Longtime Online

Discovering the demise of a once much-loved (by me) website this morning got me pondering my public online presence, which is now in its 17th year. In the rapidly-evolving world of wires in which so many of us now live, this makes me something of a greybeard in a virtual space that I never imagined (way back when) I’d ever spend any time in, seeing as how computers were for geeks and whatnot, and I certainly didn’t want to be one of those. Ahem.

I originally tapped into the internet pipes for personal pleasure during the summer of 1993. My first public online community was the RockNet forum on CompuServe, where I romped and stomped for a couple of years, before deciding that the canned content being offered there was no longer adequate as the World Wide Web (which also debuted in 1993) had opened a whole new range of individualized creative possibilities. (The personal connections made there in that first community were strong, though, and I’m still a member of the Xnet2 Collective, a small, self-sustaining posse of like-minded folks, most of whom first met in RockNet).

In early 1995, two other RockNet alums html’ed and posted an essay I’d written about the band Hawkwind, using the term “BLANGA,” which former Inner City Unit guitarist Steve Pond and I had coined in a RockNet discussion to describe their sound. The Hawkwind BLANGA Guide has been online and extremely popular among a certain cohort ever since, and the word “BLANGA” has come to be an accepted part of the fan experience of going to Hawkwind shows. I’ve read it being used in interviews by current and past band members, and other artists have taken the concept and run with it to entirely new places.

This online presence, coupled with a growing body of music criticism and other print-published writings, led me to be viewed as a “content provider” in the rush days of internet expansion. By late 1995, I had a personal website created by a former room-mate, and around 1997, it migrated to another, larger site hosted by yet another former RockNet cohort in Canada. In the summer of 1999, I decided that it was time for me to control my own web presence, and I acquired the rights to jericsmith.com, taught myself some simple html, and set up my own website on my own domain.

On September 7, 2000, I read an extraordinary essay on Rebecca’s Pocket, explaining the emergence of something called “weblogs.” I totally wanted a piece of that, and used my still-primitive html skills to set up my own blog that very night, which looked like this, at the time. It took a couple of fits and starts before it became a regular habit, but I’ve got most of my blog posts (with one notable exception, noted below) finally archived in a single-spot, and it’s satisfying to randomly poke into them occasionally to see what I was thinking way back when.

By 2003, I had made the leap to canned blogging technology, and not having to code html in order to post increased the volume of my online presence dramatically. I felt like I needed a tag to drive traffic, which (at the time) seemed to be what being online was all about. My first brilliant idea was to embark upon a “Poem a Day” project in 2004, where everyday I would write and publish a new poem, all 366 days of the year. Amazingly enough, I actually did it. There was certainly some garbage produced through that project, but also some serious, valuable work, and several poems that have since been published or won prizes in other print capacities. (In early 2005, I took all of the poems down, and they’re not in my archives, though some are included in chapbook collections that are linked at right).

The other thing I did that year was to create a series of music review articles structured in the format of the NCAA basketball tournament, with 64 bands, albums, songs, or whatevers going head-to-head until a winner was selected. The first one I did was called “The Worst Rock Band Ever,” and it exploded as an internet phenomenon in a way that I’d never expected it to. To this day, if you google “worst rock band” or “worst rock band ever” or any similar search term, I will be the top returning link 95 times out of 100, and the second or third the other five times.

I spent much of 2005 spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to follow those projects up, and finding no logical solution, I took most of the following year off, before signing on as a community blogger with The Times Union in February 2007, where I’ve been ever since. This post will be my 296th one for the TU, so I’ve averaged about nine a month. Not bad.

But for much of the past decade, I didn’t do my best creative, non-work, non-academic writing at any of those places, nor did I even do it under my own name. And therein lies another story about a different type of internet presence.

Sometime in the summer of 2000, when vanity-searching was first becoming possible, I stumbled across a post on a message board operated by a great local band I’d recently interviewed. This post was written by someone claiming to be me, and asking readers there if anyone had seen my lips, since I thought I had left them affixed to the band’s collective ass when I was at their studio the last time. A series of posts followed that grew increasingly nasty, including ones still purporting to be from me.

