2013-12-10

Co.Exist

An E-Book That Tells The Story Of Adolescent Sexuality On The Web, Banned From The iTunes Store

Twelve is an iPad app that recreates the experiences of its creator as a 12-year-old girl in AOL chatrooms in the 1990s. It tells a story of truth, but it's a story Apple doesn't think young children should hear.

You can't buy Ann Hirsch's e-book, Twelve. It was created as an iPad app, but Apple has pulled the app from the iTunes store.

The content that Apple found excessively objectionable or crude is a reconstruction of the video and performance artist's life as 12-year-old, on an AOL chat room called "Twelve" in the late 1990s. The objectionable part may be the language, or it may be the plot, which involves a somewhat cyber-sexual relationship with a man more than twice her age.

"My hope is they just took it off because we had listed it appropriate [for ages] 12 and up," Hirsch says.

Twelve, created with James LaMarre at Klaus_eBooks, is a reconstruction of Hirsch's young past not just in its storyline, but in its form: The app welcomes readers with the AOL sign-in screen, and plays dial-up modem noises as it "logs in." The text happens entirely in a recreation of the "Twelve" chat-room, and in instant messages that pop-up alongside it at appropriate points.

"It's entirely based on my experience," Hirsch says. She didn't have a record of the chats themselves, but she was able to approximately reconstruct them from memory, with occasional assistance in the form of Internet research. "For example: 'OMG. I would say 'Did we say OMG back then?' I was pretty sure we didn't," she recalls. Confirming her suspicion, she was careful to avoid this anachronism. (Other acronyms like "stfu," "wtf," "lol" etc. are and were standard and plentiful.)

The '90s web differed from 2013 in more than just lingo, of course. Internet culture was just being created, and while access points were fewer and getting to them might have required using the family computer in the basement, once you were logged on there was a greater freedom. "People think of the '90s web as the Wild West, and now it's much more highly monitored," says Hirsch. It was also a world completely detached from the rest of her life: a social network made up of strangers and screen names, not Facebook friends. "I basically had a secret life that no one knew about," says Hirsch.

But the basic plot of Twelve is something that could happen today. "I think the Internet is and has always been almost a safe haven for women to be sexual and feel allowed to be sexual in ways they can't offline, because it's dangerous, or they'd be slut-shamed," says Hirsch. "[Young girls today] are doing very similar things--reaching out to strange men in sexual ways; they're just using Tinder instead of AOL," she says.

In the story and presumably in life, Hirsch went from tentative n00b to more of a full-fledged self in the AOL chatroom world. As she grew up she also moved on, from the much-older virtual people she encountered and from the chatroom life in general. "Once I got to high school, I was mostly spending time on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) talking to friends in high school," says Hirsch. "We became, like, real people."

But there's something gripping and nostalgic about going back to the time before that, when the Internet was slow, and, as Hirsch puts it: "Someone can type 'hehe,' and there is so much behind that 'hehe,' but you don't know what it is, and you're just left to interpret."

From subsequent conversations with iTunes staff, Hirsch doesn't believe Twelve will be allowed back in the iTunes store. "We're figuring out how to still give it a life in another, perhaps more exclusive way," Hirsch says.

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