‘While playing around with WhatsApp I stumbled across a weird chat history between two people I don’t know. It scared the hell out of me. When I tried to find it again, the app crashed and kept crashing. Luckily, I managed to make a copy. Here it is . . . ”
So begins a mysterious online story that has gone viral, sparking a torrent of debate about whether the characters are real or not.
Billed as "the creepiest chat history you'll ever read", Annie96 Is Typing . . . starts out as your average online banter between two teenagers but suddenly gets weird.
“Shit I think I heard footsteps on the gravel outside,” types annie96.
“Get your crazy dad to check it out,” responds mcdavey.
“I’m home alone!”
The reader plays an interactive role, instructed to “tap the screen to see the next message” as the story unfolds . The suspense builds – is this a silly prank or something more sinister? – while bigger, murkier questions about online privacy and the internet lurk in the background. How do we really know who we’re talking to online? And who is watching?
"I've always been creeped-out by seeing friends' social media accounts being hacked," says 25-year-old computer science student Pascal Chatterjee, who started sharing the story with his friends on Facebook. It then went viral, spreading to Tumblr, with debates raging on Reddit about the plot twist and "Who is Annie96" trending globally on Twitter after One Direction fans took notice.
“Most spam messages are easy to spot as obviously written by a bot,” says Chatterjee, “but I’ve always wondered what it would be like if a really smart, heartless ‘thing’ hijacked a friend’s account and tried to lure you into a trap far worse than your computer getting a virus.”
But why exactly did Annie96 Is Typing become so popular? It's the structure, reckons Chatterjee. "We all know what it's like to send an important message to someone, and then wait impatiently for their reply," says Chatterjee, who says that instant messaging has a kind of in-built suspense. Like the handheld camera used in The Blair Witch Project, the chat history format of Annie96 Is Typing toys with the idea of authenticity. Did this really happen? Is annie96 a real person?
There’s also a kind of eerie thrill to reading it, partly because it feels so realistic and partly because it plays to some very real fears about the way we communicate online.
“Try reading it on an android phone,” one Reddit user urges, “and shit brix!”
It uses text speak, appealing directly to the more than five million users of instant messaging app WhatsApp (which is being acquired by Facebook for $19 billion) and beyond. It also introduces tricks unique to interactive media – such as the “mcdavey is typing . . . ” delay message that often pops up throughout the story or the occasional technical “glitches” that occur at pivotal moments.
And because it is interactive, the reader is placed in an awkward position. It feels a little like we’re eavesdropping, listening in to something private, but can’t tear ourselves away.
Like the movie and TV series Catfish, it raises some interesting questions about the way we present ourselves online, and how new technology informs the way we tell stories about ourselves or the things that happen around us.
As issues surrounding online privacy and surveillance return increasingly to the headlines – the right-to-be-forgotten case, Edward Snowden's spying claims, not to mention WhatsApp's own issues with security loopholes – Annie96 Is Typing touches a nerve about our vulnerability in the internet age while playing with boundaries of storytelling.
Is it groundbreaking? Awesome? Or nothing new? Everyone seems to have an opinion. Read it for yourself.