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Kira Homsher | Longreads | March 14, 2023 | 3,308 words (12 minutes)
My childhood best friend broke, and still holds, the Guinness World Record for fastest text written on a QWERTY mobile phone. Though I never came close to matching her speed, it was only natural that I should absorb her enthusiasm for messaging. She was also one of the most private people I knew, with an uncanny ability to create and compartmentalize disparate personas to charm all sorts of people, and much of her social life took place on strange websites I’d never heard of. Even after she moved to a new school district, I found myself emulating her volatile affect: vibrant, expressive, flirtatious, and reserved all at once. I learned that it was possible to try on new versions of myself through conversations with strangers, and that the internet was the best imaginable venue for these slippery charades.
I was 12 years old when she moved, too old to play pretend, not yet old enough to resist the impulse. The internet provided a fertile new stage for my proclivity for make-believe. Online, I could be whatever age I wanted. I could be an avatar, a playlist, a chain of speech bubbles. I was pure invention.
My first-ever email address was email@example.com. In assembling a family tree for a sixth-grade project, I’d discovered that I had a great-great-great-grandmother named Emily. Back then, we were advised not to use our real names on the internet, so I borrowed hers. It was so easy to assume a new name and still feel like myself.
A boy from my class emailed “Emily” to ask if she’d be his girlfriend. I wrote back, telling him that if he came up with a good list of reasons why he liked me, I’d date him for one week and no longer. In his list, he cited the fact that, even though I was a girl, I played cool games like Minecraft and RuneScape, a massively multiplayer fantasy role-playing game set in medieval times. He also mentioned the two freckles above my top lip, something I’d never noticed about myself. I let him come over after school for pizza but didn’t let him kiss me. We broke up at the end of the week, but continued meeting on RuneScape to exchange armor, roam the wilderness, and slay giant rats. I preferred interacting with him online, where we could stay up all night flirting without any material expectations or consequences. When I saw him in school, I largely ignored him.
Toward the end of my middle school years, I discovered Meebo, an instant messaging application that supported multiple services such as AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, and Facebook Chat. Users could also join Meebo Rooms, public chatrooms searchable by topic and content. You could search almost anything and find a corresponding chatroom full of like-minded people. In 2008, I used Meebo to message IRL friends, but mostly to collect strangers. My AIM username was sexisince1901 — I was a rabid fan of the Twilight series and aligned myself with “Team Edward,” a faction of the fandom that preferred Edward Cullen, a vampire born in 1901, to Jacob Black, a teenage werewolf with 8-pack abs.
The Twilight series comprises five fantasy films based on four novels by Stephenie Meyer, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which, according to Wikipedia, Meyer has named as her greatest influence. Her novels center around a romance between Bella Swan, a brooding high school misanthrope, and Edward Cullen (aforementioned vampire, 87 years her senior). Like many girls my age, most of my preposterous romantic expectations and desires had their roots in this series.
On Meebo, I discovered a chatroom dedicated to Twilight roleplaying. By the time I joined, all the most popular characters had already been claimed, so I modestly chose a secondary character I knew no one else would have taken (Tanya from the Denali coven). Within a week, I had a small community of online friends, who I knew only by their role-play names, and an online boyfriend named Jared. An online boyfriend is someone who may or may not be a boy and may or may not be the age he says he is. An online boyfriend doesn’t have to know your real name. An online boyfriend is a viable and dispensable source of attention.
Jared and I started meeting in a private chatroom instead of the old public one. He PM’ed me photos he claimed were of himself, but which I quickly traced back to the second page of results for “emo boys” on Google Images. He sent me messages with actions encased in asterisks, like *slits my wrists n licks ze blood* and *kisses u on ur forehead* and I answered with kk or *kisses u back* or mew ^_^. He threatened to kill himself more than once and, each time this happened, I would rush into the kitchen or the living room to tell my mom that “my online boyfriend is cutting himself again!” She thought it was sweet how earnestly I involved myself with adult matters that had nothing to do with me.
I quickly found other boyfriends — and girlfriends — on sites like DeviantArt, IMVU, and VampireFreaks.com, which was sort of like Myspace for goths. I spent hours dressing and designing my avatars and almost always made them look a bit like myself, which was, in retrospect, a sign of relatively high self-esteem. A friend taught me that if I put things like XxX in my usernames, more people would want to add me, gift me free items, and/or be my boyfriend. I especially liked to create usernames using words like elf, fairy, tiny, and dark. The language of fantasy made sense on the internet, which was itself a make-believe place I could visit by passing through a glass screen. I became accustomed to receiving virtual gifts and favors from my e-suitors. Online, people are more generous with their time and less precious about their romantic and emotional entanglements. Just refresh: There will always be someone new.
It wasn’t long before I ended up on Omegle, a website that randomly and anonymously pairs users in one-on-one chat sessions or video calls. Conversations were between you in blue text and stranger in red and, more often than not, began with the acronym asl, meaning age, sex, location. It was a question without a mark. Other times, people simply opened by stating their age and gender (f for female, m for male). There were more self-proclaimed 18-year-old females than could possibly have been looking to chat with strangers. Most of the strangers I was paired with just wanted to talk about sex or redirect our chat to another platform where we could send pix. Others were naked, lonely souls seeking an audience, and I was more than happy to accommodate them. I wanted to soak it all in.
