I don’t “get” teenagers. I never did, even when I was one. Well, okay, that’s maybe a bit hyperbolic, which is proof enough that I actually understand teenagers just fine. The closer truth is that I wasn’t particularly interested in communicating with them in person. Nor was I invited to! I was a chubby tomboy in a sea of miniature Real Housewives. But thanks to the internet, I didn’t have to change who I was to fit in. I could explore my interests and identity alone behind the anonymity of my computer screen. Hooray!
My first internet obsession was Dollz Mania—an interactive cartoon dress-up “game” where I could create a version of myself that looked more like the people newly-pubescent demons I went to middle school with. You couldn’t customize much back then—your avatar, and thus your identity, was just a combination of shirts, pants, and hairstyles. That was it. But hey, it seemed pretty consistent with the identities of my classmates in real life, so who was I to question it? As you can imagine, playing this “game” made me feel worse about myself. The deeper I disappeared into a world where I pretended I looked like these scantily-clad cartoons, the harsher the reality was when the computer screen turned off and I could see my real face in the reflection. I didn’t want to be like them anyway, so where was this complex sadness even coming from? It was confusing. It was lonely. It was sixth grade!
Thankfully, by seventh grade, Neopets had completely taken over my “Dollz Mania,” so to speak. Because, you know, seventh grade is so hard. Jokey sarcasm aside, it seriously was. The cartoon boobs and low-rise jeans (which were ever a thing why, exactly? Did people not have buttcracks in the mid 2000s? I digress…) were, much to my parents’ relief, replaced by more age-appropriate cartoons. Though these creatures are admittedly wearing less clothing, they’re not people, so all systems go. Neopets was (and still is, I guess? I can’t believe it still exists) an interactive world where you collected and earned things like tomato omelets, Ubikiberry Elixir (whatever the hell that is), and Evil Snowball Wands, by dodging flying ice cream scoops and winning at pyramid solitaire. You’d take care of your creature squad by feeding them your winnings until they were “Very Bloated.” This was much more my speed. I related to these monsters, especially Scorchio, the dragon as pudgy as it is edgy. My true 13-year-old self!
Then, in timely biological fashion, my interest in whimsical fantasy animals dropped to zero, and my lust for flirting shot up way past 100. Problem was, I wasn’t suuuper well-groomed in real-life socializing (or in general—veeeery greasy hair) so I had few avenues to explore this new raison d’etre. I was atrocious at flirting in person. Even though I had somehow acquired a boyfriend through my messy awkwardness, we mainly communicated on AOL Instant Messenger. Online, I was a poet. A dramatic romantic. Elliott Smith incarnate. I was addicted to writing these sappy, lovesick sentences, and Habbo Hotel became the vault in which I’d store them all.
Habbo Hotel was, in essence, a literal chat room. You’d create an avatar (shirt, pants, hair, the three ingredients to identity!) and furnish your “room” with beds, chairs, fridges, weird miscellaneous things, whatever you could find. That wasn’t what interested me. If I wanted to do that, I’d just play The Sims. Habbo Hotel was about talking to real strangers semi-anonymously and sending them kissy emoticons, sharing undying love, trading your TV for their tiny rug and the promise of internet fidelity. What an absolute nightmare in hindsight, but at the time, it was electric and relatively innocent.
If I were a teenager today, I imagine I would have gotten myself into plenty of internet trouble with plenty of real-life consequences. Luckily back in the mid 2000s, the internet was just a tool to escape from hurt feelings, hone my flirting (and writing!) skills, and read celebrity tabloids. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m really grateful Snapchat didn’t exist while I was in middle school.