Graphic: Spacer Pixel.
Photograph: Teenage girl, smiling. Graphic: Teenagels Logo. Photograph: Teen with a laptop.
10th Annual WiredKids Summit

Screenshot: Teenangels Trailer

Teenangels Trailer

Photograph: a group of Teenangels
Teenangels / Scrapbook / Articles / AIM : An Invisible Masquerade? By Teenangel Lisa

AIM : An Invisible Masquerade? By Teenangel Lisa

About five years ago, my father beckoned me to his study, frantic. I rushed in, assuming the computer had crashed or some similar catastrophe had ensued. Visibly alarmed, he asked me to discern "what was happening" to the computer.

My father had gotten his first IM.

Instant messaging, first provided exclusively to America Online subscribers when AOL was launched for DOS and Windows in 1991 and 1993, respectively, was revolutionary in that it it allowed cyber sufers to have a visible presence on the Internet. Each account was allotted a certain number of screen names, all controlled by the master account. Instantly, and AOL community was formed, virtual clubs were established along with common interest chat rooms, and instant messaging became the wave of the future for communications.

December 11, 2001 marked the first public release of AIM, a free Instant Messaging service whereby people could obtain an unlimited number of accounts without supervision from any "master account," without registering with AOL, without submitting any personal information whatsoever. AIM immediately took off, especially among American youth and young adults. When high speed Internet and ethernet connections were installed in college residence halls nationwide, AIM became accessible constantly. "Away messages" became, in themselves, a form of communication, to alert friends of one's constant whereabouts.

With complete anonymity provided at no cost to the user, AIM helped to breed a new kind of criminal: the cyberstalker. Knowing that it is virtually impossible to trace the identity behind the screen name, people have used AIM as a tool to spy on, harass, manipulate, intimidate, fool, and threaten other users. Flirtations or encounters that have begun over the Internet have sometimes moved offline and resulted in assault and death for its victims. AIM can avoid taking blame for these actions through its provision of security features including the ability to report users for misconduct and to block selected or all other Internet users.

The danger inherent in the AIM environment has recently been exacerbated by the addition of certain features. Three new options, specifically, are very dangerous and will likely not only encourage antisocial behavior, by making the Internet community increasingly more deceptive and covert, but will also likely aid cyberstalkers in their pursuits.

The first feature is, ironically, listed with AIM as a privacy feature. The small eye icon that appears on the upper left hand side of users' buddy lists, with the download of a recent version of AIM, allows users to choose to be visible (eye open) or invisible (eye closed) with a click of the mouse. While invisible, users have full access to AIM, to track the activities of fellow users, to reading their profiles and away messages, and can even to initiate conversations. The invisible user, however, does not appear on buddy lists of others and can not be contacted. Though perhaps allowing for a certain degree of privacy, the invisibility feature is essentially an invitation to act as a voyeur. Entirely out of sight, the invisible user is free to stay online for hours at a time, watching the activities of other users, many of whom are likely clueless to the possibility that they could be on display, as if before an open window.

Another new feature, specially designed for AIM for Macs, allows viewers to have conversations with their away messages still up. With other Internet users believe them to be away and unavailable, in reality, they can communicate at their own discretion. This, again, could promote safety but dually serves to enhance an online environment filled with deceit. Coupled with the invisibility feature, it is impossible to know who is on line or available at any given moment. The "community" initially by AOL has disintegrated with the addition of each feature and has taken the form of a masquerade in which people can not only assume an identity of their choosing with complete immunity, but also make themselves seem present, or conversely disappear, at will.

The final, and most alarming new development is as add-on known as DeadAIM. Though it now must be bought, older versions of DeadAIM can be downloaded free of charge. One of DeadAIM's most popular features allows users to automatically record and file all of their conversations. These logs, however, become available to anyone with access to the designated computer and make any information given over IM easily publishable. More troubling still is the feature that allows users to have the activities of other users recorded automatically - every time they sign on and off, go idle or away, a log is kept. Finally, it allows any user to simultaneously be online with more than one identity, called "cloning."

The next time you sign online and the famous AOL greeting welcomes you, consider how welcoming the community really is. You do not know who your neighbors really are. They can become invisible at will. They can assume multiple identities, and have the capacity to converse with you using all of them simultaneously. They may be away, or they may not be present and watching; it is impossible to tell. They may be recording your activities online and using them for a variety of purposes. Through an easily downloadable program, records might be kept in their hard drives of every word you say to them, or to the identity they have assumed or created. Or, more frightening yet, they might be watching you without you even knowing they exist.

For those of you, like my father, who are not savvy with modern communication forms, beware. The Internet, which we all depend upon and adore, is filled with dangers of which most people are unaware. Do not give out secrets online, do not meet people in chatrooms, and if you do, understand that any, and every piece of the identity they construct could be fallacious and malicious. Warn your children, warn your parents, for even if they live in a safe community, if they use the Internet, they play in a rough neighborhood, likely naive to its dangers.

Teenangel Lisa

Site Search Terms of Use Reprint Permission Privacy Policy

Graphic: Get Game Smart Logo.