The Passenger
Adolescence In HTML
By Kimra McPherson

In a memory box under my bed in my childhood home, sitting on top of old theater programs and dried carnations and notes passed to me in class, is a 3-inch-square piece of computer paper. It’s an e-mail conversation, a reply to a reply to a reply, between a 16-year-old me and a girl named Charlie. Almost six years removed from the message, I can’t make sense of the joke - something about invisible blue cats, something I’m sure would have had me ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) back then. Greasy stains in the corners suggest I once kept the snippet on my bedroom wall, slapped up with plastic tack next to pictures of my high school friends.

I never met Charlie, but I knew her well enough to hang an e-mail from her beside photographs of the girls I ate lunch with every day.

Charlie and I met online in the spring of 1998 through an online discussion community called Out of Context. By the time I joined that community in my sophomore year of high school, I had already been online for years. I had made personal Web pages, written for teen magazines and spent hours composing detailed e-mails to people I’d known only through text posted in cyberspace. I didn’t find it odd to refer to online personalities as my friends.

It seemed only natural to find Charlie’s e-mail on top of a pile of handwritten notes. When I think about high school, I don’t think about clubs or college applications or homecoming dances. My mind goes first to the personal homepage I ran, the online communities I joined and the friends I met in cyberspace. Who were they - those people who heard all of my frustrations and everyday stresses through e-mail, people I was more open with than the friends I talked to on the phone at night? And who was I - that girl who spent hours condensing the stories of her life into a few moving or witty paragraphs of e-mail or essay each night, hoping that somebody would see them in their inbox or Web browser and feel the impulse to respond?

I thought I would never return to those moments. Then I found the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has a simple purpose: to save Web pages so they can always be accessed as they appeared at a certain time, even if the owner stops updating them or the hosting site goes under. So why did I get a knot in my stomach just looking at the search bar? I had gone to the site intending to type in the address of my first Web page, but I hesitated as the cursor blinked furiously in the box. Type in that address, it seemed to say, and I’ll take you back - back to a time when you stared blurry-eyed at the computer at 3 a.m. trying to figure out where your table code went wrong, when you rushed home at the end of the night to send pages-long e-mails around the globe, when you begged your parents to drive out of their way on a New England vacation so you could meet the girl who had introduced you to the world of Geocities and HTML.

I typed in the still-familiar backslashes and dots and numbers. I hit enter and realized I was holding my breath.

Seconds later, I was staring at Kimra’s Happy Home. The graphic of Elmo painting a rainbow was gone, as was the background of tiny white stars against a black backdrop. But the rest was there: the sections on books and zines and movies, descriptions of my friends and quotes from my ninth-grade yearbook, my guestbook full of entries from when some Web site named it “homepage of the month” more than a year after I stopped updating.

As I stared, I was 15 again, banging away at the keyboard of the Dell with “a gig of memory, all the memory you’ll ever need,” as my dad had told me the day in 1994 when he moved the Apple IIe to the garage and set up the shiny new PC with the color screen and the CD drive and the mouse. Those days were seven years and a psychological lifetime away. Suddenly they were staring back at me.

The first time I got online I was 13. Our modem dialed a million numbers and screeched and squawked and sounded like it might split in two - or explode! - and then suddenly I was staring at a blue screen with white lettering and a flashing cursor promising to take me wherever I wanted to go.

The only site I knew back then was Yahoo!, so - navigating with only arrow keys, the tab button and enter - I started searching for things that interested me: figure skating, dance, teen magazines for girls. That’s how I found Daisyface.

Daisyface published writing from girls my age, writing about movies and friends and boys and our individual and shared teen drama. As soon as I started reading the essays and poems posted on the page, I realized I had found a home. I had wanted for years to be a writer, but I had kept my dream a secret (my sixth-grade yearbook lists “teacher” as my desired occupation; most of the other girls wanted to be marine biologists, and I didn’t think they would understand my desire to surround myself with words instead of dolphins). Looking at Daisyface, I saw girls like me, writers, unashamed and even proud to show their work to the world; most of them had Web sites of their own, housing even more of their writing and biographies that sounded surprisingly like my own. I sent a gushing e-mail to Sarah, the Webmistress and founder of Daisyface. When she wrote back, I felt like I had met a movie star.

