Friendships, family, and everyone in between all pose themselves as spies when we’re unsure of ourselves, and so, it resonates that we found solace in the one place where traces of ourselves we weren’t ready to reveal to the world could be hidden at the click of the ‘delete browser history’ button… the internet.
Back when I was in high school, the face of the internet was almost unrecognizable. Sure, on the surface nothing was too amiss; Google dominated, Tumblr was about as relevant as it is today, and Wikipedia still begged for donations. Instagram was in its infancy, Twitter didn’t have much to say, and before Facebook was the post-data-breach apocalyptic wasteland it is today, it was pretty much just a place you’d share song lyrics as statuses to let your classmates know you were ‘cool’ (spoiler: that was anything but).
If you delved a little deeper, say, two pages into Google’s search results, AdSense and PPC weren’t that advanced yet, and so you were much likelier to strike gold without endlessly scrolling. The buried treasure being, in my eyes, chat rooms where I’d find other men who were attracted to men. This story teaches you how for me, and many others like me, we discovered our sexuality through a screen. My adventures led to me coming out (or being outed), my first almost-boyfriend and actual boyfriend, and hitting third-base in the middle of a forest while hiding from an unsuspecting dog walker and his curious Scottish Deerhound.
Before Snapchat and Whatsapp, existed more archaic, almost-ancient virtual realities that were often little more than text boxes and code. Omegle and ChatRoulette went ‘viral’ through word of mouth at school, especially as we all started to learn sex education, as classmates shared tales of the joy of being able to click a button and instantly connect with ‘anyone, anywhere in the world’. A concept so foreign and wondrous at the time, which, to pubescent minds, meant genitalia galore.
I found my first-ever almost-boyfriend on an interactive chatroom/game, called Habbo Hotel. It was revolutionary at the time, and arguably led the norm of ‘may contain in-game purchases’ app-based games that rule today. There was an entire virtual world, wherein you had your own safe space that was fully-customizable, but you could also venture to public domains and interact with other users if you so wished. A very once-in-a-lifetime chance (a lad shouting out ‘who’s gay?’ into a large white on-screen bubble in a lobby) led to us chatting privately; we discovered that not only were we of similar age (he was in sixth form, I was in year 10), but only a couple of towns apart, no less. He was a closeted beefy football player with a cracking (and I mean cracking) body, I was a small, closeted creative student; can I make it anymore obvious?
We dated for a while around summer; walks around the town at night, riverside chats about identity and who we wanted to be in years to come, and that was it; I was hooked. He was my first kiss with a boy, although it didn’t last very long; both nervous, I’m sure.
The internet became our safe haven, and once I stumbled upon those gym pics on his MySpace (my first lesson in internet lurking), I was determined to make him mine. Of course, when you’re at that age, it seldom works out the way you intend it to. I wasn’t ready to get physical at that time, and I don’t think he was either, despite lengthy text conversations about ‘wanting certain things if we got into a relationship’.
It eventually fizzled out (due to presumably obvious reasons of being a couple of years apart at very important respective ages), almost restarted a year or so later before being fully ghosted, and the most up-to-date knowledge I can give you is that he’s moved countries, got himself a girlfriend and denied my Facebook request.
My first actual-boyfriend came a little later; without fully remembering how we met (sorry, if you’re reading this), I know that it was some chatroom, probably LadsLads etc., sleazy sites that were hotbeds for both experienced men and eager newcomers, too. It’s kind of dangerous when you look back it, isn’t it, being so able to thrust yourself into the company of mature, and experienced, men?
This was a little more organic, and involved a lot more face-to-face time, slowly bridging the gap between the online and real worlds; still, he lived about as far away as the previous one, and we made it work primarily with phone calls I got sent to my Grandma’s house. I was out at this point (to my family and select friends at least), after my mum found flashing texts from the sixth form footballer that were ladened with kisses and supportively questioned me about it. For a while, actual-boyfriend and I were virtually inseparable; we merged friendship groups, went on actual dates, in the day time no less, and gave each other a few (at the time) steamy memories. From shopping centre car parks with my belt around my ankles to, well, wooded areas with my belt around my ankles, he lit the flame of my sexual awakening. It had seemed that I had begun to evolve beyond the chatrooms, and my sexuality was finally flowing into the physical realm, something I had long awaited. We never got caught by that dog walker, although friends did notice our beige chinos were a noticeably muddy later that day.
In the eternity that were Years 11, 12 and 13 that followed, the bug that is instant validation sprung from an online profile and a few messages bit me, and hard. I grew addicted to the web with profiles on multiple sites at a time, whether or not they were tailored to a 17 year old from rural Yorkshire. The internet truly shaped my dating experience, from video-chat dates to, well, steamier video-chat sessions; texts, sexts, exchanges of photos and videos; it’s important to note that this, for a large portion, was the only way to reach the boys who I’d caught in my net. Bearing in mind I had to find men who liked men, they had to be attracted to me and vice-versa, there’s no wonder that I occupied my time holding my phone under the desk in Physics and talking to boys as far away as Plymouth.
Still, the chatrooms and instant messaging services of yore built me, and led me to where I am today, mentally and physically. They opened my eyes and a door to a wide world which has allowed for many an adventure from then to now. Not only that, but they taught me so many valuable skills, like learning how to flirt, sexting, and understanding that what boys say isn’t necessarily what they mean (still not quite got the hang of that one). It was like dating with training wheels on, with the option to close the tab or delete the texts if it all went horribly wrong (which it did, a couple of times). Thanks to Kik, Bebo, Piczo etc., and the privacy from my daily life, they allowed for me to truly become myself at just the press of a ‘log-in’ button.
It’s becoming increasingly harder day-by-day to separate the virtual from reality.
In its earlier days, social networking was home for parts of me that I wasn’t ready to let the world see yet, becoming a comfort blanket which I could hide under whenever I needed to. Chatrooms and websites and apps were there for me when I didn’t feel safe enough to turn to friends or family, and they really structured the lessons I would learn, and who I would become today.
So, for every experience, good or bad, I have to be thankful. Because without even one of them my life would be completely different. I’ve often wished, back in the day, that I had it as easy as straight people in my school, or that I didn’t have to go to that one specific bar on a Wednesday to find a hook-up; but, reflecting on it all, I am glad for it. For everything. Regardless of the fishing tactics, I’ve caught quite a haul; some, of course, had to be thrown back into the sea, some slipped away from me… but nethertheless, he persisted, and you’ll find that you often pull things you don’t expect to. The internet truly did truly turn what could have been a barren sea into, well, an ocean. In my case, I found buried treasure hiding in Tinder, only a swipe of a finger away.
Thankfully, I’ve never found any crabs on the end of my rod… yet.