Feeling nostalgic about Apple Crunch MB and other childhood internet communities

Last weekend, while I was setting up this blog and attempting to configure a subdomain that pointed to my Github Pages personal site, I felt a blast from the past. In the process of logging into a cPanel interface to set up a new subdomain, adding a new DNS record, and viewing all my old files via FTP, I was reminded of how much internet technologies have evolved since I started poking around on the internet and how my understanding of them has grown.

I remember when I was first exposed to this idea of carving out your own presence on the internet. Getting a small slice of territory that was yours, that you could dress up or dress down with whatever colors or images you wanted. I think it was fourth or fifth grade when my friends and I started creating email accounts and writing blog posts on Xanga about what was on our minds. I remember the text box that you pasted your “Xanga layout” in that allowed you to morph your blog into whatever you wanted and getting excited when modifying a color hex code would result in some text or background color change.

I remember when I came across these online pixel communities, which I find very special and charming in retrospect. I haven’t come across others who were a part of or aware of these communities, and I’m starting to wonder if I had just somehow wandered into and grew up in a small corner of the internet. They were called BBS’s (bulletin board systems) or MB (message boards), and they often had these charming names that very fittingly described communities of girls aged 12-20 from all over the world, like “Apple Crunch MB” and “Sugar Melody MB”. We talked about a host of topics, from personal issues to crushes to pop culture interests, but we were mainly brought together by shared interests in digital art and developing “kawaii” websites. I remember spending hours in Photoshop 7, playing with the pen tool to create CG’s (short for computer graphics, but sometimes also referred to as vectors) and zooming in to create pixel art. I remember this super simple animation program that allowed you to create GIF’s by dragging and dropping in different frames. You would post your creations up on the board, and others would offer constructive criticism and words of encouragement. If you were feeling generous, you would put up a thread offering customized versions (“siggies”), exporting copies with their names and they’d add to their bulletin board signatures:

The kawaii websites were even more of a phenomenon to me. You’d create these things called “layouts” that you produced using your image editor of choice (probably Photoshop or Corel Paintshop Pro) and coded using Notepad. If you were really fancy, you might use Notepad++. Anyway, these website “designs” used to be composed of a huge image with a empty spot in the middle, where your content would go. I dug through some of my Photobucket accounts and found an example:

You would then center this image on your page, probably add some margins on the top, and use an absolute positioned div with auto overflow so that you’d have a scrollable pane within the rounded rectangle’s borders. It was pretty brittle, but thinking about different screen sizes wasn’t really a thing, let alone mobile. Sometimes it would be implemented using iFrames. If you wanted links on your images (usually for site navigation), I believe you’d use area tags. There was this nifty website that allowed you to upload your image, draw rectangles around the areas you wanted to be hyperlink-able, define the links you wanted them to point to, and it would spit out something you could copy pasta in your layout code. That was the world of website design that I was exposed to, and it’s so cool to see how far HTML and CSS has progressed since then. I used to think it was so cool to be able to create some shapes (I believe it was triangles) out of pure CSS using some clever border trick, and nowadays you can animate using CSS. Even though I’ve forayed a tiny bit into this world (see this 2-hearted Codepen I created a couple years ago) when I stop and think about it, it still boggles me — animation!

And these kawaii websites, they were hosted in a pretty interesting way as well. I remember within the community, there were these folks who were typically older, who would own their own top level domains. In retrospect, this probably makes sense since they probably had at least part time jobs of some sort to afford the $30-50 dollars per year that shared hosting costed and the $10ish dollars that went into domain renewal. If you were a younger noobie, you would apply to get a free subdomain and hosting from them. I remember these applications, which usually asked for links to your art, some short questions, and if you understood how FTP worked. There were some “prestigious” web hosts, who were known for subhosting really great artists, and I remember that being a goal of mine in the back of my mind: improving my digital art skills, being able to turn slick layouts into a website, and producing content that visitors would want to come back for… all so that I could one day be part of one of the cooler web hosting “families”. When I think about all of this, I feel strong nostalgia, but the sad thing is, I have a feeling these communities don’t exist anymore.

A few months ago, on a ride to Tahoe, I remember listening to a podcast about this woman who used to play this interesting video game online as a little girl that featured a bunny and some love story on this Flash game platform (Newgrounds I think?). The podcast producers did some digging and found a version of this game, and it was an emotional moment when she had an opportunity to play the game again after unsuccessfully looking for it for years. I didn’t really relate to the podcast much when I heard about it, since I’m still able to find some of my old stuff on Photobucket and Archive.org. However, when I think about this community that I used to be a part of, if I could get a taste of it all again — all the same people, the engagement with building a super adorable website, staying up late to chat with a girl from the UK named Emma on MSN Messenger, dreaming of starting my own successful MB and tinkering with installing and customizing XMB — I would probably be through the roof with nostalgia and emotion as well.