I recently read a fascinating Longreads article by Julianne Aguilar about girls on the Internet in the early 2000s and found myself relating to it way more than I expected. Not just because I was a 12-year-old girl who had a DIY Geocities site, but because it made me remember how it felt to be part of that era, among a bunch of other kids who were just old enough to navigate the world wide web, trying to carve out their own space in uncharted digital territory.
We were the first generation to grow up using the Internet as a platform to express ourselves, which was honestly pretty awesome. I had a blast making websites that consisted mostly of photos and gifs from my favorite TV shows, occasionally supplemented with hyperactive ramblings about my best friends (the Cool Cat Club) and unabashed proclamations of my life goals. And as Aguilar points out, we were also the first generation to confront harassment that could be totally anonymous and untraceable (to us, at least). It was a world that was totally separate from real life, but the interactions we had with strangers—good and bad—still affected us in real ways. Definitely not something I ever considered at the time, but interesting to think about now.
In the article, Aguilar describes exactly the kind of website I had (and that every other preteen girl online seemed to have): “an About Me page, a page of lyrics…a page of jokes, graphics she’d made, dolls collected from around the ’90s Internet of Girls. A guestbook.” Oh man, I totally remember those digital dolls (I mean, “dollz”…edit: here’s a great throwback) and the little virtual bumper stickers you could collect and put on your homepage. It was totally normal to go around and find guestbooks to sign, complimenting the owner’s website and asking them to check out your own. I still remember a very specific guestbook entry someone left on my site that said something to the effect of, “Fun website, but maybe don’t auto-play the MIDI of ‘Come on Over’ on every page??” Good call, stranger.
Aside from one or two real-life friends who I shared my site(s) with, most of the people I interacted with online were people I’d never met. And later on, when I started getting obsessed with certain bands, there were people from across the world who became like idols to me. There was Beth, who had the same tastes in music and an offbeat sense of humor that I tried unsuccessfully to emulate (sadly, I can’t remember the name of her site). Then there was Sabrina, who ran God Bless the Beatles (which still exists!) and frequently published new pages like “The Many Adventures of Paul Without A Shirt” and “The Heather Advice Skanktuary” (because we all hated Heather Mills). There were also girls my age who were really good at making Livejournal avatars in Photoshop, and devoted fanfic writers whose novellas I literally printed out from FanFiction.net and read in bed at night (it’s just now occurring to me how weird that is….but I didn’t have a laptop and I just really wanted to read my Beatlestories).
The article describes how young girls like these—who may have been totally average people in reality but found a certain celebrity status online—were inevitably harassed and bullied as a result of their popularity, even back then “when the Internet was small.” Aguilar talks about trying to track down one of her own personal idols from the early 2000s, a girl named Sara who may or may not have died in June 2017. It made me think about all those young writers and creatives I followed and looked up to, and where they might be today (I doubt I’ll ever know).
The tone of the article is pretty somber, but while reading, I couldn’t help but think about the flip side: what a cool world we created 20 years ago, where we all had our own personal corners of the Internet, and where fans of a particular band or TV show could meet other fans from across the world and be geeky together without feeling embarrassed about it. There are friends I met on Livejournal that I still keep in touch with today, yet have never met in person (all because we shared a favorite band). So I guess my response to the article is a more optimistic one…even though I encountered my fair share of nasty comments as a kid on the Internet circa 2000, I was lucky enough to find a niche that made me feel at home, and plenty of people who inspired me to keep writing about all the random silly things I liked, because they did it too.
I guess the same applies today, but on a much larger scale. My 12-year-old self would be delighted to know how many online mediums there are for feeding one’s fangirly emotions. YouTube is an endless rabbit hole of homemade tribute videos, Twitter is the perfect platform for unfiltered season finale reactions, and there’s a subreddit for every fandom imaginable. And don’t even get me started on Tumblr.
(Ok, actually, a quick love letter to Tumblr:
When it comes to fansites, Tumblr is the closest equivalent I see to the websites of the early 2000s I used to frequent. In addition to being a mecca for amazing fan art, it’s produced a whole network of incredibly comprehensive fansites, most of which are created by teenagers and 20-somethings known only by their usernames. What’s also amazing is how *organized* these online fandoms can be. Like, it’s super normal for the content on a Star Trek site to be categorized by series, movie, character pairing, starship, etc. Or for there to be a tag for Mulder’s glasses on an X-Files blog, because of course I’m not the only one who giggles stupidly when Mulder wears glasses. In short, I love the dedication of these young fans/artists, and I also love that I’ve gotten to see some of them launch careers in illustration or graphic design after getting their start on Tumblr.)
These wonderful communities of strangers—who form friendships and support each other and constantly create new things to share with the world—are enough, in my opinion, to balance out the ugly. There will always be awful people saying awful things on the Internet, but as long as there’s also good stuff like this, it’ll be worth preserving, and protecting.
PS: I tried in vain to find my middle school-era websites but 1) I can’t even remember what they were called, and 2) even if I did, I’m sure they weren’t important enough for Wayback Machine to archive. But I did find a snapshot of my high school pet project, the VHS pit site, so I’ll leave you with that: