05 January 2014

It's just different

It's the same road actually, I-90. And once you get into the suburbs, be they of Seattle or Boston, the character of the road is largely the same.

But you're doing 80 in the center lane really honestly just keeping up with traffic and without signaling any maneuver whatsoever someone bombs up behind you, passes you on the right, and zooms off never to be seen again, you see it's different.

In this world, whether you get caught or not is less about adherence to the law and more about the proper technique. Strength in numbers. Luck of the draw. Are you exposed? You're hypervigilant for the outline of a police car. Any American-made car is a potential undercover. But on a good day, with clear weather and no staties you fly.

It's just different. It's not better or worse, but it's just worth knowing that the way you know is not the only way. I certainly didn't know.

02 January 2014

(NOTE: Web-based addresses are not accepted)

I'm taking a two-week vacation where I'm staying at my parents' house. Today, snow has been falling all day and I've had laundry to do, so I've been sitting around the house. Whenever I'm here, I naturally feel a sense of regression to childhood. I don't cook, I stay up late and sleep in, and I tend to reflect on things from my past. Just the other day, my computer lost power and crashed hard while it was suspending to disk. When I started it back up, the date had been reset to December 2000.

I've been thinking awhile about how the internet has changed, and this jump back in time got me going again.

In December 2000 I was amidst what seemed then to be a critical decision. I had been following this Pokemon message board called Azure Heights for about six months, without registering or posting on it. It was a bit of a revelation: here were motley assortment of people who shared a love of the Pokemon games who collaborated to essentially reverse-engineer the game mechanics and devise some really clever strategies for Pokemon battles. That critical decision: Whether or not a could join them.

There were two hurdles, however. One was purely the fact that I would be intruding on sacred ground. In the moment, these people were kind of my heroes and I worshipped the ground they walked on. It wasn't just the awe that these people were accomplishing analytical and strategic feats, to an awkward middleschooler, these people seemed to really be owning their lives. Many of them were in their mid-teens, though some were even older than that. They balanced what was usually a secret love of Pokemon with otherwise normal lives. There was a group from Kansas who would regularly get together and battle. People would get together at Pokemon tournaments to actually meet the same people with whom they discussed strategy over the internet. And there was a real close-knit feeling to it. The number of users was far closer to one hundred than one thousand. As much as I hate the word 'meme', the board developed an assortments of memes that at the time I found absolutely hilarious. Plus, plus, there was a rumor, a rumor, that a forum member was the recipient of a certain sex act while playing Pokemon Blue. Slowly I was able to get over the hero worshipping hurdle though, mostly because I really wanted my Pokemon team to be rated--that is, its battle-worthiness evaluated by the users of the message board.

The second hurdle was purely logistical. The forum required an email address to register, and that email address had to be your email address with your ISP. The board administrator, a legit sysadmin by day, did not want to deal with the people getting banned and retaliating by registering new accounts. This required him to hand-approval new registrations by looking at the domain name of the email address. I didn't have my own email address with my ISP, honestly I'd be surprised many kids did (was this a clever scheme by the older administrator to try to minimize the kids on his lawn?). I had a mac.com email address at the time, which I thought this would be sufficient. After all these were limited to one per operating system install as far as I remember. But when the account sat in approval-limbo for several weeks, it was pretty clear it wasn't working.

And I really wasn't sure what to do. I thought maybe I could use my parents' email address, intercept the registration email when they were not around, and then switch the address on the account to my actual email address. I really didn't want my parents to know about this, fearing they wouldn't approve. My parents were very hands-off about my internet usage, but this message board, I figured would really get them worried.

I've always struggled to explain internet message boards to people, I did then and I still do now. They're the sort old school internet thing that I imagine seems sort of inscrutable to the non-technical. They're not the friendly, Facebook-like, your real life extended onto the internet, thing that's characteristic of today's internet. Instead, they're a sort of semi-anonymous, non-real-time discussion among people who share a common interest, but who rarely know each other outside of the electronic bounds of the message board. People have usernames, but in those days, for someone to even hint at their real name in their username was exceedingly rare. They're egalitarian: it's not as though some people are producing content and some people are commenting on it. Moderation is up to the whims of the administrator. While finding them absolutely incredible, I interpreted them as exactly the sort of thing my parents would fear: a place where talking to unvetted strangers was the norm and the rules were haphazard.

So eventually I worked out a technical solution to what was really a sociological problem. A British company used the same domain name for their ISP customers and their free web mail customers, and I got an account approved with that email address. And joining the board was fairly anticlimactic: I was basically a nothing there and was still too intimidated to post much. But it did trigger me to join other message boards, including one called Marble Palace where I eventually became an administrator, developing a friendly rapport with many of the staff and users along the way. And if my parents knew, they never let on that they were any the wiser.

I largely fell out of the online Pokemon community when I went to college. I wasn't really playing the new games, Marble Palace died, Azure Heights atrophied. New Pokemon message boards sprung up, and I found myself registering mainly out of habit but posting so infrequently that I lost contact with many of the people I knew. Many of them had done the same, anyway.

Sometimes, in the slow and uneventful moments like these on my vacation, I find myself Google-searching '"marble palace" pokemon'. I'm really not sure what I'm expecting to find. I think I do it because the words themselves evoke more that just a Pokemon message board. They represent a time in my life, a mindset I held, and a group of people that I felt close to then. If I search these words maybe I can find evidence that the people that I posted in the same discussion threads as, chatted with, and battled with-- now adults, likely gainfully employed, maybe with families--ever find themselves doing the exact same thing, in these same sort of moments.

Or maybe I'm just the type to dwell.