One of my life goals is to be a little less online every single day. At 28, I’m of the first generation to grow up more or less alongside the internet itself. The internet was conceived by the military industrial complex and, after years of development and experimentation, was made accessible to mainstream consumers by ISPs in 1989. I was conceived by my parents and, after months of developing a small human body, was delivered by a doctor in 1989. When I was a child, the internet was a child. In 2000, I yanked the front brakes on my bike while riding down a hill and sent myself tumbling over the handlebars; that year, the dot-com bubble burst and the made a bunch of early tech companies do the same thing. Facebook and YouTube hit when I was in high school; the first iPhone was released the same month I graduated. I found out about Twitter when I was a sophomore in college; shortly after that graduation, I tried to figure out what Bitcoin was as a friend sold all of his off and traveled around Europe living off the profits.
The first new internet thing I failed to understand was Snapchat. I downloaded it, sent and received a few photos to people, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out the point. After I accidentally sent a video of myself vaping to all 35 of my followers, I deleted the app and never looked back. I have a theory that everyone of my generation — those of us a little too old to be the hyper-literate tech natives that our younger siblings are, not so old that we’re inflexibly set in our digital ways — experiences a such moments of confusion, though (hopefully) with less vaping. Regardless, these experiences, once compounded, often lead to a point of schism. Suddenly, the internet is no longer this fun thing that’s constantly evolving in exciting ways. Instead, adapting to every new change the internet throws at us becomes an obligation at best and a challenge at worst.
Lately, I’ve grown frustrated with the state of my passwords. For the first 11 years of my online life, I’d been able to get away with using the same password I arbitrarily picked on the first day of computer class when I was 14. But as anxiety over hacking has caused companies to step up security protocols, I’ve had to continually make subtle changes to that password, throwing in capital letters, numbers, non-alphanumeric characters to the original — and in many cases, being told I had to ditch it altogether — until my trusty skeleton key to all things online had slowly morphed into a jumble of names and phrases that I was constantly trying out on the wrong locks. A few months ago, I tried to sign into my personal email from someone else’s computer and, after typing all of the alternatives I could remember, locked myself out of my account and had to reset my password yet again.
This one new password has broken me.
Every time I try to sign into one of my bazillion online accounts, I feel like I’m being punished for having a bad memory. I have so many potential passwords at this point that, in the process of trying to access some account I sign into twice a year, I end up entering every password I can think of, and if I don’t guess right on the first few attempts, I end up getting locked out of my account until I create a new password, one that’s different from all of the other passwords I’ve made every other time I’ve repeated this process. (I experience this problem in the real world, as well. I just moved into a new house which has one of those locks where you can type a code and get in, and, after coming home from walking my dog, incorrectly typed the code so many times that the lock shut down and I had to break into my own house.)
Sitting by as all of the passwords slowly leak out of my brain has been strangely liberating. For example, over the past week I’ve been unnaturally preoccupied with the idea of getting a desk. After spending hours on Wayfair, thumbing through tabs containing cosmetically different but essentially identical pleasant, boring desks, I settled on one and had steeled myself to make my purchase. But in the time it took to type incorrect passwords until I ended up locking myself out of the Wayfair account I swore I’d created three years ago, I came to my senses that realized that the kitchen table my computer was resting on was good enough.
Similarly, I have no idea what my Twitter password is. I’m signed into the Twitter app on my phone but not signed in on my desktop. If I ever wanted to tweet from my laptop, I’d have to get a new password, which I’m worried would sign me out of Twitter on my phone. And even if this doesn’t turn out to be the case, the hassle of having to jump through a hoop just to send out some dumb joke about the six teens running for governor in Kansas is a nice check on my impulse to remind the world I exist by tweeting at all.
I’ve come to view locking myself out of an account is an opportunity to assess whether that element of my digital life is actually necessary, or if it’s just a way to waste money or distract myself from doing the things I want to do before I am dead. (Or, as The Outline’s social media guru Brandy Jensen recently put it to me, “Forgetting a password is God’s way of saying hello.”) This is not to say that I don’t take online security seriously — quite the opposite. I want my internet presence to be so locked down that even I can’t access it.
We should all be so lucky to forget our passwords. We should all be so lucky to one day be free.