There’s a disconcerting style of speech that’s bubbled up from the depths of web culture and entered the dating world: the creepy asterisk. You’re texting with someone, and before you know it, your conversation suddenly turns into a roleplay session.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
To be fair, this sort of thing wasn’t always creepy. In the early days of the web, denoting action with asterisks was necessary without other formatting options. Early online chats like IRC and ICQ, along with text-based roleplaying games, eventually vaulted phrases like like *tips fedora* and *glass breaks* into the early meme-osphere. It developed erotic uses in furry communities in the late 1990s and was commonly used in games called MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations) and MUCKs (Multi-User Chat Kingdoms). Asterisks-as-stage-directions became a popular joke format on Twitter.
Then, with the rise of online dating, people started using them in sexually charged direct messages outside the realm of a roleplay chatroom.
Creepy asterisks are now so universally despised that a subreddit exists with 220,000 subscribers who document the cringiest examples. It’s both PSA and support group.
So if asterisk roleplay is so skin-crawlingly gross, why do so many people still use them? What’s it like to be on the receiving end of a message like *grooms your hair* or *stretches while showing massive furcock*? And finally, what can they tell us about our constantly evolving language?
For answers, we talked to Alice (aka u/minibug on Reddit), the moderator of r/CreepyAsterisks; Sheri Wells-Jensen, a professional linguist; and numerous others with vast creepy-asterisk experience.
*cracks knuckles, rolls up sleeves*
The Strange Evolution of Creepy Asterisks
According to Alice, creepy asterisks “have been a phenomenon since instant messaging has existed across the internet. I’d imagine it started in something like IRC.”
Aja Romano, a fandom historian who reports on internet culture for Vox, agrees that creepy asterisks bubbled up in the swamp of early chat rooms. “I’m certain that this came about because of the way early chat rooms — ICQ chat, that kind of thing — required you to format stuff.” In other words, putting words between asterisks to denote action or a command “was a formatting requirement by one of those servers back in the day.” When she was first new to the internet, Romano says, “it wasn’t even a roleplaying thing — it was just a convenient way to indicate action, like *stubs toe* or *screams*.”
“From what I know, it began as a roleplay thing until people brought it into everyday conversation,” says Olivia, a woman from Virginia who’s been victim of “a handful” of creepy asterisk messages. She notes that people use it to say things that are otherwise hard to describe in conversation. For example, here are the delicate messages she received from a man she’s “talked to ONE time”:
Why Do People Use It Today?
“It’s an attempt to drag real life kicking and screaming into text communication,” says Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University. “There are some things that *__* buys you: First, it allows you to adopt movie culture and avoid the tiresome task of using your words to evoke the emotion you are after. It’s a lot of work to write, ‘I feel overwhelmed, and I’m not socially adept so I hope you’ll think kindly of my conversational attempt here,’ but if you could just say *blushes; shuffles feet*, that has an even chance of getting your point across with much less effort.”
Wells-Jensen further explains that online you can “loophole” your way into expressing things you’d never say face-to-face. (For example: *Sits down next to you and licks your face*.) This allows the sense of physical immediacy that makes creepy asterisks… creepy. “If you can weave your bodily experience into your texting, you might feel more present and more in charge,” she says. “Like a short circuit around what everyone else there is doing. You’re the stage manager: describing what’s happening. Without lots of work.”
Creepy asterisks almost always leave out pronouns and only describe action, which provides a safe disconnect from the creepy messenger. It’s not him unzipping his pants and sitting next to you, it’s his character. “Describing is different than saying and describing is safer,” says Wells-Jensen. “If I type ‘*unzips fly: waves cock*,’ and later people say, ‘Jeez, you’re such a pig! How could you say that?’ I could say, ‘Well, I didn’t say it, I just described it.’ I hide behind the fact that *__* and ‘__’ are different.”
