It was 2006. He had put me in his “Top 8”, and my eyes bulged at the computer screen with excitement. Being specifically selected to feature in one’s Top 8 was of course, a pretty big deal. To anyone unfamiliar with Myspace, this was a rotating conveyor belt functionality displaying your favourite friendships at the top of your profile. Also known as: a manipulative way of picking and choosing your current favourite friends within your social circle. It was also a powerful way to catalyse either the promotion or death of a friendship. If you wanted to make a subtle yet rather brutal statement that one of your friends had been a bit shit lately, you would swiftly swap them out of your Top 8, and replace their birds-eye-puppy-dog-eyes-camera profile picture with someone else’s. The more unexpected the swap, the more painful the experience for your soon-to-be-ex-friend, and the louder you could hear their heart breaking in half like a kid snapping the head of their Barbie. Once I replaced a friend with MySpace Tom (the used-to-pretty-famous founder of MySpace who is now retired and probably living somewhere exotic) to prove to my friend that she had aggravated me. Because Tom was the default friend you got handed with when you first signed up to MySpace putting him in your Top 8 was the ultimate dig. I mean, it was juvenile, but effective.
This was the first time I’d been interested in a guy through what seemed like his social media “influence” even though social media influence was definitely not even a phrase or thing at the time. I guess looking back he was a bit of an “Internet celeb” in our little Devon town. Zac had 17,001 friends on his MySpace profile; not bad for a boy who went to a boarding school in the neighbouring rural town. Especially because it was 2007 and everyone was just messing around with social networks. I had 15 friends on there; a tiny fraction of my classmates whose parents let him hop on the family computer from time to time. In reality I only spoke to about 5 people and we used the platform to write long essay messages to each other with a LOT of exclamation marks.
He knew everyone. Girls would post to his “Myspace Wall” constantly. Every day there would be a new girl sending flirting messages, or leaving comments with double entendres, begging him to meet up with them, or just posting their mobile numbers all over his page. Some would even post pictures of their toned tanned bikini bodies with the caption “wish you were here xoxo”. Zac would change his profile pictures weekly and each time wouldn’t just look straight-up good-looking, but popular, too. Every photo was him standing in front of loads of his mates, or sitting on a beach with a group of people, or an action shot of head-thrown-back laughter, or manning the barbecue on a big family holiday, or at a wedding hugging the groom. This guy was a social animal and his MySpace page reflected how big his social life was. I think this was the first time I was attracted to someone just because his life looked really fun on the screen, and I wanted to be part of it. He had way more friends than me, and was the life and soul of any sort of social situation. I just found his popularity very attractive. His online presence was huge, and his life looked fun and it looked like to be included in all his fun experiences would be the ultimate win. I wanted to be behind the camera with him.
I’d see Zac every Thursday night in the Imperial Pub in Exeter and sheepishly saying ‘hello’ and then run away and check my make-up in the bathroom mirror. This was a place where you would run to the toilet to check if you had lipstick on your teeth because everyone and his dog would be there to judge your outfit and tell you immediately if they could see a glimpse of your chicken fillet bra, or a Size 12 SALE ITEM label coming out from your body con skirt. This was before Lena Dunham had made chipped finger nails cool, and before Kim Kardashian had admitted she wears two sets of Spanx. We were all on edge because the boys from the boy’s school noticed everything and for some reason, we cared more what they thought of us than anything else. Once a guy I’ve never spoken to before had asked me why my socks didn’t match and why I was wearing a white bra with a black top. I felt like saying: OMG! Are you Gok Wan?
I was scared of two things at that age: boys (especially talking on the phone to them and don’t even TALK to me about leaving voicemails); and transitioning from sanitary towels to tampons, because I hate the squeaky “halloumi” noise it makes when I would pull the string out. (And actually my third fear was exactly living one in there and having two tampons in at the same time – THE WORST!) My mum and auntie locked me in the bathroom on a family trip to Cornwall and said I wasn’t to come out until I’d tried to put the tampon in. I’m glad they made me do it, because no one wants to waddle around with a sanitary towel which makes you walk like a famous rapper wearing a nappy.
