1. Bad Screen Names
For a large majority of twenty-somethings, there’s nothing more embarrassing than recalling your first screen name. Created during a period in your life when you possessed a truly stunning inability to tell the difference between lifelong interests and temporary infatuations with passing fads, most early screen names reflect interests that we’d prefer to forget. I know my Buddy List circa 1998 featured testaments for everything from KoRn to The Undertaker to the number 69. I even remember with particularly horrific glee one friend from my blindingly white suburban town who christened himself as a SnoopSoldier.
Creating a screen name was an important step in our adolescent development. By choosing that name, you weren’t just publicly declaring your support for a given band or movie or sports team, you were actively incorporating them into your own identity. At least when it came to the online world, you actually became a SnoopSoldier; after all, random people in chat rooms had no idea you looked more like Frankie Muniz than a gangsta rapper.
2. The Thrill of Realizing That Other People Share Your Bizarre Interests
Before the internet, if you liked something really esoteric or random, like Japanese Death Metal or the Swamp Thing cartoon or sploshing porn, you were the only person in the world who liked Japanese Death Metal/the Swamp Thing cartoon/sploshing porn. At least it felt that way: what were the odds that someone else in the relatively miniscule number of people we’re exposed to in our day-to-day lives was also interested in something that strange and particular?
For example, maybe you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) were obsessed with 80s horror movies as a teenager – a relatively common interest by today’s standards. But confined to a sample of say, 2,000 teenagers comprising a high school (many of whom you would never interact with anyway because of various social constricts)? You were lucky if you could find one other kid who shared your weird obsession so you could hold sparsely attended Freddy Krueger Appreciation Society chapter meetings.
I can’t really explain how empowering and gratifying it was to find people with like-minded interests in the early days of the internet. This is something we don’t fully appreciate in an era of über-specialization, now that every possible sub-genre of music/film/literature/television has its own internet community. And that’s wonderful, but it’s impossible to capture that feeling of “Wait, I’m not the only one!” that accompanied that first time you found a message board dedicated to the passion you thought was yours and yours alone.
3. AOL Discs
Okay, I don’t really miss these, but I felt like no article on AOL would be complete without them. You know how seemingly every single time you open iTunes it pesters you to download a new upgrade? Well, AOL was the pioneer of those constant, unsolicited upgrades, which it proliferated via maddeningly ubiquitous discs that flooded the country on what appeared to be a weekly basis. No sooner had you updated to AOL 3.7 then AOL 3.8 would arrive in your mailbox, confusingly offering you a trial membership to a service you already paid for.
“For the love of God, AOL,” we’d commonly remark, the unused discs overflowing our trash receptacles and spilling out onto the nation’s streets, “Please group your software upgrades into one convenient package instead of creating new versions every time you add a new font!”
4. Trolling Done Right
Internet trolls are the diseased and disturbed elements of our collective unconscious burbling up like dead fish floating to the surface of a polluted sea. Twitter, message boards, and comment sections allow people to unload their vitriolic self-hatred onto other innocent, unsuspecting people behind a wall of anonymity and free from repercussions. It sucks.
But there was a more innocent version of trolling that existed in the AOL days. First of all, if you were going to troll people, you had to really own it. You could always create a secondary screen name to use specifically for the purpose, but you had to inhabit that persona any time you used it – for the most part, you couldn’t divide up your internet presence into dozens of different profiles and usernames the way you can now because AOL unified things as much as possible under your screen name. Also, people could instant message you and fight back, to some extent. It kind of held you in check.
The trolling I experienced (and participated in) back then was a gentler, stranger trolling. For instance, I might IM strangers and just send them lines of dialogue from Family Matters in all-caps until they blocked me, or go into a chat room and talk incessantly about how I liked to cram my genitals into tiny mason jars. It was harmless and irreverent and seemed almost constructive in some way.
5. Unsending emails
AOL had a feature that allowed you to unsend an e-mail as long as the recipient hadn’t read it yet. How is it that we’ve lost that? I use Gmail, which “graciously” allows you to unsend an e-mail within 30 seconds of sending it. 30 seconds? Gmail, don’t you realize that it takes me upwards of 24 hours to properly digest, reconsider, and eventually deeply regret nearly half of the e-mails I send? Hell, if it was up to me, you’d be able to unsend e-mails even after the recipient had read them. Sure, it’d be confusing, but think of the possibilities…
“I got your e-mail, you son of a bitch!” my boss would scream at me, his fat face crammed into the opening of my cubicle. “Get the hell out of here!”
