As many of you, I grew up with an internet world in full bloom. The first ADSL lines replacing old and slower connections, computer screens and televisions getting sleeker and bigger by the day.
Online communities also started changing in sizes and shapes and the first social media networks were born. It was the perfect world for a teenager to discover new forms of romance.
As long as I can remember, my father was always fascinated by technology, so he allowed me to have a desktop computer when I turned 14. It was an old one, but it could connect to the internet, and that was enough for me to start exploring the marvels of this brand new world. I just want to remind the reader here that mobile phones could not connect to the internet as freely as today, so that was my actual first step into the online world.
My cousin and neighbour – who is now a programmer – is five years older than me, and he also was into technology since a very young age, so I often looked up at him to learn the tricks of the trade.
I talked to him a lot, back then. About video-games, puberty and life in general. Once I’ve got my first computer, our conversation started steering towards the online dimension, too. And his suggestions were many. “Did you check out the new online forum for that game?”, “Have you used Wikipedia yet? You can find anything on it” and finally “there’s this new program to chat with people, it’s called MSN Messenger, you should try it.”
I went home that afternoon and turned on my PC. I remember clearly the feeling of anticipation and curiosity at the thought of interacting with some stranger on the other side of the world. We already knew SMS of course, but they were not unlimited as today, and there were no images or sounds yet.
I turned on my PC and googled “MSN messenger”. After avoiding a few scam sites I found the link and downloaded the program. Upon installing it, however, I was welcomed by an empty list. There was no “import contacts” option and didn’t know anyone but my cousin using it, so I typed his name and sent out an “Add Me” request. I waited for some minutes, then a pop-up window appeared on my screen, alerting me that he had accepted my connection request.
We chatted a bit that night, and it was fun to see him through my webcam or send the precursors of what we call emoji today, but I soon realised that if I wanted to chat with anyone other than him, I had to go online and find contacts.
I was already active on many forums, from video-game to anime and technology ones, so it didn’t take me too long before I become comfortable in asking my closest online friends to add me on MSN. Some were shy in front of a webcam when in chat they looked so confident, others were exactly as I had expected them to be. It was the first time I actually understood how profoundly people could camouflage their identity online, and I can’t begin to express how fascinating I found that.
I was nearly 15 when I started chatting with this girl on a Metal Gear Solid forum, still one of my favourite sagas of all time. I had a few contacts on MSN by then, and it wasn’t long before I started filtering fake profile from real people.
The girl went under the name of Lucy, she was from northern Italy and she was 14. We shared the passion for video-games and outdoors, and after a couple of months of chatting, I was almost sure she was a real person. I was still too shy to ask for a video call, but I did send a couple of pictures of myself, hoping she’d do the same.
After a while, she returned the favour but there was something odd about the photos. It looked as if, in different photos, two different girls were portrayed. The photos were taken with a webcam and in poor light conditions, so I couldn’t make sure, but at that moment I didn’t want to scare her off so I thanked her and we kept on chatting.
This went on for a few more months, and we started talking on the phone, too. I had feelings for her by now, but I was also scared that, if I insisted too much upon seeing her on video chat, she would leave.
I was not a very confident teenager, and although thoughts of asking her to meet in person did cross my mind, I wasn’t working at the time and could not possibly ask my parents money to go visit a person that I wasn’t sure was real.
One evening, after talking on the phone for hours, I decided to insist on seeing her. I missed her and I needed to know if my feelings were being returned to or played with.
She said she was shy and not comfortable in front of a camera, but we had talked every day for months, and she sounded pretty confident to me.
I took a stand and told her. I wanted to be with her, but I needed to see her, I needed to know.
“What will you do if I say no?” she whispered on the other side of the phone.
I froze, I couldn’t say anything. She said it was better to go to sleep and talk about it another day, then she hung up.
I felt powerless. How could I trust so much someone I had never seen? I couldn’t sleep that night.
The days after I chatted with Lucy on MSN, but she said she was too busy to talk on the phone. Her brother was around, her mom needed her and so on.
After a couple of weeks of terrible uncertainty, something extremely weird happened. We were chatting, talking about what we had done during the day. There was some tension because of our last phone conversation, but otherwise, everything looked quite ordinary.
Suddenly, she wrote to me “HELP”.
I could have thought she was joking, but given the latest events I wasn’t in the mood for that and immediately got very worried.
“What is it?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
I tried to call her several times on the phone but she wouldn’t pick up. As I typed her name over and over, I felt completely broken. After almost an hour she replied. She started saying very weird things, one after the other. She had a very bad fever, she was delirious. Her hands were bleeding from the fever, and she had to go. She just had to go.
I begged her to stay, tried to call her again and again, but all to no avail.
After that night, I never heard from Lucy again. I was 15, and I got my heart broken from someone I never even met.
After assimilating the grief and pain, I just felt stupid. The years after that, and up to now, I’ve met many people online, some fake, and some real, but I never forgot Lucy.
Whether she was someone playing a cruel joke or a frail person needing help, I never knew. However, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal from this experience. Yes, I was young and gullible, and yes, I got carried away without thinking about the consequences of this risky emotional investment. But also, after that, I have established within myself a clear line of how much I can invest in someone without meeting them first.
We are social creatures after all, and for how romantic and stimulating a mysterious long-distance relationship might feel, I believe we should stop before taking that leap of faith and ask ourselves: who am I talking to?