My parents were early adopters of the home computer, and I remember having access to a computer as early as 1990. Some of my earliest memories are of waking up at the crack of dawn to sneak downstairs and turn on the computer so I could go through the Windows 3.1 tutorial. Yes, I know. But that tutorial would bring me to the Windows Explorer, and from there I could find the game of backgammon buried in the coding. From there, I would end up playing lots of edutainment games, most of which I loved (Treasure Cove, I’m looking at you!) and also teaming up with my dad and sister to try and get through as many levels of Chip’s Challenge as possible. We didn’t have video games. Nintendo and Sega were not welcome in my house until much later, when I could afford them myself – but I am seeing now that there are a lot of parallels between my gaming friends’ presence of Super Nintendo in their lives and my dad’s work laptop in mine. That’s another story for another time, though.
Needless to say, computers were My Thing. When commercial internet became more popular, my parents tested the waters. First attempts were made with a free CompuServe disc, and I remember attempting to access the website for Muppet Treasure Island, clearly placing this memory in 1996, and the dial-up taking so long that we eventually gave up. We wouldn’t try again with the internet for another two years or so. Internet access was restricted to the computer in my parents’ bedroom, severely limiting my time. Every minute I spent discovering the internet, I wanted to spend ten more. I spent hours researching Sailor Moon and Pokemon, my then obsessions, trying to find out the answers to mysteries. What was Pikablu? How many Sailor Scouts were there? Did you know that there were LESBIANS? There was a whole world of niche information out there, much of it incorrect, but I wanted to know it all. I didn’t have a lot of afterschool activities, but I had the internet, and a world of discovery. I eventually started a Geocities pagebuilder website with some friends, which got me in Lots Of Trouble. This was a very, very different time from now.
Fast forward a bit. It was the year 2000, and anything was possible. We were riding high on the waves of Y2K, and personal computer use was slowly becoming more of a thing. I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, and the internet was in full swing. Many people my age have fond memories of childhood use of AOL Instant Messenger, but as my parents did not have AOL and refused to let me download software, well…I don’t. Not until college, at least. A former friend introduced me to the concept of “online journaling,” and I signed up for a site called The Open Diary. I kept a routine paper journal, so why not keep a digital one as well? I could communicate with my friends that way, too.
My life would never be the same.
The Open Diary was probably my first interaction with what would come to be known as “social media.” Users from all over the world could post public diary entries that others could leave comments on. At first, my entries went largely unnoticed. I remember sitting upstairs in my parents’ room writing an entry while my dad watched The Green Mile downstairs. I remember being absolutely TERRIFIED to curse, or otherwise say bad words, because as my mother always said, I “shouldn’t write anything I wouldn’t want to see written on the front page of the New York Times.” (Fuck that, I say now.) I used a made-up name (Halley, after my Sailor Moon fan character) and continued to post, though, because the catharsis of writing things down has not been lost on me. At first, I went largely unnoticed – after all, who wants to read bullshit ramblings of some unknown 14-year-old girl?
Other 14-year-old girls, apparently.
The longer I stayed on the site, the more people found me. There was a “recently updated” page, and people could see any entry that went up unless you had specific security settings in place. Through OD, I met so many amazing people. People that weren’t from my area! People that were local, but that I’d never have met otherwise! People from across the globe! Most of us used aliases or hid behind usernames, because we were taught that the internet was big and scary and everyone on it was a 40-year-old pedophile that wanted to hurt us. That very clearly wasn’t the case.
Of those I have lost track of and still remember, there was Potato, a girl from Las Vegas who was in the school band like me. Ting, a girl from Singapore. I met a girl who was obsessed with ’57 Chevy Bel-Aires – I thought I was the only one! These people, and others whom I have forgotten, were my first introduction to how I would come to use the internet – as a largely social tool.
