Relationships over MSN and daily records of texts: my teen diaries are a timeline of the early internet

I'm lucky – when I was growing up, the internet was ephemeral, and without these diaries everything I wrote online would be lost.

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On 7 July 2008, I received 15 text messages. I don’t remember them – what they said or who they were from – but I know I got them because I recently found my old teenage diaries. Ten years ago, I recorded the number of texts I got every day (at 10p each, they were like gold itself back then). Nearly every diary entry involves new, emerging technology, from the selfies-we-didn’t-call-selfies to being kicked off the internet so Mum could use the phone.

Running from 2006 to 2009, my teenage diaries accidentally archive a life lived online. Between musings about school (“drama was sad, we did the Holocaust”) and typical teenage triviality (“Ben is out with Charlotte!! MY GOD. Also I saw the Dalai Lama today”), my diaries document my time on four social networks across three years. They are a timeline of the intricacies of the early internet, experiences that have already been forgotten in the ever-evolving digital landscape. 

Take, for example, 5 January 2007. “I just kind of died” when the boy I was dating, we’ll call him Pete, changed his instant messaging status. On MSN messenger, users were able to set a permanent status, so boyfriends often wrote their girlfriends’ names next to love hearts represented by the less-than sign and a three (<3). Pete, for some reason, had changed his status from “AMELIA!!! <3” to “Amelia <3” which was, of course, devastating.

Yet when I look back on these diaries, I am nostalgic for more than just teenage life. When I was growing up, the internet was ephemeral, and without these diaries everything I wrote online as a teenager would be lost. I am extremely lucky. Today’s teens live under the constant threat that what they post online will return to haunt them, and numerous celebrities have been shamed for things that they wrote on social networks in the near past.

Last year, YouTuber Jack Maynard, now 23, was kicked off ITV’s I’m A Celebrity for using derogatory slurs on social media when he was 16, while fellow YouTuber Zoella was disgraced after it emerged she once mocked “fat chavs” online. The rapper Stormzy apologised for old tweets about “faggots”, and former Gay Times editor Josh Rivers was fired (a month after getting the job) for old racist tweets.

Regrettably, my old diaries contain slurs and slang that are jarring to read now. I worry about being a “retarded” kisser, and I get angsty when my boyfriend fights with a “chav” on the now-dead social network Bebo. “Gay” is used consistently as slang to mean “uncool”, so that when that same boyfriend changed his MSN profile picture to one of us on 7 January 2007, “he was worried it looked gay”. 

I’m aware now of how damaging this language was and is, but I still fear for today’s teenagers pushing boundaries online. The social networks I used (AOL Instant Messenger, Bebo, MySpace, and MSN) are dead and forgotten, leaving no digital dust. On 26 June 2006, I had an email argument with a girl called Sarah. While this caused drama at the time (“Sarah has printed off the emails I sent her, ONLY the ones I sent her, not the ones she sent or the one where I said sorry, and is showing them to everyone”) it wasn’t on a public profile that remains searchable to this day (why won’t Facebook die, anyway?).

As the diaries go on, you can see the internet become less ephemeral. After my 14th birthday party in 2006, I write that I “NEED COPIES!!!!!” of the photos my friends took, which weren’t – and couldn’t be – instantly uploaded to social media.

By 2009, a mean girl had uploaded to Facebook pictures of me kissing a boy at the school social – pictures that most likely remain there to this day (and were, I hope, used by Cambridge Analytica to psychoanalyse me as a Carrie type best left alone).

Nowadays, Snapchat is a supposedly ephemeral social network – messages sent on the app disappear after they are read. Yet, in reality, teenagers download and save these messages and send them on. In 2013, a California teenager took his own life after a fellow student filmed him apparently masturbating in a toilet cubicle. The video had gone viral via Snapchat.

Reading my diaries, I realise we didn’t know how to screenshot anything back then, much less have the internet connection bandwidth to forward it on. Cyber-bullying did, of course, exist, and we experienced other problems that still blight the internet today (on 19 August 2006, a paedophile added me on the social network Bebo).

Yet most of my problems were frivolous, which is, I hope, something people will remember when they scaremonger about social media being inherently damaging. On MySpace, we used to be able to rank our “top eight” friends and display them on our profiles. On 28 July 2008, I was devastated when Luke knocked me off his top eight and replaced me with Bethany, but that hasn’t left psychological scars.

Nor did text-speak ruin my ability to communicate. On 24 September 2007, the Daily Mail ran the headline “I h8 txt msgs” on an article about how text-speak was destroying the English language. On 16 March 2007, I received a highly poetic text from a boy named James. “Hey mia. How u doin. I reeli miss u,” it begins. “I can’t bear not being with u. I love u soo much. C u l8r sexy.”

I didn’t grow up online, not really. Unlike today’s children, I didn’t have an iPad aged two and a scarring experience watching a surreal, auto-generated pregnant Spider-man on the YouTube Kids app aged five. I grew up on an experimental and ephemeral internet, and for that I am grateful. My memories remain safely offline, in notebooks decorated with butterflies. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war