Boy with virtual baggage seeks same

Off the Beat

cade-johnson-online

I have a very confusing digital footprint. On “Toontown,” I was Clarence Nuttynugget. On “Neopets,” I was wumbo123. On “The Sims 2,” I was Tina and Bob Jensen, the rich, happily married couple, and I was Razor Skooter, the next-door neighbor who burned down their kitchen during a “Snoozer” birthday party. There was no limit to the amount of identities I could create for myself online, and with each sign-up confirmation email I received for a virtual community, I felt a rush of adrenaline.

In elementary school, I was loud and rambunctious, always deflecting by putting on a performance that was either at the expense of others or riddled with the nonsensical exclamations of 2000s randomcore humor. I felt more protected when I was perceived as the weird kid rather than the effeminate gay one. I had a hard time relating to other people because I didn’t feel like my interest in my sister’s “Stardoll” account conformed to the stereotypical idea of boyhood, so I turned to the internet, a gold mine for tweenage escapists.

I immersed myself in online virtual worlds such as Habbo Hotel, IMVU and Second Life. I signed up for a game called “Virtual Magic Kingdom,” a virtual recreation of Disney World, when I was 10, and I gave myself the username Seagul_Surfer. Even though I had never surfed before, I envisioned the shirtless blonde poster boys in Hollister, who I saw as paragons of brawn and masculinity. I would eventually create a number of different accounts, alternating between the ones I had. I became obsessed with changing my avatar, changing its clothes, hairstyles, facial structure and names, drunk off the power of being able to create a new identity.

I would spend hours on this website, walking through a virtual Main Street, asking if the female players were “taken” or if they had any “free furni” to spare for my rooms. I would wake up at 7:00 a.m. when the game opened to play for an hour before school, and I logged on throughout the day, whenever I got the chance, until its close at 10 p.m. If the internet wasn’t working or my mom unplugged the modem to vacuum the garage without telling me, I would have a breakdown. I wanted so badly to be the person I constructed for myself, who wasn’t gay or effeminate and who had no problem finding a friend to sit with at the Sci-Fi Dine-In. Any snap back into reality was devastating to face.

I had a girlfriend on “Virtual Magic Kingdom,” and when the two of us were notified that the game was going to close permanently, we resolved to make the ultimate sacrifice: to exchange emails and endure the consequence of having our accounts banned instantly. We emailed back and forth for weeks, but eventually, as she wanted to know more about me, my responses started to drop off, as I feared the rejection that might follow more honesty about who I was.

Then came middle school, and I started to build a community for myself on YouTube. I would make YouTube videos in which I would just talk to the camera for several minutes about my day — a shout into the void if I’ve ever heard of one. Somehow, I gained a following of about 2,000 subscribers, or, for accuracy’s sake, I should say my hair did: I was on the cutting edge of the Justin Bieber hair, and people took to it. I think it was the mere fact of having an audience, not so much what I communicated to that audience, that was so valuable to me. At least with YouTube there was no vessel through which to communicate. People watched me for me, my voice, my face, my mannerisms and, of course, my hair.

After a few months, I joined a collab channel — a channel on which a different user is given a day of the week to upload a video — and I grew close to these six other users, as well as a few other YouTubers. We Skyped every day, played games and read books together. These were the first times I felt like I really connected with people. We could be our more authentic selves, because when you all agree that talking to a camera in your free time is normal, you pass a certain threshold. We bonded over our love for angsty young adult novels such as “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and rejected popular trends that we thought we were better than. I even remember an angrily written Facebook wall post with one of those friends about the verb tense changing in the famous “we are infinite” quote in the movie adaptation of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” although I try not to.

I, like many queer people, spent most of my childhood holding my breath, self-analyzing, self-checking and resituating the way I faced my peers, whether it be online or elsewhere. Although “Online no one can see you breathe” sounds more like a horror movie than a simplification of my earliest queer experiences, I still feel it is appropriate. There is so much of the world outside of my computer I felt like I was forced to confront alone or just as often refused to confront. I’m not wumbo123, Seagul_Surfer or even Razor Skooter, but without them, I might never have figured that out. Growing into myself has been, quite literally, a process of confronting reality.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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