In 2005, I turned down a job offer for what was, up until that moment, my dream job. It was at a for a Not-for-Profit, doing Social Policy.
The pay was good. It was a permanent position. I could make a real difference to people’s lives. It felt good to be in The Meritocracy. I’d set a goal, worked really hard and overcame the odds, despite the deck being firmly stacked against me. Now, after a handful of shitty casual and contract jobs in child protection, recruitment, retail, hospitality… here was my first real, proper job offer. Security! An upwardly mobile middle class life from my hard work, sacrifice, and education!
Proper merit. Oh, man, it’s true! You can make a difference if you just work hard. Asterisk.
My life was on track. Asterisk.
In the decade leading up to this moment, “the Internet” was something I did alongside my actual goals. I played with friends from around the world who lived inside the ugly beige box in my living room. I fucked around, occasionally found out, I made people laugh, I helped people out and learned new skills in the process, paid in exposure, laughter, self-righteousness, occasional cash payments and many, many free tickets and even more merch.
I loved being creative and learning new things. I became good at community management. My policy training and political skills had made me a good and fairly reasonable moderator, so even when I wasn’t an official mod, people would come to me to settle disputes. Over time I was appointed to run a bunch of communities, but it wasn’t a job, it was just something I had fun doing. I liked solving problems, making a difference and helping people out. If people asked for my advice, or needed help setting something up, I’d just do it for them, or show them how and explain it.
Over time I became known for that. Okay, that, and my writing. Two sides of myself that are in perpetual conflict: competent, serious me; and smart-alec funny writer me. Both smart. Both important. In perpetual conflict.
People look at me like I am crazy when I say this, but there are two things you need to grasp about the Internet prior to around 2003. First, the internet was where you put your secrets. Second, it was not even a job, let alone a career or degree. You may laugh at me when I say that I wrote on the Internet to my imaginary friends under my real name with the expectation that nobody would see it. It seems ridiculous. But in most cases, if you were one of the un-famous on the Internet, this was a fair expectation to have. The idea of becoming famous on the Internet, especially under your real name, was also not a thing. And, the odds of your family or people you knew in real life knowing what you said about them on the Internet was close to zero. Asterisk.
It is hard to explain unless you were there. Only a small number of people you knew were on the Internet, and even fewer of them know how to find things. This all famously came to a head, of course, in 2002, when Heather Armstrong was fired from her job for telling the Internet about her co-workers. You just don’t get it, guys. That shit was wild. You mean… someone… can… read this? Like… from the real world? People can Google you even if you don’t submit your site to a directory? You can not only get famous from the Internet …everyone can read what you wrote?
Oh, I’d better say sh*t in case my boss or sister can see. F*ck. Real Asterisk*
That is a real thing that happened, kids. Gen Y didn’t invent cancel culture, you dumb motherfuckers. My generation openly trash talked our colleagues, families and kids with abandon thinking we wouldn’t get caught. It’s our Generation’s Woodstock – calling our infant children cunts and bitching about Tracy from HR microwaving fish and having no idea they were going to read it at some point. Every word. You’re welcome. And fuck you, Tracy. You still suck.
Un-famous people could write whatever they wanted. Fuck, shit, cunt. None of this f**k to avoid algorithms crap. The internet was asterisk free. Asterisk.
You must also remember that “the Internet” was not a real job for anyone other than a handful of nerds who were either computer programmers, network engineers or hardware tinkerers. Heather happened to be a graphic designer who was employed in early tech, surrounded by more people than your average person and therefore way more likely to be found out, and even she had no idea what was coming.
She was one of the more savvy people, whilst most designers were barely grappling with the idea that websites were not paper and you couldn’t lay it out like a magazine, (and no, whilst your 7pt Helvetica grey on dark grey text does create a nice aesthetic on your $20,000 Mac, you know, people can’t read it and it doesn’t work on PCs and resolutions over 1024 and no, pitching a fit won’t change that… yeesh).
Web Design (and especially digital more broadly as its own vocation) just… wasn’t a thing in its own right. Unless you were blessed with being in the inner circle in the dot-com boom and one of the chosen few, “webmasters” were mostly volunteers, or, if you were paid for it, consisted of programmers who were shit at design yet lacked the self-awareness to know it, or graphic designers who didn’t understand programming (or programmers), and the occasional Flash animator who just did their own thing in between gallery openings. Fun Times. People like me just made stuff on the Internet, had fun with all of the tools, wrote with abandon, slagged off our neighbours in lengthy manifestos over minor transgressions, and we had absolutely no idea if anyone was reading it, or who. This was before people kept stats. Asterisk.
