Teens Before Tumblr: Blogging Online in 1999
For the majority of 1999 I was thirteen and a loner with only excessive screen media to guide me. I was slowly transitioning out of my Spice Girls and Mariah Carey induced phase and didn’t have much to come down on. I wasn’t into the Backstreet Boys, I didn’t care about ‘N Sync and I had a hard time not rolling my eyes at the new girl Britney Spears. During this year it was impossible to avoid these three major brands, these enigmas of merchandise and definitively categorized personality archetypes and sugary sweet smiles, especially if you were in middle school. They had deals with Burger King and the devil and they were absolutely everywhere. Standing at 5’9” by 7th grade, my peers were half a foot smaller than me and most had yet to tip three digits on the scale, while I was an overgrown child with an early onset of puberty that just couldn’t feign the interest in these new crazes. I watched as girls had Lance Bass folders and discussed their loyalties to him over Justin, who was the most common choice to follow, while one girl would always vehemently defend Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone. If the rumors were true about Britney dating Justin, then that made her a total slut, but then everyone would still all suddenly know the entire dance routine to Oops I Did It Again if it happened to come on. This includes the part where everyone lays on the floor and swivels their arms seductively just like Britney does on a set designed to look like a spider’s web in the video. Is your gag reflex still intact? These are just glimpses of my media-saturated youth where I always wondered when my life would start to become like the characters of Now and Then.
The internet was just starting to appear in people’s homes and we had yet to really figure out what to do with it. Here’s what we knew so far: chatrooms were bad and filled with pedophiles trying to come to your house and kill you, and pop culture was safe to look at because we have watched it strategically presented on television screens our whole lives. In computer class where we were fortunate enough to get exposed to this advanced technology called Internet early on, any free time was used to look up our favorite pop idols. The public blogging system had yet to be implemented and mostly just fan pages existed. Pages and pages of shrines in the most basic formats were widely available despite the lack of variety offered. In those days, the common computer was capable of very little and internet connection meant dialing through the house’s only phone line to sit for hours trying to download content. Something as simple as loading a page could take up to a half hour, especially if it contained multiple pictures, sometimes even with the artist’s midi files playing in the background. If you were in grade school and your mother had no concept of these crazy things called computers, explaining why you had to be glued to its connection without breaking for a phone call to Grandma could be difficult. Still, a great deal of time spent on the internet was devoted to worship media sensations in the best way we knew how – staring at them for hours on screens.
Having a computer before having the internet meant learning how to actually use it. The majority of entertainment lied within programs like MS Paint where I would recreate the Clueless opening credit graphics, or the sound recorder where I would listen to my voice played back and cringe repeatedly. The most amazing program? Windows 95 Microsoft Word. It was here that I most frequently dwelled, sitting in my bedroom and smoking cigarettes like a thirteen-year-old girl version of Woody Allen, pounding out fictional stories to distract me from reality. I didn’t do homework unless I felt the assignment was good enough to bother with, and I was barely passing because of this, but I spent countless hours every night developing characters and thickening plots of my own world. When I did choose to turn in an assignment, I was usually accused of plagiarism as the teachers refused to believe there was a potential brain floating somewhere in my head. I was a social mutant and an academic sloth, but I had a laptop full of evidence to prove I was more, just in case I ever did get around to killing myself.
I was certain I would never survive middle school and am still surprised I ever did. I was constantly thinking about death, which paralleled to my relentless surroundings of cookie cutter media culture. Everyone around me was obsessed with all things mainstream in a way that defined their entire identities and personalities. Girls showed up to birthday parties in identical Abercrombie & Fitch shirts and boys listened to Korn and Limp Bizkit because it was the only thing around that didn’t involve choreographed dancing. I was suffocating in this world and felt less hope with each passing day that there was any room for me to peacefully exist. Unmedicated and morbidly depressed by my surroundings, I survived through what only the computer screen could provide.
