Friday, January 28, 2011

Lying on the Internet

This Deadspin article was something akin to fetish porn for me.  I have to admit that between ages 12-16, like Katie Baker, I was both a heavy internet-chat addict and and shameless liar regarding my personal details.  The early years of AOL were an untamed frontier of liberty and experimentation, a playground my parents couldn't comprehend at the time, unmonitored and totally open to a specific kind of fantasy-is-reality dynamic that proved wholly addictive to my blossoming little teenage mind.  I'm not sure if this is coincidence, but this timeframe happens to map neatly to the onset of my psycho-social afflictions.  I can't say if internet chat was a cause or a result.

It began in the Teen Chat rooms on AOL, and I was onboard early enough that these rooms never numbered into the double-digits, and they were populated wholly of middle-upper class teenagers with way too much unchecked freedom, from families who could either afford the punishing hourly rates or parents aloof enough to not connect mysterious multi-hundred dollar bills to the newfangled internet thing that was spreading through my demographic.  Teen Chat was largely a 23-person gripefest about school, homogenous conversations about the types of TV shows, music, and movies that appealed to spoiled white kids, flirting, and lying about ages to graduate into the band of chatting girls who would talk openly about sex.  Reflecting back, this was well before the persona of the Internet Fuckwad had developed, so it was a remarkably civil time.  It was also horrendously boring and homogeneous, unless you could snag one of those whales, a girl who'd talk about her body or things that could be done to it in a private IM.  Again, age 12, this was the great undiscovered country, the holy grail: sex talk without the awkward face-to-face repercussions of addressing the subject with somebody you know or resides within your real life social circle.

I recall once incident where one such whale, apparently impressed with my ability to type quickly (which resulted in longer-than-average chat posts, which when 23 people are all feeding the same chat window the extra length gets noticed) asked for my phone number.  She wanted to talk, to pass the time.  She claimed to be 16, and given that age +2 was basically the standard rule for Teen Chat, it meant she was 14.  I, probably 12 at the time, was claiming 14.  Whatever.  A fucking girl wanted to talk on the phone about high school stuff, I was in.

The most vivid memory was the sound of her voice, that particular vocal occlusion and vaguely wet tone indicating braces, which wasn't aided when midway through the two hour phone call she ordered and received and began eating pizza.  It was puzzlingly endearing, which was the only reason I stuck around for two hours, since she seemed only interested in having an ear on the other side of the line while she cycled through the mundane features of her life and house in maybe the most superficial way possible.  This is important because it marks the moment I decided that teenagers were boring, and I set my sights somewhat higher.

I skipped the Twentysomethings rooms.  They were literally full of sex-starved guys typing every ridiculous come-on and sexual reference in the book at the few scant females who bothered to respond, and the chat rooms resembled what I imagine most Teen Chat-spawned private IMs looked like.  While you might argue that I just claimed sexual conversation was the ultimate goal of teenage presence on AOL, the Twentysomethings made it just way too easy.  It's the equivalent of walking through the city, horny and looking, but passing on the prostitutes on the corner.  Like a porn star, it's something best viewed but not participated in.

Thirtysomething rooms were my haunt of choice at the time.  Unlike the frat party atmosphere of the twentysomethings, here there was actual conversaion occuring, about subjects more complex than how cool the latest MTV spring break coverage was.  This appealed strongly to me, at this age (12 or maybe 13 by this point), a venue to experiement with writing and ideas and concepts that while not necessarily academic were still mature, and to receive instant feedback.  This might have been the primary allure for me, an evolution chamber for rhetorical style and beliefs that were instantly judged, the weakest offerings with ridicule, the strongest with rewards of invitations to private IMs that wanted to inquire more deeply into the person behind the keyboard (though not necessarily in a sexual manner).

