At home and incredibly online
By: Joshua Badge
Viewed in the most literal way, the internet is dreadfully mundane. It is a series of interconnected networks comprising many computers and servers, all using standardised communication protocols to exchange information.
What makes this web of cables and computers a technological spectacle is that it allows people to invent new worlds and reside in them. At its most utopian, the internet remains radically open to all. It is shared, reciprocal. You speak and someone replies.
Coming of age in the mid 2000s meant dwelling in these digital expanses, populating them with accounts, addresses, avatars, passwords, posts, profiles, tags, usernames. Proxies for consciousness in virtual reality.
I was a queer boy who grew up in rural Victoria, femme and unathletic to the point of cliché. Everything that came naturally to me was wrong. There’s a touch of comedy to how out of place I was in the territory of vulgar masculinity. I was terribly alone.
At home, the kitchen pantry was vacant and the air full of sighs. Once, when we had nothing to eat, my parents took my brothers and me to scavenge for mushrooms. My mother made mushrooms and grey sauce, joking that we’d know soon enough if there were any death caps.
What was beautiful to me about online spaces was their nonchalance. It didn’t matter how poor I was or to whom I was sexually attracted. They helped me understand myself and my corner of the world. The internet was a haven from the squalor and violence of my formative years.
While my family subsisted off two-minute noodles for weeks at a time, the internet was my knife, fork and plate.
Image: Henry Small
I punch the address for my family home into Google Street View, conjuring a mirage from February 2010. This was only a few months before I moved out, aged 16. I feel like I’m back there, the corners of the screen-world closing in on me.
The place is a hovel. Warped fence palings, dusty armchairs on the porch, a pile of smashed-up concrete around the side. The front yard is lined with agapanthuses, alternating white and purple. Every object exudes an aura of desperation.
The weatherboard fell away from the living room wall long ago, exposing the interior to the sun and frost. You can see the blue of a tarp on the back roof. Inside there’s a bucket in the laundry to catch the rain.
I remember hand-washing everyone’s clothes in the laundry sink. The machine had broken down and we didn’t have any money to fix it. Rinsing out denim was the hardest. It wears away the softness of your skin, makes it crack like leather.
This reconstructed time and space fills me up to the fingertips like a shook-up can of Coke. My galvanic skin response kicks into overdrive. The pulled curtains hint at a dark, hollow interior which fills me with indescribable horror. Sweat stains my underarms.
I would gaze at the wraith-like mountains on the horizon and joke that living in The Country was like living in a hole. We lived in a valley, a depression, on swampland to boot. My whole universe existed between the unswerving lines of a dozen streets.
There was nowhere to go.
The value of virtual space is that it is incorporeal, intangible as the wind. It can lift you above your physical circumstances. Sitting in my room as a teenager, my laptop screen stretched infinitely into the digital ether.
As a rule, I shy away from talking about my youth because it sounds like a tedious stereotype. Violence was a consistent companion. Peers threw me into walls, and strangers spat on me as they walked by.
Physical intimidation and verbal harassment were daily affairs. The recess afforded by MSN Messenger was a beautiful, life-saving contradiction. Messenger overcame the tyranny of distance, and it could also create empty space.
On Messenger, I could talk to anyone, anywhere, without them being able to threaten me. ‘Nudges’ were extremely obnoxious but nobody can punch you through a program. By appearing offline you could be present and invisible simultaneously.
The internet is both a marketplace to discover and a vacuum in which to experiment. I had no control over the trajectory of my life, but over my desktop I was god. While my daylight hours were consumed by self-denial, online spaces were habitats in which I could breathe, imagine and daydream.
The first porn I watched was on a site called boysfirsttime.com. With its powder-blue background and JPEG thumbnails bordered in grey, it looked every bit like an ‘Intro to HTML3’ tutorial. Importantly, it offered no violence and no judgement.
The narratives were deliciously camp and the idea of sexual intimacy was intoxicating. This online niche made other gay people, who had previously only been my private speculation, palpably real.
