I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
I’m stuck in a coma, stuck in a neverending sleep.
It’s 2017 and social media has well and truly taken over the world. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram may dominate the landscape, but nowadays, virtually every major website on the ‘net has some form of social tie-in, while great pretenders like Mastodon, Peach and Ello have all tried and failed to muscle in on “The Book’s” territory. But things weren’t always this way – a little over a decade ago Facebook was an exclusive club for college kids, Twitter irrelevant, and Instagram yet to even be conceived. Instead, MySpace ruled the world, and while sites like Xanga and Friendster held small, ever-declining footholds, it was hard to imagine anyone ever really competing with Tom Anderson’s social media monolith – at least, if you were in North America, anyway.
The year was 2005, and scuttlebutt around my high-school in the South West of Ireland centered entirely around a different social network, Bebo. I attended school in the country’s third-largest city, making a long commute daily from my home out in the middle of nowhere, with no one my age for miles, and where doing something as simple as visiting friends could result in an hour long round-trip for my exasperated parents, who always kept me on an incredibly short leash. Bebo was something different; nobody had ever seen anything like it, and it blew up in a big way. Like everyone else, I jumped at the opportunity to make a profile, interact with my friends in our own private online clubhouse, and share the real me with the world. But something happened not long after that – I drifted away.
I had never had all that many friends in school; I was a pretty sickly child who had always been the target of jokes and barbs due to a nasal issue that resulted in me spending most of my school days coughing, sneezing and loudly blowing my nose. In late 2005, I had just turned fifteen, and I, like everyone else, was changing. My sickness was subsiding a little, and now only plagued me in the mornings. My voice had already broken years before my classmates, I was the first among my year in the small, all-boys Catholic school to develop facial hair, and as more and more of us began to take those initial steps into adulthood, I began to realize that I was slowly meandering away from the guys I grew up with. It happened slowly at first, as it so often does. Minor disagreements in matters of taste: not liking that new Bell X1 album that was all the rage, or developing a taste for horror movies and arguing that we should go see The Exorcism of Emily Rose instead of The 40 Year Old Virgin were the early seeds of a split soon to come. The snowball picked up speed as it rolled downhill; my old friends joining a larger group, with myself often left literally outside the circle.
Eleven years later, 2016 was just coming to an end, and I had celebrated my 26th birthday in September. I was in the midst of some sort of episode – call it a quarter-life crisis, or maybe just a straight-up breakdown, but either way, things weren’t good. I was lost. I’d always had a plan for myself as a teenager – I was going to be somebody. By the time I was 26, I was supposed to be on stage, screaming my soul out to thousands of teenagers who were just like I had once been: alone, isolated, questioning why they’d been abandoned by the people they thought they could always rely on. I was supposed to headline Warped Tour, sell out minor-league hockey arenas across North America and get bottles of hot piss flung at me by drunks on the European festival circuit. I was supposed to be hanging out with the guys from Senses Fail and Underoath, a role model for a new generation of kids, just like Spencer Chamberlain and Buddy Nielsen had been for me. I thought the scene would never die; that the ridiculous haircuts and skinny jeans would never go out of fashion.
Instead, I had gone and gotten my degree in music production, picked up my whole life, packed it into a suitcase and moved from rural Ireland to Toronto, Canada in 2014. While in Canada, I dealt with a year of near-constant unemployment, save for a three month period where I had a part-time temp job that didn’t pay enough to live on, as well as deep depression and hunger as I barely scraped by below the poverty line. Now, I sat in my old room in my parents’ home on a cold night over the Christmas break from my job at a factory in a different, even more rural part of Ireland, bored and alone, looking through my Steam library for something to play. I stumbled across Emily is Away, remembering how unique and cool an experience it had been. I booted it up, and so much more of my past came rushing back to me.
In 2006, my life changed. I became popular. That popularity didn’t manifest itself in the real world though, but rather on MySpace. I became acquainted with the site through an online friend of mine, and set up a profile. One or two people I knew in the real world had MySpace accounts, but for the most part, it was a place to hang with my online friends, the vast majority of whom I met when my best friend from primary school moved to Canada. He’d already introduced me to MSN Messenger, but now I was on MySpace too. I didn’t use the site much, until one day I noticed a message being forwarded through a randomly added friend via bulletins. The bulletin contained what would become known as one of many MySpace “trains;” in essence a poorly coded piece of HTML with pictures of scene kids, each with their own respective “Add Friend” button. It was here that I realized I could finally be the person my friends, neither real or online knew existed, and that I so desperately wanted to be. In many ways these “trains” were the progenitor for “follow4follow” twitter accounts – friend requests that would be accepted no matter what, allowing users like myself to artificially inflate numbers well into the hundreds, and maybe, if you were lucky, you’d make a friend or two along the way.
