When I discovered AOL chat rooms was when I discovered the freedom to express my introverted self, extrovertedly. There, I could talk to boys without turning pink. And there, boys could talk to me, with interest. Sure, I was a pale tween, hunched over her family computer in a New York suburb, telling people with screen names like BeachDude87 and hang10cali that I was a tanned teen surfer living in California, but I didn’t think I was hurting anyone. I was just trying to be noticed — a feat that offline felt impossible to achieve.
So, online became a special place for me to steal characters’ identities from Mary Kate and Ashley movies and use them to affirm some level of existence, at least as it pertained to boys. While my friends were sticking their tongues down each other’s throats and grinding behind the teacher’s backs at school dances, I was transfixed on the computer and twitterpated with my life online. While my friends were getting hickies, I was getting IMs. IRL, I had nothing to show for myself. I was that girl at sleepover parties who told tall tales about mysterious boys from “other schools” or “camp.” Only, my tall tales were based on screen names, which evoked more skepticism than awe.
For me, talking to boys online was like walking into the cafeteria at peak lunch hour with the confidence that I would have a place to sit, and what’s more, a few people who actually wanted to sit next to me. The internet gave me the courage to be the kind of person that I could never even fathom offline. Online, I was chatty, open, curious. I typed with flirty pink text, which made me feel girlish in a way I couldn’t seem to dress with in real life. And I could make myself even cuter online by typing in uP dOwN uP dOwN. Eventually, I would give up the CaliSurfGurlQT persona and talk about my true self with ease. I had witty responses and punchy questions. I could keep a conversation going until midnight. My voice didn’t trail off at the ends of sentences when I was talking online. I wasn’t awkward about goodbyes. I wasn’t embarrassed about being expressive. Exclamation points made me sound convincingly excited and frown faces made me seem believably pouty. The internet took away some of my otherness and evened me out. The key to expressing myself lay in a QWERTY keyboard and while my parents wished I’d go outside, it felt like I was.
Offline, I was shy and soft, awkward and out of tune. I didn’t know what to do with my hands when I talked to people. I couldn’t speak loud enough for people to hear me and any time the attention was on me, I did whatever I could to deter it. I was so scared of being knocked down that couldn’t bear to show myself. So I hid, mostly under personas that made my friends laugh but made the boys run. As it turned out, middle school boys were not charmed by my uncanny Christopher Walken impersonations. Go figure. I knew there was some semblance of a calm, authentic person inside of me, but it would be years before I would find her. And in that time, I would evolve into a young woman whose first kiss was a combination of a semicolon and an asterisk and whose first boyfriend lived in a rectangle on the family computer.
For me, talking to boys online was like walking into the cafeteria at peak lunch hour with the confidence that I would have a place to sit, and what’s more, a few people who actually wanted to sit next to me.
Even as an adult with my own computer, I was still introverted, still awkward with my hands, still funny only to my friends. As everyone around me started to pair off, the prospect of a future alone came into focus. It was easy for my friends to go out and be social. They’d come back from a night at the bars with a few new numbers, flushed faces, and lots to talk about. And while it was easy to blame my freelance work-from-home lifestyle, the truth is, even if I was out and about, I still wouldn’t talk to people. I’d still shy away from conversations and stop interactions before they started. I was the girl would go to a bar to meet people, but then play on her phone, pretending to be busy so that no one would talk to her. Being out late in a noisy, overcrowded bar is not on my list of fun ways to spend time. It’s on my list of recurring nightmares. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder: with over eight million people living in New York City, couldn’t I find one guy who was allergic to the same kind of fun that I was?
I went on dates with people that my friends tried to set me up with, hoping that the recommendation would give me a leg up. And no matter how much I felt like myself as I left the house, the second I sat across from someone, I could see my personality slink out the door and eventually drag me home, alone. Maybe there are a certain number of times you can be called “weird” when you’re young before it’s stamped onto your soul forever. But no matter how good I felt about myself, I couldn’t find that person on a date. I would turn into this sweaty, stiff creature who couldn’t do anything but violently fold a cocktail straw into a sharp looking figurine.
The first time I downloaded a dating app, I played it off like it was a joke. Or, that’s what I told my married friends, who were judgmental with their diamond-weighted fingers. I thought if I swiped with them, it wouldn’t feel like I was trying, it would feel like a game. And trying was just about the most embarrassing thing someone with a fear of failing could do. But once I started to match with people, I was brought back to that very same feeling of freedom that I first felt in AOL chat rooms. On the app, I could be myself. I could be charming without moving. I could be confident without sitting up straight. I could be outgoing without making a noise. But everything changed when I realized that the better the conversation went, the more likely an in-person meeting would be suggested.
“What are you doing this weekend, want to grab a drink?” Match #1 messaged me. I choked up. I started to hysterically think of excuses. I closed the app and threw my phone on the couch like it was on fire. Why would he want to break this perfect safe bubble? I was offended; everything was going great. That was where my head was at. I was so used to disappointing people in person that I thought meeting was synonymous with ruining it. But then something clicked. He didn’t know that about me. He knew he was interested enough that he wanted to spend time in person. Tinder was allowing me to skip the qualifying round and bypass the first date. PLAYER ONE: BONUS ADVANCE TO NEXT LEVEL! Meeting in person was like a second date, because you had already done a lot of the preliminary vetting via text. Going to meet someone who already had a sense of my personality as I saw it in private was my secret weapon. I could establish confidence offline and then attempt to live up to it in person.
As difficult as it was for me to translate my online persona into the offline world, the opportunity to get to know someone before meeting them helped me transfer the data over a little more smoothly. Living up to my jpegs, tweets, snaps, and stories was not an easy feat. Every serious relationship I’ve had in my life came from a combination of swipes and red bubbled messages. It’s not lost on me what an integral part the app has played in my life. A few years ago, if you had asked me how I met my boyfriend I would have gone red. I would have stuttered and stammered and tried to think of anything to say that wasn’t the truth. At the movies — my phone went off and he pretended it was his. At home — his drone flew into my window by accident! At a wedding — I beat him in a ‘Wagon Wheel’ dance off! And while online dating as a whole has largely lost its stigma in the last few years, I’ve shed my own, too. But let’s be real: I am where I am in my life because online dating supplemented all that would have otherwise been lost in translation.