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Late Nights Online

The end of AOL Instant Messenger might be a blip, but it’s still a loss for a certain micro-generation—for people who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year.

Helena Fitzgerald has had writing published in Rolling Stone, ...

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My first experience of romantic love was catfishing someone on the internet. I was 11. Fifth grade was a particularly bad year, and I very much wanted to be someone else. Puberty had made me suddenly and all at once un-beautiful, and the way other kids shunned me had become decidedly more cruel as we all began to discover that everybody else had bodies. It was spring of 1995, and AOL had just begun to invade suburban homes by way of friendly, accessible floppy disks that arrived in the mail in plastic-wrapped bundles. My parents had installed a large desktop computer in the upstairs alcove, and each day there were a few precious hours before they got home from work but after I got home from school when I could go online.

I would listen for the siren noise of start-up whirr and ping and click, the sound that meant the world was getting larger. In YA novels about fantasy adventures, stories in which lonely teenagers escape their dull lives into magical realms only they can access, there is always a ritual to getting through the known world back to the unknown—the Pevensie children have to find a wardrobe to get to Narnia, student wizards have to run at a particular piece of brick wall in King’s Cross Station, Will and Lyra have to cut a doorway in the air with a magical knife. The AOL modem start-up noise was, for me and for many people of my generation, the ritual that permitted the crossing from the mundane realm to the fantastical one.

The long static of the dial-up modem resolved into a friendly chime, and I was online. The screen filled up with red and blue screen names. I knew nothing about the people behind these names, and so I could imagine them into infinite possibility. I don’t really remember what chat rooms I frequented, although it would be safe to guess they were probably about The X-Files. It didn’t mean anything when someone chose to chat privately with me, as I had put no identifying details online, yet it provided the ping of attention that was missing in every other part of my life, and I hit the button for that random and pure gratification again and again, presaging the entirety of the rest of my relationship with the internet. This was before AOL Instant Messenger launched as a stand-alone application, but the Buddy List and chat functions were already built into AOL, and I was able to accumulate a list of people out of chat rooms who had chosen me to talk with privately, collecting rectangular windows of alternating text.

I don’t remember his screen name or his real name. He chatted me one day and then every day. My fantastical world now had a recurring character. We moved from private chats to long emails about our days (still, to this day, the primary form of intimacy I understand with another human being). The thing I liked most about him was how much he liked me. Whenever that friendly, generation-defining voice said, “You’ve got mail!,” it was from him.

All of my chats with him and emails to him, every piece of information, anecdote, fact, and story I told him, were entirely fictional. I understood with perfect clarity that the person I actually was was neither attractive nor interesting, and moreover I had been warned by parents, teachers, other people’s parents, and pretty much any adult within a fifty mile radius that the entire internet was made up of malevolent perverts, and to tell anyone your real name was tantamount to already having been sexmurdered. So I invented a different person to be.

And I loved being her. (I still remember her name, but I’ll never tell anyone because it is perhaps the single most private fact about myself.) She was beautiful, funny, popular, and accomplished, involved in many extra-curriculars and had an abundance of friends. She experienced the normal ups and downs that a high school student (she was a few years older than I was—my parents both worked at a high school so I had some background knowledge) might experience. Her problems were interesting, and easily solved. She lived in the optimistic, lovable pitch of a Babysitter’s Club novel or a half-hour sitcom. And she talked to her online friend on AOL every day. Older people you heard stories about, teenagers or even adults, actually met people from online, but I had no idea why anyone would want to do that—didn’t that defeat the whole purpose?

Whatever we said about our feelings for each other, I distinctly remember that one day my internet buddy sent one of our long emails, and in it he said, “I love you.” I stared at it for a long time, and then I never emailed him again. I never again answered any of his chats. I had no idea what to do when someone’s real feelings appeared to be involved. It was my first sense about the internet that if I died in the game, I might also die in real life. I ghosted. Soon after that, things got somewhat better. I changed schools and started to develop real in-person friends, and to talk to them on AIM at least as much as I talked to strangers. Most of fifth grade was submerged into the general memory of a bad time. On occasion his name would appear on my buddy list and I would feel vaguely guilty and vaguely curious. But mostly I would feel nothing, because he wasn’t real.

