The year was 1998. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) had become extremely popular, and was the new medium in virtual friendships, connecting people from across the world that never knew each other before!
I have always been a "computer geek" and knew that once I had a computer in my home, that it would consume me to a great detail...and it still does today. One night while "chatting" with some of my new friends, I stumbled across a new way to chat.
It was one of the major search engines of the time, and they had developed in conjunction with some very smart computer minds a new chat program called "Virtual Places" or VPChat for short.
With VPChat, you could actually chat with an avatar representing yourself, use any web background (or make your own), and use what was then known as shortcuts to draw pictures, text, smileys, etc. quickly.
With the self-taught knowledge of HTML (web-design), and image editing, I immediately fell in love with the platform!
I remember the day that I joined. I had no idea what people meant when they called me a "mug". A "mug" was a newbie that had not figured out how to change their avatar picture and the default picture was a coffee mug with a big X on it. Once I figured out how to change my avatar...a new virtual person was born!
I remember taking on an identity that matched my personality (you never, and I mean NEVER used real names!!!), chose a picture of a country music star that I felt fit my personality better than my own, and started chatting away. I remember seeing when I signed up that I was user number 3001. Wow! I was one of the first users in this new and exciting program!
As time went on, I made several friends, built several backgrounds to chat on, helped friends make avatars, etc. We had a blast. I ended up spending most of my time in a room called "Parents' Chat" because I was a fairly new parent, and found the group interesting. Soon after, I was hired by the chat company to become a voluntary chat host that monitored the room a few hours a week under a pseudo-alias that was unknown to the "regulars"...even my "best" friends. I had found my new hobby. I would spend hours and hours and hours chatting. I never really realized how much my life in reality was suffering because I had this new alternate life.
After my probationary period, I was actually hired as a trainer (a position that actually paid money!!!) in the program. My job was to recruit and train. I was one of 11-12 of the staff, senior chat hosts and trainers, constantly having discussions with even the "geeks" that founded the program to begin with! I had made the "internet big show", literally. We hosted a program that simultaneously was broadcast on national television one night close to halloween. One of our guests that was on the show was Sinbad - the actor. I not only got to talk to Sinbad through the chat, but I was HIS personal show host, which meant that I fielded the questions for him and posted them directly to him in the background while another host would post them publicly in the room. I even got to talk to him on the phone, and he mentioned my chat host name many times on live TV. It was quite an experience!
Back to the discussion, as I digress in memories, the "Parents' Chat" room had gotten to be a huge hit. I was personally hosting themed chats four hours a week, and had recruited some of my friends to also host a few hours a week with me. We were having a great time, making a difference to others in their lives, helping them answer parenting questions, keeping the chat rooms censored, and even had an all out defense of an internet attack where we all had to get online at the same time to send IP blocks to those that were "hacking" the system and database trying to shut down VP!
One of my friends that I had gotten acquainted with used the name "HiWay" as his "nickname" and had a curvy road as his avatar. Even though we didn't even know each other's last names, we had become very good friends, and we knew roughly where each other lived, etc.
One night, a "newbie" came into the chat room and was not very "chatty" at first. Our group, known to be very friendly, started talking to this new person. They soon revealed that they were actually there for a reason. The person on the other end of the screen told us publicly in the chat room what I had feared many times when being a host and talking with especially younger members of the online community. There were often times that I, or another chat host would get an urgent plea from a chatter (by this time, we had over 40,000 members) because of something that was said in reference to someone stating that they were taking their own life, etc. Most of these proved to be attention seeking, and after talking to the person a while, we would ask them to have a family member chat with us, and all ended okay. But, not every time. There were known suicides, as well as some that were saved from attempts based on some of the chat hosts working together to pinpoint an area in which the chatter might have been located, and their real name.
Here is what the newbie told us in the room: "Hi, do you guys know xxxxxxxxx. His nickname is HiWay." Well, immediately many of us answered and said that we did. "Well, I am sorry to inform you that HiWay has died. He took his own life a few days ago."
This all made sense. None of us had seen him online for several days. Some of his last messages would also point to some concern after looking at them again, and so on. Now, I know what you must be thinking...why did you, or anyone else let him talk like that. You have to remember, we were in the "secretive" internet age and nobody knew anything about anybody past what was given on a chat screen. To that, I am thankful, but also can understand that today's internet world of social media is entirely opposite.
Obviously, this saddened the entire group to hear of this news. Some of us that had gotten to be close friends, actually had each other's contact info/phone numbers, etc. and we called and talked each other through the heartache of losing our friend. We even had a hosted "vigil" for our friend HiWay one night in the Parents' Chat, and some sent flowers to an address that we were given to be family members.
Our "newbie" friend had started to blend in with the crowd and we all kept them close since they were either a friend or relative of HiWay and we wanted them to feel as welcome as possible. After a few weeks, I was chatting with my new friend, when all of a sudden, I read something that was way too familiar from "her." It puzzled me. I knew this was something that only HiWay and I had talked about (something related to the area in which he lived). I didn't say anything to anyone right away, but just kept observing mannerisms, chat styles, etc.
After a few days, I brought my good friend DCMom (Kathy) into my theory. "Kathy, I think xxxxxxx is really HiWay, or his wife!" Kathy was silent for a few minutes on the keyboard. She finally answered me and said "I am glad it is not just me that is wondering!"
Between the two of us, we were able to monitor the chat and interaction for a few days until it was time to "call the bluff." The three of us made a private chat and we started chatting. During the conversation, I slipped in my nickname for HiWay, which was HeyHi. He responded without a glitch of time. Then, realizing what he had done, he got silent on his keyboard for a few minutes. He finally admitted that it was him.
Tears had been shed, emotions had been shared. I had to ask him why. His reply was simple really. It went like this: "Do you know xxxxxxxx, the lady from Alabama with the 2 daughters?" I replied that I did. "Well, one of her daughters asked me to help pull a prank on her mom because she thought she was being to "parenty" to her, so, we made up this story of me committing suicide because she said her mom (divorced) was "in love" with me." He continued with this, "the only problem is that I haven't heard from xxxxxxxxxxx since the first time I came in and told you guys that I had killed myself."
Knowing that this lady had been extremely upset, but not knowing the "full story," Kathy and I had figured that this other friend had just taken a break. I had one of the daughters on my contact list in ICQ - another internet messaging program, so I decided to contact her. She was in her mid-teens at the time. When she finally contacted me back, she mentioned that she had been meaning to let us all know about her mom. I inquired again (through messaging programs) of her as to what she meant.
She replied that her mom had gotten overwhelmed with emotions from the prank that her sister and HiWay had devised and had to seek medical help. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I mean...these people had NEVER even met! She continued to tell me even worse news than this. Her mother had to be admitted to the hospital for a number of days, AND, in the meantime of this process, her sister attempted suicide.
I have lost contact with all of these folks mentioned over the years, as well as all but one person that was my "friend" in this online chat program, and she remains a dear friend even still today and we are connected through Facebook now. What a tragedy though. Something that was intended to be fun, something that seemed so innocent to one person, something that none would ever expect...yet the words of my friend "HiWay" still echo through my mind...
"I never meant to hurt anybody..."
In the Bible, we are cautioned against certain things, and we should consider them, as Christians. Just like anyone else, I love to hear a good clean joke, like to tell a few, love to have a surprise effect on people sometimes, yet, we need to understand that sometimes we may be causing a stumbling block...or worse, to our own brothers and sisters in Christ, or even a bad influence on those that have not put on Christ.
Consider the words of Solomon:
“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, “I was only joking!”” (Proverbs 26:18–19, NKJV)
Solomon cautioned us in this statement. Joking is fun. Joking makes one happy many times. But, joking can also hurt not only people, but possibly the influence that you have on others as well.
In Ephesians, Paul writes this:
“Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25, NKJV)
“But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Ephesians 5:3–4, NKJV)
I believe as Christians, we have to be very careful of how the world sees us. We already live in a glass house sometimes, but we don't need to help by allowing others to see things that are "half-truths" or a prank gone south, as I saw first hand.
After all, haven't we all had that feeling before....
"I never meant to hurt anybody!"