“Do you have Kik?” read the OkCupid message from Odin’s Thirst Trap, a 20-year-old blond living in Stockholm. “It’s what all the kids here use.”
I was traveling to Sweden to write and to get laid, not necessarily in that order. I prepped for my trip by checking the average April temperature, booking an AirBnB in Hornstull (“the Brooklyn of Stockholm”), changing my OkCupid location from New York City to Stockholm, and joining international Tinder. I downloaded an app for the T-Bana, the Stockholm Metro, because it was free.
Before hearing about it from Odin’s Thirst Trap, a creamy éclair of a Swede with milk-fed skin and the kind of wide-eyed blondness that would make for the third-favorite member of a boy band, I’d no knowledge of Kik. I downloaded the Kik app and created a profile because I wanted to communicate with Odin’s Thirst Trap — and, as it turned out, every Swedish guy I met through OkTinder. They all used Kik.
No, I’d written back to Odin’s Thirst Trap, I’ll get it.
If you’re an over-18 American, chances are you’ve never heard of Kik. A messaging app with about 275 million worldwide users, Kik offers a baseline level of secrecy, a terrible reputation with law enforcement, and a huge popularity with teens. Launched in 2009 by Canadian tech company Interactive, Kik is unusual for its anonymity. You don’t have to provide a telephone number to create an account, and the app automatically deletes messages after a short, undisclosed amount of time. Kik’s ideal if you’re having an affair, or if you’re looking for one; it identifies people only by their profiles and it allows you to message anyone with a public profile. It is precisely the kind of technology that gives parents the howling fantods — or would, if they knew about it.
Not for nothing, Kik flies under the parental radar. Unlike Snapchat, another app for sharing evanescent moments, most adults have never heard of Kik; unlike iMessage, Kik doesn’t allow parents to monitor their kids’ messages from their own iPhones or iPads. Moreover, Kik eludes parental monitoring software, so the only way that parents can check their kid’s Kik account is to sign into it on their kid’s device. Kik “requires” you to be over 13 to use it, but since you don’t provide a telephone number or address when you create a profile, that requirement is more of a guideline. In a digital world where we leave fingerprints on every grubby thing we touch, Kik is one of those rare spaces where we don’t.
In a world where we leave fingerprints on everything we touch, Kik is one of those rare, unseen spaces can we fancy ourselves the most adult
Depending on whom you ask, Kik is either the best thing since AOL Messenger and MySpace or the worst thing since the invention of the hooptie van. In a 10-day span in early 2016, the New York Times counted four criminal investigations linked to Kik: three involved attempted rape, statutory rape, or sending sexually explicit messages to 13- or 14-year-old girls, and one involved sending child pornography. Just this past month, Kik sat at the center of child pornography arrests in Alaska, the arrest of a teacher for sexual assault of a minor, a Florida mom caught for having sex with a 14-year-old girl, and the arrest of a man charged with kidnapping and rape of a 17-year-old girl.
Kik has been called “a growing concern for police,” “the worst, most dangerous app for kids,” and “a prime vehicle for sexual predators.” By reputation, it’s the new AOL chat room: the place for adults with questionable motivations to be other than they seem in order to get something they shouldn’t want.
It came to me late in life, but instant messaging has always crackled on my skin with the erotic frisson of the illicit. I slipped my first slick AOL disk into my iMac at the age of 31; stumbling into chat rooms felt luscious and naughty. I loved the night-swimming nakedness of talking to strangers in the digital dark. I was Red wearing a hood and cloak to walk into the woods, doing something that someone else’s mom would have warned her about. Later, I’d discover online dating, where messaging with anonymous men put words and sex — my two favorite things — together in one seamless electric unit.
Thus, Kik was easy to love. Soaring on the Norwegian Air jet on my way to Stockholm, I felt a little bit like Kik’s predatory adults in my lusting after verboten nubile flesh, despite the fact that Odin’s Thirst Trap was entirely street legal and despite the fact that he had contacted me first on OkCupid. He and I were chatting on Kik, but I was also chatting with four or six other Swedish guys. Men are so fickle, you see. You need to stack them one upon the other like cord wood to ensure you’ll have enough to heat the night.
Before 21st-century parents got fussed over their kids getting electronic mail from sketchy men, 18th-century parents got in a lather over their daughters getting letters from “crimping fellows,” period slang for fuckboys. This anxiety ranges far and wide across 18th-century writing, but it finds its apex in Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels Pamela, the story of a serving girl seduced by her employer, and Clarissa, the story of a bourgeois young lady who is seduced — and then raped — by an aristocratic heir. Suffice to say that neither of these women is looking for their unsuitable suitors to slide into their DMs, and while Pamela ends happily, neither book makes getting letters from men look joyous.
In the eroticized freedom of their young female protagonists, Richardson’s novels warned parents about the dangers of men wielding pens, but just as a parental warning is catnip to the rebellious young, the novels also gave young female readers the delectable taste of autonomy.