*

Today, when people on the internet say the word “online” it’s a joke, and part of the joke is that the phrase once had a great deal of meaning and now has none. Everyone is already online, and is always online. No one goes or comes back. Relationships online are the same relationships as in person, extended into another convenient replicative medium. The official self is here; online is the town as much as the town itself is.

In our real lives, the ones with rental agreements and tax forms, the ones that the banks and the government know about, our fixed identities act as a tether. We plod through our days continually yanked back into the truths of our character, our circumstances, our actions and our pasts. But before the internet was just the place where we all lived, the point was not to be yourself. In the early days of AIM, online was a place free from the tether of identity, where we could be someone invented, or where we could be no one at all. All of the ways in which it allowed a particular kind of human connection spring from that anonymity, that permission to fictionalize oneself. Canonical literature contains countless stories of people getting to elsewhere, leaving the known delineations—going to sea, going west in wagons, building towns out of nothing, wandering the desert, getting lost. These stories return again and again to the idea of who we are when we’re not at home, what can emerge when a person is free of the known-ness that binds them. In these unmarked spaces, it becomes possible to imagine how we might exist with each other without laws and obligation, inheritance and surveillance, money and family. Briefly, the internet was such an uncharted territory, as full of potential as Melville’s whaling ship or the Old Testament’s desert. We could be whomever we decided to be. We could discover what people looked like free from both society and reality, as pure as lying.

On December 15th, when AOL Instant Messenger disappears, wiping all chat logs and buddy lists from the internet for good, my daily life will not change at all, and neither will the daily lives of the vast majority of people whose adolescence was defined by an icon of a yellow genderless figure in motion—the internet, this place where we all live now, has far outgrown this one application. But for some of us, people uncomfortably situated right at the seam of a wholly online world and a time before the internet, something will be lost to history. AIM represents both how we first understood the internet’s presence and potential in our lives, and just how irreparably this presence has changed. This was where we grew up, and the loss is a little like finding out a childhood home where neither you nor anyone you know has lived in many years is being torn down.

*

The announcement of the impending shutdown has brought on a lot of nostalgia. Occasionally Twitter, or even in-person conversation, erupts in people sharing their screen names, half-proud and half-embarrassed, and offering recollections of being very young on a very young internet. Over the last few months, I’ve talked with a number of friends and acquaintances about their experiences with and time on AIM. As is only right, all of them are quoted here solely by their screen names, as a gesture toward a time when that was all that identified us. We often get to our real selves from inhabiting false selves first, lying our way into a legitimate identity. People’s screen names are hilarious now because they are fence-swinging gestures at identities before any of us actually had identities, like throwing darts, blindfolded, at a list of qualities that might meaningfully define a person. Often, these attempts went hand-in-hand with romantic aspirations; defining ourselves online, through this particular chat service, was the first time many of came face to face with how the desire to be known and the desire to be loved are intertwined. One friend demonstrates this identity-grasping in the story of how his screen name developed:

“I think that my early screen names were a real case study in toxic male development. I had some generic screen name until I realized I could create a new account to flatter a middle-school paramour. This is how I became erikloveslindsay which quickly became eriklovesashley which quickly became manmuststrive which quickly became swissarmyromancer. I mean that really sums it all up: two romantic rejections plunged me immediately into flirtations with voluntarism, naturally leading to emo. Rough out there.”

