Hunched over your computer keyboards, separated by a sea of wires, you tap our erotic messages that materialize, like spirit writing, as glowing characters on each other’s screens. Soon you find yourself typing with one hand. Coitus in cyberspace, like intercourse in the physical world, progresses from foreplay to climax; orgasms are signaled by cartoony exclamations: “ohhhhhh,” “WOW!!!” and the perennial favorite “I’mmmm Commmmmmmminnnggggggggg!!!!!!”
My “evangelism for online culture” story starts out pretty much just like that of many Americans who came online in the early 90’s: loud modems and annoying incoming faxes, and AOL profiles and chatrooms. Where ours diverge I think, is at writing roleplay erotic fanfiction.
LOL, BRB, A/S/L
We were living in the Silicon Valley, and we got on AOL early because my mother worked as a computer retailer. In my memory, it was a bonding moment when we logged on to our first chatroom together. We had to ask people in the room what LOL and BRB meant because we were such beginners. According to Pew Institute by 1994, there were 11 million American households “equipped to ride the information superhighway.” A few years later, I had basically taken command over the computer station we set up underneath the stairs. There, I typed up book reports or stories I had written on paper, and chatted with strangers unchaperoned–once, I exchanged emails with a man in his “20s” who wanted to learn Chinese. Instead of chastising me about the “dark alleyways full of sexual predators,” my mother encouraged me to draft up an email. It didn’t take many more chatroom experiences for me to fib a few extra years onto my age and begin imitating the cybersexual behavior of these presumed adults. I didn’t know what I was doing, or what the consequences were.
Growing up ESL and taunted in American elementary school meant learning the language mostly from overdue library books. Chatrooms provided a way for me to express myself and find acceptance from others when my accent, bowl cut, and Chinglish sweatshirts were obstacles in real life.
“The promise of cyberspace is that no one would know you’re a dog.” –Shaka McGlotten
I spoke with Shaka McGlotten, CUNY Purchase professor researching the intersections between online intimacies and queer lives, about the affordances of chatrooms as social spaces. “They allowed for intergenerational connectivity. Fears about online predation were largely unfounded; people are more likely to be hurt by someone they already know rather than from the internet. The latter does happen, but the net was a safe space for the most part, and empowering for all identities.”
This particular point in internet’s textual history was potent in anonymity, intimacy and fantasy. McGlotten and I spend a few seconds lamenting the death of it in today’s visual culture.
Sailor Moon and fanfiction took over my preteen life.
I discovered I could use the public library to print out Sailor Moon images from fan-made websites. In case you’re not familiar with the series: it’s a galactic storyverse with an equally huge cast of mostly female heroines trying to fight off evil while looking really cool. From these galleries and fanfiction sites, I learned that obsessions could become productive. Anyone could pick up some code to generate scrolling rainbow text and mark out their own corner of the internet (and I did, with Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod). I felt like a maverick in the Wild West of cyberspace.
This sense of freedom of identity and empowerment was reflected in the responses from a brief survey I conducted with other artists and creative individuals across disciplines. Machine learning designer and online harassment researcher Caroline Sinders says, “At a time when I didn’t feel that powerful in the greater systems around [me], it was amazing to have this fantasy that high schoolers were saving the world and being bad asses and having these very real hidden powers.” Artist Pamela Liou echoes the sentiment. “Self-actualization is so critical– it’s important to be able to look into the mirror and somehow see some articulation of your inner self. I struggle with this all the time because there is a disconnect there for me.” And from illustrator and designer Helen Tseng: “Fandom (not limited to Sailor Moon) was the reason I got really into drawing and making websites when I was growing up, and I’ve now been getting paid to draw and make things on the web for 10+ years.” Thea Baumann, founder of AR nail app company Metaverse Nails, makes a direct connection by saying her entire company was created based on Sailor Moon.
There is no doubt about it. Sailor Moon was formative.
A few years later, my grandparents who were living with us at the time, returned back to China and we filled their void by moving the computer station to the extra bedroom. Like with the chatrooms, my consumption of fanfiction began innocently enough with sweet stories of Sailor Moon protagonists confessing their love for each other, but it didn’t take much effort to click on the link that said “yes I am 18 years or older” to get to the raunchier stuff (the other link took you to Disney.com): the Sailor Scouts forced to become sex slaves but loving it, Sailor Jupiter and tentacles, Artemis and Luna getting it on with Sailor Venus, etc. The little home office with a locking door and a seemingly endless amount of erotic fanfiction, would become the low-risk way I, and likely many other girls and boys, discovered our sexualities.
