The Internet is a wonderful thing. By firing up your computer and jacking it into a wall socket, you have instant access to millions of pages of information. You can learn about any subject under the sun, share your knowledge with others, market your business, buy almost any product imaginable, keep a journal, interact with friends on social networking sites, plot a route from anywhere to anywhere, back up the contents of your hard drive . . .
Or you can get saucy with strangers.
Concrete statistics on instant messaging are hard to come by, but suffice it to say that millions upon millions of ordinary people make daily use of software that allows them to “chat” to other users in real time. Until recently this was limited to typing, but the last few years have seen Webcam and VoIP technology reach such penetration that just about anyone can communicate via sound and video too.
The potential of instant-messaging software to revolutionize the way we communicate is already being tapped and is heralding controversial changes to the traditional business models of telecom companies the world over. But let’s face it, what most people really want to know is: How can this exciting new software help me get laid?
Instant messaging provides great hope for those who, for one reason or another, need a little help with meeting people. The visually and verbally impaired are on equal footing with the unimpaired, for example, as their fingers can do the talking; and the socially awkward or underconfident can let their personality shine through without the pressure of a face-to-face conversation.
But the Internet is also a playground for sexual deviancy. It’s also a lot easier to pretend to be someone you’re not, and to take advantage of people. Bullying, stalking, sexual jollies — these are all alive and well in the digital realm.
“When I first went online I discovered pretty much straight away that it could be abused,” says Paul Rose, a man who hides behind not one but two aliases. “That whole anonymity/hiding behind a screen thing really does interest me on some profound level.”
Rose’s book “Confessions of a Chatroom Freak,” released in Britain in May, was written under the pseudonym Mr. Biffo, a name he appropriated as a video-games journalist in the early 1990s and has yet to escape; and the book itself is written under the guise of one Loopy Lisa.
The premise is simple: A man in his 30s enters Internet chat rooms with the screen name LoopyLisa21f, and lets human nature do the rest. As much an insight into the animal of desire as an outlet for Rose’s surreal humor, the book presents the messaging transcripts between Lisa (a simpleton with a brain of toffee and a heart of gold) and a parade of would-be suitors. The vast majority of these men are interested in one thing and one thing only: sexy chat. And as Rose deflects the barrage of lewd requests with Lisa’s charmingly innocent responses, he shows just what lengths men will go to for an imaginary bonk.
“It does seem to bring out the absolute worst in people,” says Rose in an e-mail interview, referring to the anonymity afforded by a computer screen. “It was incredibly easy. The name I used — LoopyLisa21f — seemed to contain more than enough bait to pique the curiosity of Internet pervs. Within a minute of entering a chat room I’d have at least half a dozen instant-message windows popping up. I estimate that 85 percent of them wanted cybersex.”
It’s fair to say they were all eventually disappointed, but some were more persistent than others. Even in the face of Rose’s warped humor and random digressions — not to mention photos of the very evidently male Rose dressed as Lisa — victim after victim continued to try to get their wicked way with the young trainee teacher. For example:
Daveyjimbo12: wot u look like?
LoopyLisa21f: I dunno. What do you think I look like?
Daveyjimbo12: ok, from my experience, women in chat rooms look like this — long blonde hair, blue eyes, slim, with long legs, tanned, and big tits
LoopyLisa21f: You’re more or less spot on, except I have a little nub of bone sticking out the small of my back.
Daveyjimbo12: a whatttt????
The user signed in as Daveyjimbo12 is not put off, however, and soon takes the direct approach. He asks Lisa whether she’d like to “cyber,” or engage in cybersex, and Lisa agrees.
Daveyjimbo12: ok then, aftre the orange squash and some delightful conversations about our dogs, i ask u back to my place
LoopyLisa21f: Ok then. I’ll go back there with you, albeit reluctantly, dragging my feet, and sighing the whole way. Are we there yet?
To cut a long story short, Daveyjimbo12’s advances get more and more explicit, while Rose responds with a set of detailed entries that send Lisa off to the guy’s toilet to leave a dreadful stench, which she tries to diffuse with a firework. A frustrated Daveyjimbo12 eventually logs out of the conversation, and the reader is left in stitches.
