The internet has revolutionised everything. The way we eat, the way we shop and the way we communicate have all changed with the advent of the internet. Completely changed too are the ways we socialise, the way we learn and the way we grow up. Gone are the days of kids needing to flick through an ancient, dusty encyclopedia to figure out what the difference is between arteries and veins. They can take a tiny computer out of their pocket and ask Google with but a few taps of a screen. The internet is the part of the human existence now from the day babies are born. But people like me, Millennials, if that’s what you want to call us, had a very different experience to the generations both before and after us.
I was born in 1988, the same year founding father Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web. The two of us (that’s me and the internet, not me and TBL) have grown together and the internet was a huge part of my formative years. I got my first email address when I was about 11. I simulated AOL Live conversations on a word processor to persuade my mum I was ready to talk to strangers online. I put audio of me singing through a scratchy, low quality microphone on Myspace. I joined Facebook in my second year of sixth form and used it as a tool to share the mundane details of my life. Alice-May Purkiss is now seriously wondering why she felt the need to share what she had for dinner 12 years ago. Especially when it was just a bag of crisps.
But there was no other place that I felt more at home than on LiveJournal, where I hung out for many of my teenage years. Like most overly emotional pre-teens I was obsessed with the idea of a blogging platform. The fact that a space had been created through which I could share the unique and true depths of my complex and revolutionary feelings about the world in which I had found myself habiting, finally gave me a sense of purpose. It was like I had found my home. Yes. That was the style of every single post I ever wrote. Equally pretentious and preposterous, I positioned myself way, way above my station, like some modern day Sylvia Plath whose feelings were so over zealous they could not be contained in the vessel I called my body. But it was through those early ramblings that I found perhaps my most worthwhile skill, developed my writing and discovered what would eventually become a huge part of my life and career. But by god. There was an awful lot of honing involved.
I have always written but there’s no denying technology shaped the way I approached that. From my days of writing stories on my mother’s Fontwriter (somewhere in between a typewriter and a computer) not long after Tim Berners Lee had created the monster that would eventually become the internet, but before 4g, WiFi and Facebook was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, to deciding to pursue the written word as a branch of my career, words have made up a massive part of my existence. And LiveJournal was the seed from which the old twisted oak tree grew.
It started off fairly nondescript. My first blog was called – and I apologise in advance if this makes you sick in your mouth like it just did when I dredged it from the very depths of my memory – Likkle Rainbow. God only knows why I thought “little” needed to be spelled with the saccharine sweet K’s rather than, you known, the usual t’s, but I did. This first blog was around the time our internet was charged at a penny a minute and only useable after 6pm. Unless Mum was on the phone to Grandma, obviously. So I squirreled away hours when I wasn’t playing on Neopets, pre-writing the “blogs” in notebooks or on the word processor of the very first iteration of iMac (you know, the green ones that were shaped like an actual eye) then relentlessly copied them from paper to screen when I could access the internet.
LiveJournal was social media for beginners. It was a lesson in curating content before anyone had even thought of the word “Instagram”. Even before MySpace, with its penchant for forcing you to shoehorn your friends into a hierarchy of “the top 8” then “the other peasants you didn’t care as much about”, there were some of us who were carefully curating our blog design aesthetic, choosing images that represented ourselves and writing words to accompany those elements.
In the mid-noughties, rather than selecting which filter looks best with which version of the selfie you took 736 times for Instagram, there was a band of “Journallers” who were choosing which Dollz icon represented them best. Do you remember Dollz? Small cartoon icons which, with some basic coding ability could be personalised to look exactly like you – but with enormous anime eyes, teeny tiny waists, and jeans slung sufficiently low that there’d definitely be a whisper of lady garden should a real person wear them. They were the online iteration of Barbie – so fatefully ill-proportioned, should they ever come to life, they’d be unable to stand or walk. Or, apparently, dress without revealing their pubic hair.
But, weird proportioning and wardrobe choices aside, my Dollz icon was my online personality and curating that online personality became something I did long before I knew it would become what it is today. I spent hours considering whether I wanted my Dollz icon to represent me accurately, or show off the person I wanted to be on my LiveJournal. The cool, sophisticated wordsmith I saw 13 year old me as, or the dorky, antisocial, slightly emo kid I was. You can guess which one I chose.
But beyond allowing me to show off my personality through my choice of cartoon icon, LiveJournal gave me a platform from which I could write all the things that were in my heart and in my mind. I don’t remember what I wrote on LikkleRainbow, but I believed that I had something important to say and LiveJournal allowed me to do that.
As my hormones went into overdrive as puberty hit, I decided I had outgrown LikkleRainbow. No longer was I a girl for whom K’s needed to replace T’s. At 14, I had matured. I was deeper now, I had loved and I had lost and I had experienced so much of the world I needed to change my online persona to represent it. And so OpenHeart was created. A place where I felt I could truly be the realest version of myself without fear of recrimination – where I could open my heart and let the world see in. To be honest, looking back, I think I find the memories of OpenHeart much more cringeworthy and distressing than the decision to spell little incorrectly, but at the time it was the sort of safe space I needed.
But it didn’t come without its issues. I’ve always found writing things down makes me understand them better. Even now, at the age of 30, if I can’t figure out what’s going on in my mind, writing it out makes it clearer. That’s why I decided to blog my way through my entire the 10 months of treatment when i was diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 in 2015. But I have more wherewithal now than I did when I was younger.
I wrote about bomb scares and fires in the toilets. I wrote about being called names for wearing the wrong type of jeans in early noughties Yorkshire, if you wore tight trousers you were a townie and that was, apparently, a bad thing). And I wrote about friendships. Or rather, the tempestuous relationships I had with the other girls in my year.
