Cassidy Williams

Software Engineer in Chicago

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Seattle and the internet

From the end of 2016 through the first half of 2020, I lived in Seattle. I really liked living there when I did. It was a quirky city (I had moved there after burning out in NYC), and I often called it a “hobbyist” city. Everyone there is really into the things they’re into.

Exhibit A: I moved there with a light interest in mechanical keyboards, and I left with a couple dozen boards to my name, some keycap design brand deals, after helping organize a 300+ person mechanical keyboard event annually, and being on the board of a non-profit that helped kids learn how to solder via mechanical keyboards.

Exhibit B: I love playing music, and in my time there, I was a part of the Seattle Video Game Orchestra (playing fun music from Skyrim and Zelda and more at various events and conventions), as well as an all-electric-guitar band, and almost joined another one before the pandemic hit.

I love getting into things, and if you wanted to get into something, whether it’s rock climbing or birdwatching or music or coffee, Seattle was (and is) the place to do it.

All that being said… I really, really struggled to make friends there. The Seattle Freeze is very much a thing. I would invite someone to dinner or to hang out, and it was incredibly common for them to ghost me after I asked. I would go to a tech meetup, and I would almost never actually interact with the people at the meetup (outside of the people in my group with whom I went). Nearly all of the friends I did make were people I knew from outside of Seattle.

And honestly, I didn’t mind that. I am more introverted, and I enjoyed having just 2 or 3 really close friends (one being my sister) and more distant friends that I’d see on occasion.

However, there was a point in the summer of 2019 where I spoke at back-to-back events, a couple in Denver and one in Chicago, and something hit me that I didn’t expect: follow-ups. I had so many emails from people thanking me for my talk, and asking to connect in the future next time I was in town. I had texts from people asking if I wanted to go to a café after the event to talk more. It felt like a social fog had lifted in my brain: follow-ups are normal! That human connection is what these events are for! What the heck had I been doing not meeting people for a couple years?

At that point, I kind of knew that I didn’t want to stay in Seattle forever, but I’d try to work harder at the “social” thing. It didn’t really work, and then COVID really messed with my plans. When our jobs went fully remote, my husband and I decided to move to a larger city (Chicago) closer to family.

And y’all… I’ll cut to the chase, we have made so many friends in Chicago. In that first year we were here, end of 2020 - 2021, even though it was the height of the pandemic, we made more friends here than we did in nearly 4 years in Seattle.

It is not nearly as much of a hobbyist city. Yes, they have a mechanical keyboard meetup and tech meetups and bands you can join, yes. But it’s so much more of a social city. We’ll be at a burger place and someone will ask us if we’ve seen any good movies lately. I went to a tech meetup and someone invited me to the Renaissance Fair. I’m friends with people where our Venn Diagram of interests has basically nothing in the middle, but they’re friendly, so we can gab about something on occasion. Even as an introverted dweeb, I absolutely love how many people I’ve gotten to know well, and it’s not a slog to make those connections. It’s so filling!

That level of human connection and community is so valuable, and has been genuinely great for my brain in ways I didn’t expect. I didn’t realize that I felt lonely, until I had so many people who were fun to talk to, down to grab food, asking for rides to the airport, able to help watch my baby, sharing Costco memberships, or just wanting to be around. I know other cities and places also have this type of vibe, too. But allow me to stop there and use this experience as a metaphor for…

The internet

I’ve written about human curation before, so it might sound like I’m beating a dead horse, but hang in there with me: Right now, the internet is really, really good at being geared towards your specific interests.

The internet today is a lot like my Seattle experience. The “For You” pages on the various social networks are spot on with regards to what I like, and they help me get more into the things that I like. But those aren’t really “social” networks as much anymore. They’re content networks. It’s things, not connections. Yes, some connections do happen, but the mediums are geared towards what content will keep you around.

I feel like the internet of the past was more like my Chicago experience. I made random internet friends who I’m still friends with from over a decade ago. There’s little pockets here and there on Discord (hello, nerds) and other more chat-oriented spaces, but it’s not what it once was. I saw a post somewhere the other day that was something like:

2006, everyone has a MySpace
2010, everyone has a Facebook
2014, everyone has an Instagram
2016, everyone has a Snapchat
2020, everyone has a TikTok
2024, everyone has a …?

The responses to this were filled with people saying “short attention spans” and “anxiety” and related things. Though there’s exceptions to the rule and “not everyone had every network” blah blah, the point is that there isn’t a big central place now to find or interact with friends unless you really put a lot of effort into it. Everyone feels like they have really retreated into the comfort of letting the feeds fill their minds with things that generally interest them in bite-sized pieces. We’ve gotten lazier and lazier, and the UIs are designed to be so intuitive and addicting that we’re just pulled in more. We don’t have the “social” parts of the social networks as much anymore.

Since writing my previously linked post on human curation, it’s been really cool seeing the things people have written and made that are very much not algorithm-focused (I got a lot of cool emails and messages with links, and I welcome more). I’ve been able to chat with people and discover topics I never would have known about before. I probably sound like an old woman shaking my fist at the moon when I say this, but I really feel like that’s how the internet should be.

I don’t know what the “Chicago” of the internet might be, if we’re still leaning into this metaphor. We have brains that we should be using, and social muscles that we should be flexing, no matter how introverted or shy we are. We shouldn’t just let the algorithms decide what we see on the internet. We should be able to effortlessly have human connections, even if it’s with people who are interested in different things.

Until someone solves it (please don’t make me solve it), I’d better run, some friends just stopped by with boba, and I’ve got to tell them about a book I just read!

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