To facilitate my presence here I needed to fabricate a person interesting enough to be welcomed and respected, but generic enough to dissuade probing questions or queries into the technical nature of jobs, hobbies, and political beliefs I had no information on.  I invented Thomas Vicario, a 31 year old sound editor at a small recording studio in Tarrytown, NY, who rented a room out in Ossining.  You see, Hackley was in Tarrytown, and I really did live in Ossining, so I had enough background info to work with if somebody says "Hey, I live there!  What road are you on?"  This was pre-Mapquest, pre-Google, on dial-up, and such information wasn't necessarily instantly searchable.  Thomas liked sports (flag football), romantic walks on the beach, and whatever poetry we were working on in English class at the time.  If this all sounds pathetic to you, I freely admit that in hindsight it's rather sad.  However, I must emphasize that to an early teenage brain who was slowly developing social anxiety issues, anonymity on the internet was somewhere between spiritual succor and heroin.

Thomas was also, thanks to his relative youth, athleticism, and sensitive side, the perfect bait for lonely thirtysomething women, with nothing better to do that spend whole evenings on AOL, looking to flirt or otherwise seek attention or validation, which was something I just couldn't get from the girls at school at the time.  I was popular.  Like Katie Baker and her Miss Flyers Newsgroup 1999 nomination, whenever such popularity contests developed within the Thirtysomething community, someone would toss "xcmt" into the ring.  It was addictive to be wanted.

Around this time I then discovered ImagiNation Online, an internet playground operated by Sierra Online.  It had the same sorts of oversized chat rooms as AOL, but it also had integrated games.  Board games in the Clubhouse, casino games in LarryLand, some arcade games in SierraLand (Red Baron, golf, etc) and a kind of D&D-ish dungeon crawler RPG called The Shadow of Yserbius, which I suppose is more accurately described as a graphical MUD.  This is where I spent countless hours as Tiamat (to much humor as it was later pointed out that Tiamat was a female dragon, but I was stuck with the name), playing my first MMO, simultaneously engaging in a kind of strange roleplay-RL hybrid in the tavern chat room.  The atmosphere of the game was such that everybody was "themselves" in chat but also had clearly defined roles as the characters they played, which occasionally was tugged into chat-driven plots and frivolity, and the lines between what was Chris, what was online-persona Chris, and what was Tiamat were largely blurred and rather confusing.  For example, players talked as players, but then some characters "got married" and the roleplay during such events was somehow simultaneously both in-character and out-of-character (and perhaps it just meant there was no divide between the two within this community, or that the existence of the game itself satisfied the alter-identity requirements for fantasy purposes and muddled whatever was left for the chat lobby).

The combination of the MUD (as addicting as WoW) and the chat (carrying over the appeal from AOL) was irresistible, and I spent a solid two months of my life doing nothing but playing SoY.  I joined the biggest guild in the game and was promoted to the leadership council within three weeks because I played the game so much and so often I matched existing leadership's character levels.  I befriended a guild officer who went by Selene, who was mature and awesome, hand-held me through the game, took me on quests, showed me how to acquire the best equipment, accompanied me on many ventures into the dungeon, and I quickly developed an overwhelming crush on her, despite never really talking to her outside of the game's confines or scope.  I should note that it was me, Chris, who developed this fantasy-driven and private crush.  It must have shown because it rapidly became rumor within the chat room (which housed multiple guilds) that the character Tiamat was "courting" Selene, even though this literally never developed as roleplay or OOC talk in any context, and Selene remained publicly oblivious.

It was a strange situation to be in, to privately be extremely happy to see this person's character name pop up in the chat list, and to constantly be publicly ribbed about it in that strange semi-real semi-fake way in the chat room whenever she wasn't around.  In a way, it became something of an identity crisis for me, because I didn't really know how to respond; addressing the issue with Selene privately could burst the bizarre semi-roleplay bubble we'd surrounded ourselves with (which I was enjoying too much to stop, and I had no idea if Selene and I were ever interacting player-to-player or character-to-character, or real-Chris versus fake-Chris, so there was also the difficult matter of which angle to address it from), and ignoring it meant ever-increasing pressure from the peanut gallery to "do" something (in what capacity?) which actually became rather stressful after a while, because teenage crushes are the biggest deal ever, and the real-or-pretend nature of our budding friendship confusing and painful to someone still developing a sense of personal identity.

