Before this widespread “social media” frenzy that had everybody finally admitting that social interactions online were worth attempting, there was the rest of the internet.
More specifically, there were ways of socializing on the internet, and I, since 1996, have been partaking in these. It was because I was a teenaged reject, naturally, but I made some friendships that involved…well, things I won’t get into, at least for the 90s.
But starting in 2000, it got better. I found a website with a set of forums (fora?) divided into several topics, so you could find a home base that you liked the most, but go anywhere all under the same username and tiny 40X40 pixelated cartoon avatar. This website was aimed at teenagers and young adults, and there were even topics and threads where I could participate in discourse as both smart and a smartass.
That website was iTurf.com, part of the…what was it called? Delia’s? Something like that. It was a network of websites that included…okay, I forget most of that as well. (I’d argue this is more because of the depths of obscurity this era has been cast to by the collective memory than it is deterioration within my own brain.) TheSpark.com, if you remember the various sarcastic and inappropriate quizzes and personality tests they provided, was part of this. There were other ones too that I never became interested in, and apparently neither did anyone else, because Delia’s wasn’t making a profit and had to shut some sites down.
This was in late 2000 – just another casualty of the dot-com bust. But over the months this site existed, thousands of young people had gotten into a variety of deep discussions and developed what used to be called “cyber friends” when cyber was still a word. I, personally, had spent most of my time on the Religion boards, siding with the intelligent and literate members who were able to put together coherent sentences. Whether I agreed with them or not, it was a place where arguing on the internet was sometimes civil. When the site closure was announced, I was quite disappointed.
But there was a notice on the site’s homepage that a refuge community was being made somewhere else on the internet where forums and chat rooms were free. It was created on MSN Communities, which no longer exists, by a Scottish girl named Mhoraig, whom I remembered from a lengthy and heated debate on one forum about whether or not the US is empirically the greatest – nay, the ONLY great – place in the universe. I migrated to this new place, and hundreds of others did, and thus a new community was created.
It was smaller so we got to know each other better. I wanted to become more involved, outside the discussion threads and the chat room. I had experimented with pre-blog article writing (yes, I’ve been into this kind of thing since the 20th century, bitches) on those early free-hosting sites like Tripod, so I had a portfolio of sorts to show Mhoraig on what I would like to contribute to the content side of the community. She approved, and gave me “assistant manager” status so I could make the updates myself. There were other assistant managers who obviously just wanted the power or to impress people, but those were only side benefits that were (ahem) secondary to my love of writing. I became further involved in contributing content and ideas of how the community should be formed or changed. Six months into the existence of this site, Mhoraig sent me a private message stating that she wanted to step down as the community’s manager and she thought I was the best suited replacement. I humbly accepted the offer and upon being “promoted”, rushed to make changes that I thought would improve the site AND make me more popular. (Both things did, in fact, happen.)
I wrote community “news” and created some crudely copied-and-pasted-in-Paint comic strips. I expanded the member base and took far higher ground in flame wars with other communities in the youth category of MSN’s listings. I dealt with conflict and demonstrated that you can be civil while still being cheeky. I made wonderful friendships that last to this day. And I did this all before Facebook and Twitter.
In fact, by the time Facebook started to take off and Twitter came into existence, the site was basically gone. It wasn’t because of the new social media, really. It was because we joined the community, whether from the original iTurf.com or through MSN, when we were “youth” and then we started to grow out of that. We had less time in university than we did in high school to browse through the message boards for hours on end (except, of course, when procrastinating). We had less time with jobs, whether alongside school or full-time after school. Some people made babies, and I hear those take up a few hours a day. There was no way this community could maintain the heights of its heyday. So it slowly died down. Nobody paid attention, and then when spambots began to post porn it got shut down. I didn’t even have access to read the message boards and preserve them somehow. Now the entire MSN service has been shut down.
But I can say, in an obnoxiously hipster way, I was into online social media before it was cool. Now I’m not so cool. I don’t have thousands, or even hundreds of followers on Twitter (yet…) and, largely by my own choice, I have a limited number of friends on Facebook. I don’t post as much on these self-centered social media as much as I did at the peak of those message boards. The interactivity has become lower, to me, as more people have signed up and the design has changed to favour the brief messages of personal updates that provoke not nearly as much deep dialogue or strong personal bonds. Most people still don’t believe you can “make” friends on the internet. They see social media as connecting them with people they already know.
I will always look back on those times fondly. I won’t attempt to recreate them. The world has changed, because of changes on the internet. I have to change with it. I’m too young for my online persona to die.