I was outraged! How dare someone claim to be me! How dare someone write something like that on the internet! What if people from my work saw it? What if my family stumbled across it? Grrr!

I threw a tantrum with the band’s webmaster, who removed the offending posts, and pointed me to their perpetrator, who was a member of another local band I had actually been quite supportive of as well (no names will be used in this post, to protect the guilty). I harrumphed over to his website to chastise him about how to properly show gratitude for the support of hardworking, pro-scene music critics like me, and he apologized, but noted that it was all in fun, and not intended to be mean spirited at all. Or at least not much so.

I noticed that his band’s page also had a message board, and that it was also filled up with all sorts of folks posting all sorts of nastiness about all sorts of other folks, sometimes while pretending to be those other folks. It was a train wreck, but a fascinating one, and I was hooked, despite my better instincts and judgment.

Sometime in early 2003, another website emerged called Upstate Wasted, and it had its own message board that picked up a lot of folks from those earlier boards, and upped the intensity of the idiocy several orders of magnitude. There’s actually a formal theory (note: language warning on that link, don’t click if easily offended) that explains what happens when you combine normal people, anonymity and an audience online, and the Upstate Wasted Board was the absolute living embodiment of it, and then some.

But the thing is, many of the people who posted there were very creative, and very smart, and very, very, very funny, and for a brief, shining period of time in 2004 and 2005, I feel fairly certain that Upstate Wasted may have easily been the most widely read web-thingy in the Capital Region. Many if the folks involved were musicians, and the Board actually created a real world buzz that gave significant public bumps to several of the bands that were most closely associated with it. It was not at all unusual to see Upstate Wasted inside jokes regularly appearing in the print media hereabouts. I even put some of them there.

Because I was in the thick of it then, as a reader and contributor, rarely posting under my own name, but instead creating several characters that took on virtual lives of their own for various periods of time, before being consumed by the rabble and replaced with others. On the flip side, I would suspect that a solid 75% of the posts during that era that had my name affixed to them were written and posted by other people pretending to be the real me. It was an ongoing, collaborative work of identity destruction unlike anything else I’ve ever been involved with.

Looking back, the process was like a ruder version of monks creating sand mandalas: I would put a lot of time into making what I considered to be an actual work of art (if not a beautiful one), knowing that it was going to be ephemeral, blown away into the ether the next time the board experienced one of its periodic meltdowns, which occurred occasionally when board denizens actually crossed the (admittedly high) bar of unacceptable behavior.

Like all good things, Upstate Wasted ultimately became self-indulgent and self-destructive, and by the spring of 2006, it had run its course and was shut down. Later that spring, several of the core players from Upstate Wasted tried to recreate its spark by launching the Upstate Ether board, which had its clever and entertaining moments, but in general played out over the ensuing years as a pale reflection of its earlier counterpart. Upstate Ether limped along until late 2008, at which point Facebook sucked a lot of the members away, traffic dwindled, and spambot attacks became overwhelming to the point that none of the surviving overlords could keep up with them.

I had periodically checked in to the Upstate Ether site to see if anything had changed over the past year, but it had become the sole domain of those aggressive robots, pimping potency drugs and pr*n sites. But hope sprung eternal, and I kept it in my “favorites” list, until this morning, when I clicked the link and for the first time received an “Oops, this site is currently unavailable” screen. This means that the domain has finally expired, and the site is officially freed from its long, lingering zombie-like half-life.

I find myself surprisingly nostalgic for those scurrilous, scabrous communities, now that they’re gone. Upstate Wasted was the best online place I’ve ever seen for “wasting time on the man’s dime,” and I’m glad to have been a part of it, even if no one really knows what I did and what I didn’t do, and what I wrote and what others wrote pretending to be me.

I’ll obviously continue to have the sort of public internet presence that produces things like this blog and the Worst Bands page, but I have to admit that that secret internet presence was almost always a lot more fun.

So I lift a virtual toast to you, my fellow anonymous former Wastards and Etherites. Well played, sirs and madams. Well played, indeed.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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