AOL, Geocities, and Message Boards: A Brief History of Becoming Human Online

What it meant to grow up as a lurker on the information superhighway

Joanne McNeil
Published in
11 min readFeb 19, 2020


Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In an excerpt from Lurking, a history of being a user online, Joanne McNeil remembers the profound impact of coming of age in the small communities forged on the early internet.

“I“Information Superhighway” once had a valence of provocative optimism, sort of like “Green New Deal” does today. It was an idealistic term, glamorizing the “highway,” an American romance, the physical expression of ambition — the texture, plotting, and substance extending to the near future. Forget the gridlock; online was endless on-ramps.

The cacophony of a 2400-baud modem announced my passage to a secret world. It felt like my spirit traveled through the wires, dialing, dinging, convulsing, and thrashing its way to a mind-meld connection with my invisible friends. The internet was an alternate vector for expression, at a time when I felt I had no connection to the physical world, just a body in space with little to say. I was shy, and in any previous era, I might have spent my teen years as a shut-in, totally bored and completely lonely. Maybe I wasted the years just the same, but the internet was more than civilization had ever offered youth with my privilege and spare time and disposition. It was an escape hatch from the trials of my adolescence: uncertain identity, no autonomy, nowhere to go, nowhere to be. (The car-versus-computer evaluation in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seemed less settled 10 years later.) I wasn’t even in with a cool exclusive BBS or Internet Relay Chat (IRC); my internet experience up until college was plain old AOL. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me.

The dial-up sound seemed timed to a span of hesitation I took for granted, as much as the delay of online gratification. I preferred message boards over chat rooms, and I wished everyday conversation could be similarly asynchronous. I liked that I could pass off a witty response that took me an hour to craft, as if it casually, instantly came to me.

Offline, I might prepare for a confrontation in the mirror in the minutes before it bursts, but writing online, under a pseudonym, the emotional pressure landed differently…