‘The internet is forever’ has long been the refrain of neurotics who wring their hands over privacy. But, back in the earliest days of online interaction, we couldn’t conceptualise what forever meant for digital experiences. They seemed ephemeral, intimate. We were blissfully unaware that our little exchanges might one day be part of ‘Big Data’ to be collected, spat out crudely into an algorithm, and monetised. But what we thought were whispers that disappeared into the wind were footprints left behind in soil. That soil was fossilising, preserving a partial archive, hidden until it is not.
Long before we knew that digital surveillance for commercial and security purposes would become the status quo, many of us littered the web with personal material under the impression that we controlled its mobility and visibility (if we considered such things at all). And while tech-savvy adults were the internet’s earliest pioneers, children such as me arrived on the scene within a few short years of America Online (AOL) hitting critical mass in the 1990s.
Armed with a shiny new ‘@aol.com’ email address and blessed with limited parental supervision, I ventured out into the big wild worldwide web for the first time in 1995, at the age of 10. Until AOL Instant Messenger was launched in 1997, my primary tool for connecting to others online was chat rooms, found on the websites for local alternative music stations or fledging entertainment magazine sites. A born adventurer and a blossoming pervert, I regularly pretended that I was a hot and bothered 19-year-old, and lured men away from group chat rooms to private chats where my digital captive and I would proceed to have cyber sex, the clumsy beta version of what would eventually become sexting. My participation was mostly limited to describing a lot of scandalous outfits and giggling hysterically at the very idea of oral copulation.
And though I recall my antics fondly, I feel a twinge of guilt at having ensnared an unsuspecting person into committing what would become a crime, if it was not already one at the time. I figure that all internet users were producing mountains of gossip, inanity and recklessness, but perhaps young people were doing so with more indiscretion. A glance at my search for whether it’s possible to recover AOL chats reveals that I am not alone – neither in my concern that these chats are all stored somewhere in the ether, nor in my disappointment that they might, in fact, be gone forever.
Picture: Jason “Textfiles” Scott (http://www.flickr.com/photos/textfiles/8272518911/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons