Marcus Whale is a musician and performer working on Gadigal land. As a performer, he is a member of duo Collarbones and trio BV, as well as work under his own name, releasing an album “Inland Sea” in June 2016. Primarily forming an electronic world around his singing, the songs across these projects play out dramas of desire and projection whilst disfiguring forms of pop, club and contemporary classical music. Marcus performed this story in Sydney.
*Audience claps and cheers*
This is a story about MSN messenger.
*Audience laughs and cheers*
If there’s one photo that definitively sums up the varying attentions of my youth, it’s one my dad took of me in 2002 in the study of our family home. In this image a wet-haired, twelve-year-old me is typing, my tiny face fixed on the curved glass of an enormous white monitor. But while my fingers tap at the keyboard, my chin is nestled in the chinrest of a child-sized violin.
Its scroll resting on the surface of the desk next to an undisturbed bow.
It’s hard to tell from the angle, but I know from the bubble-like windows and sky blue colour scheme that I was chatting to friends on Microsoft’s instant messaging software, MSN Messenger. I have faint memories of this moment, mostly being too stressed about being busted to appreciate how cute and funny it might have been to my dad. Instead, I remember being racked with the shame of my deep need to hit back and be hit back on MSN, bound with each audio alert to respond within an instant. MSN, I often like to say, brought me up – most of my dreamings, learnings and hopes were enacted across this platform, which, as I grew older, became ever important to me particularly as a weird and queer teenager. MSN was also, at the time this photo was taken, the site of my first romance of any kind, a long-distance, online relationship with a girl named Nina.
Nina was a Filo girl who lived on the Gold Coast and was in year seven when we first made contact in 2002 in a highly populated group chat. MSN allowed its users to add their contacts to group chats with little restriction, leading to crazed all-ins that would cause my family computer’s speakers erupt with message alerts.
In the midst of the chaos, I must have zoomed in on her avatar – a tiny blur of a girl – and wanted to know more. This frenetic beginning conjured an immediate attraction. We opened a window private to her and me alone, surprised and delighted at the possibility of knowing someone beyond the flatness of our physical lives.
After school each day, I’d rush immediately into the study, desperate to find out if she was online. If she was, I would open a window. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she’d respond.
Afterwards I can only guess things got deeper. We’d sign off with “luvyalots”, one word. Discuss our friends and our real-life dramas. I don’t think I saw many other pictures of her (at that early point it involved the scanning of physical, printed materials) but I also didn’t care to see more. This textual pal was all I needed, a kind of valve of intimate knowledge disclosed and exchanged 1000 kilometres apart, a good, safe distance for a socially awkward preteen.
Given hindsight, I can see that my lack of attraction to her made that distance desirable, allowing us to enjoy the pleasure of conversation and contact without the complication of physical presence. This was the way I could participate in the heterosexual courting ritual so vastly conveyed, replicated and transmitted through media and our peer groups. The internet allowed my participation to be immersed entirely in its imaginary and virtual form. Only by our fonts (which were pink, green and black) and our text (honey sweet and lifted from teen TV) did we make contact, and yet we revealed more to each other than anyone else in our lives.
For a future gay boy with no experience with girls whatsoever, the idea of a future, of a physical contact with Nina would have been highly confronting for me. I can’t speak for Nina, but in one physical letter to me, she rightly described as a “dickhead”, a boy who coldly dumped her best friend for another girl in their group. Being able to conduct intimacy with a boy who existed entirely online might have felt safer than the boys that saw her each day in school. I had become a boyfriend computer game, whose physical world could never bleed into hers, whose actions could never literally touch her.
Speaking of her letters, I keep thinking about her bubble-like handwriting in the letter she sent me for my thirteenth birthday that recently set my Instagram stories alight.
Everything down to the language felt like it might easily have come from one of the girl-coded young adult novels I’d thumbed through in primary school. For my 13th birthday she sent me, among other things, an entire page with “I love you” written repeatedly in purple on one side and “I love Marcus” written in pink on the other.
But what of how I presented myself to her through the internet? How I presented myself to myself? Digital mediation, in the aid of the textual form, allowed me, also, to be partly erased from the imprint I made on Nina’s life. The memory is hazy, but I am sure, simultaneous with being Nina’s online boyfriend, I was messing around with boys in choir and had gone around my year six peer group telling everyone I was bi. I tell myself she must have known, that I must have spilled to her these parts of myself even, as she recounted in a letter sent to my twelfth birthday, while she refused multiple offers for dates, dances and kisses.
As a boy-attracted boy perhaps my intimacy with Nina allowed me to audition heterosexual romance, to feel wanted in ways I could not be at that age. In this way, our chat window was a coagulation of our wishes, a translation of these “real-world” desires into a digital address that resembled them. “Luvyalots” was the word “love” wishing itself into being, a devotional sign-off that we each carried psychically across from the virtual into the physical world. The idea of meeting in person was a forever-deferred hope in which we bathed. Into this non-arrival we poured the selves we wished to become. To Nina, I fastened my attention, setting aside homework, violin practice, my family, friends, to listen to, to transit temporarily to the frame inside which I was a boy who had a girlfriend.
Nina and I continued chatting as boyfriend and girlfriend until I was thirteen, early into year eight for me and year nine for her. Eventually we became embarrassed of each other and pursued other romances in the physical world. It’s around the same time I stopped believing in God and also stopped learning the piano. The auditioning process of adolescence had ended, the excitement of future transformations had passed into a more confused and anxious negotiation of our hormonal contours. Nina and I never re-connected and when she raised, years later, the opportunity to meet up while she was in town, I gave a vague answer, stalling the conversation.
While Nina faded from my life, IM, with all its potential for expanding my world beyond its physical boundaries, became centrally important to me and I conducted further crushes and relationships in the subsequent years partly or entirely on MSN Messenger. And it continues to this day on other platforms.
What I learned from being with (and without) Nina was the pleasure of giving into fantasy, that I would forever prefer to wait.
MSN was a portal of the not-yet-imagined and the only imaginable, a dream unfolding message by message into the shape of my desire. Nina and I were perfect, a dual projection, our meagre, IRL selves outshined by our idealised versions of each other, a delicious layer of fantasy in place of the unknown.
*Audience claps and cheers*