A few years ago I painted a picture-doodle and titled it “We Met on the Internet.” The picture was of a normal looking girl standing in the subway, waiting. She had one hand up in the air waving to the person she’d been expecting. The hand wasn’t actually a hand; it was a huge kind of claw thing. She was a nice person though, as far as I had judged her.
See, I grew up in the 90s in a house where every Sunday my mother, sister, and I would cuddle up on the couch and watch the current movie on Lifetime: Television for women. My dad would walk bay and say, “Is the woman crazy or is the man evil?” Of course we’d rush into a frenzy of explanations of the entire plot and how she was only crazy because he made her crazy. My father would inch away wishing he’d never asked and hoping the commercials would be over soon to drive our attention back to the story at hand.
Even though he didn’t want to watch or hear about the stories, he was a man with two daughters growing up in the company of white privilege. These were cautionary tales he couldn’t have narrated for us.
My father grew up where one pair of shoes, out houses, and radio stories were normal. I grew up chatting on AOL with my middle school friends and people pretending to be in middle school whose first questions were always “A/S/L?”
13, Female, Massachusetts. Who would be dishonest about such simple questions?
That’s when the Lifetime movies started to change. The internet stopped being made up of people you couldn’t see who wanted to be your friend, but predators lurking behind a keyboard who wanted to take advantage of you.
The computer moved to the common area of the house and the first questions I got when I entered a chat room were from my sister, “How’s the gym teacher? You send him pics?” It was said lovingly and with a laugh, but in the same way people tell you not to fall off the boat when you go on a cruise. They’re joking but serious; don’t die, asshole. Similarly, whatever this person on the other side of the chat is saying, they are a rapist unless you know them in person already. Shit, even if you do, you’re now in Schrödinger’s rapist territory.
The internet became a catalyst for the worst parts of people. They have to hide the molestery, racist, and generally shit parts of themselves in public, but not online. Online is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where anything goes and everyone is driven by base desires. All those shady glances on the subway, lurkers in dark alleys in the city, or slow moving cars while you walk on an empty street come to life on the internet.
Eventually, there came a point where if someone got raped and murdered by someone they met on the internet the only pause it gave me was to wonder, “Who the hell still meets people off the internet?” That’s how you get raped and murdered. It’s pretty much and invitation. Like getting drunk at a frat party, being black in the Deep South, stopping too long in the ghetto. Don’t do it and your chances of not dying increase exponentially.
Those are all terrible, blame-the-victim things to say but I was raised to think, “That could be me.” The thought rang especially true if the crime was a thing that happens to people with certain criterion, or better yet weaknesses under these circumstances. If it was just a preventable as it was unexpected then something about it makes me, unfortunately, in part at least, blame the victim.
While the news kept me abreast of all the terrible people on the internet, I had the pleasure of discovering I’m agoraphobic in the mosh pit at a Reel Big Fish concert. And again at a No Doubt concert.
Now, I’m in Boston as an individual, all day every weekday and haven’t been overrun, murdered, or raped yet (knock on wood).
Last weekend, as I prepared for PAX East, I found myself running through my checklist of weaknesses I should take care to mask as well as possible. For the last two years, I had gone to PAX East with at least my husband, if not three to four of our good, guy friends. I was never alone. Not being babysat or watched, that’s just how we went and it happened to be safer and sounder for me. This would be the first year I went to this massive gaming expo alone.
However, I wouldn’t actually be alone. This would also be the first time since being young enough to have the excuse of literally being “young and dumb” that I would be meeting people I only knew from the internet.
I met these people between six months and a year ago because we were all passionate about writing about and playing video games. I had only talked to them online or on Skype to record podcasts about video games.
I kept my husband informed. Maybe even over-informed, every step of the way. When I left that first morning he said, “Be careful, and use your judgment.” Not because he believes that I don’t typically use my judgment but because I was now entering the blame-the-victim zone. The zone where if anything seemed slightly off, even if I thought it made me racist, misogynistic, classist, or otherwise ist, I owe it to myself and my loved ones to not be the Madlibs news story of the week.
