Swivel chairs, the Olsen twins and, chatting with strangers

I was eight and the Olsen twins were eleven. So wise. So adventurous. So inspirational. Eight, remember.

A few months before, a big box with cow spots all over it had arrived at our house in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a new computer, and this one was more than a black screen with white writing! This one I could play games on and type stories on and, most importantly, allowed me to join the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen chatroom.

That new Gateway landed in the upstairs room sandwiched between my parents’ and the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. The room was little but the sun snuck through the one small window. I sat in a swivel chair (which made the long wait while pages loaded much more entertaining). Having recently watched one of the oh-so-exquisitely crafted Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley movies, I told my parents I wanted to look at my idols’ website.

After I’d poured through the list of movies and books the duo had starred in, I came across the holy grail of wanna-be pre-teen fandom: the chatroom. This special Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen chatroom was designed specifically for me! It was incredible: mkandalove, OlsenTwins4ever, and so, so many handles from fans like me.

But we had a rule in my house: no chatrooms sans parental units. Always sitting behind me was my dad.

I started chatting with a girl my age. She was from Florida and also thought being a twin would just be the coolest. We chatted for hours. We were insta-besties. Dad watched as I excitedly told my new friend how my favourite color was purple and that I wanted to learn to ride horses and that I played soccer. We talked about our favourite Olsen adventures and how we’d have solved each mystery those girls fictionally faced.

Dad did not have the benefit of a swivel chair.

I remember having to tell her that my dad was there, after that I could type whatever I wanted. I remember thinking it was weird because I knew dad wasn’t interested in talking about M-K and A which was, after all, the purpose of this chatroom. I didn’t question it.

After some time, my new friend told me her parents were calling her for dinner. We made plans to chat at 6:00pm the next day.

So, at 6:00pm the next day I dragged my poor dad back to the little computer room and perched myself on the swivel chair, positively bubbling with anticipation. She wasn’t there.

I wondered, what time was it in Florida? Are they an hour ahead of Halifax, maybe its behind? Did she mean her time or mine? Does she always log in with the same screen name? What was her screen name? My eight-year-old mind raced. Despite some excellent detective skills of my own — including searching for and finding out how to tell what time it is in Florida — she was gone. Gone forever.

This was my first taste of the kind of anxiety only complete strangers with whom you feel intimately connected to can create.

At some point I realized that she might not have been a girl my age from Florida. She might have been a creepy dude from a few streets over. I started to feel less bad about missing our Olsen twin chat date. I realized that she was an unknown. I realized that dad made me tell her he was there so that whoever “she” was would be very aware that I was known — that I had a protector watching over my shoulder.

I became a little more savvy in the ensuing 18 years of Internet surfing and stranger chatting. The ability to flit in and out of people’s lives is something I learned to like. I think a lot about who is “on the other end” now. Dad doesn’t sit behind me anymore, but my Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen experience travels with me as I surf, like, and swipe right.