My screen name in seventh grade was rainbowsparkle73. It used to be marmalademoocow39, but my next door neighbor, Ariel Polster, made so much fun of me for it that i changed it right away. Her screen name was a much more mature soccerbabe17. She was the kind of 6th grader whose parents took their whole family on vacations to playa del carmen and cancun in mexico and she would come back from them, tan, with her hair in hundreds of tiny braids and plastic beads at the end that in two weeks, she would take out and have gloriously crimped hair. She also managed to look attractive in snowpants, which at the age of 13 was a concern of mine. Naturally I cared about her opinion.

7th grade, of all years in my memory, is when the loneliness and isolation of middle school for kids who don’t quite fit in feels the sharpest and most painful. At this time, I was still growing out my mushroom cut and wearing floral stretch pants, and proudly carrying my multiple volume science fiction fantasy novels with me to school and back with me on the CTA. My second iteration of my online life as RainbowSparkle73 was an attempt to gain some modicum of popularity before 7th grade started. Coming of age in the early 2000s meant that you part of the “youth” figuring out how an online facade gave you second life, a chance to establish yourself socially with people you physically didn’t know and would potentially never meet, and I invited in this whole heartedly. To give you an idea of how this played out in my physical middle school, 7th grade was a year in which one of my best friends stopped sitting with me in french class because a more popular girl, named Isabel told her that if she sat by me she would commit suicide by jumping off her parents second story balcony. Needless to say changing my screen name to rainbowsparkle73 really didn’t help me out.

But I fucking loved AIM.

My best friend and I - the same girl who wouldn’t sit with me in french class due to threat of suicide- was the only friend I knew who had a computer with an internet connection in the basement and whose parents had evidently never watched to catch a predator and were fine with us spending hours on the computer alone.

Later, this unfortunate computer would later have to be trashed because her little brother Jeremy - the type to whom you would usually picture copying someone else’s geometry homework or getting kicked out of the homecoming game for being drunk -  obsessively began playing online women’s curling, a game in real life that is literally women on a ice rink pushing around what looks like giant hockey pucks. online women’s curling exists in a dark part of the internet because the technician laughed at her parents over the phone when they explained everything that was going wrong with the machine. They couldn’t salvage it due to the amount of spyware and viruses.

Before this happened, my friend Jordan and I would make up  AIM screen names, complete with a fake avatar with a picture of a random woman we found online.  We would just google search women’s first names like Jessica or Charlotte. Which when you searching Jessica in 2003 this inevitably turned up softcore porn of women in showers, bending over in front of a lawnmower, and lots of hard nipples. I tried googling Jessica the other day and now the search results are very modest pictures of white women with dark hair from the collarbone up, no nipples, and the lead singer of a chinese girl group called Girls Generation. Times change.

Equipped with our new online ID, we would go into AOL random chat rooms until strangers would privately messaged us. I don’t know what is worse- that our idea of what it meant to be a woman to us at the age of 13 pretty much encompassed a screen name that didn’t reference sparkles and having giant boobs or that our idea was attractive enough for the random fully grown men on the internet who would message us.They were always men. every conversation began the same - “a/s/l” Which if you don’t remember or had more in person friends when you were 13, means age/sex/location. We would reply, Jessica, 24, Los Angeles or whatever major city we thought was cool. The conversation would progress. wut up - n2m - u - n2m- have pics? They always asked for pics.  I would open a very up a very special folder on Jordan’s computer. In this folder, we have saved dozen’s of photos of topless african tribeswomen from national outside of their villages with their children. And this is what we would send.


There were always two reactions. One would be to immediately get mad and demand to see tits. you know like, perky white girl tits? the ones they had been expecting? the other was to type lol at an attempt to acknowledge that they were “in” on the joke - the real joke being that we were 13 - and then also demand to see tits. good tits! At that point we would admit our age and they would immediately block us.

Until we met LoneWolf1. You could tell from his screen name he was a majestic creature, but misunderstood, because he didn’t have a pack to run with...he was just out in the wild, lonely, but too proud to seek solace or for someone to love him.  Which is why he was on the internet.

And LoneWolf1 just needed someone to see his dick. LoneWolf1 was so ready to get his dick validated in some capacity by the internet he just sent it immediately, no a/s/l.  He didn’t care if it was Jessica/24/LA or Clare Austen-Smith and Jordan Schweizer/13/Suburban Basement, Chicagoland Suburbs. Honestly, I like to think that even if I had been Jessica, I wouldn’t have appreciated his order of operations. To my knowledge, LoneWolf1 is still out there, maybe on chatroulette, thrilled by the possibility of sharing his dick with more people in the world than two 7th graders. While this spelled the end of Jordan and I’s marauding spree of deceiving men on the internet, it was only the beginning of my life online.

Clare Austen-Smith