My Early Internet Experience

   I practically lived online from age 13 through most of my twenties, but you wouldn’t find my name in a search engine. I was a ghost. The Internet, which yes, I still capitalize, was a wonderful thing then. First, the Internet was not serious business. Second, It encouraged pseudonymity, which was essential at a time when there were no girls on the Internet, and third, it wasn’t a series of walled gardens owned by mega corps hell bent on maximizing platform engagement and profits through modern surveillance capitalism.

   I spent most of that time in those years deeply caught up in the hacking scene, online rights, and Internet privacy. Tracking and surveillance capitalism was relatively immature. My DIY OpenBSD firewall, if my memory serves, on a DEC 500au (What shellcode)? 2009! Lol, hack that!) was a wonder of rules, proxies, block lists, and DNS black holes that made quick work of most of those threats, and was super useful for increasing page load times. As advertising and tracking sophistication increased, it eventually met the end of its usefulness, but I have fond memories of that system.

Image not found: /images/blog/rethinking-presence/dec.jpg

   Socialization was common then, but sharing real identity was not. From one email, phpBB forum, or IRC room to the next I could be a different person. My handles tended to be gender neutral and changed frequently. I was whoever I wanted or needed to be. If I lost face in a community, or was outright blocked, I could easily create a new identity and try again with lessons learned. My fluid identity opened doors for me that were firmly closed in stark contrast to meatspace. I had a few public and stable handles for organizational contact reasons, but their was no need to get too cozy with strangers. Leaks happen, and meta data adds up.

Comic: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Illustration of a dog at a computer terminal.

   I did have my circles. Family tended to use email, of which I had many, many, accounts, which was easy given you didn’t need a phone number to sign up for a free one. The lack of domain reputation and modern spam protection meant that despite the service abuse that was invited by such policies, your emails were bound to be sent and received. General friends tended to contact me on instant messaging services. Trillian was my favorite multi-client until Pidgin emerged, which I begrudgingly used, despite the all too common discovery of remote code execution bugs in the underlying libpurple library. E2E encrypted OTR pidgin messaging, usually over the Jabber protocol, AKA XMPP, became the norm for my tech friends. However, when it came to my privacy/hacking/rights crew it was deep web invite only SILC servers, usually connected to through some expendable shellbox. It was an overly technical mess, but as a result, circles and audiences naturally segmented. This allowed various communities to self-regulate and thrive that would not have been able to mesh IRL.

   Web 2.0 ushered in a new age with the social network. I initially ignored it. The privacy concerns, being the product, and the absolute strangeness of being thrown into a never ending Thanksgiving Dinner political conversation with everyone I ever made acquaintance with was too much. However, by the mid 2010’s things had changed. My social world, friends, family, and even most of the stalwart hackers I spent time with were abandoning the Internet I knew in droves.

Giving up Being a Ghost

   I eventually caved and signed up for a Facebook account with my real name. It was the first time I had made an account for reasons other than making fake profiles for OSINT, API usage, and social engineering. My friends greeted my joining with “when pigs fly” jokes. My twitter follows blew up into something more than a replacement for InfoSec industry tech blogs and RSS feeds. As an aside, Google reader had recently been delivered a death blow, and it nearly took that ecosystem with it. It was more than shifting technologies though. It had gotten lonely on my version of the Internet. I was missing out on invites to family events and parties my friends were throwing. I faced a choice between social suicide, or social networking. I chose the latter, additionally justifying it with a pessimistic acceptance of a post-privacy world.

   Initially, I still maintained a minimal necessary presence, rarely sharing or engaging outside of event planning on social platforms for some number of years, until I experienced a massive upheaval in my personal and professional life around 2017. As an adult, especially at an age where peers are settling down, making new friends and professional contacts can be tricky. Moreover, I found the job market was punishing on those who did not maintain a well manicured and public web presence across numerous social networks. It was no longer a boon to one professionally in the Information Security vertical when you could literally keep your name out of Google. So, I did what I believed I had to do. I polished up a head shot, wrote bios, loosened up privacy settings, cross-linked and integrated services, and posted more content. In short order regular folks were able to verify I existed on the Internet. My name popped right up on the front page of Google. I had given up being a ghost.


   The immediate effects were mixed. Particularly, hyper-conservative family, old friends, and long not spoken with partners connected with me. Some of this was welcome, and some of it was a disaster. I hadn’t really dealt with the intrusions of Internet stalkers before, by and large due to my marginal main stream presence. Now, they became a very real safety issue for me. However, some good doors did open. I made a lot of real world friends through the social platforms. I became part of communities that were supportive, and generally helpful. I also gained access to resources that would not have been available to me as an unknown quantity. A real identity and easily verifiable presence, or at least the appearance of one, opened doors.

