"When I was on Prodigy (lol!) as a tween, I was in some music chat room late at night (way to be a good parent, Mom), and someone said they were going to send me a picture of something music-related and it turned out to be a pic of a dude wearing a football jersey, NUDE from the waist down, with a badly Photoshopped Andrew Keegan head. This is a true story, and one I also told to Andrew Keegan in real life."
"AOL chat rooms. All day, every day. For young closeted gay men in the era of dial-up, discovering the anonymous glory of chatting with complete, gay strangers (before you could have profiles and trade pictures) was addictive, and I believe a touchstone for a lot of my friends when they started exploring their homosexuality online, well before pornography.
I remember that was one of the first times I had to learn internet acronyms. A/S/L (age/sex/location) is forever seared into my memory as the only thing another guy needs to know about you before revealing extremely dirty, intimate things. Not much has changed."
"Around 13 or 14 I spent a lot of my time on a forum for teen girls called Phat Girls (LOL) and from there I started IMing one of the moderators, who said he was 21, and he would ask me all these questions about masturbation and whether I thought it was wrong because he thought it was but he couldn't stop. For some reason I kept chatting to him. I guess 'coz he told me I was pretty. One day I accidentally hit 'video chat' and he was like, 'You don't want to do that...unless you DO' and I was like, 'lol no' and I stopped talking to him after that."
That Goes... There?
"Freshman year, I was in the room of the three guys next door talking to one of them who was in one of my classes, and I happened to notice that his roommate's screensaver was a picture of a woman on a beach sticking a beer bottle in her vagina. Classy!"
"In seventh grade my friend showed me a clip of a bald man going mouth deep into a woman's vagina. Like, his eyes and nose and ears were submerged in woman. you could just see the bottom of his chin popping out.
From there, I dove in to the internet."
It's Not Delivery.
"I don't know how or why, but when I was like 12 I saw a video of a nerdy guy jerking off in a rolled-up DiGiorno pizza and saying it 'feels like the real puss, yo.'"
"In fifth grade, my best friend and another girl in our class found a website that put Leonardo DiCaprio's face on a naked body. They would download the pictures, then print them out in color and bring them to school. I remember knowing as a kid that it couldn't possibly be him but giggled at the funny pose and penis. OMG PENIS! I guess both friends hid their stash of pics under their beds and when my best friend's mom found it and got so nervous she tried to flush the paper down the toilet. Maybe this wasn't even an internet experience for me but I knew those came from the internet and was in awe."
"In seventh grade, I spent the night at my best friend's house one weekend. Her older brother had downloaded Kazaa and we wanted to watch a movie. In the downloaded area one of the items said 'Mary-Kate and Ashley' so we clicked on it, OBVIOUSLY. Turns out it was two girls hooking up and they had Photoshopped their faces on both of the girls. Neither of us addressed it and we didn't say anything to him for the reminder of my stay. Needless to say we only watched VHS movies from then on."
"My best friend's crazy older cousin sent me and my brother an email of a cartoon showing all of the Wizard of Oz characters having an orgy. Our dad was pretty mad about it. So haunting."
Boobs and Dick.
"In 1987, my friend Rico and I dialed up a Swedish bulletin board that a friend told us had porn on it. We logged on, found the file and started downloading it. Twelve hours later we had a single, 8-bit graphic version of the Bo Derek topless-on-the-beach picture and it was the most glorious thing ever."
"When I was 7 or 8, my family's internet connection was through the dial-up service Prodigy. I used Prodigy for a variety of things, including playing text adventure games, impersonating other people in chat rooms, and, well, mostly those two things.
One fateful day, I clicked into some kind of picture message board, and clicked a link that simply said 'HOT BIKINI.' The image that appeared — band by 14.4k baud band — was of a blonde woman in an American flag two-piece. Though it stopped loading just under boob-level, somewhere in my pre-sexual mind I became intensely aware that the internet was a place of sin and mystery."
"My dad likes to tell jokes from Indian websites at gatherings with family and friends, and one of his favorite websites was this one called Samachar.com or something along those lines. I was 11 or 12 and playing on the computer, and he asked me to pull up the site because we were going to a party later on and he wanted to be prepared with some good one-liners.
