Shadow Net Series 8: Wonder & Fangs

Bots, liars and legends of the AIM Generation.

Back before Zuckerberg took over the world and Twitter caused a second Civil War there was a social network that didn’t revolve around pictures of our rescue pets or what we made for breakfast that day. It didn’t exist purely to justify our prejudices or create safe place, echo chambers for people’s beliefs. In fact, it did the opposite of all of that. It had chat rooms with loads of random people who could be as open or anonymous as they wished – which sounds like the Wild West now ‘twas the internet. Oh yeah, and it was glorious. Some could even argue it was in that anonymity that AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) provided that many people actually found their true selves.

Like most of the teenaged world at the time, when I was thirteen I was obsessed with AIM and it was around this age that I met a young lady in a chat room that happened to live in a nearby city. Her name was Lydia and I was enamored. But, before long my hopes were dashed to bits – when replying to an A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location) inquiry I soon realized that she was seventeen. There are just certain hard truths in the world and one of those truths is that senior girls in high school are not going to date freshmen boys. It’s like gravity or the Browns being a terrible football team. It’s just an absolute truth.

I had to formulate a plan and fast. I had already privately messaged her from the chat room and had started small talk so when the conversation made its way to my details, I panicked. I didn’t want to tell her the truth – she’d never chat with me so I had to lie and boy… did I lie. Not only did I up my stats but I went full throttle. I didn’t just want to chat – I wanted to blow her hair back.

So in a matter of minutes I went from thirteen year old, Weezer obsessed nerd with little to no person to person social skills to charming eighteen year old with a bright future and big ambitions. Naturally it worked and we chatted every single day after school for months. Knowing we lived close (didn’t lie about that) weekends began to get difficult. The more and more we chatted the more comfortable Lydia felt with wanting to meet me in person.

I began to realize I didn’t have an end game here and felt guilty for stringing her along. At one point I even lied to her and told her I couldn’t come to a school basketball game because I was a cook at Long John Silver’s. Why Long John Silver’s? I have no fucking clue. So one night over winter break, I came clean. Naturally, she was embarrassed, hurt and repulsed and never spoke to me again. Which is the right way for that story to end.

All was not lost however because I realized something important about myself and learned a lesson about respect during the ordeal. I learned that I couldn’t lie or cheat with a clear conscious. It ate me up inside. Even something so trivial. But I also learned that by being deceitful to someone there is a steep price to pay. Trust is a finite resource and is easily lost. I learned that by deceiving someone you openly surrender your privilege of speaking to that person again. So I was a catfish before it was a show on MTV. Way before.

But with all that said – AIM was a microcosm of the very nation it branded itself within and a snapshot of the hodgepodge pop culture that dominated the country in the first place. Loving, happy and accepting online communities, lying shit heads, weirdos, freaks, sports fans rubbing elbows with fans of anime and more pop punk than you could shake a stick at.

But like any other massive institution it came accompanied with a dark side. A strange potpourri of isolated incidents and second hand stories. Urban legends, myths and lore were whispered about late at sleepovers. Everything from strange behaving bots to alleged psycho killers.

While hard to confirm this story’s validity if true then this may go down as one of AIM’s most nefarious users:

With all that silliness aside the world did unknowingly meet an existential fear much darker than any knife wielding AIM chatting maniacs. Albeit, through a harmless chat bot named, Smarterchild. Clearly not the polarizing issue bots have become now. From the world embracing Siri with wonder to baring its fangs at the mention of bot nets influencing elections the use of bots is a hotly debated subject that is only just beginning and Smarterchild was one of the first designed to interact with the public.

Which leaves us with the little lies and legends somewhere in between. The good stuff. The habitable zone if you will. Where the stories aren’t so big that they are impossible and even if they are they at-least make you hesitate for a moment.

There is the story of “The Operators” (Which sounds like a Stephen King short story title to me:

“In AOL / AIM , if you added the screenname ‘Operators’ they would always be online. Sometimes they would sign off but then sign back on again immediately. They would never reply to any message you sent and this was after years of trying.”

The story of “Blue Searching”:

“Back in my AOL days like 96 or 97 I remember if you typed in the word “blue” into their search function a message would pop up saying “you don’t have permission to access this” or something like that. There were other words that did the same thing but I can’t remember them.”

And my absolute favorite: Candlejack:

The legend of Candlejack is not unlike Bloody Mary. According to legend if you type in the word, “CandleJack” three times into your computer he would appear, tie you up and take you away. That all sounds pretty scary despite the fact Candle Jack was actually a villain in the 90’s cartoon Freakazoid! I also have some serious questions as to if Candle Jack still lives in phone lines or if he’s evolved with technology. Nowadays if you were to summon him does he bounce around cell towers? Maybe he’s faster with 5G? So many questions about Candlejack. The only way to get to the bottom of this mystery is to try it out right now so here goes:

Candlejack Candlejack Candlejack

See? Still here. Unbound. Just another urban legend. A relic of an era long gon-

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8 thoughts on “Shadow Net Series 8: Wonder & Fangs

      1. I made a new neopets account a few years ago . Had all my pets super fancy and painted , but I dropped off the site for a bit as they got rid of so many of the games and the current owner is dabbling into NFTs.

  1. I never had the opportunity to use AOL but like a lot of people mentioning here I used to go on Neopets, I played it even in College, but one day I lost my password couldn´t log in and that was the end of that. It´s a shame that site is now a shadow of it former self

  2. Man. I remember the dark days before AIM. When you had to pay by the minute for Internet and you dialed into someone’s server on a computer somewhere else in the state. 🙂 But same thing. It was a weird and wild world then.

    1. Oh man – people were getting those American Online Nightmare charges (which have all but been scrubbed from the records of the internet) lol.

      I was a big fan of chat boards on all my favorite band’s websites and actually met one of my oldest friends from a Motion City Soundtrack fan website. We’re still good friends and talk all of the time nearly twenty years later lol

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