The recent bust of Infoseek VP Patrick Naughton for soliciting a 13-year-old girl on the Net set me to thinking—not about Naughton or his interstate plans for ruining his and someone else's life, but about the poor bastard tasked with corresponding with him (disguised as a child) for seven months. There's not a shower in the world with hot enough water to make that job bearable. Even just a brief firsthand glimpse was enough for me.
It was 1992. I was writing for a magazine that was reviewing the various online services. (This was when there were lots of them to review, my pets—Prodigy and GEnie and Delphi and even a magical place called Imagination Network, which became a momentarily magical place called Sierra.) I was covering America Online.
I joined AOL back in 1990, early enough that my user name is simply a variation of my actual name—no random numbers or vanity-plate abbreviations, just my girlie given name and a bit more. Back then, AOL was cool; the interface wasn't the drive-hogging pigdog of later years, and since you could still swing a cat without smacking into a newbie (in part because AOL wasn't Net-ready yet), the people were kind of fun.
Since I was by day a researcher at the magazine, reviewing happened at night. So there I was, bopping through the chat areas (to see if any of them were populated at the unthinkable hour of 11pm—did I mention that this all happened about a thousand years ago?), and suddenly I get a message:
"Hi! How are you doing tonight?"
It was at this exact moment I realized I was using the wrong account. My account, see, is a press account— sponsored by AOL and conceivably visible to them as belonging to a member of the media. Reviewers strive mightily to remain anonymous during this kind of review process; if I had been recognized, several weeks' worth of testing were out the window. I meant to use one of my aliases to visit chat rooms—something a little less well-known to the AOL PR staff (who at that point was still known to pay a tiny bit of attention to what members of the press thought of them, and who knew that my magazine was in the middle of a major review of the service). Having just fallen off the turnip truck earlier that day, I decided to bluff.
"hi, i'm okay—just trying out my cousin's aol account."
"Oh, really? Is your name Angela?"
"no it's . . . [think fast, Gunn] . . . sophie. what's yours?" (Meanwhile, I'm checking the user directory; his name is Mike and he's in his late 30s.)
"Hello Sophie. Want to chat?"
(Oh, Christ, I really need to not be chatting. . . . I want to go home before midnight. . . .) "oh just looking around. i have to go pretty soon. i have school tomorrow."
"How old are you Sophie?"
"i'm 12 . . . how old are you"
"I'm 37. You sound very pretty, Sophie. Do you have a picture of yourself you can email me?"
"DUH!!!! how am i supposed to put a picture in the computer?????"
"I can tell you how to do that in email. Does your cousin have a scanner? I will send you email and then you can send me your picture. Sophie, what are you wearing?"
"my pajamas. i have to go to bed now. i'm not supposed to be in the chat part"
"What color are your pajamas?"
"Sophie, can you
I pulled the cord out of the modem and went the hell home. The next day I told my editor, who suggested I tell the AOL PR folk. Having no desire to spend an hour on hold (since they really were paying only a tiny bit of attention by then), I skipped it.
Not a shower in the world, folks.