People I’ve Met From The Internet
by Stephen van Dyck
Ricochet Editions/Gold Line Press, 2019
155 Pages, $15.00
Review by James Chapin

When announced earlier this year that a large chunk of the music uploaded to the site had been unceremoniously deleted, many people who grew up playing music during the site’s heyday felt the earth shift below them just a little. It seemed like a betrayal — not just a garden-variety corporate deceit, but a small breach in the rules of reality. Many of the deleted recordings existed nowhere else. Could the evidence of those places and times have really just vanished, the output of a thousand scenes and subcultures, all those yawped lyrics and tinnily-recorded 2/4 drumbeats? But they were real, they happened — didn’t they?

Not for the first time and definitely not for the last, a piece of our lives which had once seemed as solid as geology disappeared back into the digital flux from which it had come. Stephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met from the Internet (Ricochet Editions / Gold Line Press, 2019) can be read as a blow against that kind of deletion. In the context of the late-’90s and early-’00s gay culture, van Dyck performs a necessary act of remembrance. By casting back to bygone spaces like AOL chatrooms (“it seemed as though the M4M room was the gay capitol of Albuquerque for a time”), van Dyck shows us a moment that was worth cataloging, and that all of it — the boring, the regrettable, the nonsensical, the hilarious–deserves better than deletion.

While recreating these spaces, the book also embodies some of the Web’s most bewildering tendencies, the ones which might have made us question its claims to begin with. Note the title carefully. These are not the people met on the internet, but from it — a mysterious region from which they’ve appeared, and to which they may soon return. Some people (like David, a.k.a. XNeutronX) only stick around for a few sentences. They blow into the narrative and out of it again, often stopping for no more than a breathless encounter before sneaking back out through the chat room window.

People I’ve Met from the Internet details a young man’s sexual and social education through the series of forums, messengers, web journals, and (eventually) Web 2.0 apps where he finds romantic possibility. Through them he catches glimpses of hope for a gay youth growing up outside the metropolis. It may be memoir, but it reads like a real roman à clef, a novel with a key: the book begins with a seventeen-page chart of screen names indexed to real names, along with other important biographical details. Lines from this table run along the pages where the individuals appear. Robert Andrews is only present in the narrative for a few sentences, but we can learn plenty from his chart entry alone:

“Robert Andrews—IndigoCircle5–Myspace—Aug. 2005—Los Angeles, CA (Eagle Rock)—Got boba drinks, went to MOCA—22—x3— -”

Same goes for David:

“David—electronique1981——Jun. 2004—Newport Beach, CA?—Sucked each other off to good music—22—x1—k1, s1”

It’s good bookkeeping, and shakes hands with a healthy tradition of literary listing. Looked at the right way, the entire narrative is in fact a series of footnotes to the entries in this list.

Van Dyck should be applauded for taking this exhaustive trip down the memory hole. He has come up to the surface with some fascinating relics. (The screennames alone: in a world of flwrpwrgrl9 and SthPrkFan1, StinkyBird stands out for their succinct use of AOL’s ten-character limit.) It’s all described with wonderfully forensic detachment, but sometimes that detachment has a disturbing edge. The narrator’s arrest and overnight in juvy for a fight with his parents is revealed only in light of meeting someone from the Internet. A possibly-videotaped sexual encounter when the narrator is in his mid-teens with a man later revealed to be thirty-three is passed over without comment, and catalogued with the rest. Even the death of the narrator’s mother is largely registered in the context of meeting Quinn (Ragnarok654), and the Eurhythmics VHS he watches on repeat.

But can you blame him? The dry affectless style is strangely appropriate to the medium. As we get past the ancient history of the late ‘90s and early 2000s and ease uncomfortably close to the present day, a clear pattern emerges: people flailing against loneliness, and the failure of their easy online connectivity to remedy it.

Van Dyck sometimes brushes up against earlier stages of gay history, begging venerable questions about the bad old days and how much they should be missed. A few AOL Chatroom friends meet up to visit the Cruise:

“where cars circled a block slowly and endlessly on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, men peering out from cracked windows to exchange anonymous glances…There were cars full of teenagers, cholos with slicked- back hair from the South Valley, drunk kids blasting dance music on a Saturday night, lowriders with tinted windows and thudding beats (I’d plug my ears as we tried to talk to the people inside), lone middle-aged men in button-up shirts driving American family cars, muddied pickup trucks driven by long-mustached ranchers in cowboy hats.”

The scene is rich, mysterious, raucous, multigenerational and multicultural, a clear contrast to the world of text boxes and blinking cursors. But it too will pass:

“Not long after I moved to LA, Quinn told me that the cops shut down the Cruise entirely. Quinn later lived near there and said it now felt like any other block.”

The loss is a real one. But the Cruise has its chroniclers, in different towns and in different contexts. The spaces that van Dyck describes have not been so well described. The Internet’s alleged permanence is a sham, of course, and the only true home for the memories that we thought were preserved is still inside our skulls. Turns out that it will take art like van Dyck’s to bring them out.