Last October I created this graphic, an image tagged with all my friends who wished me a happy birthday on Facebook. I wanted to do something special for people who took the time and I wanted to be sure they saw it, so I tagged and tagged and tagged…and got some attention.
15 years earlier my dad gritted his teeth as he wrote.
“While the image in question is of poor taste (and at the very least extremely obnoxious), it is certainly not pornographic. My family’s online account should not be banned from AOL for your maximum penalty of one year because of this. I can assure you that my son will not be allowed to use your service for the foreseeable future and the screen name he used to cause all this trouble—YeOldeFart—will be deleted.”
I was in high school when America Online was still the biggest game in town and I used to spend my precious 20 minutes (the internet cost $3 an hour so I tried to limit my father’s credit card to a dollar a night) in chatrooms. The frustrating thing about chatrooms was it was very difficult to get a whole room talking about something interesting (i.e. whatever I wanted to talk about), and once the conversation had finally come around my 20 minutes were up. I could start chatting with one or two people early, but most people were too slow and I needed more, plus there was always the chance that someone else would show up and distract everyone from what was really important…me.
How do I get alot of people to talk about what I want to talk about immediately???
It didn’t take long before I spotted a hole in AOL’s system. A person’s screen name was also their email address and chatrooms displayed a list of everyone in the room—everyone’s screen name, everyone’s email address. I would pop into one chatroom, copy the list of names and send out a mass email, responding to everyone who responded to me. I had essentially created my own personal chatroom where I was the only person anyone could chat with. I was the champion, my friends!
One chatroom’s list became two, two became ten and ten became “now we’re talkin’!” Since everything about the internet was still so new, people weren’t afraid of unknown senders and would respond immediately once they heard “You’ve got mail!” Each night for the next few weeks I would pick a topic and click send, juggling hundreds of conversations at once getting all the attention I could handle and once my 20 minutes were up I was satisfied.
One night I was topically disabled and couldn’t think of anything to
annoy people with talk with people about. I was watching the show In Living Color and managed to get a screen capture of Jim Carrey making an insanely goofy face, so I decided that night’s topic would be that photo. Copy, paste, attach, send.
Some people were amused, some people told me they didn’t open attachments from people they did not know and of course some people were mad and insisted that I stop sending them emails (not realizing that all they needed to do was stop responding and they would never hear from me again). One person decided not to open the attachment but instead, according to AOL’s disciplinary board, forwarded the image to the internet cops and called it porn. AOL apparently didn’t open attachments from unknown senders either so they banned my family from their service. Kwathump! Case closed.
After a heartfelt appeal from my dad our online account was reinstated but YeOldeFart died along with my nightly entertainment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had discovered something very important about storytelling, or more accurately how to get people to listen: never follow the rules.
AOL had created places for people to chat but people didn’t go online just to chat. What really drove people to the chatrooms was the larger fascination with the new concept of digital communication and when that man’s voice chimed “You’ve got mail!” people were thrilled. “Someone is communicating with me! How exciting!” I learned not to bother with the smaller chatrooms, they were a limited (and highly saturated) form of communication. I stumbled across what people really went online to do and told my story from there.
The same goes for Facebook. I wondered how to get the most attention, how to get you—lots of you—to think about me—only me. Of course I realized what everyone knows: Facebook is actually all about ‘me,’ 845 million “me”s. The only way to get everyone’s attention is to make what you post all about everyone else and Facebook makes that easy with their tagging system. Post a picture, tag a friend, they will be notified (and their friends will be notified—nice little bonus) and they will come see what is new in the world of themselves.
I decided I would create a Facebook photo album that would be a picture book called “Jonathan Has No Friends”—the epic journey of a cartoon me with a real head (like the “robots” in the graphic above) searching for my friends who were nowhere to be found. The plan was to take everyone on my friends list, turn them into similar cartoons and hide them all over the images, being sure to tag each and every one. This would certainly drive lots of traffic (attention) to my posts and to me. I scrapped the idea when I realized just how much work I would need to do for a couple hours worth of “I am the champion,” not to mention how many friends I might lose because some jerk was messing with their pictures. Luckily I got to resurrect the basic idea when my birthday came around and for a far better reason than just saying “look at me look at me!”
In the years since I lost “YeOldeFart” I have tried to use the username for other services (mail, games, social, etc.) but it is almost always unavailable. A little part of me smiles, hoping that maybe…just maybe…the person using the name is someone I harassed lo these many years ago. Maybe they remember the night they received an obnoxious picture of Jim Carrey from a mysterious person on AOL and wanted to carry on the tradition of obnoxiousness for new generations. Yes, I’m sure that’s what has happened. Godspeed, YeOldeFart. Godspeed.