21st: Guardian angels of "Gay-OL"

A grass-roots movement in AOL's gay chat rooms reminds people: Online anonymity doesn't grant free license to be a jerk -- and behind every screen name, there's a real heart.

By Michael Joseph Gross

Published August 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

like most men who hang out in America Online's gay chat rooms, Michael Patterson met a lot of guys who started conversations by asking his penis size, suffered the virtual folderol that followed ("where r u?" "what u in2?"), chatted with studs and simps who turned out to be the same people using different screen names and heard stories from friends who'd been stood up for dates by guys they'd met online. "People act like there's not even a person on the other end of this thing," he explains.

Unlike most gay chatters on AOL, Patterson decided to go countercultural: He appointed himself the conscience of the Boston gay chat rooms. He created a new screen name, STOODUP1, with a profile that promised to clean up "the M4M rooms and [make] them fun and safe for everyone." (M4M is the AOL abbreviation of "men for men.") He recruited a few other AOL users -- none of whom he'd met face-to-face -- to help in this crusade. He issued an online all-points bulletin for the men of Boston to e-mail him stories about being stood up for dates by guys they'd met online. Finally, after collecting these allegations, he sent them to the accused, then included both sides in a STOODUP newsletter he e-mailed to anyone who asked for it.

The STOODUP news reads like a college paper: It's a collection of painfully earnest pieces of writing by people who are struggling to figure out what matters to them. An early editorial announced, "Those of us who use AOL as a means to meet people DESERVE the right to feel that we are safe in the encounters we are getting ourselves into and DESERVE to know the truth about a person, not just the fiction they create for us." A letter from a reader named Clash2001 explains further: "We are the first generation to interact online and connect. The problem is that there are no rules ... [However], behind every screen name there is a person. We should try to chat with that person in the same way we would if they were standing behind us."

STOODUP's voice is a hybrid of Dear Abby, Miss Manners, Sherry Turkle and Mike Royko, offering advice about online dating, guidance regarding real-world etiquette (e.g., Why Not to Ejaculate on Oriental Rugs) and broad analyses of quirky aspects of online culture. The newsletter's editorial standard is simple: "I'm not going to include the things that I couldn't show the people I've grown up with," Patterson says. (His mom, who is in her 70s, is one of the newsletter's biggest fans -- which means no features on golden showers, and no announcements about spanking parties.) Yet STOODUP has boldly explored some of the most colorful aspects of "Gay-OL," such as the chat-room marketing strategies of escort services.

The chatting class was initially hostile to STOODUP's moral crusade. The first newsletter included an M4M chat log that reads like the report of a virtual stoning ("if you ever talk bout me or anyone i care for on this thing you can be very VERY ASSURED ill sue the friggin pants of you and anyone involved and ill win").

Yet STOODUP deflected the slings and arrows, and Boston M4M'ers soon proved themselves to be gluttons for authority. Now, STOODUP has such a following that Patterson, a 29-year-old retail manager for Mikasa, spends most of his free time -- about 40 hours a week -- answering e-mail, lurking in chat rooms and writing the newsletter. Patterson says, "At first it was like, 'Who gives you the right to judge?' Now it's like, 'We're gonna report you to the newsletter.'"

STOODUP's mailing list skyrocketed from 50 to 1,000 in eight weeks, and for most of this summer, it's been adding subscribers at the rate of 100 per week. In early June, STOODUP threw a party to kick off Gay Pride in Boston, and 300 people showed up. The next day, 50 of the party guests sent thank-you notes to STOODUP1, announcing they'd met something like the man of their dreams.

STOODUP's popularity raises questions about the most oft-praised quality of online chat: the liberation that comes from assuming multiple identities. STOODUP's philosophy holds that the fluidity of online identity makes it too easy to escape personal accountability; the newsletter seeks to create an atmosphere in gay men's chat rooms that makes it harder to separate online ethics from real-world ethics. "Guys send me these e-mails like, 'I can't understand what's happening,'" Patterson says. "I say, 'Look! The truth isn't happening.'"

Integrity is rare in any environment where anonymity is possible, and AOL's policy of allowing individual users to select up to five different screen names is practically an invitation to flirt with multiple personality disorder. For example, a man who used several different screen names, claiming he ranged in age from 28 to 31 (a big difference, in a demographic where 30 is often considered over-the-hill), had his true age revealed in a recent STOODUP newsletter. On first being confronted with STOODUP's questions regarding the inconsistencies in his profiles, the man was dismissive of STOODUP's pretensions to moral authority, asking, "Don't you have a life?"

Yet there's a crying need for such moral authority on America Online, where users often learn the system in isolation, working from software acquired in mass mailings or from magazine subscriptions. Other online spaces provide more built-in cultural cues for users to evaluate the screen names they meet: With Internet Relay Chat, for instance, it's technically difficult to gain access to the system in the first place, so newbies often learn the ropes from experienced chatters; on venerable for-pay conferencing systems like the Well and Echo, anonymity is almost impossible.

Still, America Online thinks its M4M rooms do fine without any oversight at all. AOL spokeswoman Robin Patton says the company monitors member-created People Connection rooms only when a guide is summoned. AOL users who have problems with other members can blow the whistle on them by hitting keyword "Guide pager," "I need help" or "TOS" (for "Terms of Service"). AOL's Community Action Team then determines whether the offending member has violated the Terms of Service and decides whether that member's account should be terminated. Patton says AOL can't take responsibility for members who fail to keep social commitments they've made online, however: "That's kind of like not being home for a phone call. There's nothing the phone company can do about that."

STOODUP's experience suggests that AOL isn't wild about its users imposing oversight from below. According to Patterson, when STOODUP first started, AOL took steps to shut it down. His AOL account was frozen after a man who'd been branded with the cyberscarlet "A" -- for asshole -- complained that he'd been slandered in the newsletter. After some consideration, however, Patterson says AOL assured him that "you can't be sued for slandering a screen name," suggested he add a for-entertainment-purposes-only disclaimer to the newsletter and sent STOODUP on its merry way.

STOODUP has had only one other run-in with AOL brass, around the time of the group's summer soiree. Patterson told the folks in AOL publicity he had 300 RSVPs and asked if they would donate party gifts. When they said the best they could do was to send a bag of AOL start-up disks, Patterson turned them down: "Yeah we'll have a party with 300 of your customers, and the point is to get you more customers. Right.'"

Despite the resistance STOODUP has gotten from AOL headquarters, and despite the flak Patterson has taken from the users he's hung out to dry, he's sticking with it, because STOODUP is providing a salutary service to AOL's gay cyberscene.

Urban gay culture provides an extraordinarily generous reprieve from responsibility for one's social commitments, and because the anonymity of AOL's gay chat enlarges this freedom immensely, the result is a ridiculously irresponsible kind of online society, where people are under no social pressure to be accountable for their words.

Gay chatters on AOL therefore have an especially strong need for some kind of moral authority -- or at the very least, some pressure to make their online personalities square with their everyday personalities. Absent that pressure, AOL chat can still liberate long-suppressed aspects of users' personalities, but it won't provide any incentives for them to become better-integrated people. Providing those incentives is Patterson's mission.

He has a less high-minded reason to stick with STOODUP, as well. For all his time cruising the chat rooms, Patterson still doesn't have a boyfriend. Yet he has found a relationship he loves. "I am not single," he says. "I am married to my computer. I can turn it on, and I can turn it off. It's great."

Michael Joseph Gross

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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