Chatrooms taught me everything I needed to know about what real people were like before I had to grow up and become one of them. I never stopped collecting strangers; I couldn’t kick the habit. By the time I went to college, all the former mystique of the internet had been subsumed into the tedious landscape of social media. Anonymity was no longer the selling point — it was all about developing an online brand, a persona other people would find desirable, entertaining, original, or infectious. A hook. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, with my name and face publicly displayed, I felt more like an avatar than ever, role-playing some prettier, wittier version of myself.
I was never the sort of person to scroll through an app believing everyone to be as beautiful, happy, and fortunate as they appeared. I’d grown up online and knew all the tricks. I have several vices, but envy is not one of them. If social media mangled my character in some way, it had little impact on my self-confidence.
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If anything, the rise of social media made me quicker to judge and discard other people, as if they were advertisements meant to be scrolled past and scoffed at. My early internet encounters made apps like Tinder, with its efficient model of swiping on first impressions, a veritable playground. I was used to being paired with strangers, but Tinder took it several steps further; I got to attach my conversations to real names and faces, and the attraction was no longer just simulated. Or rather, it felt less simulated.
My taste in strangers did not change much. I always sought out people who seemed alienated, people I suspected were looking for things other than sex — or at least were using sex to look for other things than sex. And no, I don’t mean love. I wasn’t lonely, but I was only interested in talking to people who were.
The first boy I met on Tinder was Gavin, a redhead whose bio read: sjshshsgdjskid djdjdjjdjdjdjd djdjdjjdjd. That was it exactly. I still have the screenshot of his profile in my photos from 2016. We texted for a day and a half before I drunkenly caught a 2 a.m. train to Center City and followed Google Maps to his dingy art gallery loft, where I remained for almost an entire week, wearing his clothes, sharing burnt toast on the floor, and gamely wiping with paper towels after he ran out of toilet paper.
Gavin was skittish and contagiously charming. He hinted at relationships that didn’t work out due to his difficulties with intimacy and told me that, a year prior, he had cut himself off from all his old friends. He texted me things like, Gonna hug u hard it’ll feel like sex and sorry i was so drunk last night but seeing U was so cool n good and waking up with U was unreal. He disliked music and claimed that he’d never once gotten a melody stuck in his head. If I played a song on my phone, he’d practically beg me to turn it off. I watched him flit in and out of his apartment like a neurotic poltergeist and let myself believe I could be the exception to his rules about closeness.
As soon as Gavin and I did our first load of laundry together, it was over. We washed our brief history out of his sheets and something in him turned away from me, back toward the seclusion that had initially drawn me to him. I returned to my apartment and we never saw each other again. I felt an odd mixture of heartbreak and relief: Gavin had logged out, which meant I was free to refresh.
Hungry for more stories, I kept on swiping and adding to my collection: Zooey from Brooklyn, Ali from LA, Darian from Belgium, Mateo from Copenhagen, Ryo from Tokyo. Cara, Izzy, Chris, Yui, Sam, Laura, Goretti, Jun. Sometimes I slept with them, sometimes I didn’t. I preferred to date people who, like me, were just passing through. I admired Omegle’s model of allowing users to disconnect from an interaction — from another living soul — at a whim, and unabashedly applied it to real life. It got so that I almost couldn’t remember what it was like to feel candid attraction to another person without first examining them through the mediating layers of a profile, with its carefully curated photos, idiosyncratic bio, and abridged display of “favorite songs” powered by Spotify.
I found Ali two weeks before I left to study abroad in Japan my junior year of college. My thumb froze over his picture and my brain snapped back into focus. His pictures were so beautiful I thought he was a catfish. He had cherry black hair and big white glow-in-the-dark teeth. Also, incredibly, his bio wasn’t stupid. My heart skipped a beat when we matched. We exchanged numbers and went on texting for another six months without meeting or even FaceTiming. He was attending an art school in Baltimore, and I was studying film on a scholarship in Tokyo, where I binge-drank nightly and blacked out weekly. We treated each other like therapists, messaging at our worst to ask for no-strings love and affirmation from someone who cared, someone beautiful and unreal. Shortly after I flew back home to Philly, Ali took a bus down to spend the weekend with me. Before he arrived, we confessed to being in love with each other over text. We agreed that we would make really cute, really smart babies.
It wasn’t the same in person. Of course it wasn’t. We’d broken the spell. He was just as pretty, but his beauty didn’t translate the same without the separation of the screen. We weren’t sure what to do with each other. He had a nervous laugh and carried his anxious energy in his shoulders. He was vulnerable and alive to the world, and I didn’t know how to be around that. By then, I’d become far more comfortable dating cynical, unreadable people. Earnest displays of emotion seemed ill-suited to 21st-century romance; I wanted only to spend time with people I could not hurt and who could not hurt me. People who were like pictures, folded in a mental scrapbook of short-lived enchantments.