I also felt I owed it to my internet friends to not be a cautionary tale myself. I had an expectation to either live up to or defy. It wasn’t enough to simply look like that girl in the picture and act like I do in chat. The onus was not only on them, but also on me to be more than an online persona, to be someone who acted like a human and treated people like people.
I did my best, both in regard to being cautious and human.
I’d been texting @idkmybffkae all day and cozied up to her first. As a woman I’ve been trained to find allies in social situations no matter how safe or supportive they seem. Who’ll accompany me to the bathroom or let me know if that guy’s creepy? My ally, that’s who. This is what goes on when women go to the bathroom together. They run through all their cautionary tales, from lipstick on the teeth to I can’t find my friends and there’s a creeper following me.
@idkmybffkae and I had a rapport online that I was relived to find was real in real life as well. We laughed at the same jokes and got excited about similar things. Kae was even better with dimensions and that spontaneity that can only come from focusing your real life attention on one person and your interactions with them. No team score, who’s supporting the top, or checking what’s happening in my other six tabs. Just a one-on-one conversation about leggings and whether or not they’re pants (they’re not).
But Kae is a girl and we’re both twenty-something so maybe that was just the same rapport I’d have gotten from girl talk in a bathroom at a night club. How could we not have something to talk about? This was the point where the internet’s reputation started to color my judgment.
Jake, Catherine, and Will, I’d never really talked to before. Not even online. They were genuine strangers from the internet. And Will had a beard. Nothing filthy or massive but enough to remind me that beards sketch me out and my threshold of sketchy things, no matter how trivial or ist, should be very low. I observed the guys from a distance and focused on Kae with my secondary attention on Catherine and tertiary attention on Charles. Catherine was a fellow female and I’d “known” Charles for over a year.
After a while I decided that Kae was just people, according to my gut. More than just people actually, it was like Six and Blossom meeting for the first time except with fewer hats. I liked her online and I can honestly say she was even better IRL. I had my ally and my judgment cocked and ready. Eventually the time came when I should have been parting ways with them.
Instead I stayed in the city to hang out for a little longer. With the buffer of an ally I was able to discover I got along swimmingly with Charles (thank God because we’re kind of bff online), Cat (she is not a quiet Asian stereotype), and even Will with the beard (I was able to see past it, eventually). Not only got along with, but I also enjoyed their company and having conversations with them in person, about non-gaming related things. We walked around the city, had dinner, had drinks and then it was getting late. I could either take the last train home or go back to the Motel 6 with them.
I texted my husband to let him know I was going to hangout a bit longer. “Don’t get murdered,” he said in that familiar joking but not way women get cautioned with. This was a news or not moment in my life. I trusted my judgment and decided not only that I wouldn’t get murdered but also that I would trust these people. Mostly, I decided I could fall back on the old standby that girls know their allies. You can get along with a girl but still see the Single White Female or the Angela from Death of a Cheerleader lurking in the background. Not only were the three of us getting along but we were also comfortable with the guys.
I went back to the Motel 6 with my internet friends.
What would my mother think? When I was younger, she used to say, “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” She wouldn’t tell me what choices to make but she also wouldn’t make any effort to disguise judging those choices.
I spent a weekend with people I met online.
I shared my passion for gaming with them, even if it didn’t always translate into skill. I failed so hard at Max Payne 3 that Nick from Rockstar had the chance to show Kae and me the awesome difficulty settings that will be available. I watched Kae try Xbox and cutesy games she normally wouldn’t, and she had fun.
I drank with them. And with them I learned that white rum and diet coke makes a delicious and dangerous drink. I danced with them and I stayed up late talking about life, the universe, and everything with them.
In the morning I missed them.
They trusted me and accepted me, and still take my calls and social medias. These are friends I would show you. And I’d tell you that I met them on the internet, because sometimes we forget there are people in the internet. There are definitely predators; we have enough evidence of that. But, in case anyone was wondering, there are people too. And some of them are the best friends you never wanted to meet.