I set up a second MySpace account – and did something I didn’t do on any other profile: show my face. This was a big step for me, as I had recently discovered the podcast Uhh Yeah Dude, and through it, To Catch a Predator. Pedophilemania was running wild online in 2006, and though the show didn’t air in Ireland, it was available through YouTube, Dailymotion, and Google Video, all which were still in nascent, lawless stages of their respective evolutions, and none had yet made the breakthrough that YouTube soon would. TCAP, for those unfortunate enough to not be familiar with it, consisted of an online vigilante group, Perverted Justice, conducting sting operations through AOL chatrooms, ensnaring would-be pedophiles, who would then be lambasted by the show’s host, Chris Hansen, and eventually arrested. I fell in love with the show as a kid (and indeed I still regularly rewatch it today), but I had always been nervous about showing who I was online, in part because of Dr. Hansen’s tremendous work. Turned out that stepping from the shadows was the best decision I had ever made, or at least, it would be for a short while.
But there was more to it than simply posting my picture online like any other kid would have. I was increasingly becoming an outcast in the real world, and had firmly settled into my angstiest phase. I was the only kid in school who got on board the “scene” bandwagon, and it wasn’t long before labels like “emo” and other, far less kind names were being derisively thrown my way. Now though, I had a whole new world, of kids just like me, where I could be accepted, and where I could find my place. For a while, I found just that.
I boot up Emily is Away Too, and the nostalgia I felt upon revisiting the original Emily months ago is quadrupled. The unmistakable sound of that Windows XP startup noise, the whirring that reminds me so much of the old Dell desktop that once sat upstairs on the landing by the window overlooking the garden, and which still sits in an old, now disused bedroom in my parents’ home. The boxy, ugly, yet warm and comforting interface that could only be an AIM stand-in, accompanied by the characteristic sound of doors opening and shutting lures me in. I’m prompted to fill out my profile – I do so, choosing Against Me! lyrics, and a quote from V For Vendetta, before a buzz tells me that punk4eva has contacted me. Casual “yoooo!”’s are exchanged between Evelyn and I, and suddenly, I’m a kid again, as the game guides me through a conversation about how Evelyn – who I’ll soon come to call Evee – is going to see Senses Fail at Warped Tour this weekend. I realize: this is an exact recreation of a conversation I had eleven years ago.
It was summer 2006, and my parents had given me what I wanted more than anything in the world: permission to stay at home while they and my younger brother left on holiday for two weeks. It’d be fine, I assured them; my grandparents would be stopping by every couple of days to check on me, I was too young to drive so I couldn’t just go get in trouble, and none of the few real-world friends I still held onto had parents dumb enough to leave them alone at my house for long periods. Besides, I always hated those family vacations. I wasn’t a fan of hot weather, and the budget holiday resort in Portugal my parents always took us to didn’t have any video games. Truth be told, I didn’t much want to see my real life friends either. Broadband internet had finally arrived out in the sticks, so all I wanted to do was hang out on MySpace, listen to the newly released Define the Great Line, and talk to my real friends. The ones who understood me.
We all wanna be, wanna be somebody, right now, we’re just looking for the exit.
Her name was Cheyenne, and I was terrified. I was alone in my house, save for the small cairn terrier we’d taken in as a stray a year earlier, and I was not adjusting well to having the house to myself. I was a couple months from turning 16, but I felt like a child, with every knock and bump in the night having me convinced I was about to die. I needed someone to talk to – Cheyenne was that person. We’d been friends for a few weeks on MySpace, commented back and forth a few times, engaged in all the casual, light flirting that every MySpace teen did. I tried to play it cool, as I left a comment on her MySpace page, the “Online Now!” signal flashing as I did so. She got back to me; we went back and forth, and I suggested moving the conversation to AIM or MSN. We did so.
