Inventing Myself in an AOL Chatroom

The stories we told each other were fiction, but that’s what made them real

I connected with “Njdude” on AOL when I was eighteen, in college, failing calculus, lonely, cold, and miserable. This was central Minnesota during winter’s peak, sitting in a musty green-carpeted dorm room which overlooked a sagging volleyball net and a parking lot flanked by jagged heaps of snow. I’d only been away from home for a few months, and instead of the intense freedom I’d expected to feel, I’d succumbed to near-crippling depression — the cold, for some reason, had been more tolerable when I’d known other people were suffering from it, too.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” This was my first instant message to “Njdude.” We were in a local room — Minnesota m4m — and I was slightly irritated that someone from New Jersey was occupying a coveted space. (The maximum occupancy was 23 chatters.)

“Just checking things out,” he messaged.

“There isn’t much to check out, so why come here?”

Back then, double-clicking a screen name opened a private message window, not a profile containing height, weight, ethnicity, aspirations, hobbies, preferred sexual positions, fetishes, disease statuses, marital statuses, relationship statuses, race preferences, body preferences, etc. etc. etc. Low(er) tech required people to mine this information from actually chatting, and though many people were upfront about their intentions — “HEY MAN I’M LOOKING FOR A BJ, YOU?” — many, even with the anonymity of the internet, preferred not to start off conversations in so blunt a manner. Back then, the internet was still relatively new, and people behaved with a certain amount of decorum, adhering to the outrageous idea that it was better to know someone before having sex.

“I’ve always wanted to visit,” Njdude typed.

“It’s just a lot of snow,” I replied.

His real name was Tim, and he was 47. He’d been married, had had two children, and on a gray Friday afternoon had been caught by his wife with a man in their bed. He’d divorced, moved to New York, made a circle of gay male friends, and promptly lost every one of them to AIDS. Feeling alone, desperate, destitute, he moved back to New Jersey to be close to his kids, worked as a production manager at a printing company, and tried as best he could to make sense of what had happened. In the evenings, he chatted online with men from all over the country, mostly men his age, but every once in a while with some young squirt like myself — an isolated, curious, frightened young man who hadn’t yet come out to anyone, who was scared to death of the world’s reception, who found solace in typing his feelings to strangers behind computer screens.

I Pretended to Be Emily Dickinson on an Online Dating Site

Over the months, our conversations grew personal and intense, and I began to rely on him for emotional and mental well-being. If he wasn’t online, I’d panic, and quickly send him an email saying, “You there? Where are you?” I’d sit and wait for my computer to announce, YOU HAVE MAIL, and when it didn’t happen, after I’d sat in heart-stretching silence for hours, I’d email him again. He found my agitation amusing, and when he finally replied, he’d remind me that he was an adult with an adult life, that unless we made specific plans to meet online, there was a good chance we wouldn’t be on at the same time. I told him that we should make specific plans, that we should meet in the New Jersey room every Tuesday, but he balked at that idea, telling me that his life would not revolve around his chat room sessions. It couldn’t, he said. There were other things.

I didn’t accept this right away, kept sending him email after email after email, but eventually an actual social life crystallized outside my computer, and this made him recede to a comfortable but important place in my head. As my frenzy diminished, I began seeing him as a friend, someone who put up with my naïve rants about the world, tolerated my propensity for melodrama, and knew things about me that my college friends never would. I continued chatting with him until the end of my freshman year. Then I stopped.

Years passed. Technology advanced. By the time I left college, wi-fi had become more than a conversation. The tech boom in Silicon Valley made delivery of nearly anything possible. People discussed discarding their landlines. Pictures cleared. Webpages accelerated. Everyone had Netscape; then Hotmail; then Yahoo. People texted. Friendster happened; then Myspace; then Facebook. “Friend” became a verb and “like” a noun. A language of truncation developed: LOLs followed by OMGs followed by srslys followed by ROFLs. Pornography became normal and available — not just pictures on glossy pages anymore, but actual video streams, people doing it in their bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms. The movement from language to image imprinted itself onto the next generation, and soon dating became simply a matter of swiping pictures left or right, and I was left both amazed and appalled, impressed and utterly alarmed.

