Finding quiet in a loud world
In the year 2018, the internet is somewhere between a screaming hellmaw beckoning all who look to stare into its recesses and engage in the darkest part of the human psyche and a beautiful portal that connects us with old and new friends, other parts of the world, and any information you could ever want. It wasn’t always like this, though.
I don’t get nostalgic for much media as I get older. Anything I would ever want to re-experience from my childhood is relatively easy to obtain—there’s plenty of services that have older TV shows or video games available, and even resurrections of various beloved junk foods are becoming more common. If I wanted to, I could buy Surge, Crystal Pepsi, and 3D Doritos and have them delivered to my house as I watch every episode of Freakazoid.
But one thing I do get nostalgic for is the days of the early, bizarre internet service called America Online.
Postcards From the Far Reaches
I recently picked up Pokémon Go again and discovered they’d added a gifting feature since the last time I played. Whenever someone sends you a gift, the game sends along a digital postcard of where the person who sent the gift is located. When I put my friend code on Twitter, I got a range of postcards from across the globe, little digital presents and well wishes from places I’ve never been in my life.
It felt much like being a kid using AOL, when I would log onto Zoog Disney—an online tie-in to a Disney cartoon block that no one does or should remember—where I would chat and connect with people who lived in other states. It felt like when I first found some user-made Neopets or Linkin Park chatroom and spent hours chatting with anonymous strangers from far away, connecting with them over our love of virtual pets or butt rock. Nowadays, I do these things on platforms like Twitter—where it’s easier than ever to bond with others over a shared interest, but it’s also not hard to find people who vehemently disagree with you and very much want you to know that you’re wrong.
Finding ways to capture the early feelings of discovery online is getting harder to do—but one way I’ve found is through exploration-focused videogames. In games like Journey, you’re on an entire, well, journey—and along the way you meet up with others making their own pilgrimages. But unlike most modern online games, there’s no voice chat or text chat—you can only communicate through a musical chime. You never know who you’re walking along with, who you are helping nor who is helping you until the very end of the game when the credits roll and reveal their names.
Similarly, in Tetris Effect’s Journey mode, the game asks you to pinpoint your location and choose an avatar. It then displays a digitized globe where you can see various players and friends float around the world, providing a sense of scale and connection to players who are enjoying the same experiences.
Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) can approximate this feeling, too. Back when I used to play World of Warcraft religiously, I was a Tauren shaman. Questing alone in Stranglethorn Vale, I stumbled across a gnome who was having trouble with some enemies, so I jumped in to help. Now, being from the two opposing factions of the game’s world—Alliance and Horde—we couldn’t communicate outside of emotes. But we spent the next half hour or so helping each other complete quests until we waved goodbye to each other and went our separate ways. I have no idea who that gnome was. We didn’t become become friends, but years later I still think of it sometimes.
It’s the quiet moments in the roaring hellscape of the internet that make it worth it. The moments in multiplayer games where your whole team is on the same page and you completely trounce the entire team, even without communicating directly. The rare moments in MMOs when a higher level player decides to assist you for no other reason besides just wanting to help. Maybe they’ll drop some free items for you or drag you through a dungeon to get you new gear.
Back before we knew everything we needed to know at every moment of everyday day, there was a mystery to the world and to people. If you wanted to know something about a new game or movie, you had to actively search it out or pray there was an official website. Back when finding a message board for a subject you’re interested in took more than typing into the Reddit search to find a like-minded community.
There’s nothing wrong with ease of access to information and each other, but there’s a kind of wonder in discovery—playing a game or watching a movie with fresh eyes without knowing every minute detail. In the days of the olden internet, there was no constant connection. Details about games were only available insofar as someone wrote up a text file walkthrough, and misinformation abounded. If someone was mad about something and if you didn’t ask them about it or search it out yourself, you just didn’t know. On Twitter, there’s something wild and new to get mad about every day, and since the platform wants you to stay glued in, they’re happy to foster this.
The internet should be as accessible as possible, but in its current iteration it’s become far too unwieldy. With corporations controlling online social platforms, it’s too easy for those who would want to do harm to others to do what they want because no one in charge wants to be held accountable or to curate their spaces. While the old internet had many issues, our current one has its own—making finding spaces of quiet, indirect human connection all the more important.