We became close quite quickly, or at least what we, as stupid, naïve teenagers perceived to be close. Of course, as stupid, naïve teenagers often do, I fell for Cheyenne in a heartbeat. She was about a year older than I was, and she was everything I thought I wanted. We liked the same music, she was deep, yet open, and she looked like the scene queen every girl with ironed-straight raven hair wanted to be. We talked about how excited she was to go see bands like Underoath, Saosin, and Senses Fail, and about how next year, I was definitely coming to Phoenix to see Warped with her. I never told her I hated hot weather, of course.
My fears of putting myself out there faded away. I wasn’t worried about predators any more; all I wanted was for her to like me as much as I liked her. I bought a webcam on a trip to the movies with my real-life friends using some money my folks had left me. I quickly settled into a routine; staying up all night to talk with Cheyenne and my other MySpace friends across MSN and AIM, then logging out as the sun rose over the dew-lapped country fields to eat and watch some TV, before sleeping through the morning and early afternoon. Soon, we hatched a plan. We were gonna break a world record. Cheyenne and I were going to stay up longer than anyone ever had, and we were going to record it all thanks to the magic of MSN chat logs. We had just enough time to get it done before my parents got back, and figured that it’d be fine if she still went to Warped, because she’d have photographic proof of being awake, and I’d have chatlogs with our other friends to back myself up. We failed miserably; lasting barely a day, but it was fine. We were still making memories that would never leave us.
“You should be able to do whatever you want!,” I, xTOFINxFACEx assure emerz35, as she complains about not wanting to be tied down by her boyfriend Jeff after college. Emily craves exploration, freedom and adventure, and given that we’ve been friends for all of high school, I’m more than happy to back her up on that. She asks what I want to do after graduation, and I tell her what she wants to hear. I just want to take life as it comes. She’s glad I think the same way she does, even if I’ve already told her I’d rather be listening to more Senses Fail or The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus than indulge in some Snow Patrol or Sigur Rós with her. We promise that, no matter what, we’ll always be friends. Her mom needs to check her email or something, so she’s gotta go away. It’s cool, though, because punk4eva’s just returned, and wants to play 20 questions.
During the game, her relationship status comes up; she tells me about a recent breakup, and how she had plans to settle down after college and start a family. She asks me what I want to do after college. I tell her that settling down sounds nice. She asks if I’d ever date someone like her, and I say yes. I start to ask her the same question. I chicken out, and she calls me on my bullshit. “I saw you deleting something!” she scolds me. I muster up the courage and ask the question I want to know the answer to. Well, she tells me, you don’t drink, but we do have the same plan for our lives. The whole thing hits too close to home. She changes the subject. “Let’s give each other codenames!” Tofin and Evee. We’re swell, we tell one another. We say goodnight.
Not long after my parents got back, Cheyenne and I made it about as official as it got for two teenagers who had never met and who realistically, probably never would. We joined the many other “scene” MySpace couples who had never been in the same room; statuses were changed, undying love professed, and at every opportunity possible, chances taken to get on webcam and awkwardly smile at one another at 10 frames per second. Cheyenne wanted to learn guitar, and while I was already learning bass, I believed I had the voice and the words to match that would take us to scene superstardom. I didn’t, but that’s beside the point.
Maybe I didn’t need to go to college – we were both destined for great things anyway, so why not get a head start after high school? Sure she had a couple years, and I had one more on top, but our bond was unbreakable; we’d never leave one another, and neither would our crew of friends. Mark could shred – why would he lie? – plus, I’m positive drums aren’t difficult to learn, and who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be the first band formed on MySpace to hit it big? Most people had big dreams, but we had big destinies. If only we’d known that forever was already on borrowed time.
“Honestly, I’ve wanted us to be a thing for a while,” Evee tells me. “Can I start calling myself your girlfriend?” I tell her she can’t, but I can call her mine. Relief feels the air; the virtual 16 year old version of myself got the girl. Yet all’s not quite well, in the process of being here for Evee, I royally screwed up, upsetting a drunk Emily by failing what essentially functions as Too’s facsimile for quicktime events. I chose the wrong option as I frantically switched between the two girls’ chats, and Emily stormed offline in a huff. I don’t know if we’ll speak again, but the blow is somewhat cushioned by the budding officiality of my relationship with Evee. It’s been about a month since emerz35 stormed out of my life, and I start to wonder if we’ll ever patch things up.