For the ten years before I went pro, if a programmer or graphic designer asked me a question, I just helped them out. Sometimes they’d offer me money, but it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t my job. Digital was separate from real life. It wasn’t my job. It wasn’t a real job. The Internet was Not Real Life. Asterisk. And it certainly wasn’t a viable business unless you were a programmer or graphic designer, or one of the chosen few in Silicon Valley, and I was neither of those. I’d of course done a few internships at graphic design shops and printers, and wrote for some street mags, but there was nothing that resembled being a “digital strategist” or User Experience or Internet-whateverthefuck I am now, until many – many – years later. Asterisk.
I was a policy person. I would work in policy roles, write lots of things, change the world and then maybe one day run for office or start a Think Tank. Pfft… Internet? That’s just entertainment and nerds, man. I just like making things and writing jokes and ranting for fun. I’m somebody on there, and I am free to be me, and people like me for who I am. Asterisk.
But, I was good at it, and so over time people kept asking me to do stuff for them in exchange for money because people kept telling their friends about me and my willingness to help with… whatever. The engineers would ask me to design for them (ugh) and the graphic designers would ask me to code their designs for them (ugh). I even learned how to smile behind gritted teeth when people would “design” things and ask me to be the “technical person” – a skill I would hone over the years and still use to this day. For a decade, it was just a thing I did, got a little cash from, and acquired skills as I went along. All whilst writing shit about everything and everyone on the Internet with a plan to have a real career and a real job and have this creative outlet where I was free to be myself, without asterisks in my swear words. Asterisk.
Then, in 2005, I was offered that job. I was 28 weeks pregnant with pre-eclampsia, on bed rest and had been forced to take leave from my current short term contract position. I was already finding it difficult being the first Mum to drop my kid off and the last to pick her up, and I was expecting another kid. My contract was ending and I was about to have a baby with no maternity leave, and I had been applying for jobs, knowing it was pretty futile.
I had also just been paid $500US to do a website for someone. That was nice.
Then I was offered the job, but I’d have to go back to work when my son was 6 weeks old. I faced a turning point.
So, I declined that job and decided to go pro with web stuff. Asterisk. It was now my full time business. Asterisk. I remember at the time, saying “if this stops being fun, I’ll quit and go back to policy work”. Asterisk.
My whole life and career that didn’t exist, and made up as I went along, was built on a premise that I was having fun, that I was helping people and that I could go back to my ‘real job’ if it didn’t work out. Turns out, that premise had a whole lot of fine print and asterisks that, had I known – I would not have signed up. I just wanted to help people, and have work-life balance and maybe make a difference. I have had to face the fact that I not only bought these lies myself, I also sold it to everyone else.
I bought the promise. And, what a promise it was.
Win-win! The Internet is a meritocracy where you get back what you put in. Asterisk. Win-win. Innovation. Freedom. Merit. Agency. Choice. Here, just sign the Terms of Service. Sure, what you get back will be that we insist you insert asterisks on your words and thoughts and connections, but you’re totally free. It’s fine. By checking this box, you agree to the Terms of Service.
By using our products and services, you consent to your data being collected and used for various purposes, including sharing with our partners and to make your experience better and improve our products, of course. We’re all about the open internet, and of course we value your privacy. Just read 19 pages of our EULA written in 7pt grey on grey Helvetica and tell us you consent. I mean, we know you don’t read it because we measure every click and mouse over and scroll to improve our product, but the main thing is… you checked the box. Don’t worry, it’ll hold up in court because we have unlimited resources and you have none. And we’ll make it so you have to come to California to fight it. Deal?
We know you don’t read the Terms of Service, but, you checked the box. We’re off the hook. We’re the good guys. This is a totally free and fair contract where you are free to create and connect. Would a guy wearing jeans and sneakers ever lie to you like those men in the suits? Of course not. We’re wearing sneakers, you see.
