14 April 2024


I grew up in a sleepy hamlet in Northern Italy, sat right between the growing hills that form the Alps, and the vast Po Valley to the south. We are known for the Arborio and Carnaroli rice that are grown in this area, though no one ever talks about the billions of mosquitos that also thrive in those rice fields. Though I've never been, I always thought it would feel a lot like West Virginia. When John Denver sings, I think of Piedmont.

Less than two hundred people lived in that village, of which only five or six were about my age. My father was a brilliant, curious man, and the knowledge he loved to share made me the person I am today. But as I got older, I started being hungry for more. More people, more knowledge, more experiences.

You see, in remote villages in the middle of nowhere, everything is spread out. Your school is 5 kilometres away, your friends are 10 kilometres away, and maintaining friendships soon becomes a logistical problem, one which solution was outside of my reach. Socialization could then only happen during school hours, while the rest of my day was spent learning about the world in books, lonelier than ever. Luckily for me, this is about the time the Internet arrived in town.

I spent my 14 to 19 doing a lot of late night coding, but more importantly, exploring the world through my computer. Community soon followed, when I found a link to a chat service offered by my Internet service provider. I clicked one on one random chat room, dedicated to the TV Show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I never cared about vampires, but here are a lot of kids my age, I might stay a while. And even better for a lonely teenage boy, a lot of girls tend to be into vampires.

On IRC I made my first friends and found my new home. I would spend most of my afternoons gossipping, flirting or talking about anything I cared about with strangers. I met my first few girlfriends. Through the Internet, armed with more knowledge than I would ever need, I learned to become independent, make some money and get out from the hamlet, even if only to meet my latest love-of-my-life. And in the matter of a few years, I learned to thrive in a solitary existence that hid a rich social life no one really knew about. I was lonely, with a ton of friends.

When I was 19, I was two thousand kilometres from home, spending a holiday with a girlfriend when my father suddenly passed away. The world came crashing down, as it usually does, until a school friend asked "hey, would you like to move to Milan? We've got a spare room."


I am still ambivalent about my first job. Their modus operandi was to hire junior computer nerds like me, pay them peanuts and throw them in at the deep end. Within a month of getting hired, I was sent away for a week to teach Linux systems administration to literal soldiers. It was a disaster. The lessons went well, actually, but do not trust a 19-year-old not to be hung over from the night before his teaching job. Soldiers are not keen on this sort of stuff. Still, when I was put to do more ordinary coding and sysadmin work, I managed to learn at tremendous pace.

It's in this meat grinder for computer nerds that I met my first good mate in the big city. He's of that charismatic tribe of people for whom making friends is just as natural as breathing. Later that night after meeting him I got introduced to his group of friends and in months, my social circle just kept expanding and expanding.

After work, unless I was exhausted or felt the need to be on my own, the default choice was to go spend the rest of my evening at my friend's. He first lived in a small flat, and later moved in an artsy, open-space loft, and wherever he lived, he always had guests over. Charismatic people always have this entourage with them, and you never know who's gonna pop over to say hello and might stay over for dinner. To me, and dozens other, my friend's house was the focal point of an impromptu community. Bring an acquaintance, and there's a good chance they become a regular. In those evenings some might play video games, another might put on some music, and two other might meet for the first time and strike a lifelong friendship in this ever-flowing primordial soup of 20-something people just hanging out. These are some of happiest moments in life and my most treasured memories.

I still adored my time alone, in melancholic introversion you might say, but once again, I found peace in this shade between full-on socialization and loneliness. All it took, was a place to aimlessly hang out, with other people.

Life is change, and change also came for this community. I am still friends with a lot of them, many more I lost contact with through laziness and inaction, but the group dissolved, and we all floated in our separate directions.


I am in my mid 30s now, I have moved once again, now to another country, and am still the curious introverted person I have always been. But the communities I have lost haven't been easy to replace. It is now in hindsight that the two places I found home in were either endangered, or an exception to the rule. I have spent a lot of my time on the Internet, but friendship hasn't been easy to create in this place. Faces scroll by endlessly, and tend to be mocking or frowning. Even my childhood friends are so consumed by their modern and efficient lives they barely have time to meet for a beer. The Internet is all we need to socialise and find community, we keep telling each other.

What truly saddens me, as a computer person, is what was once the haven of instant, unprejudiced communication free from any restraint, has simultaneously become the foremost focal point of our lives, while also becoming more isolated than real life could ever be. The vastness of the Internet is now reduced to a handful of towers of Babel, where the cacophony is incessant, and everybody is trying to shout into the void. If you listen carefully, you might hear them whisper "I am here. Can anybody see me?" We are so reduced to thinking about practicalities that we have lost any sort of vision of what a modern, digital community could and should look like, if this is to be where we spend all of our lives.

Teenage kids today do not have any easily accessible, open platforms for discussion that are not controlled, monitored, rigid but also are not tainted, manipulated and infiltrated. All we have today are islands, that promote tribalism if not stagnation, rather than allowing a constant supply of new faces and ideas. 1998 IRC was the secret club that met in the woods, 2024 Discord is a stone fortress run by people who make bureaucracy their hobby. Most of my younger readers would readily defend their Discord forts, but who can blame them, when this is all you have ever known?

In real life, neither teenagers nor adults are fortunate enough to enjoy what is commonly referred to as a third place, the social setting that's not family nor work. When I was hanging out at my friend's, the third place had already been extinct for a hundred years. As soon as one's school life ends, hanging out aimlessly in a sort of club gets replaced by "doing something". Let's go have dinner. Let's go to the movies. Sorry, I gotta check my calendar and will get back to you. Our in-person socialisation only revolves around spending money to do something, rather than just sitting with our thoughts, being bored together. I have always been fascinated by old American movies, where even in larger cities, people would just hang out in their front porch; before you know it, a neighbour would stop to have a beer and a little chat.

The solution is easy, I've been told. I should just become like my charismatic friend and create my own following, as if everybody was living a fulfilling and effortless social life, and somehow I never got the memo.

It might seem that we are becoming so used to our fractured existence, atomic families and cripping loneliness. Yet, if you look where the younger generations hang out online these days, even to them is apparent that whatever we are doing right now, is simply not good enough, and the hunger for community and belonging is stronger than ever. And all we're doing, is building yet another Twitter.

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