From fanfiction to collaborative roleplay writing on LiveJournal
Up until its sale to a Russian social media company in 2007, blogging platform LiveJournal was one of the most active sites for hosting and participating in the fanfiction community2.
McGlotten summarizes fandom scholar Henry Jenkins‘ thesis when they say that fanfiction writers are “people who are deeply involved in these cultural texts, and who also, because they’re so invested, rework them according to their interests.” They describe how fanfiction contributed to the construction of their own queer identity in that it showed them different forms of queer relationships. “There’s a kind of recursivity at work with women who may have never seen two dicks together but who were still writing material that I identified with. This is an expression of women’s culture, and only later did gay men begin writing fanfiction.” And for me, I discovered my sexual passions parallel to my creative ones.
I was invited into the magic circle of roleplay fanfiction on LiveJournal through a friend off a Hotmail email list. She told me that she was a fan of my writing and that I could try “playing” (roleplaying an alternate universe version of a real person–a Japanese musician she was a fan of–in scenes or interactions between other characters) in a “game”. Tokos en Kaloi was an alternate universe where other real life Japanese musicians were college students. Roleplaying together meant sending paragraphs back and forth over AIM or Trillian in order to play a “scene” often across different timezones, formatting, and then posting the text on LiveJournal3. The story-to-sex-ratio differed from the anime fanfiction I’d read before: maybe 7:1. There was more plot and less sex, possibly due to different writers’ comfort levels in interacting with each other in real time. But I wrote sex scenes, and I masturbated to them–sometimes reading them over and over again and letting the text become mental images I could get off to. I had wondered at one point if I would be sexually attracted to the women I was writing guy on guy sex scenes with, if we would enact what we wrote when it came time to meet in person.
The collaborative and cybernetic act of actively shaping a fictional world, and simultaneously being shaped by it, was transformative and intoxicating. It felt like a natural extension of myself. As if I had trained my imagination and typing speed in the chatrooms so that I would be able to contribute to this new creative community.
It was the pinnacle of what interactivity and narrative on the internet could be. There were some aspects of planning and coordination (“Admins” or “Storytellers” are responsible for keeping the magic circle together during periods of inactivity, or for blocking offensive people out of a game) but for the most part the storytelling was completely spontaneous and immersive.
I checked in with a few Tokos en Kaloi roleplayers who I used to write with, and whom I’ve known for 10+ years and have met on multiple occasions. For many, like Casey, writing on LiveJournal meant having a group of nonjudgmental friends who encouraged her to get out of her shell, and who helped to improve her writing. For RPer tujikery, “there is this almost visceral emotional and psychological bond that you’d form with another writer over time, it fulfilled such a creative and profound need. Even as the strength of relationships with those people ebb and flow, it’s a bond that can’t ever really be shaken, and people who have never written so closely and collaboratively with another person will never quite understand it. There’s a sync, no matter what the context is.”
Members of these communities ebb and flow out of games. Sometimes this syncing has emotional consequences in the real world: constructed universes and character dynamics are often so detailed and nuanced that they cross over into their writers’ interpersonal relationships. Sometimes the rifts were so deep they took months or years of mutual silence to mend. We invested a lot into our make believe games–these fictional and textual projections and extensions of ourselves–hoping possibly to remedy or stir up some excitement and social connection in our lives. The affordances of roleplay writing gave us the immersion but also challenged us to constantly redraw the line between URL (unreal life–the virtual) and IRL (in real life–of the flesh). Older and wiser now, I’d say that the old adage applies: no pain no gain. But perhaps McGlotten describes it best:
“I don’t think there’s a difference between IRL and virtual – if you’re coming with people online, what’s not real about it?” –Shaka McGlotten
1 Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1999. 200-01. Print.
2 This is two different thoughts combined into one footnote. #1: To be honest I was never a big fan of fanfiction.net, which is comparable to LiveJournal’s heyday in terms of diverse fandoms, breadth and scale. Chalk it up to living in Beijing and lacking proper WiFi to watch porn, but a few years ago I started really reading fanfiction again and started with the Arthur/Eames pairing from Inception, hosted on Archive of our Own. Some of the fanfiction on this site is so good, I could see them rewritten and winning awards in the YA novel category (this is not meant to be derisive–there are amazing YA books). #2: A fanfiction writer will often ask for another writer to “beta” for them. I still love reading the meta interactions between these individuals in the comment sections of stories. Lately I’ve been thinking about a connection between science fiction novels using the beta tester as a narrative device.
3 This experience probably helped me with every job I’ve had where I did any kind of online content management.