“What e-mail?” I’d respond, grinning mischievously. “Why, I think if you check your inbox, you’ll find that there’s no such e-mail at all…”
He’d return a few minutes later, grumbling. “Well, I don’t know what the hell happened to it. Anyway, you’re still fired.”
But I’d be oblivious to the words escaping his fat face, rendered too incapacitated by a fit of silent, convulsive laughter to respond.
6. Chat rooms
I’m not really sure what the appeal of the chat room was in the first place. You know how you hate talking to strangers? How the lack of any mutual common ground makes conversation dull and perfunctory? How you spend the entire time trying to think of a tactful way to end the misery of interaction? Well, chat rooms combined all of those negative experiences into one package, with the added bonus that no one was who they said they were and some asshole kept doing dice rolls. Chat rooms are like video stores – I miss the idea of them more than I actually miss them.
7. Anonymous Friends
In 7th grade I had approximately 9 friends, and 6 of them existed on the internet. I was friends with people that I met in chat rooms, on message boards, and even in a role-playing wrestling federation (don’t ask) – people who, for all I knew, were lying through their teeth about everything, and whom I would never meet and had no intention of meeting. Yet I talked to them almost every day! That’s weird, right? It’s like 3 degrees of technology removed from having a pen pal, which is probably the lamest thing you could’ve done as a kid.
I still think about these people all the time. What happened to that girl who over the course of a year sent me three different pictures of herself that resembled three different people? Or the guy that told me that the Kid Rock song “Black Chick, White Guy” perfectly described his relationship? Or the supposedly 17-year-old chick that was legitimately obsessed with The Golden Girls?
More importantly – do they ever think of me?
People have forgotten about cybering (aka cybersex), or at least they want too – like some repressed memory from the internet’s adolescence, it’s an embarrassing proclivity we collectively agreed to pretend wasn’t a thing sometime around 2002. Although I’m sure it still exists in some way or another, I prefer to think of it as it existed on AOL in the late 90s – as an aggressively awkward act of juvenile sexual curiosity, fostered by the wonders of the internet and greatly propagated by chat rooms.
The obvious modern parallel is to sexting, although it should be stressed that cybering was way, way less effective. If you were looking for a form of sexual activity that involved none of the five senses, then, well, cybering was for you. It was also much shadier than sexting – in fact, let’s go over some of the crucial distinctions:
- With cybering, you rarely knew the other person involved. Unlike sexting, cybering was often just an anonymous encounter between two people who met in some chat room. I mean, I’m sure some desperately horny teenage couples tried it out, but it’s the kind of intensely sad human interaction that’s best reserved for total strangers. Therefore…
- You had no idea what the other person actually looked like. Meaning…
- You had to rely on their self-description of their age, gender, and physical appearance. Except for…
- Some particularly crafty folk, who would send you a picture of “themselves” that they had clearly stolen from a porn site. But, regardless of…
- Whether they claimed to be a 17-year-old high school quarterback or a 22-year-old sorority girl, you were pretty sure that they were just a 48-year-old dude with a wispy moustache and a subscription to Highlights magazine.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of cybering was that, like any sexual encounter, the two people involved were usually looking for very different things. Whereas Person A might be someone who required the mental stimulation of a well-crafted scenario before plunging into graphic detail, Person B was already masturbating. That led to exchanges like:
Person A: I open the door to our luxury suite and saunter demurely over the threshold. As my high heels click suggestively over the marble tile, I look back at you and offer a tantalizing, knowing wink. I carelessly toss my shawl over my shoulder as I turn and fall backwards onto the bed, awaiting your next move…
Person B: I TAKE MY pENIS OUT AND RUB IT ON U
9. The Novelty
What I miss most about the AOL era was the novelty of communicating with both friends and strangers from the comfort of your living room. Instant communication is such an inherent part of our lives now that we can’t help but take it for granted – it’s no longer a privilege, but a right (“What the hell, this cemetery doesn’t have Wi-Fi???”). But, there was a time when we were willing to jump through absurd hoops for that ability. A time when we were willing to tie up our only phone line for hours, wait forever for an e-mail to load, and sift through hundreds of awful websites just to find one good one – anything for that unexplored territory that paradoxically offered escape and connection at the same time.