In the end, the matter resolved itself.  Selene pulled Tiamat into the dungeon for a private conversation.  As we navigated the haunted halls, slaying fire skeletons en route to a corner of the game world none bothered venturing, my heart raced.  Does she like me?  Does she know?  Are we breaking up?  We're not even together and this is a breakup.  Deeply buried in the game world, she finally laid her heart bare:  Selene's getting married!  She was confiding in a best friend.  I was the first to hear the news.  This is Selene the character, by the way, not the anonymous person behind the mask, though maybe.  In my chair I was crestfallen, my prize stolen away by some dude I'd never even heard of in the game world.  I guess at this point I have to admit I'd fully bought into the dissolution of the boundary between real and fantasy, drunk with the joy of having people interact with me in fully adult manner.

This was another important turning point in the development of my comprehension of online roleplay etiquette, that IC and OOC need separation.  While I was personally heartbroken, Tiamat had to be happy for Selene, and I tried my best to type such, but...again, the chat room denizens either knew better or pretended to.  All anyone would say was "I'm so sorry" and "That has to hurt" as though Tiamat-Selene was destiny broken, and I had to keep playing Tiamat as chipper, while quietly I was fuming.

Did you know that 30something year old cyber-hunks who are also simultaneously guild/game royalty AND simultaneously wounded ducks are like catnip to the female population of SoY?  I could hardly log into the game without LadyInRed or HelgaBarb or whoever inviting me out to a private grinding session (grinding = repeatedly killing the same enemy for experience, you pervs), in the twisted MMO version of what I guess is dating.  Looking back the whole enterprise was seriously fucked up.  Anyway, LadyBow became the rumor mill's leading lady to hook up with Tiamat (yes, I know this is increasingly ridiculous), and she was also the motherfucking queen of blurred-IC/OOC lines.  We flirted.  A lot.  It was simultaneously both IC and OOC, or rather perhaps simultaneously neither.  I fell for it because I was secretly on the rebound and seeking positive attention, and it sold in the chat because everybody assumed Tiamat was on the rebound, and I was 13 so I didn't think any more of it.  Tiamat was pressured into inviting her as a date to Selene's wedding (where T was her Lord of Honor, natch), so now I had to juggle my personal conflict over how I felt about an imaginary persona in Selene, how I had to pretend to feel about LadyBow, and how I had to pretend via Tiamat how to feel about...fucking hell, I was a mess back then.  Anyway, we exchanged mailing addresses and flirted offline too.  She signed her letters as LadyBow.  I never did learn her real name.

And quickly it didn't matter.  The ImagiNation Online and phone bills came in.  $800.  If I've ever told anybody reading this about the time my mother broke through my locked bedroom door with a hammer to yell at me face-to-face, these bills were the root cause.  My online access was revoked, and I never got to say my goodbyes to anyone.  Though one person did try to say her goodbye to me.

Some weeks later, I came home late from a school basketball game, and my mother handed me a sealed envelope addressed "T" and thank God she didn't interpret that as Theresa.  LadyBow apparently had a cousin that lived in Millwood, and seeing as she just happened to have my physical fucking address she dropped by mid-day to see if I was around.  Luckily nobody was, so she left me a hasty handwritten note, though I'm kind of skeptical about having letter-sized envelopes available in the car without premeditation.  She was confused about my disappearance, missed talking to me, blah blah, XOXO, LadyBow.

Katie Baker was caught.  I very nearly was.  It was a scared-straight moment for me, the prospect of some 400lb divorced mother of eight swinging by the house to have a chitchat with my mother about that darling fellow she rents a bedroom to.  Or who knows, maybe she was a smoking hot 18 year old model with some free time.  Either way, this is when I learned that some lies run too deep, and that you can dig yourself into quite a challenging hole, whether lying to others or yourself.  While I did venture into some online fantasy roleplay in the future, I think my early exposure to the questions of identity, reality, girls, and what levels of interaction can be interpreted as real and what are just stories helped me avoid most of the personal troubles that my online contemporaries in the RP field seemed to fall prey to.

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