// Posted by Elizabeth on 09/08/2014 (1:00 PM)
When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat… Read more
When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat room, fully aware that I would be interacting with my classmates and would have to see these people again on Monday afternoon. I used my silly “iscream4icecream” username because it was 9:28 and I didn’t have time to think of anything witty and modern, but I also did it because it was comfortable, and because that was the identity I’d always had in my past experiences with the semi-anonymous instant messaging I did in middle school. Needless to say, when I joined the chat and saw other folks’ clever, cool and fresh usernames like “Off the Record” and “Lux,” I was embarrassed. Truthfully, I hadn’t put much thought into what my username would be at all, but suddenly I felt like it was a big deal and was really happy that the chat room was anonymous.
Of course, I got over my embarrassment very quickly, and I realized it would actually make a slightly funny and very thought-provoking story: why did I automatically think back to the days of AIM and my preteen identity when I was about to enter the LA Live Chat, and why did I react with confusion and concern when this chat room was different than what I expected?
I make this confession about my initial feelings during this experience because the chat room surprised me. Technology is something that most people in today’s society are very accustomed to. I was comfortable with the idea of online chatting because it was something that I thought I had done before, and I had no idea that such a primitive website could throw me off like it did. In reflecting on this experience, I realized that I rarely find myself in a digital environment that I’ve never been exposed to before—apart from downloading a new app on my iPhone, which I rarely do. I suppose I’ve never been very innovative in the way I use existing technology, and I certainly don’t see myself as someone who seeks out new ones—I still had a sliding, not-so-smart phone until about a year ago. The LA Live Chat was something outside of my previous experience with online communication, and it immediately startled me.
So not only do I have a greater appreciation for those early inventors and users of the WELL and other beginning online communities, but I also think I have a greater understanding of the “transcendence” these folks might have felt in their first online interactions. I can’t imagine joining the WELL with no clue how it really worked and no concept of social norms on the site—the idea alone takes the above phrase “outside of my previous experience” to a whole new level. I can certainly see how this would feel psychedelic and “out-of-body” to someone who had never used online communication technology before.
Fortunately, I got over my embarrassment and ended up very much enjoying the conversation. I found comfort in our topic of 90s culture and memories, which was actually another surprise about the chat experience. When the theme was suggested in class I was only reminded of countless online Buzzfeed articles listing “The 25 Things You Miss Most About the 90s,” which promise to invoke happy memories and nostalgia but usually consist of cheesy captions and some strange, low-quality images. The chat room experience was different in that even though the technology was older and more frustrating to deal with—reloading the conversation every few seconds certainly seemed like a huge burden at first—the discussion and the connection I felt with the other chatters was real, and it was great to be able to anonymously joke and bond with my peers without the pressure to say something intelligent that I sometimes feel in the classroom. Again, this allowed me to put myself in the place of early WELL users in that those people were joining the community to talk about things they cared about and to connect with like-minded people. Deadheads certainly joined with the ability to discuss a music genre and a culture that they were truly passionate about, and women in the workforce logged on to find other women struggling through similar issues of gender and identity. I can imagine that these contexts and conversation topics instantly established a compatibility between WELL users, and that they would have brought people some sense of level-headedness even in a new and astounding experience—just as talking about the 90s did for me.
Overall, I’m thankful for this first experience in that it really did get me thinking differently about early technology, and while I know that’s the right conclusion to draw because it was the whole point of the experience, I also know it’s true because of the way I felt when I joined the chat. The situation surprised and almost challenged me, and I’m certain that if I ever find myself participating in an LA Live Chat again, I won’t choose to call myself iscream4icecream.