We’re just here to help. Create a movement. Tell us how you’re feeling and what you’re up to every minute of the day. Be authentic. Slag off Grandma. Write fanfiction that is a thinly disguised plot to massacre everyone who chomps raw carrots in the office. Connect with your friends and family. Send grandma pictures of your kids and write down your thoughts. Don’t worry, we won’t tell grandma. Asterisk.
Connect. That’s what you gotta do. Answer the questions in the box and connect. Asterisk asterisk asterisk. The brands come to you now, and meet you where you’re at. Asterisk asterisk asterisk. Find more clients who need help with their websites and don’t you know, Word of Mouth is the most powerful form of marketing? Asterisk.
Express yourself freely and share stories with each other. Warts and all. If you have an idea and you put it in the box that is asking you how your day went, you will likely find a way to build an audience and the brands will come to you. Branded content. Win-win. I mean, we own it, and you don’t get paid, but… we’re sure you’ll be right. You’ll find paying customers.
Speak your mind. No, not like that. Express yourself. No, not like that.
Oh, just a heads up: the Coke Brand Manager gave us a call and isn’t very happy with your views on sugar. You can say anything you want and connect with anyone you want, just don’t mention Coke. And please, it’s okay to be authentic, in a branding “we’d like to buy the world a Coke” sense, but not…like… authentic authentic. Also, please put asterisks in your swearing so that people aren’t offended by your swearing. Kthx.
Don’t you know, the rules changed 3 hours ago? Got a problem with it? Delete your account. By continuing to use our service, you agree to our Terms of Service, lack of support, and politicians and intelligence agencies harvesting of your behavioural data from quizzes, presented as harmless fun.
You have a choice. Comply, or delete your account. The account that we promised would be free, allow you to connect, and find an audience, and actively encouraged you to abandon your website for? Well, if you don’t like it, you can leave. Good luck in court. Hahaha we’ll exhaust your resources and then settle so there’s no precedent that says it’s an unconscionable contract. What are you gunna do? Create something elsewhere? Connect elsewhere? Innovate harder if you have a problem. Start your own platform or something. Hope you have good lawyers.
You dumb m*therf*ckers. Haha. You’re our b*tch.
I’d like to invest in your app. Asterisk. Just build that MVP first and hand it over. Asterisk. Sign this NDA. Asterisk. Work with this incubator. Asterisk. Don’t worry, it’s your IP and we won’t steal it and cut you out and give it to a man we think might be more suitable as a Founder. Asterisk. If you work for us for free, we’ll help you later. Asterisk. Come work for us to help us fix our shit. Asterisk. Start your own Agency. Asterisk. Retainers. Asterisk. Help me with my SEO. Asterisk. Send me an invoice, I’ll definitely pay you. Asterisk asterisk Asterisk. 15 years of Asterisk after Asterisk piled up and eventually there was 50 pages of fine print to every one-page brochure.
Try to make your own thing? Well, you can do whatever you want. Asterisk. Don’t think about going back to policy work, because the stuff you were encouraged to write on the internet is now a burn book against you. Don’t complain about it, or say anything about it, or you’ll have every troll farm in town mass reporting you for years, limiting your reach. But by all means, be authentic, grow your influence, find an audience. Asterisk. Asterisk. Asterisk.
Needless to say, I backed the wrong horse. I fell for a scam with a whole bunch of fine print. And as the fine print got larger, and I had to face the fact that I had not only been scammed but was also the scammer… I had to face that it was not only no longer fun, but the programmers who are shit designers and even worse at reading humans are now in charge. The people with $20,000 Macs pitching a fit over aesthetic were now in charge, and the people like me, who had enabled them, had been exploited and left behind. Furthermore, I am no longer able to grow an audience with my “authenticity” and “candour”, because algorithms and Tracy from HR now decide who gets a job, or builds an audience, or makes a living. Unfortunately, now, because I have spent so many years calling people cunts for fun on the internet, that I can’t even go back to a real job. Turns out, I sacrificed it all for a career that didn’t exist.
I sure had fun, though. Asterisk.
* actual asterisk: I actually found this out in 2001, because I worked in a computer store and had been blogging about being pregnant with my daughter and not telling anyone. My boss said “congratulations” as I walked in the following afternoon. So I found out earlier. Still…shiiiiiiit. And no, I never asterisked my swearing. Fuck that shit. Asterisk people are the worst. Swear or don’t swear. Shit or get off the pot, fuckhead.