The Blob

Thursday, October 17, 2002

You can't go home again

The neighborhood has changed. No, I'm not talking about the town where I grew up, but the town in which I met my wife. And not any normal town either. I'm talking about the chat rooms in AOL. Not that we're AOL members any more. We quit a long time ago, having felt we'd outgrown the training wheels for the Internet, the spam, the nonstop commercial intrusion and visual pollution. I'd been a charter member of AOL in 1987 when it was a Mac-only service. Back then, it was smaller, more sedate and fun.

Then, AOL got big. Really big. And the little town I once knew and loved became a big virtual city, for that this implies.

I just installed the AIM client for instant messaging yesterday, so that I could IM my wife at her office. She'd upgraded her Mac to Apple Mac OS-X 10.2 (Jaguar), which includes an AIM-compatible IM and chat client, iChat. It's nice. In typical Apple fashion, it's elegant, intuitive and slick. So it made sense to revisit the way we used to communicate while each of us was at our respective jobs. Within 10 minutes, we were IMing like we did years ago. Handy. And this morning before work, I thought I'd spend a few minutes traipsing around the AOL chat rooms on AIM to see what had changed.

As I quickly learned, a lot. I discovered a lot of the once nice virtual neighborhoods have declined. Badly. If you equate chat rooms with streets and neighborhoods, what were once quiet suburban areas have become electronic red light zones. Even in some of the more sedate chat rooms that I merely set foot into, I was hit up with shills to visit sex sites, look at someone's video and I quickly got IM'd with offers to do some things that I thought weren't possible with human anatomy. They immediately want to know your age, sex and preferences. Explicitly. So much for "hi, how are you."

I've heard of immediate gratification, but this is ridiculous.

I used to chat to relieve my boredom and overcome some loneliness I experienced following my divorce. And in the process, I met my wife. We used to chat and IM a lot, especially as we first got to know each other. Reading through what we wrote, we discovered a kinship and got a look into each other's souls. It was a bit scary when we decided to meet on cold morning at a Starbucks before we both had to rush off to our jobs. This way, if I was an axe murderer, my wife would have an exit strategy. We married two years to the day we met. I also made a few good friends via chatting. We stay in touch. And our e-mails focus on feelings and thoughts, some pretty deep.

Cut to today. How you can make any good conversation, much less a relationship, is a lot more challenging. No, make that next to impossible. Today, everybody chatting seems to have an angle, a scam, an agenda.

It's a shame to see the old town grow seedy. I can only hope for future urban renewal. But it's true: you can't go back home again. And after my brief visit, I won't.