Within a few months, my town got its first Internet service provider, and I shed the blue-and-white, text-based screen for a full-color Web browser. Sarah and I e-mailed frequently, and I asked her if she would help me learn HTML so I could have a page of my own. She fired back an enthusiastic “of course.”

I thought about making a page constantly - at dinner, during dance class, in the shower. I practiced HTML tags in my head and on the back of my math homework. And during my typing exercises in ninth-grade keyboarding class, I hit on my theme: the rainbow. I would have sections for books, movies and music; each would correspond to a color. Red would be for zines, orange for books, yellow for movies...I grabbed a piece of white paper and drew out my basic design, a rainbow graphic at the top and colored buttons to click for the main page of each section. The final section, I decided, would be all about me. I called it Neon.

In early 1997, I launched Kimra’s Happy Home. I updated the content monthly, but the skeleton of the site - reviews of zines and movies, essays about things I thought were cool - stayed virtually unchanged.

I started e-mailing people whose sites I read, asking to be linked and promising a link in return. Some, I was too intimidated to even write to - their pages were so good, their writing so crisp, that I felt out of their league, the way some kids look at the popular table in the cafeteria and shudder at the thought of approaching them and being laughed away. But the majority of the people I wrote to received me with a link and a blossoming e-mail relationship.

We were friends, though we rarely met face-to-face. I told them about my crush on the theater boy in ninth grade, about discovering Ani Difranco and punk rock, about wanting to escape from my dead-end town. They told me about their best friends, their part-time jobs, their favorite books - some of which they sent me, packaged in bubble envelopes with letters inside. We were writers, artists, designers, photographers - and almost all girls. We were creative, intelligent, inventive. We were teenagers doing things with technology that our parents couldn’t understand.

Lila was one of them. That wasn’t her real name - she used a pen name, like many of the girls on the Internet then did and some still do. But it didn’t matter. To us, she was Lila of Lila’s Lemons, who wanted to work at a water park in Virginia over the summer and loved the Baltimore Orioles and wrote goofy stories about high school.

“Back then, having a web page that lots of people visited and gave me good, encouraging feedback on was SUCH an ego boost,” Lila (whose real name is Belle) wrote in a recent e-mail to me. “There I was, a geeky sophomore in high school, chubby, didn’t play sports, had huge crushes on guys who had no idea who I was, and here were all these people I’d never even met telling me how creative and funny I was, how much they enjoyed what I was writing.”

Yet though we wrote about real life, we kept our online lives distinctly separate. Only one real-life friend of mine knew about my Web page - and only because she had one herself. Online was safe. Online, we could create characters, idealized versions of our real-world selves.

But by the fall of my sophomore year, I was tired of fitting my thoughts into the form I’d set out more than a year before, tired of maintaining a public persona that I wasn’t sure still fit. At 16, could I still be the girl with the rainbows and the Elmo graphic? My final update on the site’s main page in November of 1997 was a cheery promise: “I’m planning on redoing this page entirely, hopefully before Christmas,” I wrote. “Well, maybe not *entirely*, because I promise that your favorite wonderful sections will still be here. But the whole thing is generally getting too perky and fake.” I never touched the site again.

Other sites folded soon after. Lila’s Lemons was gone. So, eventually, was Daisyface. Many of these sites - the ones I read every day back then - are archived on the Wayback Machine. When I click through the links on my old page, I see an Internet ghost town, abandoned pages and broken sites where my favorite people used to live. At age 14, I read a movie-review site called Girls on Film and daydreamed about being as cool as Sibyl or Andrea or Claire or Lise, the four girls who ran the page. I read their biographies carefully, choosing the ones who seemed the most like me and adopting their taste in film. Now, at 22, looking at it through the preserving lens of the Wayback Machine, I catch myself reading the “about us” section, skimming to see whose biography is closest to mine. So little has changed.