Another friend, talking about his screen name, MeInsane1, and how embarrassing he finds it now, recalled that, “I thought that was badass, edgy. I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica a lot. I do not think I felt insane. I just think I wanted an image of some kind. Any kind.” G2Bcenterstage chose her screen name because “I had decided to become a theater kid, and wanted to try being an extrovert.” The resolution for the identity came first, as though these were decisions wholly within our control. Sometimes this dogged fixation on one aspect of a chosen identity had hilarious consequences, as with SwingDeVL, who explains, “I was really into swing music and to some extent swing dancing. My parents urged me to change it because who wants their fifteen-year-old online with a handle that basically says ‘I’m a kinky swinger,’ but I remained firmly and willfully naive about it, claiming that of course everyone would understand it was about swing music.” Most young people are seeking both a way to be recognized and to recognize themselves. AIM allowed us to explore and test-drive identities, by offering a new space free of the detritus of our lives beyond it, a simulation model for the real work of becoming a person in the world.

Adolescence is a time when we are first confronted with these questions of self-definition, and AIM is rooted in adolescence for me because it gained popularity and a sense (if not a reality) of ubiquity at the exact moment I hit puberty. My coming of age runs perfectly parallel with the social internet’s. There is a micro-generation—people who today are mostly in their thirties, or close to it on either side, people who were anywhere between the ages of 5 and 17 in 1995—who are not quite digital natives, and whose first understanding of “online” was as a place distinct from the real world. People who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year. I remember a time before I knew about the internet; I remember learning what an email was in a third-grade classroom. My transition from childhood to adulthood was marked by watching that change happen, as online seeped beyond the borders of a single screen and became synonymous with everyday living. We did not create the internet, but the internet happened to us, a parallel reflective adolescence.

I used AIM—first in its early unofficial form, baked into AOL’s service, and then as the separate application—from fifth grade until my first year of college, but my feelings about it will always be hooked to pre-teen sleepovers. When I think of AIM, or see its buddy icon, I am twelve years old and my best friends’ parents let her go on the internet as much as she wants, so we are at her house. I’m crowded along with a bunch of other twelve year olds around a computer screen, waiting for something to happen. It’s late enough at night that the darkness reflects from the glass doors behind us, and the computer screen stares into the doors, multiplying out against the night. We’re sitting, limbs folded up in chairs too big for us, in front of a hulking desktop computer and the internet spreads out before us like a road.

My friend’s parents had long since gone to bed. We were up late and we were going to go on the internet, an activity that could only be done late at night. This was mainly because that was when people’s parents were asleep and wouldn’t look over our shoulders asking, “who is SnuggleMulder42069? Do you know him from school?” But even now when we are all online at every moment of every day, at its heart the internet is still a late-night thing, because the middle of the night is when you’re most alone, and the internet is a place where you’re always alone. Online may purport to combat loneliness, but it also requires it as a pre-condition. We had just begun to care about what other people were doing after they left the room, just begun to want to know if someone was thinking of us when we weren’t there. Discovering adult emotions is in great part a process of learning to be lonely. We were newly desperate for a means of emotional surveillance, newly longing to be lonely and un-lonely all at once.

The windows glazed the yard to black ice behind us, and we haunted chat rooms where we hoped the strangers our parents had only just recently learned to warn us about lay in wait. Adults may have told us that there were weird men on the internet who wanted to have cybersex and meant it as a warning, but we took it as a promise. This was my first internet: the secret, late-night one, a group of nervous friends gathered around a slow-connecting magic box full of strangers who might talk to us about all the sex none of us had yet had.

