I am five years older than Yann, which isn’t a significant difference. It’s not exactly an insignificant difference either, as proven by our discussion the other night. I was explaining to him how I had spent part of my day indulging in nostalgia by browsing the old internet. I did this by Wayback Machine-ing a few of my old favorites.
The internet used to be uglier, but it was also a lot more fun. Right now, it’s so consumer-driven. Once pop-up blockers got effective, the internet had to get creative with advertising which is now disguised as social media apps or sponsored blog posts.
Splash pages are dead. Guestbooks are no more. Chat rooms are obscure. Even webcams have disappeared, and they were a prerequisite for personal websites of the late 90s/early 00s, usually appearing in the sidebar. The chosen photo would be the webmaster/webmistress’ (two of the most short-lived terms to ever exist) pick of the day.
Sometimes, the webcam would be live, refreshing at a rate of once every five seconds or slower. I had to stop there and further explain live cams to Yann.
“Streaming camera, you mean?” he asked.
“Oh, no. Those were the days of dial-up internet.” I paused to fix my glasses and brush a wisp of grey hair out of my face, “We didn’t have streaming media.”
“So, it’s like video chat?”
“No, you just let people watch you in total anonymity,” I continued as I leaned back in the rocking chair, preparing to school my young boyfriend on the golden age of the web.
He was creeped out.
The internet, as I remember it, has always been voyeuristic in nature. If you weren’t on there to do research, email, or chat with your friends, it was to check up on other people, especially people you did not know. Many of us were exhibitionists too, to varying degrees, and willing to provide free content for the voyeurs.
Now, I never took my shirt off on my live cam. I was super young-looking and could have used that to my advantage, but I didn’t have the right attitude to monetize it.
At any rate, my live cam phase was short-lived. I did it for a few hours a week, usually when I knew people were watching. I wasn’t about to waste my energy being weird for nobody to witness!
I once blew up a condom to see how big it would expand before it exploded and was discovered hours later, sticking to the wall. But wait, what’s that thing above the latex shrapnel? A stuffed bat suspended by a fishing line. I had a bunch of those bats from Ikea hanging from the living room ceiling. ALSO, I HAD GREEN CONDOMS?
I was most definitely not a take-my-shirt-off kinda girl.
Yann was still finding this concept unsettling, so I tried to explain it using modern equivalents.
“Snapchat and Instagram both allow you to open up your world to strangers on the internet, right? Instagram borrowed the concept from static cams. It was the same, but different!”
There was a rustic charm to seeing a low-resolution washed-out image of somebody live. As slow-paced as it was, it was strangely thrilling to sit behind a computer and watch multiple grainy images on MakeOutClub refresh every 30 seconds. Even though it mostly involved staring at people staring at their own monitor.
Some webcam personalities took it pretty far, like Ana Voog, who was apparently so popular that at least one in twenty internet users knew who she was. Ana’s live cam ran 24/7 for thirteen years and captured many shirtless moments. Knowing Zoée would be familiar with Ana, I incited a discussion with her about the web personalities of yore.
Zoée then went on to remind me about Shaye Saint John, the disfigured amputee supermodel persona who wore a mask and flailed about with mannequin limbs.
The late 90s/early 2000s were all about internet-specific celebrities. You couldn’t interact with actual celebrities as you can now via Twitter or Instagram, but you had a good chance of being acknowledged by those internet-based celebrities.
Zoée has chatted with Shaye, and recalls the experience as being “very weird”, which is hilarious because Zoée has a high threshold for weirdness.
I was between 17-23 when internet celebrities and live cams were a significant part of the online experience. A five-year age difference is big enough for this era to be absent from Yann’s online upbringing.
He also needs to remember that most of us could not afford a digital camera. Without a cable long enough to drag our webcams outside, we had to make do with a backdrop of whatever was behind our computer monitor. You were limited as to how you’d make your webcam image stand out.
I experimented with multiple angles and aggressively changed my hair colour:
(The last nine images were taken within the last 10 years on my old laptop, and consequently, were not a part of my website.)
Filters didn’t exist in the early 2000s, but you could make your own by opening Paint and filling the canvas with one colour so the monitor would cast a tint on your face. Sometimes I’d keep it simple by using the white glare from Notepad to conceal my blemishes.
Without parents around to document my growth (I left home at 17), my webcam archives are the best visual documentation I have of the years I was learning how to adult. The internet kind of babysat me while I figured out how to make friends post-high school and shop for my own meals.
Watching other people sit online for hours via a live cam is a contrast to the modern social media account, where people are living their best life 24/7. The internet didn’t always make me feel inadequate either: it once made me feel important. It also used to be inclusive until YouTube came along with their millions of non-captioned (or crappy auto-generated captioned) videos, and of course, podcasts.
I don’t have plans to bring back my webcam, but I’ve recreated my first ever webcam photo:
Yann… is still creeped out about my grainy past as a PG-13 cam girl.