In elementary school, I remember wanting badly to “graduate” to pictureless books, to be a real adult who could comprehend words without accompanying images, and when I finally did — graduate, that is — I felt this keen sense of reward: fictional worlds developed more richly, emotional resonance lasted much longer. Technology’s swift change from words to images, then, to me, as an adult, seemed like an alarming regression, a flattening of imagination, a dimming of curiosity. Additionally, text that survived seemed trapped in a set of insipidly prescribed boxes, quantifying compatibility, relegating longings and ambitions and desires and loves to a series of character-limited profile squares. I hated it, so I often tuned out, used the internet only as an informational means, not as a device for personal connectivity.

Technology’s swift change from words to images seemed like an alarming regression, a flattening of imagination, a dimming of curiosity.

I quickly discovered, however, that without social media connections I wasn’t fully participating the current world, and the current world had become an intensely interesting place. The 2016 election had happened, and people were hurt, elated, scared, joyful, and while some blamed social media for the results, claiming it balkanized thought and normalized division, others used it to act, amassing support from all parts of the country, organizing some of the biggest marches this country has ever seen. Amidst horror and disbelief, I became excited; the internet had given me hope for a future of heightened awareness and socially conscious citizenship; it had once again become a place of solace, a way to feel connection, this time on a larger scale.

And yet.

Much of me still hated it. I hated that it so blatantly revealed longings and insecurities. I hated that it encouraged megalomania, and, as a result, encouraged individual despair. So I checked out. Then checked in. Then checked out. Then checked in. Then decided, after all that flipping and flopping, that it — the internet — was, like most things, okay. Harmful sometimes. Wonderful sometimes. But mostly okay. And what was so bad about okay? What was there to hate about okay? Thing was: it was voluntary. I could use it or not. I could have it at my disposal and ignore. So what was the harm? The problem? Why couldn’t I just keep myself in check, use it to establish meaningful connections, appreciate its potential, understand its limitations?

The other night, feeling weepy and sentimental and slightly drunk, I googled “Tim njdude.” Nothing relevant appeared, so I googled, “Tim njdude production manager.” Again: nothing. “Tim production manager New York” resulted in millions, and so did, “Tim production manager New York gay sad” and “Tim unfaithful two kids.” I checked Facebook. “Tim New Jersey.” Thousands. “Njdude.” “Tim Njdude.” “Njdude Tim gay.” Empty empty empty. Twitter? Nope. Instagram? Nope. Grindr? Err. I sat in front of my computer, closed my eyes, tried my hardest to remember something — anything — about him, something that’d fit nicely into a search engine, but the more I tried, the more I realized that I knew nothing, not what he looked like, not the city he lived in, not even his last name. This made me, for a moment, horribly sad. I had Facebook friends I hadn’t seen in thirty years and Twitter followers I’d never seen pictures of, yet this person whom I considered to be formatively sculpting could not be contacted online. Distressing, I thought. How utterly distressing.

And yet.

The more I thought about it, the more I found it for the best. I’d locked an image of Tim in my head — an older, wise-but-downtrodden man, using the internet to help me, a younger, impressionable man — and if I found him now, that image would waver, vacillate, and ultimately transform. Perhaps he would disappoint. Perhaps I would disappoint. Perhaps his responses to things wouldn’t be strong enough, or articulate enough, or clever enough, and perhaps I would slowly lose respect for him, downgrading him to an online friend who sometimes said inane, or thoughtless, or fumbling things. Perhaps I would block him. Perhaps I would unfriend. Perhaps. In any case, whatever happened, negative or positive, the electronic reunion would effectively replace and alter that beautiful, vital purpose he’d served, and so it was best that I kept my original image of him. It was best I simply remember him as “Njdude,” a hopeful and encouraging and commiserating voice calling out to me a thousand miles away.

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