Thursday, September 22, 2016

In Real Life: Internet Relationships Then and Now

Today we have broadband internet, lightning fast connection speeds, and smart phones. The pace of technological innovation seems to have no limit. But let's not forget our recent past, the historical record that connects each of us today as surely as it once did then. To wit, in the mid-Nineties, my parents invested in a particularly profitable new company known as America Online, or AOL as most of us call it today. For a nominal monthly rate, we were given the ability to tie up phone lines, annoying family and friends for hours, for the privilege to use the World Wide Web. The technology was Byzantine compared to today's standards, but in those days, it was cutting edge and very much in stride with the times.

Twenty years ago, some called this new technology the information superhighway or cyberspace. The preferred nomenclature for it now is the Internet, and that appears to be sufficient for the duration. In my childhood of the Eighties, samples of Tide laundry detergent arrived in the mail several times a year. In the Nineties, AOL CD-ROMs arrived in suburban mailboxes with the same kind of frequency, but with the persistence of biting insects. I remember making a collage out of AOL discs for fun, as there was never any shortage of them. The decision to flood individual consumers with countless offers to sign up and see what the Internet was for themselves was too good a pitch for many Americans to pass up.

My father thought of the fuss as a frivolous time-waster at first. He had a businessman's sense and logic, and he couldn't immediately smell money in it. Give it time, I said. Now even he has to admit that he might well have been wrong. It is now difficult trying to remember a time before the Internet even existed. I imagine workers on movie sets have to be very careful to preserve continuity, should the film on which they are working be set even twenty or twenty-five years ago. Erasing memory of the future to suspend the audience's disbelief of the past is a chore.  

AOL arrived at the perfect time for me, being that I was a withdrawn, anxious, melancholic adolescent. This kind of extreme awkwardness is typical for the age, but I wasn't the run of the mill lonely teenage broncin' buck. Bipolar disorder first cropped up as depression only, as I didn't experience true mania until I was in my early twenties. If I had been able to keep my emotional problems in check, my high school experience could have been fantastic.

I see now that many classmates tried to interact and engage with me, but turned away eventually, assuming I had my reasons for keeping my distance. Romances could have fallen into my lap, friendships by the score could have been mine, an adolescent world could have been my oyster, but I was too inhibited and ill to take the initiative.

Everything changed when I came home from school and logged in to the computer. AOL was a haven for kids like me. We were a confused and conflicted lot, seeking the companionship we couldn't find elsewhere. Confronting a sympathetic computer screen alone, rather than a hundred judgmental eyes, my reserve and fear melted away. All I needed to do now was be myself, on my own terms.

I met people my own age in chat rooms, those of both sexes, but I had a particular desire to pursue girls. Many were flirtatious, looking for the opposite sex as surely as I was searching for them. Without having to worry about social propriety, the multitude of ways that our society shames and guilts and browbeats women of every age, they approached me with immediate romantic interest. If only it could be this easy in person, I thought to myself.

My first experiences with sexuality started online. I'd always known that I was a sexual being, ever since puberty, but I didn't recognize how common my thoughts and desires really were until I went online. My own private investigations showed me the clinical side of things, but not the warm-blooded, passionate aspect. That takes the presence of another person, even if they are only keystrokes on a computer monitor. That takes feedback and an exchange of ideas.

Not only did I start to understand how men and women pursued each other, it was in this forum that I first expressed the bisexuality that I have somewhat uneasily embraced in my adult life. I appreciated that I wasn't judged by my online peers, and that I was frequently validated for being who I was. I can say with great relief that I only can recall one major incident where I received homophobic slurs. Every generation has its problems, but my own is remarkably proficient at being almost uniformly accepting of those who identify as LGBT.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said that we were all virginal and chaste with each other. Parents might have been upset if they recognized how frequently we engaged in cybersex, which didn't need very much suggestion or prompting. The pattern went a little like this: if one of us really connected with someone else, phone numbers were exchanged. Predictably, this led to phone sex, always conducted under strictest secrecy, often late at night when Mom and Dad were presumably asleep. Remember, this was before the age of cell phones, when land lines had to suffice, a time before we knew at least fifty percent of the time the identity of the person calling us before we even said hello.

If two people were half in love with each other, drunk on infatuation, plans might even be drawn up to visit each other in person. Sometimes meeting face to face happened, often it did not. In the best of circumstances, hands-on parents supervised these visits, which could be very underwhelming. Distance challenges every relationship, and many of my generation learned that lesson very early on.

If we got too overwhelmed, we could always comfort ourselves that what we were experiencing wasn't happening in real life. It was real when we said it was real, and unreal when we said it was unreal. This belief system was supreme deception, self-denial, and longing, wrapped into one. Still, we found ourselves returning to the well when we craved company and companionship. We might swear off of the practice, but we always came back. When the real world disappointed, we found others who could fill the great void.

When parents were not kept in the loop, we sometimes took off on great adventures of our own. Today, I consider it a minor miracle that I somehow made it back from one such event in one piece. On two separate occasions, I made reckless multi-hour trip by car to meet up with internet relationship partners. In those days, I was headstrong, convinced that if I couldn't make connections in my hometown, that surely I was going to take what I could get elsewhere. I knew what my soul longed for, and I did anything I could to not have to be alone in my own thoughts, my own alienation. I cast off for salvation, and sometimes found it, at least for a little while.

A high school friend of mine and I took a one-day trip up to Illinois to meet with a girl to whom I'd been speaking routinely over several months. We were even allowed to go with her to class, one memorable day during her junior year in high school. My friend and I were on a Spring Break a week earlier than her own, which is why we were able to make the journey. A former boyfriend showed that he was very jealous of me, almost immediately upon my arrival, but did not confront me directly. Unfortunately, the friendship ended when an alibi crumbled. Her parents recognized with time that we hadn't actually met in person first, as they had been led to believe for a long time.

About this same time, I flew out to northern California to meet a woman my age I met online, only to find her utterly terrified upon my arrival. We spent five uneasy days together, parting ways at the airport with a great sense of relief. Dreams and reality can be two very different things.

Nevertheless, I formed a variety of friendships online. Next month I will turn thirty-six, and I'm pleased to say that ten or so people from those days have kept up with me over the years. They made special effort to add me to their Facebook accounts and they, like past lovers who have now become warm friends, genuinely want to know that I'm doing well. When someone makes special effort to keep you in his or her orbit, it's plain to see how much you still mean to them. I'm very lucky to have made these friendships, even if the romance of an earlier day has faded away to a gentle fondness.

Those dial-up modem times are gone, likely forever. I don't know what teenagers do these days, how they meet each other and keep away the ennui of their years. The situation I've described didn't last very long, no more than five years. But those of us who are, like me, on the cusp of Generation X and Millennial likely know what I mean. Was it real? Did it really happen? The world may never know.

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