America Online is like the cockroach left after the nuclear bomb hits. They know how to survive.
– Jan Horsfall, vice president of marketing for Lycos Inc.
I still feel the goosebumps rippling across my flesh while hearing that beautiful, scratchy noise. The images that soon appeared were simply too much take. I inhaled the sites and sounds before me, the adventure that lay just seconds away (sometimes minutes, on busier days).
For the first time in my life, I launched onto the Information Superhighway in the comfort of my mom’s basement via a telephone modem and an overpriced piece of technology.
And, good God, in 1992: it was beautiful.
The computer at my fingertips was a 166MhZ Gateway desktop machine, complete with the company’s signature cow-themed mouse pad. Atop our inexpensive desk sat a CRT monitor that, if pushed, could quickly and rather cleanly kill a toddler, or severely injure a kindergartener.
The two-button mouse that made Internet exploration possible was born from the same uninspiring and unimaginative beige as the computer, its rollerball hidden underneath and quite susceptible to collecting dust and crumbs like an old man hordes pennies: slowly, deliberately and carefully.
Our family’s ISP at the time was the overpriced and overly clunky America Online. I couldn’t tell you what version of AOL our Gateway powerhouse ran, but I clearly recall the installation CD looking absolutely atrocious. Flame-like spikes and shards of abhorrent red and orange with yellow splashed across the shiny silver surface was AOL’s approved design to share with the masses. Back in those days we believed fire equaled power and speed, and we expected a parallel experience while online.
An Internet provider with “America” in its title must be magnanimous and true, right?
Selecting my America Online username was a task I approached with equal amounts of glee and trepidation. My username would not only be how my pre-teen school friends communicated with me using America Online’s addictive chat application, Instant Messenger; but it would also serve as the first half of my email address. My very first email address and one, I believed at the time, would be my sole email address for life.
I needed a name to show I was cool (which I wasn’t) and hip (which I wished I was) and older (which was impossible at the time, as I was a bespectacled, pimpled 13-year-old girl with hairy legs, a bony frame and no alluring breasts of which to speak).
My delay selecting a username was ticking away precious moments on the Internet, making initial ideas no longer an option as they were snatched up by much cooler kids than I.
I wracked my brain for countless minutes until I landed on the perfect username.
“From this day forth,” I thought to myself, pushing up my much-too-large glasses and attempting to smooth the frizz in my out-of-control curly hair, “I shall be called Poot78.”
The origin of my spanking new pseudonym was two-fold. What I lacked in cool I most certainly made up for in intellect and razor-sharp wit.
The “Poot” came from a logo-ed sweatshirt I ordered from a catalog months earlier. The purchase was a feeble attempt to up my Cool Factor, as the navy blue, zip-up jacket had the word “Poot!” embroidered on the left breast. I had zero knowledge about the brand, the logo or even the company behind my new piece of outerwear. All I knew is that it was one of the less expensive articles of clothing I lusted after in a young teen’s catalog called Delia’s. (The “78” merely signified the year of my birth.)
The clothes, accessories and home furnishings that Delia’s peddled across its glossy pages were made of crazy colors, bold prints, cheap fabrics and expensive prices. The girls modeling the fashions were those whose friendship I coveted but knew – deep down – would never obtain. They were too much of everything I was not: too much lip gloss, too much smooth and shiny hair, too much clear skin, too straight of teeth.
But my AOL username could easily feign such status – couldn’t it?
Sadly, in 1992 and the few years following, it could not. I found myself in nerdy chatrooms talking about computers, Nintendo, cartoons and breakfast cereals. The cooler kids from my school and whom I heard about online were discussing alcohol-induced sexual escapades in parents’ rec rooms. I simply could not compete and was unable to feign knowledge of phrases such as “third base,” “hand job” or “Boone’s Farm.”
There was the experience of learning the secret language of utterly pointless acronyms other kids were using while online. I tried pushing myself into a circle where I continually remained on the lonely perimeter, standing atop my tiptoes and hoping to peek at the party going on inside.
I floated to the nether regions of America Online. In a place and time before Facebook and Twitter, one really had to work hard at creating their online identity. That creation had countless false starts in online chatrooms. Once the window closed at the conversation disappeared, users (and myself) were forced to start over the next time they logged in and heard AOL’s signature phrase: “You’ve got mail.” But in most cases, it was primarily spam.
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