After we had sex, Ali told me that he couldn’t get the email address of his father’s friend out of his head; it was like an intrusive thought. Curled up naked against my body, he chanted: “Greggreen315@yahoo, greggreen315@yahoo, greggreen315. Greg-green-three-fif-teen.”
He was perfect, really, a glowingly good lunatic and everything I could have wanted if only I still knew how to want. We did love each other, but not in the way we’d hoped.
Eventually, you collect so many strangers that the fascination dissipates. The stories start to melt together into an unending tapestry of quirks and anecdotes too close-knit to parse. You forget who had the heart-shaped mole, who had the cute butt, who had joy from the cookbook The Joy of Cooking tattooed above his left knee. Your strangers become one amorphous lover, one long story you grow bored of telling yourself. A low hum, unstrange.
I’d convinced myself that, in my frantic cycling through new people, I was wielding my youth to its fullest potential, perpetually carving myself anew. In opening myself up to so many people — and in exercising the self-restraint to close myself off again — I would become larger than myself, someone who could weather the capriciousness of the world and reflect it back unscathed. Instead, I became callous and compulsive, a thrill-seeker with no real agenda. My days took on a filmic quality, something watched rather than lived.
I had grown tired of watching. I wanted to feel something small, and feel it wholly. I wanted to be like a child on a swing.
I went on Omegle tonight for the first time in years, both to remind myself of what it was like and because I missed the fantasy of anonymity. After swiping through an endless procession of horny robots, I ended up chatting with a gloomy 19-year-old undergrad named Elijah, who only revealed his name and age at the very end of our conversation. Elijah used a lot of ellipses and was extremely anxious — in a sweet, facile way — about a wide array of subjects: his friends, the government, the amount of time he spent playing games on his PC, the pacing of his messages, and whether I was getting bored with the conversation. He told me he was hanging out with a group of friends, but that everyone was stoned and on their phones. He said, Theirs just a lot of insecurities I have right now and it might be making me feel like I don’t fit in with anyone or nobody gets me.. Anxiety probably.
I could tell he enjoyed being asked questions about himself, so I kept thinking of things I wanted to know. He told me he wanted to pursue his talent for chess but lacked the motivation. He apologized for the one-sided nature of the conversation, and I said I didn’t mind. He said, Oh really? and continued not asking me questions. I truly didn’t mind. I had no secrets to share, no disaffection to unpack. He kept saying sorry, thank you, and if that makes sense and if I stopped asking questions, his tone would grow hesitant and insecure. It was obvious Elijah thought, and wanted me to think, that his depression was an interesting quality, something worth dwelling upon. I thought this, too, when I was 19. Like Elijah, whenever I spoke to a new stranger I was quick to offer up my own shiny instability as a conversation piece, a token of faceless vulnerability. I told him I admired his authenticity, though really I was beginning to find it grating. He wanted to be reassured about everything he said. Talking to him, I felt my language becoming trite and consolatory.
I told Elijah I was interested in how people’s early online habits had shaped their communication styles, which was why I was on Omegle. He asked if I was writing an essay for school. Sort of, I said. Am I helping you at all? he asked. I ignored the question, then asked if his classes were online or in-person, and he said in-person. I asked what that was like, and he said, We all wear masks now. I said, I know.
I ended the conversation around 3 a.m. and he asked, very politely, if I’d feel comfortable exchanging social media. I told him I was a very private person, which was a lie. I told him to have a nice life, which I meant sincerely. We disconnected.
A few years ago, I would have agreed without hesitation, regardless of my disinterest in speaking again. Every single person I connected with was a treasure to me, a lesson, something to tuck away inside a chest for safekeeping. Not anymore. The chest is full, and it rarely begs opening these days. I’ve been cured of my curiosity through sheer saturation. There is so little I want to know about other people.
Click to find strangers with common interests. Click to turn on video. You are now chatting with a random stranger. Click esc to stop. You have disconnected.
I’ve largely forgotten how to curate the allure that once came naturally to me on social media. I still post, but my posts no longer contain hidden messages or existential appeals to the unknown, nothing that invites speculation. My photos are mostly of my dog and my partner of five years, the final stranger in my collection. And yes, I found him on Tinder.
I look at my online self and think, this is me. At least it feels like me, naked as it is of the artifice that once came second nature. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m mediating without even knowing it. I wonder if true candor can exist without the fantasy of anonymity, without the arbitrary landscape where things like age, sex, and location can be effaced and improvised. Many of my closest friends are real people who first came to me as blurry photos and blocks of text. Half of my life was lived on the internet. Is that half unreal?
We all wear masks now. As if this wasn’t already the case. A mask conceals, but it can also expose a great deal about what is hidden beneath it. An avatar is a choice. The way you decide to disguise yourself online reveals something in its negative space. You can fall in love with a text message, a blinking ellipsis, a persistent buzz in your pocket. You can fall in love with your own reflection, poreless and perfected. You can give and give and give and take and take and take. And then log out and vanish altogether.
Kira K. Homsher is a writer from Philadelphia, currently living in Los Angeles. She is the winner of phoebe’s 2020 nonfiction contest and a Pushcart nominee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Passages North, The Offing, and others. You can find her at kirahomsher.com.
Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands