In the days of AOL Instant Messenger, I committed a very strange crime.
When I was 15, hanging out with my friend Melissa* on a Friday night was a feat that defied the laws of popularity. We'd been close friends since fourth grade -- we both loved books and Fiona Apple -- but she'd risen above me in the social hierarchy by joining an exclusive clique of popular girls who called themselves The Goddesses. Melissa was dating a guy named Pat, a glowering dark-haired baseball player with impressive arm muscles and terrible grades in science.
Anyway, I somehow finagled time with Melissa one weekend sophomore year. I tried to be extra-fun and courteous and like someone who would totallllly fit in with The Goddesses, probably, idk, who even cares. We ate pizza and looked at the internet and debated whether my parents would notice if we stole their vodka. This was when AOL Instant Messenger was life.
Melissa said she wanted to go on AIM. Instead of logging into her account, though, she logged into Pat's, like it was no big deal.
"Isn't this illegal?" I asked. I was already paranoid I'd be fined for my flagrant Napster and Kazaa use.
"He lets me log in," she told me. Apparently, to assuage Melissa's jealous tendencies, Pat had gave her his password. He'd also made his password "password."
We kept Pat's account open for a while, with Melissa monitoring to see if anyone messaged him. And that would have been that -- except that when I went to sign in the next day, Pat's was still open. I knew I should log him out. But then the guy I had a crush on, Jack, started talking to Pat.
(It was 2002.)
Jack had started up an AIM flirtation with me earlier that year. I didn't find out until a few months of flirting with him online that he had a girlfriend, and a reputation of indiscriminately hitting on younger girls. I was devastated. I still thought he was cute though.
I looked at the keyboard. Could I impersonate someone I barely knew? I had never even talked to Pat, and had nothing against him or for him, other than a suspicion that he was kinda dumb. I knew impersonating him was mean. But to get dirt on Jack, I could.
sup, I wrote.
do u think taylor brown is hot
What!! Taylor Brown was a girl in my grade who I did not find hot.
who u think is hot
Shit. I had no idea what Pat's taste in women was, besides Mel. I typed the names of The Goddesses and sent them over.
He wrote me back with a ranking of each of them on a scale of 1 to 10. Now this was interesting. I gave him another list of names, including some of my friends, with my name discreetly sandwiched in it.
He ranked everyone again. He gave me a 6, but stipulated that I could be a 7 if I "put my hair up."
A 6? What was wrong with my hair? I logged off in a fit of humiliation.
I joined some people that night at my friend Matty's house. I wore a ponytail. We drank beers in the basement, a time-honored tradition for 16-year-olds on the southwest side of Chicago. Then we went on AIM to see if anything was going on that night. Buoyed by Busch, I had a great idea: What if we went on Pat's AIM and asked his friends what was up? I told Matty and the gang how I'd acquired Mike's password and swore them to secrecy. We logged in and started chatting with anyone who messaged Pat, drunk on cheap booze and the power of tricking people.
A few more beers in, I had another suggestion: What if we picked a fight with Jack, just for fun? My friends found this an unexpected and delightfully bold idea. I didn't tell anyone about the 6 or my ill-fated crush. We decided that the first best way to pick a fight would be to hit on his girlfriend. She was online. We messaged her:
we should hook up
She wrote back immediately:
She logged off. Jack logged on. He asked, reasonably, why Pat was flagrantly hitting on his girlfriend, who happened to be in the same room with him. Then Jack and "Pat" arranged a fight.
This whole time, we were cracking up. All of us knew it was objectively wrong, from a moral and legal standpoint, but I was the one who had Pat's password, so my friends felt absolved from any guilt. Plus they didn't personally know these people; we went to a big high school. I only knew that Jack had led me on and then, to add insult to injury, assessed my looks as thoroughly mediocre. I was having too much fun to feel guilty.
The next Monday, there was no fight. I can only assume that Jack and Pat had figured out that they'd been catfished. Jack changed his password and probably blamed Melissa for the whole ordeal, but she never said anything to me about it. I saw them amicably eating lunch together, probably brought closer by their brush with cyber-lunacy.
I had now developed a taste for how fun it was to impersonate Pat. I had also grown arrogant at the lack of consequences my bad behaviour had. And my friend Susan wanted in on the fun.
At Susan's house the next week, we tried to log back on. Pat had changed his password, which presented an obstacle, though not an insurmountable one for two bored teenagers with defective moral compasses. Pat had a 1 in his screen name, and thanks to the AOL font, a "1" and a lowercase L looked close enough. We made a new screen name, just like Pat's, but with an L instead of a 1. Then we started adding Pat's friends. A truly psycho move.
We were debating what sort of prank to play next when Pat himself messaged us:
who r u
We hadn't anticipated this. Neither of us actually knew Pat or had anything against him. Now he was internet-confronting us.
This is the part of the story where it'd be nice to tell you that I fessed up, apologised, and then became life-long buds with ole Pat. That is also not at all what happened. Instead, I decided to further mind-fuck him. I wrote:
I am Pat
Susan and I came up with an impromptu digital game of chicken: We decided we would insist that we were the real Pat at all costs, and that we were communicating through AIM from the future to warn present-day Pat about all the mistakes he was making in his life:
i am from the future and i have an important message for you
We tried to pool together all of our knowledge of Pat. Susan didn't know him, but her mum knew his dad. This was before Facebook, before any of us had Google footprints. We had nothing. It was time to go on the offensive:
YOU prove it. i am the real pat you are the fake pat
no ur not
Touché. Real Pat then abruptly blocked fake future Pat. And with that, my trolling career was over, an anti-climatic end to a mostly ignominious choice.
Melissa didn't come back over to my house that year. Whether it was because she knew I catfished her boyfriend or not, I didn't see that much of her. Then one day, she wasn't in class anymore. Rumour had it, she'd tried to run Pat over with her car and then dropped out of school. To this day I hope the attempted vehicular homicide had nothing to do with drama I stirred up.
Melissa later got her GED and went to college early and is now a home-owning professor who takes a lot of photos of her dog, so she turned out just fine.
I don't know what happened to Pat and never spoke a word to him, but I recently talked to Susan and Matty when I was trying to remember how this all went down. In my memory, it was more of a group effort. But they recalled it differently: I was the one singlehandedly impersonating him the entire time and they just thought I was a funny maniac.
I've never heard a catfishing story where a beautiful, rich person pretends to be someone poor and ugly. It's always lies as wishes, as if the act of convincing someone that you live a better life will help make it true. That underlying desperation makes me empathise with people who lie online. I get it: They just want to be someone else.
Or, that's what I tell myself now, because being a lonely, insecure teenager is more excusable than just doing it for the lulz.
If I'm honest, though, I have to admit that what started as hormone-saturated curiosity quickly devolved into something less innocent. I did it for sport, and to make my friends laugh. It's true that I yearned to be one of the popular kids, but I didn't particularly want to be like Pat. He was a random target. I felt tiny, and tricking people made me feel powerful, and I felt validated when my peers liked my creepy shenanigans, which is pretty much the origin story of all internet trolls.
"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not," Joan Didion wrote. Well, I used to be an unrepentant teenage catfish, a pubescent troll.
Nowadays I get a lot of shit from angry strangers on the internet. I try to remember what it was like to be an anonymous agent of chaos online as a way of humanising the people who call me a cunt. But I know that if anyone went as far as I did back then -- stealing my identity and picking fights with people I knew -- I'd be horrified.
Real Kate would call the cops in a second on Fake Kate.
* All names have been changed. Except mine.