“Sometimes I’d just start typing, and let the subconscious take over,” says Rose of his material. “Other times I’d have a few semiformed ideas up my sleeve. To be honest, it was difficult to plan anything in advance because I never knew where the conversation was going to go. Inevitably, it would veer towards cybersex, but before we got to that point it was very unpredictable. That was part of the fun to be honest. It was quite liberating from a creative point of view.”
Incidentally, all the transcripts in the 316-page book are genuine, although Rose says he’s not yet had any complaints from his victims.
“None at all. I’ve not heard from any of Lisa’s online ‘friends.’ On the whole, the stuff in there is so embarrassing I can’t imagine anyone would want to come forward and draw attention to themselves.”
Rose, a father of three girls and a BAFTA-nominated writer of children’s television in Britain, sees a serious side to his dabbling in the darker side of instant messaging.
“My kids are always on it,” he says of Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger. “From the point of view of being a parent, it is a worry.”
To protect his kids, Rose uses the content-control software package Net Nanny, and he keeps “a very close eye on what they’re up to online, while not being so puritanical as to give them issues when they’re adults.”
It’s not just the threat of dirty old men that worries Rose: As the illiterate souls in the book prove (no doubt you spotted the typos in the extract above), the world of instant messaging is a junkyard of spelling and punctuation.
“I’m always shocked that people think they don’t have to construct a proper sentence in an e-mail, let alone the gibberish they write in instant messages, or on (mobile phone) text” messages, he says. “I think it’s an extremely bad thing. I get texts from my daughter, and I have to ring her up to ask what she’s trying to tell me.”
Another online peril of which Rose is all too aware is cyberbullying. He once had a message board attached to his Web site, www.mrbiffo.com, where hundreds of his fans gathered to celebrate and propagate his offbeat humor.
“Over time it became very cliquey and unwelcoming to newcomers, which made me feel uncomfortable,” he says. “Then there was a spot of genuine cyberbullying going on — really vicious pack mentality — and it became quite a nasty place. I tried to sort things out but probably didn’t handle it very well.”
Indeed, he pulled the plug on the message board, causing many of his fans to snipe him elsewhere on the Web. Not one to take himself too seriously, Rose subtly referenced this episode in “Confessions of a Chatroom Freak,” bolstering Lisa’s innocent outlook with the straight-faced line, “If the Internet has taught me one thing, it’s that everyone is very friendly.”
“I think any comedy is better if there’s a point to it,” says Rose. “Look at Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’: it’s incredibly puerile and silly, but there’s a message underpinning it all. Comedy shouldn’t be used to try to change the world, but there’s nothing to say it can’t have something to say about the human condition.
“It’s the curse of the Internet that it strips some people of their social conditioning. They can indulge all their worst insecurities, without feeling any empathy for the person who’s on the receiving end of their attacks. As someone who was quite badly bullied as a kid, cyberbullying is something that fascinates and appalls me in equal measure.”
That’s not to say that Rose is totally against people who engage in online naughtiness. “If everyone’s consenting, then fair enough,” he says. What he does take objection to is the treatment of his female character as a lump of meat, which poses some nasty questions about the society in which we live.
“The fact that Lisa is clearly either a bit backward or very innocent doesn’t discourage them,” he says. “There was a certain animalistic aggressiveness with too many of the guys I chatted to, which was a bit disturbing.”
Rose is now starting work on an entirely different book, under his real name, about the year he is about to spend “hunting monsters with a team of professional cryptozoologists.” As for his predictions for the future of the community- and chat-based parts of the Internet, he expects “much more realistic cybersex, while still hiding your true identity. Cybersex is basically a virtual gimp-mask.”
The debate over how best to utilize this wonderful tool known as the Internet, and whether it helps to advance human civilization or merely makes it easier for us to indulge our primal urges, will rage on. In the meantime, there’s just one more question for Paul Rose, aka Mr. Biffo, aka LoopyLisa21f: Wanna cyber?
“Isn’t that what we were already doing?” he replies. “Did I take off my trousers for no reason?”
“Confessions of a Chatroom Freak” (Friday Books) is available in the U.K. now. For information on how to order it online, or to read Paul Rose’s excellent blog, visit www.mrbiffo.com.