I’m not shy, nor do I consider myself introverted, as is often the stereotype for “internet people.” I just had a lot of interests that “IRL” friends weren’t often involved in as in-depth as I was. I taught myself HTML and maintained my own website separate from the Pagebuilder disaster of years before. My sister and I got involved in the pixel spriting community fairly early on – taking characters, or “sprites,” from video games, and editing them to look like other characters or people. The community I found myself involved with worked from the Sailor Moon: Another Story video game, and we transformed these tiny representations of Sailor Moon and her friends into arguably works of art. A girl named Emma started the trend, at least for me, and eventually created a forum for posting stuff we’d worked on to get critiques, assistance, compliments. Emma set the bar – her work was incredible – but a lot of us climbed the ladder, too. There was Sekkei, who managed to create some of the largest scaled sprites, intricately detailed. Brittany started after my sister and I did, and I always loved seeing how she improved over time. Kristian was one of the few guys in the hobby, and managed to keep it up well after most of us had stopped. There were many more, but this is over a decade ago. My memory is a bit spotty.
Another community that my “IRL” friends didn’t quite grasp was that of the online TCG. These weren’t TCGs in the sense that we know them in the physical world – as a game that you play like Pokemon or Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh, but rather trading “cards” with other players to get complete sets of like images. Most, if not all of these, were based in anime/manga and video games. There were others, but their content didn’t often appeal to me. My first game was called Moonlight and Vines. One of my spriting “sister sites,” Chrissy, introduced me to the concept tangentially, and I was sold from there.
The game I became most heavily involved with was called Mystic Cards. It was run by (fittingly) a girl who called herself Mystic, and I got pulled in so, so hard. Mostly because MC had one thing that none of the other TCGs had – a forum.
The Mystic Cards forum, Heaven’s Gates, while in retrospect a little poorly titled, was a haven for players to go and talk and trade. I mean, we ended up using the forum for so much more than that. It was my first foray into “off topic” – so whereas my previous communications with players had predominantly been “hi you have this card I have this card do you want to trade,” HG made it so much easier to get to know these women. (Oddly enough, it was all women. I don’t think I met a single dude that played TCGs, probably because they had enough to do with their IRL counterparts.) HG came to fruition the summer before my senior year of high school, if I remember correctly, and I was one of the older players. There were a few older than me – my friend Michi has a few years on me – but most of the players were just starting high school as I was leaving.
One summer we held a competition – Heaven’s Games – and for some reason I was picked as team leader. I genuinely don’t remember how this happened. Team Forever Rain ended up winning the competition, as we were on FIRE that year, and that little event gave me such a boost. I had incredible friends who supported me and I was so lucky to have them.
The people of Heaven’s Gates (oh god, no, I must reiterate, not the UFO cult, just a bunch of nerdy kids on the internet who probably didn’t put two and two together re: the name) were there for me through absolutely everything. When I left for college and was scared, the first people I talked to were HGers. When I met my first boyfriend, had my first kiss, all these important milestones – they were there for me. Two separate members hosted web space for me in a time when paying for your own web space and storage were vital. We gossiped about players we suspected were cheating (I’m looking right at and calling you the fuck out ten years after the fact, Ashitara Pegasus), our crushes, and when things were bad, we had a place to turn to for support.
Unfortunately, that couldn’t last. The internet moved further and further away from the days of personal websites, domains and hosting, and forums and more into social media. Myspace popped up first, and I was able to add a lot of my MC friends there, but many others were too young or didn’t feel comfortable revealing pictures of themselves, so they didn’t have one. Those few friends that followed me to either Myspace or Livejournal have managed to stay in my life, and have evolved into such smart, beautiful women I can’t even believe it half the time.
The internet is different now. There’s a subreddit for everything. You find your friends on Facebook, on Twitter, on Pinterest, whatever. It’s more accessible for everyday people. You don’t have to maintain a digital presence outside of social media, who takes care of the storage of every picture you upload. You don’t have to worry about your host not having the money to pay for a month and your page suddenly turning into a 404. It’s easy to connect with friends you’ve lost – you wonder what happened to the girl who moved away in third grade? Look her up on Facebook, on LinkedIn. It’s not as easy to find someone you knew exclusively as an alias, one you’ve long since strayed from yourself.
So, for posterity’s sake, on the off chance anyone is looking: Hi. My name is Elyse. I went by the name Halley on several internet sites, from Open Diary to pixel sprite forums to online TCGs like Mystic Cards. I miss you. Please find me.