   However, on a more technical level and platform level I could almost immediately see things taking a turn for the worse. For the first time the advertisers really started to do a good job profiling me. For example, I practically never logged into Facebook before, and when I did it was with a minimum of a private browsing tab. I wasn’t dragging identifiers across every site with a Facebook login, or share to Facebook button, but now I was. That off-site data, combined with deeper personal interaction on the platform, finally led to a profile of me in which they really could entice me to pay the platform more attention. I’m picking on Facebook here, but the same could be said about the other social platforms. The advertising and content I received got creepy, and emotionally engaging in a negative way real quick. I noticed, probably like most people have, that I was spending more of my time on the social platforms, and I was in worse spirits for it.

   These were the Trump years. It was and still is a time of outrage, exacerbated by culture wars, fake news, and propagandists, both of the Russian botting variety, and their domestic counterparts. I was well aware of the filter bubble I was already operating in, however, as broad cultural divisions grew deeper, more of my time was spent managing a self curated preference bubble. My less than liberal family, friends, and professional contacts, largely from Oklahoma where I had spent most of my life, were by and large promoting a toxic soup of a world view that focused almost entirely on the oppression of minorities; women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, AAPI, Jewish, Muslim, immigrants, and any other people they were being told weren’t real Americans. Fascism had come to Facebook.

   It was disappointing to say the least. Terrifying is more like it. I’m in that aforementioned target list, and so are most of my friends. People I believed I knew and who I thought loved me were espousing hyper-nationalism, literal white supremacist, and classic/neo-Nazi ideology. More were implicitly enabling this behavior, as did the “little men” written about in “They Thought They Were Free”. I believe a lot of folks had no idea what they were parroting, but it got them a lot of likes. Social validation, and even interaction from outraged people is a potent reward mechanism used by the social platforms. Like addicts, we were all looking for one more dopamine hit, whether it was from promoting that kind of content, or from fighting back against it.

   I naively thought I could identify, block, unfollow, train, filter, or otherwise tech the tech and figure a way out of the social hell I found myself in without pulling away from online engagement with my friends and the platform. I frankly didn’t care if I ended up in a progressive bubble, considering the other side was embracing exterminationist rhetoric. As much as one can succeed in this endeavor I did, but the trauma inflicted upon my friends that were being victimized online and in the real world continued to reverberate through my bubble via their posts. Their was no escaping it. I limited my time on the social platforms, but they have a way of pulling you back in. It was a compromise, even though I had already greatly compromised.

   Then the pandemic happened. The isolation, especially before vaccination was available, was severe. Whatever self-discipline I had managed to cultivate when it came to social networking was out the window. As I imagine with most, it became my primary form of interacting with people outside of a small real world bubble of three people; my best friend, my partner, and myself included. Anti-vaccination, anti-mask, anti-Asian, and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on the socials. It took hold of more people in my networks, this time also coming from folks left of center, albeit in a minority. People were very clearly in mental health crisis, and also shifting farther rightwards. It wasn’t just online though. As I mentioned earlier, at the time I lived in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s the most red, red state. Conservative to its core, and possibly the pinnacle of Trump country, we’re talking about a state that has for as long as I’ve known it been culturally and politically a de facto christofascist theocracy, dominated by far right Evangelical dominionists. Oh, it’s also the home of Tiger King. I’ve been to that park. ¯\(ツ)

You guys remember Quarantine and Tiger King? That shit was wild! ^_^

   I could speak at great length about Oklahoma, and nearly nothing about it is good. In state ranking lists it’s consistently in every undesirable category posting numbers like first in childhood trauma as measured by ACE scores, 45th worst state for healthcare, and number one in incarceration rates between states, but also against almost every other nation in the world. Some day I may write a tell all, but the gist of it is this meme is literally a running gag between Okies left of neo-conservative.

Good Job Oklahoma! It's Been 0 Days Since Our Last National Embarrassment!

   What this looked like to me in reality was watching a friend and decorated Marine, married with children, and an extremely competent professional, get fired from his job for being gay. It was QAnon conspiracies and essentially loyalty tests running rampant in the office, even from management. It was hearing about a transgender pre-teen and her family being run out of town on threats of death. It was seeing public art in the most liberal college town being defaced with swastikas. It was hearing about a gay man being held down between the pews of his church and beaten by his congregation to beat the gay away. It was watching unite the right people throwing essentially klan rallies with active police involvement as participants. It was knowing a lesbian who was run over by a man in a truck who got away without so much as a manslaughter charge when it was clearly premeditated murder and a hate crime. It was seeing a liberal city council member being doxed with police involvement and targeted with rape, possibly by the police themselves, as a weapon to dissuade her from the most modest defund the police proposition. It was hearing about more gay bashing’s and shootings of queer folks than I can count. It was watching BLM activists, largely BIPOC folks, being brutalized and charged for terrorism for engaging in peaceful protests. It was watching right wing terrorists trying to hit protesters with their vehicles, and then watching the state government work hard to make running over protesters legal. It was watching my best friend become rightfully terrified to be seen in public because Asian American hate had gone through the roof and everyone looked at her like she was a plague carrier. It was hearing about how all of my friends who were minorities and had means had left the state, were planning to leave, or were preparing for a future when they would have to flee the state or country. It was watching even cisheteronormative white male friends getting assaulted in public for wearing masks. Nobody was safe, and the situation was spiraling.

