True Story: I was an Internet Punk

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“It’s just punk rock, man. You don’t have to know how to play. You just have to be a punk.”

I sat for hours at that diner counter, nursing my caffeine, chain-smoking cheap cigarettes. It was 1996, 9 years before I quit smoking, and still several years before it was banned from Boston restaurants. Deli-Haus always had a bit of a smokey haze in those days. I was freelancing as a young writer and (mostly) paying my bills with a graveyard shift at a convenience store. I huddled over a spiral-bound notebook, furiously scribbling away my afternoon. I looked every bit the 19 year-old wannabe poet.

It wasn’t poetry being scrawled on those pages. I was writing code. I didn’t own a computer at that point, but a friend had been letting me use his password to access the Boston University computer labs. I’d been studying HTML tutorials online, printing them out, and writing my website in a notebook. When I’d get computer access, I’d transcribe batches of code and play around with it until it was a complete site. This was in the early, primitive days of Geocities and Tripod free website hosting. It was raw and crude, punk rock web development. We didn’t know what it would be, but every link, every email, every chat was a new connection to a world beyond the places we lived.

Unlike some of my other friends and peers from those days, I was never dedicated enough to becoming a professional web developer that I studied the new iterations of web language. Javascript? PHP? Cold Fusion? I can’t code any of them. I’m a bit more 3-chord than that, which partially explains how I wound up working with social media rather than developing sites.

I think of those early days, using Pine for email, building tiny, personal sites for audiences that were an open mic night compared to the arena rock of today’s internet. Nobody understood the power of what we were playing with, especially the major media players. In those days Disinfo effectively had as big a digital footprint as Newscorp.

Over the years, the internet experience has simultaneously become more and less tame. Once it became clear that there was money to be had, the corporations tried to set up shop, some meeting more success than others. Some tiny internet start-ups grew to become major corporations in their own right. But the internet is still an unwieldy beast of a medium, and people are still figuring out how to make it do the things they want. When a new idea sticks around long enough to become an institution like Facebook, people start to get the hang of it, methods become rote. But, and here’s the thing, every new application or device presents new opportunities and challenges. Every new development is another gang of unruly teenagers banging away in a garage trying to make something that sounds like music.

Some community managers prefer the safe route, focused on what tested and true strategies exist for this iteration of the social web. I’ve certainly tried to be that guy when a client called for it, and having worked traditional marketing gigs it’s very easy to fall into the trap of treating community management like a traditional marketing venture. But you don’t make Raw Power by rote.

The truly amazing thing of building a community and brand in this era is that it’s all so fluid. You never know which technology will be the next Pinterest, or which will vanish like Google Wave. It’s difficult to predict which approach will take off in a viral fashion. Anyone who says different is either a genius or a liar. Maybe both.

You need internet punks. Don’t confuse that with being somehow too true to yourself to sell a product (we’re not internet hippies here, people). The Sex Pistols were the world’s most cleverly disguised boy band, assembled by Malcom Mclaren to become cartoon rock stars and sell his clothing. It is the blueprint every would-be viral creator and community manager should aspire to. It was relevant, putting a face on pre-existing subcultural trends he’d seen with the New York Dolls. It grew in the telling, like every good meme does. It eventually became something bigger, a scene, a culture. Punk as a cultural identifier is branding made manifest over the generations. It’s calling cotton swabs Q-Tips, or soda Coke. And they’re still wearing clothes in McClaren’s style 35 years later.

I’ve ditched the spiral-bound notebook for an Android tablet. I still work from wherever suits me, but wifi is a priority these days. The tools grow and change with time, but the ethic remains the same. You need to be able to adjust on the fly, but put your back into it. Play with your heart on your sleeve and Mclaren’s sneaky, capitalist sneer on your face. The internet is still a place for crazy, punk rock tactics. Still a place where you can hear the fuzzy crackle of vinyl amid the pristine sound of a digital world. That’s a good thing. It means we’re still only getting started.

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