It came to me late in life, but stumbling into chat rooms felt luscious and naughty. I loved the night-swimming nakedness of talking to strangers in the digital dark
Reading fucks with your head. You hear the voice of the writer, rewritten as you’ve rewritten it. Like a projection on a silver screen, you remake meaning, words flicker and fade, reborn in your own image. You thrill to the language, respond with rapid heartbeats and quickened breaths and damp panties. Letters saved until night were, in Richardson’s time, one of the very few private spaces afforded to women, especially young women; these days, messaging that can’t be surveilled operates the same way, for only in unseen spaces can we fancy ourselves the most adult.
“My sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl,” wrote James Joyce to Norah Barnacle, “my mistress, as much as you like (my little frigging mistress! my little fucking whore!).” Sprinkle the line with dancing ladies in red and it could be a text message. Thrust into a longer history of writing, Kik sits as a source of seduction as valid as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters from the Portuguese, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus, or Virginia Woolf’s letters to Vita Sackville-West, or Vita’s to Virginia. It’s not to say that an anonymous messaging app isn’t problematic, but it is to say that reading another’s desirous writing holds power, even when it’s sprinkled with emoji.
Like Craigslist Casual Encounters, Kik extends the erotic promise of anonymity; my Kik photo shows only the lower half of my face, my mouth open as if I’d devour the world. Yet I chose my legal name for my Kik screen name — and my legal name is not my public self, my writing name. Anonymity, to me, is trash; pseudonymity is treasure. I’ve had pseudonyms since college. Back then, I acted under a stage name, and I wrote under a pen name. More than mere pretense, the adoption of other names afforded me the chance to craft my own character. My 20-year-old parents made an identity for me in choosing my legal name (a first and a middle name that shifted vowels and a truncated the names of my two grandmothers), but I could change it. A pocket god, I could remake myself in my own idealized image.
One layer atop another, another glued atop that, more shellacked over those, and with time an anonymous name becomes a pseudonymous person
The difference between an anonymous person and a pseudonymous name is that the former exists apart from time and space, while the latter shows the decoupage of time and history. One layer atop another, another glued atop that, more shellacked over those, and with time an anonymous name becomes a pseudonymous person. This transition from anonymity to pseudonym takes the labored cohesion of identity through mindful curation of self. This transition from no one to someone requires time and a visible, even performative, presence.
I know this is how anonymity becomes a self-fashioned identity because I lived it. I started writing anonymously in 2004 under the name chelsea girl; in 2007 I got published and had to refab that embarrassing handle into a legit name, and Chelsea G. Summers was born. These days, I’m more careful about my pen name than I am about my legal name. I do my job under my legal name, but my pen name is my work. And work, more than blood, is life.
Kik’s pings sounded late into the night while I was in Stockholm. I made some plans, I broke others. I flirted and was flirted with. I texted the code to the electronic door of my AirBnB to a handful of guys. In short, I lavished in the potentially dangerous behavior that Kik makes possible. Though I’m a fully-fledged adult, I still feel the anxiety that wafts around young girls in reach of rapacious adults; it wafts like noxious clouds around us still. Women grow up, often in a hurry, but our sex lives are never free from nannying concern. Using Kik in Sweden made me oddly aware of being both the grownup and the child, both seducer and potential victim, both private adult self and public female symbol. (If I’d been raped and killed in Stockholm, how would the press have identified the victim? By my nothing legal name or my ooh-la-la public pseudonym? The latter makes a better story.)
It’s a tricky thing to glide between multiple names. My passport attests to my legal name — the one I use on Facebook, thus Tinder, thus Kik — but my essential self lives in Chelsea, the sex writer. My challenging legal name (it’s one that television writers give to unlikeable female characters) protects me in part because my legal name is no one. Chelsea G. Summers has 6,000 Twitter followers and gets hate mail from MRAs. Chelsea G. Summers has naked photos on the internet. Chelsea G. Summers has famous friends and misspells “Colette” on portraits painted of her. Renown follows Chelsea G. Summers, but my legal name is a cypher, and thus — strangely — erotic. Fuck me and call out my passport name, but you don’t know the real me.
Kik alleviated the worry that I, the real I, could be traced in hard black, indelible lines in the real world. And while I’m old enough to remember when not only did we all have landlines but also most of us had full phone books listings — including home address — I’m not nostalgic for a pre-digital world. I like the cloak of invisible ones and zeroes hiding my fingerprints in the digital dark.
My Kik profile is still live. Every so often, I get a strange text from a presumable human whose avi is usually ripped from manga. I don’t respond. I don’t care about these men. In Stockholm, I found a Swede to call my own — not Odin’s Thirst Trap, but someone I won’t even nickname for you — and text by text, drip by drip of erasable data, we fumble towards real feelings. He knows my birth name, and he knows my created, writing self, because she and I are symbiotic swimmers, remora and shark.