So I typed in what he asked me to (or, thought I did), pressed enter, and then there was suddenly a naked woman with giant boobs on the screen. It turns out I got the URL wrong by a single letter. My dad was like, 'What IS this?' as if I had done it on purpose. My face got so hot and I was really embarrassed and tried to close it as quickly as possible, but when I did, three other naked women appeared. They started multiplying like crazy until the whole desktop was covered with them. For whatever reason, CTRL+ALT+DELETE wouldn't work. There were also some pictures of people doing it.
My dad, standing right next to me this entire time, was also embarrassed and definitely angry, and I was totally humiliated, freaked out and ran away, and he had to turn the computer off to get rid of it.
We've never spoken about it and obviously never will. I've never told anyone about it until now, and it still makes me really uncomfortable to think about."
"When I was 10 or 11, my family got a modem and AOL membership. My parents agreed to let me have my own screen name, but only if they could set very strict parental controls for it, which they were not entirely sure how to do. So, my dad had me sign in under my screen name to test whether or not the parental controls were working.
Not knowing any porn sites (or at least pretending not to know any), he typed in 'sex.com' to see if it'd be blocked. It wasn't, but dad was momentarily distracted by something else, so for roughly ten seconds I sat in horror while extreme close-ups of lady parts very slowly loaded in my AOL browser. When he finally realized what was happening he said 'damn it' and x'd out of the page."
"My first 'the internet is a bad place' moment was when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade. I have always been obsessed with felines, to the point that I acted like a cat for most of elementary school (self-licking, hissing, meowing IN PUBLIC). My family had just gotten a new desktop computer with dial-up and for the first time I was allowed to interact with it. I had AOL, where I talked to strangers on the reg; Napster, where I illegally downloaded music; and a Xanga page, where I talked about my MANY FASCINATING daily experiences. 'Today we couldn't find my cat Rosy. She was in the cupboard.'
Eventually I realized you can type anything you want in the URL bar so long as it starts with www and ends in .com and I decided it was high time I found the perfect website about cats so I could spend even more of my life dedicated to understanding and emulating them. I typed in www.kittycats.com: Endless pop-ups of tits and butts and SEX. I tried to so hard to click out of them but eventually became overwhelmed, cried, and called my parents in. They rightfully laughed their asses off at what I'd done."
Internet? Sounds Neat.
Because I'm about 1,000 years old, my first experience with the salacious side of computer was the Leisure Suit Larry video game series. I'm fairly certain we were supposed to be learning about something else in our middle-school computer class (because, yes, we'd use computers about once a month in 1990), but one of my friends snuck in a LSL game and we all gathered around to watch. Compared with today's raunchier stuff, it was laughable — I think Larry walked a woman into a hotel room and their escapade was blurred out or something. But it was basically online porn for '80s babies.
"Tubgirl is permeantly etched into my brain. I will never forget that image, and I feel like I could probably tell you the color of the shit flowing into her goddamn mouth if you asked (I remember a dark orange color)."
"In college I was walking on campus one morning and saw 'tubgirl.com saved my life' written in chalk on the sidewalk. Naturally I went home (no smartphones) to see what it was. =(."
"My friend Chloe used to send me amateur videos of guys wearing clear plastic bags as underwear and then pooping in them."
"In high school, or the 'Myspace era,' a classmate showed me on the SCHOOL LAPTOP '2 Girls 1 Cup' during social studies class."
"It was only a few years ago that I had a few friends over for dinner. After, they got to talking about cake farts.
'What's cake farts?' I asked.
'You haven't seen cake farts?!'
And so, literally over dessert, we watched cake farts."
All God's Creatures.
"My freshman year of college a kid from high school sent me an instant message over AIM. It had a link to scoobydoo.com and he said it was really cool. I should have been alerted to the fact that something bad was going to happen because (1) I hardly ever spoke to this guy so why is he sending me cool links, and (2) what could be so cool at scoobydoo.com?
Well. I clicked it. And what I saw I will never be able to forget. Bestiality of all kinds. Horses. Goats. A SNAKE. It was horrific. I had to print out and tape pictures of flowers all over my walls and especially by my bed just to try to get the images out of my mind."
"Mr. Hands ruined my childhood. It wasn't just the video itself, but all the news (rumors?) that followed. Those were dark days."