Other memories are less positive but just as eerie: When I visit the Wayback Machine’s archive of a page made by a girl I knew in high school, I get angry all over again. She had copied the source code for my Web site and changed just a few words before presenting it as her own. Looking at it now, I want to send her a nasty e-mail complaining about an infraction that happened a third of our lives ago.

Even in the flood of emotions I feel looking at the pages now, I remember the absence of feeling then. By late winter of my sophomore year, I was burned out. I picked away at a new personal page, Silent Warrior, but writing for the site became less of a relief and more of a chore. I needed a new idea. And that’s how I found Out of Context.

Out of Context was an e-mail list with somewhere between 25 and 40 members from around the world. The name came from an Ani Difranco song; we thought it summed up the one-liners and quirky quips that defined our community. And it was a community, above all else. We arranged Secret Santa gift exchanges, eschewing all conventional wisdom about giving your address out on the Internet - we knew we could trust OoC people. We made each other mix-tapes, filled with favorite songs and shipped in cases with hand-designed covers. And we thought nothing of sending our stories to the list - be they the musings of a grocery-store checkout girl or the stories of a romance two of the list members had formed (eventually resulting in a wedding, to which many OoC-ers received invitations).

Looking back, the amazing thing is that we talked about nothing - no set topics, no planned structure. We knew about one girl’s part-time job, about another’s pregnancy. I wrote stories about my hometown and asked for advice on starting to date a boy. And we had our inside jokes - like the invisible blue cat I forgot about until it showed up on a slip of paper in my memory box.

With my tenth-grade friends, I went to football games and the mall, wrote notes, talked about boyfriends and girlfriends. But those friends had no idea I’d spend an hour or more alone with the computer at night, sending messages to Charlie and Marcus and EE and the rest. They had no idea I felt a connection with people miles away whom I’d never met. I couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t understand - especially if they knew I felt more comfortable writing about the conversations we’d had that day than actually having them.

Some members of OoC made a Web page for our group, including sections for our personal profiles, the music we liked, and our archived quotes and memorable posts. That site is archived on the Wayback Machine, and when I glance through the profiles, I desperately want to know where the other Ooc-ers are now. (Flipping through my high school yearbook, I feel no such urge.)

Out of Context died naturally, right before my freshman year of college. For a while, I found a substitute in a particularly vibrant community called Witchbaby, based on a shared love for the books of Francesca Lia Block, where I met many people I still call friends today. But most of us turned to other projects - photography, Web design, zines - and drifted away from our old communities.

Today, having an online presence is practically a fact of life. It’s hard to find college students who don’t at least stalk their friends via online journals, if they don’t write blogs themselves. Some of those who grew up online scoff when we see how big the community is now - after all, we did this years ago.

But on LiveJournal, one of the biggest online journaling sites, there’s a community called Oldschoolers. My friend Karen started it a couple of years ago to help those of us who were online in the mid-‘90s to reunite. In the description, she wrote: “We remember what things were like in 1996. We remember pre‑56k modems. IRC. ICQ. Web‑Based FTP. And most of all, friendship, that no one, especially people ‘IRL’ could understand.” The community has more than 200 members. We post messages asking where people are today; we reintroduce ourselves, listing our pseudonyms and URLs over the years. It’s amazing how much we remember.

Many of us still use our online journals and homepages to keep in touch; I certainly do. But I am less open now, more hesitant to make my words public. I keep my journal entries locked for friends only; the Wayback Machine will never catch them in its cache. It’s hard to believe how much we told the world once, how open and vulnerable we were.

Back then, though, we never would have thought of keeping our lives private. We needed them to be public, out in the open where others could respond. Our words-only conversations were vital signs of friendship, tangible and real.