A midnight army at the dawn of the web

Leigh Alexander recalls her adventures working with porn spambots in the 1990s, and the strange mixture of nostalgia and disappointment that remains.

By Leigh Alexander at 12:00 am Thu, Jan 30, 2014

This excerpt is drawn from the ebook “Breathing Machine,” out now from Thought Catalog

By the time I was out of high school, I was helping advertise for internet porn sites. Once, I even used my own photographs. It’s not what you think, but it makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? Click here, et cetera.

America Online’s battalion of innocently-named chat rooms – The Meeting Place, The Lobby, The Cafe – changed tone as soon as the company let members start, name and maintain their own rooms. In user-led domains, people “went as” video game characters, as masters of BDSM, as constituents of every fetish under the sun.

It used to be you had to find pornography by accident, guiltily wait twenty minutes’ download time to watch three minutes of a 1980s anime princess being visited by tentacles and techno music. In the chat rooms, sex and shock were the currency of the bored and languid. If you were asked whether you’d seen something, you always answered “yes.”

Geographically-dispersed strangers had internet relationships and supposedly torrential love affairs, without ever having to reveal themselves. People would make melodramatic exits after their honor was besmirched or their parents suspended their internet privileges – only to reappear a few weeks later under a different screen name, pretending firmly not to be themselves.

Sometimes the chat companion who wanted to show you their fanfiction, their pictures, their videos, would urgently press you to click suspicious-looking links, until you realized they weren’t a person at all. Spambots wielding bold pink comic sans and giant emoticons were everywhere.

I had – and still have – a friend named H. Joe who in the 1990s once mailed me a VHS tape of the homoerotic Japanese anime fighting saga JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. He hid a hard, pungent knuckle of weed inside the body of the cassette. My parents never found out. I don’t think.

H. Joe’s fulltime job was online, in the employ of a company called MaxCash, running spambots to promote porn sites. “Girls” with names like xLovelyToy32x would send messages to users lurking in chat rooms, inviting them to something special, generally occurring right now, and Joe would get paid for the traffic that the bots he operated lured to the sites.

It seems unreal now that people paid for porn in the first place, or that anyone online would believe an unsolicited IM full of alphanumeric garbage might truly be from a real-world teen sweetheart who really couldn’t wait to talk. But back then, that illusion earned H. Joe his paycheck – and endless, incredible stories.

Each spambot in the personal collective he referred to as “The Midnight Army” had to have a real AOL account, which meant it had a real email inbox. Which meant that every time a lonelyhearted internet user who, thinking he (it was always, always a he) might have been solicited by a real erotic opportunity, wrote a love letter to XLovelyToy99x, Joe got to read it. Sometimes he’d write back. And often enough, he’d pilot the spambots personally, roleplaying along to entice the lurker-jerkers to spend more and more.

I helped, and I admit that even now I can’t muster enough empathy to consider it cruel: 16, 17 year-old me, manning a bot account to take my turn at pressing some obtuse Midwestern Don Juan to divulge his most absurd fantasies. “I want to take soft paint brushes, dip them in warm massage oil, and paint your nipples,” one man wrote to an internet porn bot before we started hearing from his wife: DO NOT CONTACT THIS ADDRESS EVER AGAIN! MY HUSBAND HAS A PROBLEM AND WE ARE STRONG IN FAITH or something like that. Oh, my. We contacted again.

H. Joe got monthly email updates from the mysterious figure behind MaxCash, known only by a pair of initials, on how the business was doing. Occasionally H. Joe was even eligible for rewards, like a special office chair with lumbar support. Implausibly these things were not scams. He received the lumbar support chair.

It was specialty focus that became H. Joe’s primary earning avenue. It wasn’t just that there were some men who preferred big, beautiful women (BBWs). It was they wrote elaborate, fetishistic fanfiction about feeding the fictional women, and would jump at any bot who had the right sort of name and intonation. It was that they were more interested in feet or body hair than who was attached to them.

“Sell me ur sox,” people would message the spambots. I could make a fortune selling my socks online, and I didn’t even have to do anything, suggested H. Joe. I never sold my socks, but I’d be lying if I said I was never tempted.

Once, though, curiosity or vanity or both compelled me to donate some webcam snaps of myself smoking a cigarette, the lit end blue in the camera light, lips pursed, flicking daintily, all that. Nothing more: Just pictures of me smoking.

H. Joe’s “smoking fetish” subsite was really lucrative. We just needed to lock these guys in with a few pictures of a smoker who looked like a real-world girl. Of course I‘d take some. No name on them; they would never be able to find me, see me, speak to me, touch me. Not even to ask to touch me. Way better than high school. Suckers.

Just a picture of me, smoking, late teens, fully clothed, was pornography to someone. My socks were worth money. This is what I had learned about men and sex from the internet by the time I had graduated high school.

Order your copy of Breathing Machine from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play

Published 12:00 am Thu, Jan 30, 2014

About the Author

Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra editor-at-large, Kotaku and EDGE mag columnist, and NYLON Guys games editor, is on Twitter.

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