The whole internet had something sexual about it in its early days, and that was much of what got us on there—it was the place where we were allowed to talk about things we would never say out loud. AbbyTheTabby (“after my cat. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade at the time, and my mom wouldn’t allow me to use any part of my real name or other identifying information”) talks about using AIM as a testing ground, a way to work out developing desires. “I remember feeling so limited by my world at the time, in that weird transitional phase as a young woman where you’ve gotten your period and your body is developing and you’re having all of these feelings, but you can’t yet do anything independently or grownup-like (and, deep down, you probably don’t actually want to just yet). AIM was a kind of a pathway to a bigger, more grownup-feeling life. I do remember having what probably amounted to cybersex with guys from school; we’d see each other in the hallways the next day and be too embarrassed to talk to each other, let alone act on the things we’d discussed. In retrospect, it was a pretty safe, empowering way to work out my sexuality and experiment with being a sexual person—I don’t think there’s an equivalent for young people today.” This sense of invisibility allowed us to explore what sex was, what people did, what we wanted and what we didn’t and how to say so, a process that would have been far more fraught and far more dangerous had we had to do it in person, without these mediating fictions as a barrier.

In so many ways, I was—and many of us sheltered teens online in those days were—the very thing my parents warned me about: I was the man in the white van, the sun-starved gamer covered in Cheeto dust, the sad fake online vampire in a chat room. We all were, us almost-teenagers gathered around a screen making up lies about sex to strangers. My real sexual education was keyed to the phrase “A/S/L wanna cyber?” and facilitated by people about whom I will never know a single fact. The internet even in its earliest public iteration made everyone on it creepy, made everyone suspect just because they were there. Being creepy is a part of human nature, and learning to recognize and put boundaries on our own creepiness is something curricular Sex Ed should teach us, but never will. MeInsane1 says it was through conversations he had on AIM that he realized women actually experienced sexual desire. “One girl told me in graphic detail about how an older girl seduced her, and how desperately she was attracted to this violin-playing boy. What’s important here is that I was having no sexual activity. But I loved being talked to about this stuff, even by girls I was into. I could say that AIM was where I discovered that women had sexual urges. Because I can’t overstate how much of a shock that was to me. The way boys were and are taught about girls—this is not news—is about acquisition and manipulation. You had to ‘get’ girls. The idea that they could want was…insane.”

AIM, too, could be a life raft for people outside of heterosexual and binary norms. While these identities were to one degree or another often too dangerous or frightening to speak in person, and are by default never covered by any kind of traditional sexual education, the unrecorded morass of possibility in AOL’s chat rooms opened avenues of exploration for teens trying to figure out their sexuality. Krispix444 (“My parents are extremely conservative and religious, so when they found out I was going to use an ‘online account’ they vetted whatever name I chose. I ended up with Krispix444 because it was innocuous and also I thought it was funny because it was breakfast cereal; I am an idiot”) recalls how, “with the people I met off chat rooms, a lot of the time I was exploring queer stuff… so there’d be times I talked about sex things, or talked with other ‘young women’ who were also interested in discussing being gay. I realize now that I was very likely talking with people (older men, specifically) who were pretending to be young women—but at the time, this was very important to me, something I really craved, because I had no one to talk to about any of it and it scared me. It also felt very anonymous, like I would never meet or see these people and they would never know who I was, so it felt very safe.”

The fact that, as Krispix444 points out, these people were likely lying were didn’t matter because the interactions existed outside verified reality. Most of us have little power over our situations, looks, or circumstances, but here each one could be a choice. For me, this was less about sexual identity and more about freedom from what I looked like and from how what I looked like determined other people’s reactions. Online, I didn’t have to be beautiful in order to get someone to have a conversation with me; I didn’t even have to be beautiful in order to be beautiful. I could simply tell strangers I was, and they would believe me, and I could experience the reactions and treatment that beautiful people experienced.

Slightly younger friends said they rarely chatted with strangers on AIM. The later you got online, the fewer strangers were there—it is nearly inconceivable right now to imagine talking to someone on the internet whom I would legitimately consider a stranger. But on AIM, even when talking to people we already knew, we invented ourselves, freed by the seeming anonymity of a screen, able to be with someone else and simultaneously alone. It became possible to know people independent of how we felt about their physical bodies when they stood in front of us. Being a bunch of text is much easier than being a body, and makes possibilities seem infinite. “I didn’t know what to say to girls,” recalls MeInsane1, “but on AIM I could sound like I wanted to sound, or at least how I thought I wanted to sound: smooth, witty, erudite. All the stuff I couldn’t be in person.”