Of course, according to Alice, the r/CreepyAsterisks moderator, there’s an additional layer that makes them especially gross: They’re often unsolicited. “Regular asterisks can be perfectly fine in consensual roleplay,” she says, but the “unsolicited roleplay” — using asterisks to indicate real-life actions — is creepy when unwanted. And especially creepy when they’re sexual and unwanted.
Is It Only Horny Dudes Who Use the Creepy Asterisk?
“There’s definitely a specific type of person who texts with asterisks,” says Olivia. “I think it appeals to their ‘I’m cute and different from everyone’ aesthetic. It’s usually younger people who use asterisks that I’ve noticed.”
“It’s a certain group of people, and they make everyone equally as uncomfortable,” adds Celine, 20, who received this delightful exchange:
“Younger men trying their hand at roleplay — they’re usually fans of anime and that type of thing,” Celine continues. “They want to shoot their shot but don’t know how to do it. I’ve noticed that a lot of them claim that they’re on the autism spectrum (as the man who messaged me claimed).”
Alice says a lack of social tact definitely has something to do with it. “I’d say it’s mostly men doing it,” she says. “I couldn’t say why, but I don’t think it’s out of malice. Perhaps just ignorance of social cues? These people probably think they’re doing something that the victim likes or appreciates.”
It’s another online-only loophole. Unlike in real life, on the internet people can just start talking to you without your invitation. This is why the asterisks thrive, next to their not-too-distant cousin, “pleading into the void” — the phenomenon of sending someone message after message even though they’re not responding.
Psychotherapist Elise Franklin says it stems from social anxiety “mixed with some pretty deep sexism. Meaning that if someone is socially anxious and has sexist views fed into their mental schema, women become even less important as a mirror to take cues from … people want to connect, love and be seen. This is a very misguided attempt at getting a need met.”
As Alice puts it: “There’s a lot of creepy people out there who are so focused on themselves, they don’t give a thought to what the person they’re messaging thinks.”
What Should People Do When They Receive Them?
The consensus is to just hit block.
Despite seeing thousands of posts a month to her subreddit, Alice manages to holds a small level of compassion. “If it’s not intended to be creepy, just let them know how they’re coming off,” she says. “But if they come out being blatantly sexual, it’s probably best to just block them.”
As for Olivia, the message above “came from a guy in my school trying to take me out. He’s an all-around creep in real life who continually called me his ‘cripple princess’ (I have a disability) after [I asked] him to stop multiple times.” Olivia also has a boyfriend. “To this day I still have no idea how he got my number. But any time I get a creepy message, I just block them. I don’t have the patience to mess with them anymore, and my responses above weren’t witty or that great because I was genuinely confused. I haven’t seen the guy who messaged me since the school year ended, and he hasn’t messaged me.”
Celine agrees: “People should brush it off, snap back with a witty response, and move on with their day. That’s what I tried to do. [In the message above] I was at a university when I was 16, I was going to classes alone and I danced ballet professionally. I was raised to be overly kind and so the man who messaged me saw me as an easy target and thought that I could fall in love with him as he was in love with me. And yeah, I have years of regular unanswered messages from him.”
Can the Creepy Asterisk Be Redeemed?
The stalker-y behavior? No. But the style itself isn’t going anywhere — and maybe it has a friendly place in digital culture after all. “We can’t really stop it!” Romano says. “We don’t have another internet alternative formatting preference.”
Except [brackets], which could be slightly less creepy? “Brackets are shit,” Romano says. “Asterisks are easier to locate on the keyboard and also more common in internet parlance because they also get used to bold stuff. Brackets are out of the way and inconvenient.”
Besides, asterisks can be used for good — and lots of people love them. Romano’s fandom-focused Slack channel uses them constantly, she says, and not in a creepy way — “just a *faints* *dies* *blushes* kinda thing. They’re still in very common use as a way of adding emotion to text.”
The internet, in all its fumbling glory, presents itself with another double-edged sword.