Evee wishes me goodnight, and I offer a cheerful goodbye. One door closes, but the sound of another opening fills my ears. “Hey,” emerz35 begins. We sit down and have an honest conversation. We say our apologies, and mend our friendship. I’m glad we’re talking again, once again being transported back in time a decade, to an era where online friendships could disintegrate over trivial details in the blink of an eye, only to be reformed just as quickly. Emily’s taking a new class at school for the final semester. Some of my friends are in it, she tells me, including my “best friend,” Evelyn. “She’s my girlfriend now, actually,” I happily share. She seems happy for me. Evee is really cool, and really pretty after all; why wouldn’t she be? Oh, and Emily broke up with Jeff. It’s cool though; college is coming up soon.
It’s you and me on a Monday, the lies that we told, this is where we both go numb now.
The summer was over, and it was getting harder and harder to make time for Cheyenne. It was nobody’s fault – she had a life outside of me, and now that we were both back at school, the lengthy eight hour time differential was taking it’s toll. Yet to get my own laptop, I could no longer stay up until the sun rose, even at weekends, and couldn’t get away with it even if I had tried. I’d stay up until one or two in the morning on a Friday or Saturday night, but it was never enough time. Cheyenne was from the big city; she had parties to attend, a metropolis to roam at the weekends, and all the other stuff that I imagined American teens did, which left our relationship on the rocks as Halloween approached. This was my shot, I told myself: a week off school to end October and save the best thing that had ever happened to me. Yet, I couldn’t save it. Cheyenne told me it was over, but that we would always be friends. We drifted apart as the week off began, and, suddenly, I was alone.
I scrolled through my MSN contacts, noticed a friend of a friend was listening to The Black Parade, asked how he liked it, and whether he also felt MCR were losing their touch. Life didn’t just go on, it steamrolled ahead, as I pretended not to be heartbroken. Something that had been so strong just a few weeks earlier had turned to dust and been scattered in the cold October winds of rural Ireland, and I realized that the person I’d been calling my girlfriend for the past few months, and who I’d talked about moving to Arizona to be with after high school, was gone for good. There were a couple hundred other contacts spread out over MySpace, MSN, AIM and YIM. They were all just words on a screen, only some had a pretty face to go with the ones and zeroes. These relationships were disposable; “forever” meant “while it’s convenient,” and the world would keep turning.
Emily says hey. She’s been talking to Evee, and, funny thing, it’s like they know two different people! She can’t tell me what exactly she means, but it’s not really that big a deal, anyway. An insincere apology is tossed out; she was just being honest, as Evee sends me a message. “We need to talk,” punk4eva states. “I know, Emily told me,” I respond, still unsure what’s going on. Evee fills me in on the details – Emily’s channeled her inner Dr. Hansen, and showed Evee the chat logs of our conversation from months ago, where I told her what she wanted to hear, when I told her I’d probably just take life as it came. Evee accuses me of using her, of only pretending to be open to the possibility of settling down with her. I try to explain myself, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s too painful for us both. We break up. She leaves. emerz35 never contacts me again. “You can now log out,” Too prompts me. 62% of players got my ending. I kind of want to cry.
It’s 10 on Sunday morning, almost time for bed, thanks to my night-shift day job. The sun is starting to cast a glare on my screen. “Chungus is playing Emily is Away Too” pops up in the corner of my Steam overlay. I wonder how his story is unfolding. I boot Emily Too back up, and speed through the first two chapters. This time there won’t be any inconsistencies in what I say. This time I’ll get the girl. Chapter three, the speed round, is up next. I’m tired. I’ll do it tonight when I get up; when I’ll be sharper. I won’t fuck it up this time. I won’t.
I lay in bed wide awake for a few hours, as I do almost every day, and I begin to ask myself why exactly I want to “fix” things with Evee. Is this not how it’s supposed to be? Does it not say something more that, just like Cheyenne eleven years ago, a relationship that was supposed to be solid as a rock was so easily toppled? Man, virtual me was a shithead. So was the real me. I cast my mind over the past few months of my life; the existential crisis I’ve gone through, the search for meaning and feeling of directionless wandering that’s been plaguing me. Having not thought about her in years before tonight, I briefly wonder how Cheyenne is now. Happy, I hope. My conscience throws up all the bonds I’ve formed online over the past decade, and how sooner or later, they all faded away. I’ve still never been to Warped Tour. I let it all go.
Someday I will wake up, and realize I gave up everything.