G2BCenterstage talks about remembering “the dissonance of baring your heart to someone in the middle of the night, and then feeling awkward around them the next day. There were definitely some confessions of love or crushes or desire via AIM that went completely un-discussed in real life, which made it feel like a liminal and particular space. I remember explaining to my dad that I liked that about it, the fact that you could open up your soul to someone on the internet but never have to speak face to face with that person at all—maybe you’d nod at each other in the hallways, and you’d recognize each other in this coded, barely acknowledged way.” Many friends and people around my same age recall similar experiences, whole relationships that took place in one cadence on AIM and entirely in another in person. SwingDeVL recounts losing a long-distance friend to suicide and how “one of the things that spun through my mind was that there would be no more late-night conversations between SwingDeVL and Inky204.” She adds that “it’s zero surprise to me that I still remember his screen name after eleven years.”

Through these late-night chats—because, like the internet itself, this kind of intimacy is a late-night thing—I began to learn to relate to flesh and blood people the way I had once related to online buddies, to make the kinds of connections in recorded, breathing reality that I had once made while lying about everything to a stranger in an X-Files chat room. By using the people who lurked behind screen names as practice, I built the skills for riskier and fuller humanity. It was, for a few brief, quiet years, a place to test how one might speak about things like depression, tenderness, uncertainty, and desire. AIM lived at the seams between public and private selves, and it made clear to me how the struggle to resolve the two is near to the center of what it is we’re doing when we love one another. It was the first place where I found a way into the guarded, un-recorded space that exists between two people who have decided to turn and face one another and shut out the rest of the world.

*

AIM’s final message to its users said “thanks to our buddies for making chat history with us!” and showed its yellow genderless icon wearing a silly hat and waving goodbye, like someone gamely attending a party to celebrate their own execution. “Chat history” is a pun, but also telling. AIM is a place that made history instead of profit. By all measurements but sentimental memory, both AIM and AOL were failures, making disastrous business and marketing decisions, never looking far ahead, and never predicting the future correctly. But nevertheless, for a handful of people in their thirties or nearby to it and living on the internet today, AIM was where we learned to invent ourselves, and by inventing ourselves how to be human. It was our Narnia, and our coming of age story, the place where, by means of the imaginary, we gained the skills and understandings necessary to grow up back in the real world where growing up happens.

I don’t remember AIM much after college, partly because I switched over to iChat and from there to Gchat, but more because I switched over from the kind of stumbling, cradled, adolescent life where a passive-aggressive song lyric in an away message could matter deeply. I had gotten what I needed from it, learning to connect with people, to pull at the threads of late-night intimacy, to seek out connections that feel like the whisper and ping of a rudimentary chat-box on a screen. G2BCenterstage remembers that she stopped using AIM freshman year of college, when “someone asked me out via AIM and that was the exact moment when I realized that I didn’t want to use it anymore. College at its best felt like all the best parts of AIM—the late-night conversations, the passionate arguing about religion, love, the meaning of life, etc. I could finally have that in real life anytime I wanted.”

But also by the time I got to college, everything had become AIM. There was a whole world of typing right alongside the physical world. Most communication happened through messaging forms based to some degree or another on AIM. “I miss that there was a very specific place that I chatted with people,” says SwissArmyRomancer, “delimited by the temporal constraints of the dial-up and the spatial constraints of a LAN line. I had my AIM chair and I had my bedtime and I had to cram an entire universe of sad, lustful adolescence into two hours of night and four square feet of IKEA furniture and flop sweat.” The fantastical world wasn’t fantastical anymore; there was no sense of entering through a wardrobe or cutting a door in the sky. This was just what everything felt like.

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