experience (and nostalgize) connections most powerfully. It makes sense that those of us who experienced this convergence are a group without a real generation. Too young to be Gen X, too old to be millennials, sometimes called Generation Catalano or the Oregon Trail Generation, just hanging out on our island of internet-before-the-internet-was-really-internet.

Let me tell you, though: That island was sick. On weekends, if you were looking for your friends, or a guy, or more beer, or a massive plate of nachos, you’d just...walk around until you found them. Sometimes that meant ducking into one of the 24-hour computer labs to check for an email, sent from a random frat basement bedroom on a Gateway that was always running, never password-protected.

Or you’d write specific directions on the whiteboard on your door — "4-6: Library, 6-8: Movie, 8-Whenever, PARTY AT PHI HOUSE" — which would quickly become embroidered with sloppy “HI I MISSED YOU AT MIDNIGHT” cat-scratch in a different-colored marker, stolen from the door down the hall.

The best way to get people in one place at one time was an email to the Listserv. Listservs went to the entire dorm floor, to a class, to the entire campus. My college was relatively small (1,200, give or take), but that is a preposterous amount of people to receive your lost-and-found email, your political rant, your drunken exposition on which sorority girl ran over your Frisbee in her red Land Cruiser. The threads would swell, but were somehow always contained — and lacked the performative aggression that’s become the norm for so much online communication today. After the annual barely clothed Beer Mile, when dozens of people sent campus-wide emails wondering about the location of misplaced items, a drunken group sent an email from a friend’s account: “I lost my virginity at the Beer Mile, has anyone seen it?” Everyone, the girl included, laughed and laughed: how clever, how hilarious. It was a violation of sorts, but it was contained among friends, among classmates.

A friend of mine once bought a keg for her house of five girls, didn’t tell a soul, and waited for the party to come to her. It did.

Listservs led the party agenda, but most meet-ups were serendipitous. A friend of mine once bought a keg for her house of five girls, didn’t tell a soul, and waited for the party to come to her. It did. Walking down a hallway, ostensibly looking for someone, you’d find a group of people, listening to some song you liked, and disappear into the cocoon of the room for an hour or the entire night, like a beer-scented wormhole.

Fewer songs on demand meant a smaller, ever-looping soundtrack to college. In the basement where I hung out the most, playing beer pong and watching others play beer pong, the only two reliable CDs were Dre’s 2001 and a country mix heavy on Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. Our home computers had more expansive collections, but public spaces were still dependent on the fixity of CDs, the ability for anyone to go hit “skip” when a song came on that you knew reminded your best friend of her breakup.

There was no Netflix, so you rented a DVD from the library and made out during the second half of Casino, but only if you were lucky enough to have a desktop computer with a DVD drive. Or you waited until your friend’s mom mailed all the episodes of Ally McBeal that she’d taped on VHS and then watch them, huddled together on the gross cushions of the dorm’s shared TV room, fast-forwarding through the grainy commercials.

Today, we expect college kids to be in the vanguard of media consumption and the creation of cool, but back then, we were a black hole: hanging out with the stuff we brought in with us, but discovering and adding very little. No one got magazines; review websites took forever to load. Without social media, we were only performing our limited cultural taste for the other people in our isolated corner of rural Washington state.

Our fashion was equally locked in time. We were still at least a year away from being able to easily order clothes online, so any clothes you owned were the stuff you brought from home or what you purchased at the small, claustrophobic Macy’s in town, filled with last year’s fashions. One short velvet prom dress got worn to so many formal dances by so many different people that it’s unclear now whose, exactly, it was. The only evidence is photos, taken on our cheap Vivitars and Canons, with clanky, two-setting zoom lenses. We’d take the film to Safeway and wait days for doubles of our prints, which we’d sort through with great ceremony, distributing the best among friends.

Each photo was taken with great discretion: A group of girls with their faces smushed close got one shot, not 20 redos. Selfies were nearly impossible, so you were always dependent on others to get your good side. If you looked at an entire roll of photos, most of them would be shit (red-eye, closed eyes, bad lighting), but we’d pick out the most flattering ones and plaster them on our doors, our walls, in picture frames. That’s how we signified fun and social connection before Facebook and Instagram were there to make it look prettier, with better lighting.

When someone did something stupid, like “surf” an old mattress out a second-story window down into the bushes, or host a jello slip ’n’ slide, there was no roomful of iPhones waiting to document it. Just our own anecdotes, polished like precious stones. If you looked good or had a great time at a party, the only people who knew it were the other people at that party. No one was glued to their phone, scrolling through Twitter; no one was texting someone about where to meet them; no one was saying “call me later and we’ll figure out plans,” because you just made plans and followed through on them. It was a life of immediacy, of presence, of now.

Or at least that’s the story we like to tell ourselves. Our unmediated lives slowly became infiltrated with gadgets: A friend came back to school in 2002 with a digital camera, and suddenly, with hundreds of photos of each event, all of our exploits seemed a lot more banal. Freshmen showed up to parties at our house and loitered outside the door when we told them there were no cell phones allowed, but we knew it was a losing war.

Our lack of connection with the outside world only exacerbated the bubble feeling of an expensive, mostly white liberal arts college. People didn’t see anything wrong with throwing parties with themes like “White Trash” or “Pimps and Hos” because we had no mirror to reflect them, and their warped Othering, back at us — or an online audience to call them out. That bubble is part of why I had best friends who were women but wasn’t really introduced to feminism, let alone intersectionality, until grad school; why emailing “I lost my virginity at the Beer Mile” from a friend’s email account was fucked up but no one said so; why many of those friends had sexual encounters that treaded the line of consent — except that we hadn’t learned the language to name it as such.

In the transitional digital world, it was much harder for people from backgrounds that weren’t white and middle-class to find out about a school like ours in the first place. There’s a reason it was nicknamed White-Man College. And while there were certainly conversations happening on campus about gender, sexuality, race, class, and sexual assault, they felt like discrete issues, disarticulated from the systemic issues of oppression, exclusion, and power.

Constant connectivity can feel exhausting and distracting, a portal to an never-ending cyclone of stuff, of everything-always-happening-all-the-time. There are days I yearn for a time when the most I could know about a person’s online history was the last IP address they used to check their email. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to wait — for the train, in line for groceries, at the doctor’s office — with only the quiet pulse of my own thoughts for company.

Today, disconnection is for those with the privilege — and accumulated power — to afford it.

Those experiences are still possible, of course. They just involve a modicum of willpower, which is something that, as a college student, I didn’t have all that much of. I don’t envy all the ways that students today experience distraction, all the streaming options and texts and homework assignments competing in the attention economy. But with those distractions comes exposure: to viewpoints, lived experiences, and ideologies that are not your own, that challenge and sophisticate your understanding of the world — and underline the notion that college is a time for figuring out who you are, but also figuring out that the things you say and do have real ramifications for the world and others around you. Today, disconnection is for those with the privilege — and accumulated power — to afford it.

Part of what made 1999 so blissful for me and my friends was being sequestered in a safe, consequence-free corner of the world where we, the chosen ones of a liberal arts education, could live with very little direct challenge or sustained self-interrogation.

I miss telnet; I miss Finger; I miss that guy and whiteboards and bad VHS tapes and the anticipation of opening a new packet of photos. But I don’t miss the feeling that the world I could see and know firsthand was the only world, and experience, that mattered.

This is part of a series of essays on the year 1999; you can check out the other stories here.

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