The internet is important in a lot of ways.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time on it. It was a gateway to forms of creativity that I could sparsely get where I grew up. The streets were unsafe, the dirt was too grainy, and the southern summers were too hot. The internet is where I could express myself without restrictions. I wouldn’t let there be restrictions.
Then my cousin came to stay with us.
I never had met my cousin before. My parents had told me he was coming, and the image in my head was just of another cousin— I had plenty others of course! What would be so different? Well, there was a lot different with my cousin, this cousin. He had Muscular Dystrophy and was living with my grandma now. She was off on a trip, so he was upstate with us for a while. School was starting soon, and I was interested in spending time with my cousin before I was off for another year of being outcast amongst my peers.
My cousin was older than I (at the time I was prepubescent and he was a twenty-something) but we had similar interests. The first was we spent most of our lives on the computer. He really had no choice, being disabled, but in a way I was not much different (I wouldn’t find that out until much later). The second was simply that we both liked playing games. I had played a lot of children-aimed MMOs as I was a child, like Toontown and Club Penguin, so I was obsessed with the idea. Well, I still am. My cousin’s two main choices were World of Warcraft (or "WoW") and Second Life.
I would sit on our long and large aged-brown leather couch and watch him explore WoW. I loved how it looked, and was content just watching him. He let me play a little, just to explore.
My cousin, due to his Muscular Dystrophy, was unable to speak. The muscles were no longer strong enough. He used the computer to type. Ha, once he couldn’t remember how to spell ‘refrigerator’ and little me didn’t understand what he was trying to spell. There are frustrations, truly. There wasn't any spell check on what he used.
The beginning of that school year began with one day of school, and then a storm kept us home the next. I spent the rainy day with my cousin, watching him work and play on the internet. When he wasn’t in a virtual world, he made money doing graphic design.
Eventually he went back to my grandmother’s, and I visited him on breaks, and planned to spend summer at my grandma’s too! That was a miracle: she wasn’t very grandmotherly or fun, and would sparse let me swim in her pool which had been the only attractive thing she had for me there to do. With my cousin there now, with his fascinating life using games and the net, I had reasons to beg to go.
Once, My mother told me that he didn’t really want to come stay with us. He had asked for an alternative: stay at my grandma’s house and have someone watch him. The someone was a friend he had met online who lived nearby. She had never met him in person— but how would she? How would he meet someone in person? My mother and grandmother, rightfully, denied the request, citing the dangers and all it entailed. “A stranger! From the Internet! In my mother’s home alone!”
Yet, I began to think later on about it. They never got to meet, that I knew of. Would they ever been able to? Being disabled, there wasn’t much of a choice. None of the homes he would have lived in would have really been under his control. There was no control in his life. Not for his body, nor for his surroundings. No control… except for online.
When I visited at my grandma’s house, I would sit in the guest bed with him and watch him play Second Life. He let me use the voice chat to talk to his friend, who was happy to play around with a younger child. She took me virtual shopping and to virtual amusement parks that allowed the Second Life Avatars to ride and walk around a park. It was a amazing discovery for me, to find another world so full of love and life! It really was a Second Life for my cousin.
It had been March. I remember exactly how my surroundings were when I found out. I had just gotten my own computer, and set it up. I was installing a game from a disc, while my mother had to go to the family business and retrieve something. My grandma had visited us that day, and was returning back home to my cousin. My mom, at the shop, received a call on the land line. It was fate she happened to return there to hear it. She rushed home, sat on my bed, sobbing.
He never made it to summer.
I don’t remember much of that year besides him.
He started something within me, with the little he was in the grand tapestry of my life. I had already had a connection to the internet, but it wasn’t until then that I started to see the potential. As I grew, I eventually had to transfer to online schooling so even more of my time was spent online. Around then I finally discovered my own disabilities, gained a few new ones, and used the internet to have a life I could not as easily have in person— in “reality”. Sure, it was not like my cousin, who was bed-ridden and forced, but there were similarities.
Communication is different online, that’s the first thing! For better or for worse, we talk to people all over through writing, through text! People who look different than you, who sound different than you, who are differently abled than you… they all have the same input of text chat. Differences become invisible, save for the differences in how you type or spell and your syntax. Using my voice, I have obvious quirks and disadvantages. My brain favors how communication is online. My cousin wasn’t able to use his vocal cords, but he could still have a voice online.
The other thing is reach. From a bed, or from a desk, one can reach far beyond that of their community. Or, better yet, you can find your community if it’s lacking in the place you find yourself sequestered in. My cousin could make friends and find work as a disabled person in his own bed. I was able to jump county and state lines to find people from places that would fit me better. I found LGBT+ people, people from different cultures, and people who were just like me. I found the love of my life from my bedroom, and I can't imagine having to find someone so perfect for me in my immediate area! Small towns were sparse for finding people into the same niche things as you.
I was not the only one to do this.
I had a friend— a bestest friend. I loved him very much. We were both different, in similar ways, but still in our own ways too. We loved the same things though, and it was a fun time in my life. We played together, we chatted together…
…We knew each other for less than a year.
He was disabled and he died because of it. He was loved and didn’t want to die. Like my cousin, who never got to meet his online friends in person, my friend and I also never got to meet. Like me and my cousin, I was only in his life for the tail end of it, and for less than an entire year. They both changed my view on the world, the internet. Things that to me were one and the same.
I owe everything I am to the internet. I have friends because of the internet— whether they were made online or offline. I have the love of my life because of the internet. I would love a world that doesn’t force certain people to require it to live fulfilling lives, but it’s the hand I was dealt. Yet the internet is changing and is not the one I and my loved ones grew up with! The internet becoming small and restricted isn’t just a sad inconvenience, it’s hurting people who would deem it all they have. Whether that be through the inability to customize your own space to fit who you are, or the algorithms that hide communities and feed you garbage to mold you into the worst version of yourself.
Why did I write this, and what does it mean for you, the reader? I don't really know. I was writing out memories anyways, and the topic of the zine (The internet and reality...) struck me as a perfect fit. I suppose the purpose of this little memoir of mine is to make you think, to have you look into another perspective of what can be lost, and what can be offered.
The internet is more than a technology. It’s a world quite like ours, though warped through wires and screens and buttons and written-out bits of code, but it’s a world worthwhile.
And the world needs to change.