My other outlet for sexual desire at the time was writing very horny and incredibly gay fanfics on FanFiction.net. Sentimental fantasies about desire, friendship, longing, sex. These were the first pieces I wrote for public consumption.
Eventually, this developed into writing horror shorts and mumblecore poetry, which I published on DeviantArt. The world would have been fine (if not better off) without my tragic assaults on language, but for me, this self-expression was vital.
The first time I flirted with a boy was on an LGBT forum circa 2007. Exchanging selfies and flattery with other young queers inspired some of the happiest memories from my teen years. Then came the hidden profiles on MySpace for sending and soliciting nudes.
Tapping keys sounds like water drops, or like torrential rain if you do it fast enough. Coding, communicating, writing, navigating the urban sprawl of cyber neighbourhoods – it’s all energy flowing out from you.
As I spent the quiet hours of the night in chat rooms, it would crawl to a quiet trickle. These haunts had their own language, nonsense to the outside world:
rawwrr: 17 m australia u
punkguy: 20m usa
Hidden away in the drawers and cupboards of the internet are pockets that cater to genuine human needs, sexual, social and intimate. In online space you can meet the boundaries of your persona such that they dissolve.
Tumblr is what you would get if you explained Dadaism to a sentient AI and then asked it to design a website. A feed was a pastiche of discourse, gifs, images, knowledge, shitposting and text, all seamlessly interwoven. It was multi-medium and intertextual and manifestly queer.
My everyday life as a book nerd who used dish detergent as shampoo was fairly miserable. In my online existence, I metamorphosed along with the content of my posts. I could share thoughts, fears and the things I loved with other people.
Every post was another room I carved out of the electric soil of our terrestrial computer network. I grew more massive than the world. I was many places at once and had as many surfaces as I desired. Untethered, I flew frictionlessly through the abyss of online space.
I stood under the high columns of an immense, cosmic house, its foundations buried in the silt of digital platforms. This residence holds our fantasies and nightmares. It is a shelter that protects us while we dream.
After exiting my first long-term relationship, my instinct was to download the apps. For me, it was Tinder, Hornet and Grindr. To this list, we might add Hinge, Scruff, Recon, Squirt and others that cater to varying levels of lust and manners.
Two weeks after breaking up, he loudly fucked someone in the room next to mine. I cried myself to sleep on the futon, scrolling through Grindr for solace. Online spaces never close. They are always there, waiting.
This is a terror as much as a comfort. Grindr is routinely repellent. In theory, it is a digital beat offering tantalising possibilities for pleasure. It collapses space and satiates desire. For a moment, it entertains.
In practice, however, it’s a platform for abuse and discrimination. It’s objectively terrible, but many of us continue to use it despite our better judgement. Sometimes it’s enough to know that other people like you exist in regular space.
I’ve tapped the orange mask of the Grindr icon many times. Ongoing conversation is typically secondary to my dopamine-fuelled curiosity. Who’s on the grid? This inquisitive spirit leads to a handful of trysts, and many more brief exchanges:
hey what’s up
Increasingly, I find Grindr less sexy and more like work. It doesn’t hold the same electric appeal as the beat, club and sauna. I arrange more hook-ups through Instagram. Virtual space is adaptable like that, plastic, never just for one purpose.
That being said, I appreciate Grindr for what it is. Hook-up apps, or apps used to hook up despite their original intention, are subways in cyberspace. They connect our subterranean lives, our little stations filled with ghosts.
Every kind of social platform is haunted. To ‘ghost’ someone is to evaporate from virtual space, often spontaneously. This causes confusion and bruises hearts. Sometimes you get ghosted, and sometimes you’re the ghost.
The phenomenon of online ghosts is rich with implications. Ghosting means that you have left, implying you were actually there to begin with. Online space unites but it can also camouflage. We can hide in the digital undergrowth.