I’d check Zac’s MySpace profile most days and my friends became slightly weirded out with my obsession. I never had that “fangirl” teen moment over anyone specifically when I was younger (maybe Noel from Hear’Say, that’s embarrassing). Across generations, it’s been the Beatles, then Boyzone slash Backstreet Boys, now it’s One Direction with crazed #Directioners in charge of the world’s daily trending hashtags. The only proper fangirl moment I had was with the Spice Girls and for one month in 2001 I was considerably into Zack Morris from Saved By The Bell. But my proper obsessional moments I had were with real people on social media, who I could track closely on the Internet. No one else seemed to understand my pain at the time, building up an idea of who someone is via their social channels and well-positioned photos. Now, it’s a thing. “YouTuber” and “celebrity” are now a synonymous unmovable beast. I enjoyed following Zac’s life on MySpace because I feel closer to him, more in control of my feelings (so I thought) and I guess it was sort of addictive just seeing what he was up to all the time. There’s one thing than teenage girls have the rawest talent for, and that is: to vividly daydream on demand. Now teenage girls swoon over All American YouTube stars with white teeth and their Moms who are their best friends.
I went into my common room the next day looking sweaty under the armpits. I also felt sick from glaring down at my phone during the entire bumpy car journey.
“Holly!!!! Urgent urgent urgent.” I yanked my friend’s arm into the matchbox-sized communal kitchen where the cool girls would make their hot lemon detox drinks.
My friend Holly looked terrified and leant her neck forward. “Calm down! Wtf is wrong?”
I was as white as a sheet. “I just saw an article about how there’s an online tool to allow you to find out who’s been looking at your MySpace profile. And how many times someone has looked at your profile.”
Holly looked confused. “So….. what are you worried about?”
“I’ve been looking at Zac’s profile about thirteen times a day.” Saying those words out loud made me freak out even more. Maybe I was a psychopath.
Holly clasped her hand over her mouth, in a mocking way. Then smirked.
“HOL. THIS IS SERIOUS. THIS IS BAD.”
“How do you know he’ll look at that? You’re being paranoid.”
“No. I know he knows about it. He posted the link to it on his best friend Fred’s wall. That’s how I found it. So he’s definitely been on it. So he’ll have seen that I’m probably his top stalker! Oh god I’m so embarrassed. He’ll know that I’m a loser who sits in my bedroom and stares at his MySpace every day.”
Holly knew how to handle my anxious stomach, and that was, with carbohydrates. She handed me a packet of crisps.
Rewind to the first time I actually met Zac. Before we were a thing, before I was in his Top 8. I was sat with friends on one of the long outdoor benches nestling next to a large jug of a blue radioactive cocktail that was probably 89% responsible for my slightly unhealthy BMI and love handles.
Zac was there, surrounding by girls laughing at his jokes, touching his leg, buying him more beers. As he got up (and high-fived someone as he did) he clocked me as he walked in. His brow was furrowed, and it was obviously that he recognised me from somewhere. He looked back twice and squinted slightly and then smiled.
As he came back outside, wiping his hands on his jeans like most boys doing after exiting the toilet. He sidled into the seat next to me. Quite close.
“Do I know you? You look….familiar.”
My internal monologue, or if I was to morph into E.L.James for a moment “my inner goddness” was screaming “you recognise me because you’ve seen I look at your MySpace profile 7 times a day!!” Obviously I wasn’t going to out myself there and then and kill the moment.
He saved us both from an awkward pause. “Oh! I know. You’re Charlotte’s friend.”
I nodded. Even though I didn’t know if that was accurate. Or which Charlotte he was referring to. Charlotte was a popular name in Exeter.
“Anyway, catch you later.” He looked me up and down.
He wandered off. And did a weird secret handshake with row of boys wearing backward caps.
When I got home, I had a new friend request and as I clicked open the request, Zac’s piercing blue eyes were staring back at me. Then came the excruciating pain of waiting for some sort of social interaction. The amount of drafted and deleted messages was ridiculous, when out of nowhere I received one:
It’s Zac. We met at the Imperial the other night. Do you want to get a coffee on Saturday?”
The thing about Zac was that since we were unofficially dating, everyone was way nicer to me. People who I’d never met before, or who used to bully me would gallop up to me as I wondered along Exeter High St when out shopping with my sister. “Are you……..going out with Zac now?” I was a Myspace WAG.
*1 month later*
But sadly, Zac turned out to be a C-word.
Moral of the story: who gives a shit how many followers someone has?