If you ask either of my parents what my brother does for a living, they’ll say the same thing: “Something with computers.” My mom will then tell you that he’s married to a woman but has no children, because that’s what she thinks you really want to know about. My dad might tell you a story about how he sent my brother to computer camp when he was 12, which set him on course to make tons of money doing whatever he does (with computers).
I’ve suggested that my brother was lucky to have an interest in a developing field, but he says he planned it all that way. Now he’s rich and he lives in Europe. And even though he looks like a Seventies Guru mated with a biker and dresses like a lazy cult leader, he claims everyone wants to bang him. Or he used to. We haven’t spoken in about 3½ years. I don’t know what he claims anymore.
Back in the day, in the early 90s, being online could be creepy and weird. A lot of people, my brother included, more or less built their own desktop computers. “Talking” to people with words on computer screens was transgressive and could be unsafe (sorta). My brother loved it. He was always on dial-up bulletin board systems – BBS communities – full of weirdos who knew how to connect with each other this way.
The concept of chatting was unusual in the real world. Average teenagers could barely type then. Most adults did not communicate this way at work, or for any other reason. Email was barely a thing. But the reason to log on to a BBS was simple: to make friends. That can mean a lot of different things, but in this space it was pretty obvious. We were looking to meet ladies in something like an inclusive space. We wanted to come together.
These were generally smart people who were largely intelligent, charismatic online but reserved in person. They did not want to be dismissed for being unconventionally attractive. Regardless of all that, the cute young women always got the most attention. Supply and demand.
How did we know who the cute young women were in this text-based line-by-line environment? It was not by exchanging altered pictures, because that was not an option in those days. We just knew. We always knew.
There were in-person events. Weekly meetups in the park, at pizza joints, that sort of thing. People got together. And if anyone even remotely attractive showed up at one of these gatherings, then the word immediately got around.
Members provided basic public information: age, gender identity, location. I’m sure some people lied, but I mostly made friends with people I met in person, and their info all checked out.
Age was probably the most commonly self-reported inaccuracy. Technically, you had to be sixteen to join, but there was not a strong verification system. And there was no age limit and seemingly less ageism. So, it was not uncommon for a group of teens to be chatting away in an open forum with people ten, twenty, thirty, forty years older than them.
One night I had a date with a lady I met in cyberspace. My mom asked me where I knew her from and I said, “The computer.”
“You’ve never seen her?!” My mom said, scandalized. “What if she looks like Dracula?”
At the time, Interview with the Vampire was one of the most popular and exciting new releases at the movies among my crowd, so that tells you how much my mom knew about anything. Almost all of the chicks in these online chat rooms leaned at least a little funky in some way, alternative, punk, or goth, or trashy, or something else off the beaten track. That was half their appeal.
Mainstream trendy girls would not know the first thing about typing out their innermost thoughts on a keyboard, on a computer, and zapping them over phone lines to guys they’d met across town at a mixer in the park. They didn’t have to do things like that.
“Dracula?” I said. “Have you ever heard of Elvira? Or Morticia Addams, or the bride of fucking Frankenstein?” Okay, so I didn’t say this, but I definitely thought it while huffing exasperation.
More to the point, my brother’s friend had already met this chick and her sister and vouched that they were both beautiful.
On our second date, this beautiful sapling revealed to me that she’d lied on her profile and was actually one year younger than she stated. This made her two years younger than me, which was probably not as much of a problem as it seemed then. Two teen years can feel like a lot, but the bigger problem was the lie.
The truth can be a slippery fish, I know. And I do not expect every person in every situation to present it ready for examination autopsied like in an anatomy class. Lord knows I don’t do that. It’s bad for business, for one thing. It can also be socially inappropriate. But let’s get something straight: misdirection and withholding information, or lying by omission, these are tactical responses for advantage.
“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed.”
My school friends and neighbors all knew everything about each other, the vital statistics anyway, because these came with the context of classic acquaintanceship. Meeting people online has none of that. In its place is a shifting masquerade of intention and confidence. That’s how we were introduced well ahead of the middling mainstream to trolling, catfishing, spamming, and other byproducts of decentralized mass communication.
I decided playing in this field was for socially inept weirdos. The people who could not make it on the outside for some reason. Introverted, arrogant intellectuals – yes – but also just socially awkward folks, which is ironically almost everybody.
One girl I liked back then was a kind of a funky lite punk suburban chick with long, loose honey-colored curls. She had divorced parents, neither of whom felt much reason to instill any religion in their daughter(s). When she got her braces off, she was also allowed to replace her glasses with green contact lenses, all the rage at that moment. Her eyes were light brown, I think. When she went away to college a couple years later, she dated a devout Mormon dude; he got her into the club. They broke up, but she remained a member, and told me years later about the benefits of eternal blessings bestowed on the faithful.
So, yeah. There were plenty of disciples in that scene, as there always are in fringe movements.
My freshman class was the first to automatically receive an email address upon enrollment at the university. That was 1996. A year before that, almost nobody I knew aside from the geeks on the bullet boards had email addresses. Now, you cannot do anything without an email address. Most people have two or three and think nothing of it. It’s not even a way to casually communicate anymore. So, in that way, what’s roughly 25 years ago is no different from 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. That’s why talking about pre-internet times feels like reliving the years before the industrial revolution.
But even the World Wide Web did not attract most of the normies aside from plagiarists and porn afficionados. No, it was the social media that got them. And moving it away from a corner in your house to your back pocket. It still has us, held in a constant state of incubation, seeking validation in what’s become a basic commercial enterprise.
They don’t even give you a discount for using the self-checkout. Doesn’t that mean we’re building machines to enslave ourselves?
Transparency: I truly believe it’s text messaging that’s changed our social order more than anything else. The ability to send and receive instant messages from one’s body to another, used in the way most of us do, as endless sterile conversations, leaves us in a state of constant reaction — and catches us between our physical environment and our virtual correspondence. There’s rarely a strong focus on either status, which is why I believe depression is on the rise. There’s too much anxiety in being constantly available and fear about losing that possibility. Not to mention that communication between intimates is composed of more than just words on a screen. Non-verbal cues include scent, tone, expression, heat, proximity. Delivery counts.