When I was 16, I met my now-boyfriend through the internet. Wait, no, not through the internet — although, by now, I’m sure someone’s invented an online teen dating site for those adolescents suffering from cripplingly low self-esteem because, like, oh my god, nobody’s ever going to ask them to the prom after the captain of the football team called them fat in front of everyone in the cafeteria — but rather because of the internet.
This was 1996, when hanging out in chat rooms was all the rage. Remember chat rooms? You signed in with a pithy moniker — I believe my own was KikAssBrit (oh the shame!) — and then spent the next hour tying up your parents’ phone line by having one long nonsequitur of a conversation with 20 other people, one of whom was always angsty and guilt-ridden and threatening to kill themselves online, and another who, despite the screen name SexxyCheerleader85, was almost certainly a 63-year-old Piggly Wiggly bagger from Goose Creek.
One of my friends had spent several months “chatting” blindly with a 22-year-old named Jay — or WannabeWrita95, as she knew him then — and had decided, finally, that they should meet. Along for moral support? Me, of course, in my JCPenney jeans, my mouth full of the finest orthodontic metal money could buy. Jay had promised to bring along a date for me; all I had to do was shut up and pretend I was 18.
He never showed up, of course, and neither did his friend, but by happy coincidence, the guy who eventually became my boyfriend did. We won’t linger on why he stopped his bike on the beach to talk to a pair of 16-year-old girls, because that’s not the point. The point is this: 10 years on, do people seriously still decide to meet people from the internet? Unsupervised?
I’m not talking about placing an ad with a reputable online dating agency and then getting together for lattés in a well-lit public area, having told three different friends to call the cops if you’re not home by 10 p.m. And I don’t mean nervously shuffling into Vickery’s on a Sunday afternoon because the four other members of your Lowcountry Scrapbooking message board are all meeting for the first time. I’m talking about getting in your car without telling anyone where you’re going, driving to a beach parking lot, and waiting for a total stranger to show up and charm you the way he charmed you in the Democrats R Us chat room. No safety plans, no qualms, no rape alarms, no nothing. Just a whole lot of hope and hubris.
The thing is, people must. Even though by now we’ve all been programmed to assume that everyone on the internet wants to chop us up with a hacksaw while wearing our underwear on their heads, you can’t turn on Oprah these days — and, trust me, I turn on Oprah a lot — without hearing about some teenage girl who met up with a guy from MySpace and ended up buried in his backyard.
But when I think back to my 16-year-old self blindly driving to meet WannabeWrita95 and his WannabeWrita friend, I want to slap myself upside my silly little head. The internet is a scary place, but apparently I didn’t think so then. Or, who knows? Perhaps back then it really wasn’t so scary.
Holly Burns is on the web at www.nothingbutbonfires.com. Her boyfriend would like you to know that he didn’t realize she was only 16.