This post is part of Mashable’s You’re Old Week. Break through the haze of nostalgia with us and see what holds up, what disappoints, and what got better with time.
If you know what those three letters stand for, there’s a good chance you grew up on the internet like myself. An internet filled with opportunities to steal your innocence.
There was something special about the internet of the late ’90s and early 2000s that can never, ever be replicated. It was mysterious, misunderstood, and truly a free place of exploration. More importantly, it was mostly anonymous, or at least it appeared that way.
As parents currently grapple with how their children interact with the internet at such a young age, it’s important to take a step back and look at how we got here. Let’s relive some of the horrors I witnessed growing up on the internet and consider what lessons their lingering effects hold for this generation.
For those utterly lost, a/s/l stands for age, sex, and location, and was commonly used in chat rooms during the golden era of the internet — 1995 to 2005-ish. Thanks to Facebook and the rise of social media, much of what we now do on the internet is tied to our real names. But back in the day, we hid behind usernames and screennames, and we changed them often.
I don’t exactly remember any vivid conversations I had on the internet with strangers, but I do recall frequenting Yahoo Chat rooms when I couldn’t find any of my friends to chat with on AIM. Remembering that today, I’m kinda horrified.
While those chat rooms around the internet had plenty of normal people just looking for conversations, they were also riddled with who the fuck knows trying to get off or take advantage of a young kid. There was even a dedicated section just for teens. Even worse, you could chat with people based on a specific location.
Yahoo Chat rooms were rife with catfishing long before the internet term was ever coined. You could be whoever you wanted to be when someone asked you a/s/l? And people were pretty upfront about seeking kids to chat with. While, thankfully, there were no To Catch a Predator scenarios for me in the days of the early internet, it’s highly likely I interacted with plenty of scummy people looking to take advantage of kids during that time.
Back in 2005, Yahoo finally shut down user-created chat rooms in an agreement with law enforcement. “Yahoo removed or barred the posting of 70,000 rooms whose names suggested illegal conduct, including the promotion of sex between adults and children,” CNET reported at the time.
Yahoo permanently shuttered its public chatroom feature in 2012.
Somehow, I made it out unscathed, and was smart enough to know better, but the chat rooms of the early internet were truly a terrifying place.
Rotten.com and gore galore
Just last year, the internet lost one of its earliest and most disturbing websites, rotten.com. For now, at least.
“The soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see: Rotten dot com collects images and information from many sources to present the viewer with a truly unpleasant experience,” a welcome message reads on an archived version of the website from 1999.
Simply put, rotten was a compilation of the worst images the internet could find. From pictures of dead celebrities to photos of brutal crime scenes, car crashes, and botched surgeries, the shock site was capable of disturbing just about anyone who made their way to it.
Rotten.com was introduced to me by an old boyfriend of my sister’s when I was probably 11 or 12. I recall seeing a photo of a man involved in a motorcycle accident, his head splattered across a highway, and another picture of a guy sucking his own dick. The picture of the accident still fucks me up; the photo of the guy giving himself a blowjob is still impressive.
The picture of the accident still fucks me up; the photo of the guy giving himself a blowjob is still impressive.
While I (thankfully) never became a frequent visitor of rotten.com, the disturbing images I saw on the site desensitized and prepared me for the awful internet of today. As I grew up with the internet by my side, I can recall seeing countless beheadings. I watched the entire video of Saddam Hussein being executed in 2006, an unnecessary amount of shootings, car accidents, and just about everything else that would make a normal person vomit.
Seeing those pictures and videos at a young age absolutely helped me cope with some of the things I see on the internet today. Would I be better off not seeing them? Maybe.
Porn, porn, and more porn
I was about 11 or 12 when I was sitting at my computer, probably playing 3D Pinball when I overheard my dad and his friend talking in the kitchen, just down the hall.
“You can just type lingerie into the search and you wouldn’t believe what comes up,” he told my father, revealing that there was actually porn on the computer in the living room, which he literally never touched at that point.
