Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of queer folks I meet in non-academic settings about their first memories of using the web. This has grown into a curiosity of mine kind of organically because after I tell someone that I’m interested in “the early adoption of online media by queer communities of users, roughly from 1995–2000” they often want to talk about their early adoption of online media. It’s a topic that I love because it’s gossipy, and it draws on shared cultural memories of an emerging queer web that represented an emotionally potent escape for much of my peer group, who were teenagers during the age of dial-up.
Usually these memories are related to porn. I like the story one friend told me of going to the library to search for and print off a picture of two shirtless guys making out. The printer was a dot-matrix and the image it produced was “barely recognizable,” but it still became a prized possession. He actually liked how pixelated it was, because if his parents found it, they might not recognize the figures as two men. He knew what it “really” was and that was what mattered.
These kinds of events, because they’re heady and come along with a healthy dose of gay shame, are easily remembered. What people seem to have a lot of trouble recalling are the everyday textures of the queer web; what kinds of sites they went to, what they searched for, what browsers they used, who they talked to and why, what it felt like, looked like, etc.
The Awl has this new series that I’m enjoying call “Know Your Internet History!” in which they profile popular web portals from the “pre–2000 World Wide Web.” The profiles tend to focus on the people who made these sites, rather than on the people who used them, and so it has a bit of a hero-worship quality (okay, so the text that introduces the series literally asks “Who were these early heroes of the internet?”). But I think it’s really compelling as way of doing an unabashedly partial history of a medium that often evades documentation. I especially like the idea of a research method that combines this attention to select sites or practices but puts more emphasis on the memories of users (if these even exist). With this kind of approach there are big questions about sampling–how do you choose which sites matter–but one of the advantages is a method that might be able to (maybe, sort of ?) account for the early web in un-monumental, everyday terms.