The distinction between real life and online is a false one. When caught in the glow of my phone, I become unaware of my immediate surrounds. I am somewhere else, which is no less real. I’m socialising, learning, playing, relaxing, working, existing within the confines of digital domains.
Our ‘presence’ on social media isn’t any more or less a facade than our resumes, family portraits or social pretences. When you think about it, everything is a projection. Online, offline… it’s all just life.
Physical and virtual space do have different qualities, though. In my experience, meatspace is defined by its fortifications: fences, gates, walls, locks, doors, receptionists, and all manner of things that hinder movement.
If material reality is a series of limitations, then opportunity is about being in the right place. In turn, getting to the right place is all about who you know. Someone needs to unlock the door from the other side.
Ensure you are born into the right class and a nice neighbourhood, and attend an excellent school, preferably private. Have relations, connections and means. Make sure you have a stable family home and intergenerational assets.
As for myself, I was a serial truant at an underfunded public school. I drank competitively and ripped cones at every opportunity. When I did go to school, I would work in the library by myself. I scored the highest in VCE English, but didn’t turn up for the award.
I had no income and no prospects, and I escaped at the earliest opportunity. I moved 200km to attend university on a government relocation scholarship, without which I could never have afforded to leave.
My big break as a freelance writer came via Twitter. An editor slid into my DMs and asked me to expand on a thread I’d tweeted. It was my first ever commission. I’d never met an editor before and likely never would have, if not for social media.
Twitter can materialise staircases and make walls transparent. You liquify barriers and meet gatekeepers on a plateau. In exchange, you must jack your eyeballs into a lo-fi matrix of information and news, most of it bad.
It’s a source of support, a place to socialise, organise. Or it might spew out hundreds of abusive notifications for hours on end. It can be exhausting, sure, but if you have no connections, no relations and no means, then it’s everything.
There’s also something profoundly existential about social media. If nothing usually lasts then everything lasts half as long online. The half-life of a tweet reminds us to hold on to anything we can because we won’t last.
You tweet, post, share and repost, clawing for attention in a universe that is indifferent to your failures and successes. You hustle, constantly, but cannot shake the hazy awareness that the oceans are boiling. The flesh world teeters on collapse.
Viewed from the right angle, our pointless digital thrashings are beautiful. We press ourselves into virtual alcoves and imagine new worlds, new versions of ourselves. Everyone creating and engaging. Dreaming.
This state of objective reality has no dimensions and extends in all directions. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.
It’s not that things are better in online spaces. People can be unkind and cruel online. Anonymity encourages ruthlessness. That anyone can say anything with a few strokes is democratic and frequently monstrous. The smooth, flat terrain is both a boon and a blight.
Perhaps you find this ambiguity unsatisfying, but I do not think the internet is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is merely a powerful tool. It harms and overworks, yes, but also connects and liberates. At its best, it warps and bypasses the forces of regular space.
Being online was a way to live in peace as a young queer, to experiment, discover, fail and have fun. Online spaces were sanctuaries from the hostile environs of everyday life. As an adult, they continue to provide me with opportunities.
In the rapidly deteriorating hellscape we call modern life, virtual space takes on outsized importance. Like never before, we turn to these spaces as we struggle with the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prospect of imminent financial ruin leaves me with a drowning feeling, gasping for air while my lungs fill up with water. At the same time, I’ve been relatively unfazed by weeks of social isolation. If anything, it feels nostalgic.
Lockdown is a little taste of what it’s like to grow up queer. You’re anxious, immobile, lonely, lustful and trying your best just to survive under the circumstances. You’re powerless in the face of the world, but you have others at your fingertips.
To legacy social media we can add Discord, FaceTime, Houseparty, OnlyFans, TikTok and so on, forever. There is a superabundance of online space, a little corner for everyone. Virtual space is incalculable, organic, and above all else, human. It feels right that we continue to find lodging in the alcoves and crevices of our tremendous, online home.
Joshua Badge is a queer philosopher and writer living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. They tweet @joshuabadge.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #14, the GROWING UP issue.