The Usual Suspects.
"From age 16–18, I had an internship turned part-time job at a company that only made websites for tween and teen girls. I wrote quizzes and articles that were mostly thinly veiled attempts to gather demographic information for big companies. The office was ALL women, save for one male accountant, and was like a ridiculous movie set version of the worst of the early 'dot-com boom' — the conference rooms were wallpapered with teen heartthrobs and full of inflatable furniture, women would sometimes sit underneath their desks, and hardly anyone ever wore shoes.
The women I worked with most often were the web developers, and they were fascinated with the sickest recesses of the early dark internet. They spent some time each day seeing what was new on The Smoking Gun and Rotten.com. For my first few months they were reluctant to let me see what they were screaming and mouth covering about, but after a while they 'loosened up' and I saw a new grotesque dead body or crime scene every day. Welcome to the working world, teenage me!"
"The day I discovered 4chan, my eyes were opened in the most gloriously horrible way, and I've never looked back. I'd been aware of the terrible things the internet was capable of (goatse, tubgirl, etc.), but one day I followed a deep dark link trail that led me to 4chan.
It looked harmless enough (this was before extensions and things that autoloaded images/vids), until I started reading the words that were written. The words were incredibly offensive. I'd heard racist/homophobic/misogynistic rants before, but nothing compared to the casual hate strewn across 4chan's message boards.
Then I clicked on an image link."
"The Budd Dwyer video was the first time I had ever seen anybody die on film. I had heard that Filter's 'Hey Man Nice Shot' was based on it, so I looked it up. I don't know why I did it, since I don't even like Filter."
"When I first moved here from Guatemala and was still struggling to learn English/make friends, I started hanging out with these kind of weird kids. I was so grateful to have friends that I would basically just go along with whatever they said. One day, we went over one kid's house and they said, 'Hey, Jess, come watch internet videos with us, all the cool kids do it' (OK maybe they didn't say the 'cool kids' part), so I sat with everyone and then these two girls held me down while the other one made me watch 'pain olympics.'"
"I don't know if it was the *first* thing or just the one I remember most clearly, but a friend in the grade above showed me motorcycle.jpg during an art class. I'm not sure where the teacher was or what she thought we were doing on the computer. I felt ill for the rest of the day, mostly because of the photo but also because it was the first time, maybe, that I understood the enormity and full force of the internet.
Anyway, the photo is one of the Rotten 'classics' and now lives on as part of the saddest website FAQ entry in existence:
Q. What's the story behind that 'Motorcycle' pic?
A. We have to admit the 'motorcycle' pic has caused a lot of email, it being one of the most disconcerting things people have ever seen. We called it 'Motorcycle' because it arrived as motorcycle.jpg, but it is more likely an attempted shotgun suicide. The man lived. An attorney wrote us demanding that we take the picture down, but was unable to provide enough details for us to comply with his request."
"The first thing that really turned my stomach was the beheading video of Paul Johnson, an American hostage in Saudi Arabia who was killed by terrorists in 2004. I had sort of thought these videos only would exist in some weird hacker universe or deep in some Arabic websites. Instead, it was just chilling out on rotten.com, where a guy I worked with showed it to me.
At the time, I was working at a gay porn company that was run out of the owner's law office. By then, I had seen every imaginable gross sex thing on the internet, and nothing was shocking to me anymore, just funny. I'd often compile the grossest/weirdest sex stuff I found on the internet that day and email it over to my friends to shock them and crack them up.
One day, a woman jumped to her death from the apartment building across from our midtown building, and we all crowded to the boss's corner office to watch the police and EMTs. For the most part she was covered with a sheet, but they pulled it back just as they had to move her into an ambulance. I had only ever seen a dead body one time before at a wake for someone else's grandmother. Seeing her on the pavement was deeply unsettling.
I told my co-worker, a paralegal for the law practice who also ran the books for the gay porn venture how disturbed I was by the woman's body. 'That's nothing,' he said. 'Have you ever seen Rotten?' He proceeded to pull up the site on my computer for me, and the video of the beheading was on the front page.
I could chuckle off all the dicks and butts and whatever I saw on the internet every day, but I couldn't stomach violence."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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