Before I get into this, I think it’s important that I specify I am a woman who is very not OK with conflict. I avoid it at every cost. I am far from violent, and it is very, very rare I get angry these days. But the same could not be said for 16 year old me who was dealing with a surge in hormones, an unexpected family loss that threw me for a loop and very confused feelings about boys who were paying attention to ugly me. I would never have acted on any of the things I wrote about in the anecdote I’m about to tell you, but I was sufficiently cross to write about them in a public space.
Like every teen girl, I struggled with friends. I was awkward and uncomfortable in myself and I often took it out on other people. When I was 16, circa 2004, I used my LiveJournal as an outlet to talk about my hurt feelings when the other girls at school talked about me. I remember telling someone about my very first tingly feelings for a boy, in confidence, and her betraying that confidence to some of the popular girls in school, who then teased me about it.
I turned to LiveJournal to rant about her betrayal and in the style of dramatics to which I was prone, I went all out. I pounded my feelings of treachery out through the keyboard, unthinking of the circumstances, unashamed of my uncontrolled emotions. I ranted about violence and fury, revenge and my despair. It was more than an overreaction. It was the online equivalent to flipping the dining table after dropping my fork on the floor. I wrote about punching her, about seeing her suffer, about watching her in the pain she had created for me. I went a bit Teen Hulk to be honest.
I never named names, but to anyone reading who knew the people in school, it was obvious who I was writing about. And I got pulled up on it. As far as I remember, there were no teachers involved, but I remember a friend emailing me to tell me she was worried about the things I had said. She’d had her own tempestuous relations with the girl who had “betrayed my trust” but, she told me, “she’d never even dreamed of doing the things I had written about”.
So I deleted the post.
And then, in the harsh light of day when I realised I had gone a little bit OTT and my angst had got out of control, I deleted LiveJournal. I put an end to the part of my life where I wrote about the trials and tribulations I experienced as a mid-teen school girl on the crux of adulthood. And I started writing in notebooks that I kept secret. My love affair with LiveJournal was over, but my love of writing was only just beginning.
So what did those few years of LiveJournalling teach me? Well, first up, reflecting on it for this essay has reminded me that curating our online lives isn’t a new thing. Actually, we were curating our lives long before the internet even existed. Think of any classic story – Mr Darcey was not what he seemed in Pride and Prejudice. The image Severus Snape showed the world was not who he really was. The stories we tell the outside world very rarely reflect what’s going on inside, but while it has it’s foibles, the internet has created a space where we CAN be authentic, if we choose to be. It’s become a place where people can talk openly about their mental health, their physical health. They can talk about things that are difficult. They can talk about grief and death and sickness and relationship woes. In fact, more people are doing this now than ever before. We don’t want to see perfect lives on Instagram anymore. We want to see realness. Authenticity. Honesty. Admittedly, we often want to see these along with perfectly curated imagery, but we’re getting there. Baby steps.
Secondly, my LiveJournal days taught me that having a place where you feel like you belong is a crucial part of growing up and is essential for helping to figure out the world we live in. It doesn’t have to be online – maybe the young people today belong in rowing clubs or book clubs or science clubs. But the reality is that these days, any communities that are being created for young people are probably going to have an element of being online. And d’you know what? That’s no bad thing. I made an internet friend on LiveJournal and, while we aren’t close, we still talk. We still follow each other on social media. I still like pictures of her son on Instagram. She still likes pictures of my tattoos. We share something pretty unique. She was the person I asked what Dollz were called when I couldn’t remember as I started researching this essay. Young people need to find their people and, as long as they’re safe and smart (and they’re often smarter than we give them credit for), it’s OK if that’s online.
This reminiscence has also reiterated to me what a tough place the internet can be. While I was LiveJournalling, I also experienced what would now be called cyber bullying. Hate-filled, name calling emails. Shitty texts to my Nokia 3310 that buzzed when I was playing Snake II. The internet was a difficult enough place to exist when I was a kid, so it must be even more difficult now with the 24/7 approach to communication that exists. So educating our young people on how to make the internet a safe and positive place to exist is essential. And the good thing is, those who are having kids now, grew up with the internet. They get it. It’s not as new to them as it was to my generation’s parents. But it’s important that we arm the future generations with the tools they need to make the internet work for them. To make it a good place to be. To only follow people who make you feel brave and strong and powerful. And to know when to turn it off and walk away if they need to.
As I sit writing this essay, I feel a bit sad that I deleted both of the LiveJournals I had in my youth. Because with their kitsch k’s and their excessive amount of oversharing, both shaped me a lot. They taught me a lot too and I’d love to spend an afternoon in my teenage brain, no matter how much it made me cringe. Because that girl, and how she was online, was a huge part of who I was and who I am now. And I suppose, whatever you think of the internet, the chance it has created for posterity is quite something. We’re going to be able to see so much that might have otherwise gone unremembered. Baby photos. Wedding moments. Thoughts from a moment in time.
I have a blog these days. Not a LiveJournal, though I checked recently and it still exists. I use WordPress now. But much like LiveJournal offered me a safe space to come to terms with the overwhelming emotions of being a teenager, this blog offered me a safe space to come to terms with what it was like to be diagnosed with breast cancer a decade later.
I’m still that same girl who needs to write things down to make sense of them. I’m still that same girl who probably has more feelings than she knows what to do with them. I’m still that same girl who probably shares too much online. But I’ve learned that I am in charge of my own narrative. I can share as much or as little of my story as I want. And I thank LiveJournal for teaching me that.