A Eulogy For My AIM Screen Names, My Former Lives

Late Monday night, as I was wildly searching “what to do in a power outage” instead of gathering my candles and stick lighters and putting them in the same easily accessible place as normal people do when preparing for inclement weather, Facebook went down around 1:30 a.m. How did I find out? When my particularly witty Tinder conversation got cut short too soon, as Tinder tumbled too. Then went Instagram. The big three of millennial flirting were all down for the count (PornHub still totally fine, don’t worry, I checked, thank god), but it wasn’t until AIM — AOL Instant Messenger — went down that I really felt like my entire Internet existence might collapse into a pile of digital rubble, with the remnants of my prepubescent genital lust left in a smoldering pile of ash, never to be properly eulogized.

I haven’t used AIM in years, but all of us have the tales of adolescent hours wiled away during a time when chat rooms were easy to get into, and a quick “A/S/L?” almost always resulted in heartbreakingly sweet photos from divorced dads with their kids cropped out, who really believed they were chatting with a 23/F/New Orleans that might become Wife # 2, instead of a single teenage girl who wasn’t even popular enough to have three friends over at her house to giggle through the entire process. But even more endemic to the teenage experience than casually crafted cyber identities? The casually crafted AIM screen names that accompanied. These are mine.

1. [email protected], 10

Utilitarian. I was maybe 11, if that. Crafted by my mom when she signed us up for AOL using one of the myriad metallic-encased discs that showed up in our Sunday paper regularly. BeejShah was the girl who had to get permission to use AOL, whose parents limited her screen time, and who spent a little longer than she should have playing AOL Kids games (this was back when AOL had sections you could visit). I outgrew her fairly quickly, because what fun is being parentally controlled?

2. [email protected], 13

The parental controls came off, and my love of making idiotic screen names with random capitalizations was fully born. Changing your screen name was like changing lip gloss when you were 13. But more than just colors and glitter, this was the identity that led me to finding the two things I probably care the most about now: writing and sex. 50% of my Internet time was spent cruising random chat rooms, trying to manufacture the fleeting flirtation and thrill of being chased that I wasn’t receiving in middle school. The other 50 percent was devouring e-zines — quick web letters that other tween girls would painstakingly craft, format with graphics and whimsical font color choices, a new one spawned near hourly. There were thousands to choose from, and as you became friends with other listserv members, it wasn’t long before you were creating your own together, trying to understand how not to get your mass-emails as your newsletter grew in popularity marked as spam, conveying apt amounts of fervor for N*Sync in the right number of characters. It was where I learned how to write and edit things that set my world on fire, 14 years before I ever knew I wanted to do it for a living.

3. [email protected], 13

I really loved Justin Randall Timberlake.

4. [email protected], 14

I told you teenagers loved changing their screen names repeatedly and often. I took the extra credit step of using white-out to stencil this on my normcore Jansport backpack, filling in the letters with even more correction fluid. My older sister and her friends found all of this, the white-out in particular, endlessly amusing.

5. [email protected], 15

Hello, young feminists, let me tell you a cautionary tale. I had no idea what 69 meant when I was 14 (a statement that just triggered a 10-minute long existential crisis for me because I truly cannot remember how old I was when I learned what a blow job was; at 14, it wasn’t in my knowledge bank, but by 16 it was institutional knowledge, and it actually devastates me that I don’t know when that transition occurred). I just knew that 69 was an “edgy” thing for a girl to know about, as far as the cool guys were concerned. The only thing guys liked more than bad words like 69? Ditzy girls. For what little I remember about the details of my sexual awakening, I absolutely remember the time that I didn’t just adopt the “ditz” moniker in name, but in practice. I threw my voice up two octaves, a Valley Girl lilt I still speak in to this day. I constantly pretended not to “get” things, because having a boy you liked explain something to you was a good way to get his attention and keep it. It fit my TV-skewed image of how a member of the JV cheerleading squad should act. Always be the damsel. Always be the ditz. Get asked to the Winter Formal, prosper. I didn’t realize that even after I shed the screen name, I never quite shed the persona. It’s something I still default to far too often even now. I never did get asked to the Winter Formal, anyways.

6. sunxshine724, 16

The point at which I gave up AOL emails, but maintained an ever fervent loyalty to AIM as my most important means of communication. In an attempt to “age up” (and because I had learned what 69 meant and didn’t want the boy I was flirting with, who would go on to become my first boyfriend, to think I was slutty) (again, with that teenage patriarchy!), I went with the immensely casual sunshine accompanied by a random assortment of numbers that served no real purpose other than to allow a teenage girl to give an ostensibly knowing look to her friends, but vague details, when pressed on the significance of the digits. “Laguna Beach: The Real OC” was being filmed around that time, and I wanted to convey to people just how casual, beachy, and quintessentially California girl I was. Everyone I chatted with on AIM was already from California.

7. beej is rad, 17 – present

This is the one that stuck. It’s the one I took with me when I grew out of AIM and graduated fully to Gchat, a phenomenon that started when I stopped giving out my UC Berkeley e-mail address as my prime mode of digital contact. It’s gone with me from social network to social network, AIM to Blogspot, Tumblr to Instagram. It’s gone from an online alter ego to a real life nickname, the only thing my sister and her friends call me that isn’t “Lil Beej.” It’s a teeny tiny daily ego boost, even when everything pretty much sucks. Beej is rad was born right around the time I was trying to stop being quite so frivolous with my communication – an idea that makes me howl now, given how many times I’ve paused writing this article to tweet 140 characters of no consequence.

In the early beej is rad days, giving someone my screen name became like giving someone my number. It was the best, most intimate way to reach me. It was where I felt the most natural communicating, even though I was pretty good in person too. It was where I learned the cadence of comedy, far before I worked for comedy writers. (Try delivering a witticism in real time, when your punch line could get interrupted by a new IM train of thought at any minute.) It was where I learned to write quickly, edit rapidly, and always be performing, even when I wasn’t there. (Hello artfully crafted away messages, designed to invoke manufactured jealousy and rage!)

I joke about living my life on the Internet now, as a blogger with a tiny following in a particular corner of the Internet. But that’s not where I lived my Internet life. No, my internet life was lived in the grayscale chat boxes of AIM, which is where I grew up. It’s where a lot of kids like me, millennials, nerdy, not nerdy, white, black, Asian — anyone looking for a connection, really — grew up. We crafted our screen names carefully, sure, but we crafted our personas even more tenderly. It was how we felt most connected, it was where we reached out. If you didn’t like who you were, there was always another site to browse, another screen name to create. At the height of my AIM frenzy, I was juggling something like six different screen names, all of which were integral to reflecting the “real me” in one way or another. Each of those screen names is cringe worthy now, and at first glance, I’m quick to dismiss my awkward teenage years just as rapidly as I would those screen names. But looking back, I still love each of those girls as much as I loved Justin Timberlake then, mainly because they are each still me now.

We graduate from these personas just as quickly as we make them, leaving scattered Internet half lives in our wake — but we never really grow out of them, do we?

[Image via Flickr]