   It had always been bad in Oklahoma, but it was getting worse, far worse. The hospitals were also completely overrun, as the population largely bought the anti-mask and Covid-19 conspiracy fervor that spread on ocial media. I do not want to imagine how many people were triaged to death in what could have been a largely preventable situation. I lost people. Everyone did. You could say the culture was primed for this, but it was easy to draw a direct line from participation in social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, as well as the omnipresent daily Trump tweet outrage to the worsening reality on the ground of trying to survive in that state. You could also say I was lucky, as I was dating a man at the time, who although he was half Mexican in heritage was white passing, and together we appeared normative for the culture. However, with the 2020 presidential election and winter looming, and no vaccines yet available, I decided I couldn’t risk getting stuck in a place like Oklahoma. I found a job in Seattle, WA, loaded a U-Haul, said goodbye to my friends and family, and drove half way across the country by myself in the middle of the pandemic.

   Bringing it back around to the socials, upon arrival in Seattle I found my neighborhood was being regularly victimized by what I’d characterize as police, and unidentifiable, but clearly state sanctioned paramilitary rioters. Sure, their were protesters, but I wouldn’t characterize their actions as rioting, especially in comparison. When you can hear the flash bangs, sirens, and LRADs going off, and occasionally have to close your windows to keep tear gas from floating into your apartment there’s only one place to go to keep up with what becomes your neighborhood news feed, and it’s not Nextdoor. Further isolation brought about from being unanchored in a new city, nearly completely alone, and in a new community kept me further engaged with social platforms. None of this had a positive effect on my health. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 when enough folks were vaccinated that I could start making some friends in the real world again.

What Happened?

   In retrospect my choice to participate in social networking and to modernize my web presence couldn’t have happened at a worst time. Personally, it may have helped me find employment in WA, and eventually helped connect me to some real world friends, but the down side was far worse than the up side. I’ll eventually compile a longer article on why engaging with these platforms is not just personally toxic, but a threat to democracy the world over, and a threat to the lives of many innocent people. I’m by no means an expert on the topic, but for the short list their is a vast amount of scandal and criticism particularly of Facebook, much of which generalizes to Twitter, and other social platforms such as Instagram. If you want a fairly inclusive and digestible account I highly suggest you read Zucked - Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, which covers among many other topics the previously linked election interference, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the Rohingya genocide, which the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a “determining role” in. Additionally the recently released The Facebook Files, cover numerous other abuses, including knowingly causing increased suicidality in teenage American girls on the Facebook owned Instagram platform, how Facebook has been used to cripple Covid-19 vaccination efforts, and Facebook’s role in the January 6th. coup.

   While my own experience is but one data point, in the absence of authoritative reporting, which their is plenty of, the combination of identity factors and living in a state like Oklahoma really underscored, and brought home the dangers of social media to me on a personal and societal scale. I cannot imagine that I would be living in the precarious political reality of today, nor would have I felt the need to relocate for reasons of safety, had social networking not been used so effectively to fray the fabric of civil society and democracy in the United States of America.

Rethinking Presence

   I’m done with socials. I quit. They aren’t getting one more thin dime of advertisement money from me, nor another iota of my attention. It’s not just a matter of the juice not being worth the squeeze, but rather a question of can I live with myself if I continue to contribute to a problem through participation that could lead to the further decline of civilization and exacerbate even bigger problems like the climate crisis. The answer is a resounding no.

   So dear reader, that’s probably why you’re here. I’ve already deleted most of my social presence, which is a chore I might write a post about in itself, and I’ve decided that the humble blog will be the start and possibly end of my main presence on the Internet. Sure, I can be found on email, and Signal if you know my number, and I may start up my own Matrix compatible chat server to bring together people I want to regularly communicate with in real time, but I’m not volunteering to engage in a platform that isn’t basically under my control. I’ve been scoping out self-hosted RSS/Atom readers to step away from algorithmically ranked news, which even major news sites engage in, and I plan on making that a future post.

   Stay tuned for more. In the mean time, stop hitting like, delete your Facebook, start an email chain with your close family and friends filled with baby and cat photos, go on a hike with somebody you care about, and turn your phone notifications off. Maybe we won’t save the world this way, but I think we can certainly make it a bit better.

Two people on a hike, sitting down, overlooking a vista.

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