What I ended up finding was a curious world of meticulously placed graphics and hand written HTML by young girls who felt a similar estrangement from their surroundings. There was a small but exciting community of girls from around the world writing out their thoughts on a platform only reachable to those who were disciplined enough to learn how to use it. This involved committing hours to sitting in your bedroom or the family computer and learning source code while your parents wonder what exactly it is you do on there for so long. Instead of watching Dawson’s Creek with your bestie on the phone, you are just squinting at pages upon pages of other site codes, trying to modify it to your own while your mother points out you never turned a lamp on and are just sitting like a psychopath in the dark. Inside the screen, in this thing we called Internet, was a teen domain scene happening. We knew each other through webring links and sister sites, daisychains of different girls supporting each other through their own pages of recommended online navigation. We embedded guestbooks, learned how to create message boards, and wrote blog entries on duplicate layers of Windows Notepad produced site design. There was no post and submit button, there was extremely basic FTP and frustrating amounts of uploading new edits. It was digital girl cocaine.
Domain names were rare because at the time it cost around id="mce_marker"00 to buy and if you found a really good deal, a $60 a month hosting service for 5mb of web space. This means not only did you have to be dedicated enough to learn how to put your scrapbookish profile or fan site online, you had to either a. have parents rich enough to afford that kind of luxury, b. have an after school job to invest in your online activity, or c. get hosted by someone else who qualified under a or b. The girlier sites were ones like glitterz.net and snuggles.net but the edgy kids had one word adjectives as theirs. Unruly.nu, Narcissistic.org, Flawless.nu, Impressionable.org, Illusioned.net – these are just some examples. The .com had a stigma and was for people who weren’t really ON the internet. The trendiest ones were .nets but if you were exceptionally hip you had a .nu – but mine? Brazen.org.
I remember when I had to have the uncomfortable talk with my mother at 13 why I wanted to put some birthday money on her credit card so I could buy online web space. Her immediate reaction was, “Brazen? Why just Brazen? That’s like buying tall.com.” This coming from a woman who wasn’t even sure what a .com meant at the time was exceptionally hysterical and an excellent point. It was hard then to explain the rituals of online trends and I didn’t know how to defend my adjective-only stance other than to roll my eyes and grunt a loud God, mommmm. Eventually I got the domain, the monthly hosting, and an after school job.
Hosting other girls’ sites was fun because it allowed you to scout out unsuspecting people you lurked and offer them a chance to get off of ugly banner-ridden sites like Angelfire. It was a chance to escape the dreaded long URL with several subdomains before your own username appeared. There were free company-owned web hosts like Chickpages.com or Tripod.com that offered shorter length www real estate, but if you were spending tireless efforts to post under someone like the Lycos owned Geocities, you were screwed. They had what they liked to call Neighborhoods, which were subcategories and genres that really translated to several backslashes of unnecessary units like RodeoDrive/WestHollywood/Area51/ladygirl1983. Getting hosted on a personal domain was striking gold. You could be aggravated.net/ashley or brandi.contemptuous.org and it was like being promoted to internet rockstardom. It somehow made it feel like all this effort was more worth it, and our sites became better looking while our motivation to adhere to the honor of being hosted on a personal domain flourished.
In a world where Livejournal had yet to exist and people In Real Life were still foreign to the concept of online blogging, I was failing at 7th grade math while succeeding at building a notable web presence. My hobbies included engaging in aggressive discussion threads online, being freakishly sarcastic in religion class and helping build the school’s first official website. The kinds of girls I interacted with through digital media were nowhere to be found in my suburban Catholic environment, and it only drove me deeper into the electronic abyss.
Then high school happened. There were ten times as many girls now and they came in all shapes and sizes, from different backgrounds and with new and unusual things to say. The internet didn’t seem so important anymore. We had all survived middle school hell of thirty or less classmates that had known us since early childhood, and were suddenly exposed to large groups of one another. Speckled amongst the droves of Britney wannabes were insightful girls with alternative opinions and their own traumas of social alienation.