“No wonder he spends so much time on that thing,” my dad joked, clearly referring to me. Jokes on you, Dad, because I had no idea of the obscenities that were available just a few clicks away.
Of course, the first moment I was left alone after hearing there was porn on the internet, I typed something like “boobs” into AskJeeves or Yahoo search. I surfed my way to a crude porn site as fast as my 56k modem could bring me, only to be greeted with an age disclaimer asking me if I was 18 years of age or older.
I never got “the talk” from my parents. It didn’t matter – I had the internet.
After thinking it over for a few seconds, I decided to risk it and click “yes.” Despite thinking the FBI was going to raid my house for this very serious offense, this began my exploration into sex. I never got “the talk” from my parents. It didn’t matter — I had the internet.
It’s worth noting here that the internet moved at a grueling pace back in the late ’90s when 56k was still king. So navigating a web page with photos, like porn, took a very long time. Given this fact, and that at the time my computer was shared with my family, I decided to do what any preteen would do with a color printer.
That’s right, I printed out porn. My mom found it in my sock drawer, and still occasionally makes fun of me for it.
While there are more than a few think pieces on how learning about sex through internet porn is terrible for a young boy’s mind, and will turn them into sexist monsters with unrealistic expectations, I’m thankful for the unfiltered internet as a useful resource in my horny pubescent youth.
Talking about sex with anyone — even friends — can be humiliating at that age, and at the time sex education provided to me in school was laughably bad, sometimes even frowned upon. That said, there are definitely more appropriate ways to learn about sex, and as a society, we have much to improve upon.
Weed, drugs, and an online education
When I was 14 years old, I smoked weed for the first time.
This wasn’t some spontaneous decision made in a dimly-lit room forced by peer pressure. I wanted to try marijuana, I sought it out, and I learned everything that I need to know about smoking weed through the internet.
Before muttering their first words, kids have probably already watched a YouTube video.
Weeks before lighting up, the topic came up among a few of my good friends at the time, and we decided we were going to do it. I won’t lie, I was pretty terrified of what would happen, so I did my best to sift through the bullshit pushed upon us by D.A.R.E., and find out the truth about marijuana. I found Erowid.
While there were plenty of websites dedicated to cannabis in 2001 and 2002, Erowid was, and remains, one of the best sources for information on drugs. The thing that makes Erowid so great is that it provides real information from real people about their experiences with various drugs, including dosages, effects, and experiences.
I’ll be the first to admit that I adopted cannabis use way too young, and I’m sure that it affected my school performance and my brain development. But teens and young adults aren’t going to stop experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and at least the internet informed me of the real dangers in a way that wasn’t preachy.
Would I have tried cannabis without the internet? Definitely, but using the web to learn about drugs was an invaluable resource that was not available elsewhere. I consider myself lucky for landing on Erowid, and not a forum with irresponsible users suggesting people us harder drugs.
Are the kids gonna be alright?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the internet has shaped me as a person, and how it’s affecting the youth today. Before muttering their first words, kids have probably already watched a YouTube video. They have Instagram accounts before they’re able to read, and hashtags dedicated to their entire lives.
…we as a society are finally questioning the experiment.
But for me, the internet was a choice. I sought it out, and all of its opportunities to corrupt my youth. For kids today, it’s become nearly impossible to disconnect.
And again, when I discovered corners of the internet I shouldn’t have ventured to as a kid, it moved at a snail’s pace. Today’s web is fast, pictures load in the blink of an eye, and HD streaming video is basically expected, thanks to YouTube.
It feels like the internet is at a breaking point, and we as a society are finally questioning the experiment. It’s incredibly important for us to ask ourselves how the internet has altered our lives, and not just the convenience factor with 2-day free shipping, but really, how has the internet changed who we are? It certainly changed me growing up.
I do still value the internet as an important growing up tool, which helped me learn about life, both the good parts and bad. But in the back of my mind I’ll always wonder what would have happened to me if I never logged on.