We're delighted to present an extract from The Disconnect - A Personal Journey Through the Internet, the debut collection of essays from Roisin Kiberd, published by Serpent's Tail.

We all live online now: the line between the internet and IRL has become porous to the point of being meaningless. 

Roisin Kiberd knows this better than anyone. She has worked for tech startups and as the online voice of a cheese brand; she's witnessed the bloated excesses of tech conferences and explored the strangest communities on the web. She has traced the ripples these hidden worlds have sent through our culture and politics, and experienced the disorienting effects on her own life.

In these interlinked essays, she illuminates the subject with fierce clarity, revealing the ways we are more connected than ever before, and the disconnect this breeds.


I was born in Dublin, the same month and year as the internet as we know it. In March 1989, an engineer named Tim Berners- Lee submitted a proposal to his employers at CERN for a new system of 'information management'. It described a decentralised, open-source map of information, connected by hyperlinks.

‘The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere,’ Berners-Lee wrote in a Usenet post. ‘We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!’ Berners-Lee’s superiors responded by calling it ‘vague, but exciting’.

This technology advanced throughout my first years of life, and use of the internet gradually spread beyond academia and the military

In 1996, a 23-year-old student named Larry Page created BackRub, a system of ‘spiders’ that crawl the web for links, arranging search results in an order he called PageRank. This marked the beginning of search engine optimisation (SEO), the value search engines assign to web pages and, increasingly, to the people they represent.

That same year, an article appeared in Fast Company by an American business writer called Tom Peters, titled ‘The Brand Called You’. It outlined the future of cybernetic selfhood, a struggle for self-promotion where people market themselves like companies. Peters wrote:

You’re branded, branded, branded, branded. It’s time for me – and you – to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work.

You are your website, and the success of that website determines your worth. Peters blurred the lines between commerce and personhood, combining marketing advice with a near-mystical faith in cybernetic individualism. Employment rights got no mention here; Peters suggested working for free in return for self-promotion, and readily embraced cloud feudalism – in his vision of the future, we’ll rely on internet platforms to keep us in steady, if temporary, work.

Personal branding, for all its hyperbole, is not about glory; it is about simply staying afloat. It aims to make of its reader the perfect data subject: the more you give of yourself to the internet, the more, apparently, you’ll get back.

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Watch: Roisin Kiberd on Writing in the Age of the Internet

My parents didn’t own a computer until 1996, the same year ‘The Brand Called You’ was published, when my father brought home an Apricot PC from work. The monitor was boxy and white, and the system unit was comically large compared to today’s machines. I didn’t use it much, but I knew how to play Minesweeper, and how to draw things with Microsoft Paint. Our babysitter, an older boy who lived next door, ran MS-DOS on it sometimes, and I remember the otherworldly look of the blue and the white, the stiff, typewriter-esque font, and the unsettling feeling that we were seeing the machine’s entrails.

A few years later my parents upgraded to a giant, wheezing desktop made by HP. Soon after that we got dial-up. Readers alive in the 1990s will recall precisely the sound of the modem, the clunky melody of circuits, a mystic handshake between machines.6 Google was incorporated in 1998, its name a play on the number ‘googol’ – the digit 1 followed by 100 zeroes. That same year, the watch company Swatch announced an ambitious experiment in physics-based marketing: ‘Internet Time’, a concept that divided the day into 1,000 ‘beats’ across time zones. It didn’t take off. Netflix launched as a mail-order DVD rental business, Apple released the iMac, and a now-defunct electronics company, Diamond Multimedia, released a $200 device, box-shaped and roughly the size of a deck of cards, called the Rio PMP300, which became the first commercially successful MP3 player.

As the new millennium approached I began to explore the internet, which didn’t feel limited then, even though it was. Users were staking out territory, creating homepages decorated with 1337 h4x0r slang and animated GIFs. It felt exciting and vaguely illicit, priced by the minute and delivered in slow, guilty quantities. Someone elsewhere in the house was always waiting to make a phone call, and you were adding minutes to the bill, so every click needed to count.

Perhaps this is why my earliest online memories retain a deviant quality; pictures downloaded slowly, torturously, and websites that were deeply, sometimes inappropriately, personal. On Comic Chat I spoke with anonymous adults, and other children, from around the world in the guise of a cartoon beatnik, or an alien. One especially vivid memory is of the day of the porn virus. Our babysitter clicked on a bad link, or perhaps he was surfing dodgy websites, and the computer downloaded malware that manifested in video pop-ups. I remember watching the screen fill with gyrating actresses, ladies of the digital evening, and lipstick lesbians kissing in the back of a car. A week or two later, my parents hired a repairman to clear the virus away. That was the first time I thought of the internet as dangerous, a viral entity, waiting to infect you with one wrong click.

It didn’t put me off: I pushed further into the internet alone, and at roughly the age of eleven I found pro-ana websites, which offered tips for ‘perfecting’ anorexia, a problem I didn’t yet know I had. Those sites had a very 1990s look to them: black backgrounds with white text in Papyrus and Jokerman, butterfly motifs, sidebars full of bad poetry and starvation tips. They were lonely places, documents of suffering unspoken in the world outside the screen.

I don’t remember Y2K, except for a juvenile thrill at the thought of a shiny new post-modernity, the earth overthrown by robots.

Of course, the humans behind technology were dangerous enough on their own. The first years of the new millennium saw the dotcom bubble burst, an ending less glamorous than anything imagined by prophets of technological doom. Pets.com came and went. eToys went bankrupt, leaving children without Christmas presents. An online currency called Beenz appeared, then disappeared, and was forgotten, while Pixelon, a company claiming to have created a revolutionary new TV-to-internet product, threw the legendary iBash ’99, featuring performances by The Who, the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Tony Bennett and Kiss. It cost over $16 million, more than 75 per cent of Pixelon’s funding. Soon after, their CEO Michael Fenne, known for his volatile management style, was revealed to be David Kim Stanley, a conman and fugitive named on Virginia’s most-wanted list.7 His video company was secretly running Windows Media Player instead of its own, non-existent product.

At the end of the year 2000, when I was about to turn twelve, I received my first phone as a Christmas gift: the Nokia 8210. Most of my classmates had the 3210 instead, known for its changeable fascias – the one I remember boys at school owning had a picture of Eminem on it, crouched down, wearing a hoodie and a scowl – but the 8210 was lighter, smaller, and had appeared as an ad placement in the Charlie’s Angels reboot earlier that year.

I quickly became attached to my phone. I decorated it with a pink hand-strap and Hello Kitty stickers. I collected polyphonic ringtones and odd, sentimental chain texts from friends I met at summer camp. Texting was itself a kind of pre-teen performance of independence; during long car journeys, on holidays and even during meals with my family, I would produce my phone – conspiratorial at first, under the table, but later shamelessly – and lose myself in composing the perfect text. This was my first taste of immersion in a tiny screen, a way to disappear in plain sight.

This is an edited extract from A History Of The World Since 1989, taken from The Disconnect - A Personal Journey Through the Internet by Roisin Kiberd, published by Serpent's Tail and out now.