Livejournal happened, and girls in real life blogging online started to happen, and suddenly these two worlds were mixing in a way I never thought possible. In fact, my friendships in real life became so cosmically important that we acquired our own domain just to celebrate it: Crizzazy.com. The craze of adding –izz in between any word was extremely popular as Snoop Dogg reinvented himself and the American language for all the youngsters that were born after Doggystyle. H to the Izzo or Fo Shizzle My Nizzle was more common a phrase than please or thank you. My own group of friends started saying crizzazy as a joke in response to everything, which led to years of beating down a punchline that we weren’t sure existed. The visibility of girls online became increasingly recognizable and soon I was introducing my internet friends to my high school friends in person. Digital and environmental worlds were merging and it made human connection more realistic and obtainable.
I don’t know if I would have survived middle school without the internet, but I definitely doubt my ability to do so had Myspace or Facebook existed. The pressure to post tons of photos of yourself was reserved for cam girls (Mija.nu anyone?) who relied on their youth and beauty to lure predators to their Amazon wishlists and receive expensive toys like robot dogs in the mail. I would have never lived through the bullying comments or the online harassment that occurs so often today, especially at a fragile adolescent age. I have been aesthetically vulnerable since birth and can’t imagine attending middle school during the post apocalyptic habitat in which stressed out teenagers are photoshopping themselves into modified images of social survival. If my school drama followed me home onto the internet as much as my escape from it awaited me on my laptop, I am absolutely certain without a doubt I would not be alive today.
Teen culture online isn’t new, it’s just revamped the same way all generations recycle and update over time. Platforms are more accessible than ever and have become easier to use and personalize. There are now Youtube vlogs, Stickam chats, and a wider range of communities to interact with potential peers, while AOL chatrooms have mostly been done away with. Tumblr became a place where the focus isn’t all about your photo documented social activity but rather a foundation to explore what interests you and find people you may never get a chance to meet in your daily life. It re-embraces the privacy of identity and isn’t going to ask for an awkward friend confirmation from a distant relative. It is a place you can lose countless hours of your life to if you’re not careful, and I’d imagine it would be the place where I would have made all of my closest friends had it been around in the 90’s. While I do find the photo reblogging obsession to be disenchanting and the lack of actual content to be the server’s most profitable flaw, the fear of not knowing how to express yourself is relatable and if clicking Like or Heart or repost features helps you get closer to knowing yourself, by all means – collage away.
The teen domain scene in the 90’s faded when we were told we had to grow up and get real jobs, focus on real things and be real people. For some of us, life worked out really well and girls I knew then are now doctors, lawyers, magazine editors and business owners. Some of us are still online thirteen years later, reminiscing about the olden days of internet girl culture on teen dominated web servers that we’re probably too old to be on. Some of us are co-writing embarrassing, top-secret fictional characters after a long day of teaching college courses or working at a coffee shop. We live deep beneath the surface of fashion blogs and celebrity gossip sites that remain crowned the current prom queens of online activity, hoping one day we can Diablo Cody our way out of 9-5ers that just don’t complement our late night writing schedules.
Private online spaces for females make it easier to cope with the daily stresses we endure in a post adolescent haze that continues to haunt us into adulthood. It is a sanctuary so personal and developed at times that we are made to feel this is a waste of intellect or productivity. Photo and video reblogging allows us to vision board our way into a better mental state and gives us the freedom to indulge amongst a digital sea of other girls just like us. Sometimes it is more fun to go home and LOL until you’re blue in the face with hilarious friends online than spend that time and money on drinking to loud music you didn’t ask to hear. Female-centric sites like Tumblr and Pinterest make that possible to a wider audience of women, and its rapidly growing popularity tells us that it’s not going anywhere but up – and that’s a good thing.