"AOL Has Turned and Left Me Here"
(Published November 15, 1996)
I've been sitting here for over an hour in front of the computer screen, as I do most every night when there's an ebb in the tide of Must See TV. Sitting like an exercise bike purchased with the best of intentions but never ridden: silent, immobile, resentful. Quaffing cranberry juice like the sweet nectar of life that it is. Playing unwinnable card games that came with my computer and resetting the scores each time I lose, lest I should glimpse the true magnitude of my lack of skill and feel even worse about myself.
Every ten minutes, I sign onto America Online to check my e-mail. A hollow, metallic "Welcome" mocks me as I wait for the proclamation, "You've got mail!" to resound from that same stuffy voice. But, for me, the voice never has anything to add to its salutation. The little flag on the pixilated mailbox never rises.
"Goodbye," says the voice, sounding dejected that I'm not spending more of my time and money in its little pay-to-play universe for shut-ins.
I discovered America Online's "People Connection" last June, on a weekend when my brother was monopolizing the TV, watching an IndyCar race and bellowing insults at Paul Tracy. I entered one of the chat rooms and immediately discovered two things:
1. If the importance of a nation was based on the typing skills of its inhabitants, the United States would be of less consequence to the world than Swaziland.
2. I could make fun of people in those rooms without fear of reprisal.
For weeks, I'd sign on for five minutes or so per day, make some snide remark to the first person who accidentally typed "156/f" in response to an "Age/Sex Check," and then leave, feeling satisfied in a small way.
One day, however, after making a tasteless joke about Roman Polanski to counter the message "17/m looking for 14/f," a little box appeared in the upper left corner of my screen that said, "Hi." (I'm taking some liberties with the capitalization and punctuation here.)
"Hi, how are you?" I cleverly shot back.
At this point, I proceeded to relate all the bitterness I was feeling at the time to this mystery person, who was apparently willing to listen. It turned out that this person was just making chitchat and didn't really care about my life, but this experience made me aware that there was a possibility of actually making friends on AOL. This intrigued me, because I'm remarkably bad at making and maintaining friendships in real life due to my tendency toward being judgmental, my monstrous visage and my disinterest in all activities that require leaving the house.
Over the next month or two, I forged many good relationships with other bored agoraphobics across the nation. I realized how pathetic it was, but at least I'd found a few trustworthy friends with whom I could discuss things beyond movies, television, and music (such as hockey, politics, and my hatred for emoticons). Each day, as soon as I got home from school, I'd log on and there would be a nice, long note waiting for me. Then I'd type a smug, wordy one in return and I'd feel pleased that I'd finally met someone whom I could interact with without being the defensive, self-effacing jerk I am in person.
Well, then the bottom fell out from under everything. I ran out of things to discuss with my faceless, frozen-in-text buddies and, since I never do or encounter anything noteworthy (except dislocating my knee in the washroom), my letters to these folks grew shorter and shorter. In return, I received less and less information in each message from them until it got to the point where I only heard from them once every couple weeks, which is where I stand today.
Codependent guy that I am, I now feel the insuppressible urge to constantly sign on and get a shot of isolation when the only thing that greets me upon entering the wacky world of AOL is an animated, rusted-shut mailbox festooned with spiderwebs. I never realize how much I despise the real world until those who populated my picturesque computer galaxy evacuated. And so here I sit, transfixed in reality, the cyber-hermit.
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