we have always lived in the palace
I need to take you on a very important journey. We’re going through time, back to the summer of 2005.
In case you don’t recall, let me tell you a few things about the summer of 2005. Second-term Bush cynicism was heavy in the air. YouTube had been around for about two months. Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were just starting to get popular. There was no such thing as an iPhone, we were still on Generation III of Pokemon and the PS3 wasn’t out yet. To give you a picture of exactly how early this is in internet history, the Numa Numa video came out in December of 2004. We’re talking way back in the wayback.
The internet used to be so fragmented. These days I’d say there are about ten websites that everybody goes on, the Walmarts of the internet, one-stop-shopping for all your social networking needs. Everyone is online, everyone uses their real names, and you have to be careful what you say, lest an unfortunate screencap be emailed to your boss.
It’s jarring. I feel sometimes like I’ve come home to find my house rearranged. It wasn’t always like this. Ten years ago “social media marketing” was not a thing, nobody had apps on their phone, and the internet was so much less corporate. It was a deeply embarrassing place, but it was genuine.
And I have a piece of it for you, pressed in my heart like a flower. Come back with me, for a while, to 2005.
Actually, rewind. I am romantic about the internet, because it raised me. I had a strange, solitary childhood, and the computer was my escape into a better life. And I am lucky to have been born when I was. In my parents’ generation, I’d have been getting shoved into lockers in the hallway of my middle school. This kind of thing is acceptable now.
I’m 23. It’s irritating, I know, when my generation waxes nostalgic for our “youth,” which was so recent. I know that “only 90s kids remember” is the worst way to start a sentence. But I’m convinced that time is bigger than it used to be. We are historians of our own lives, and everything we document is embedded forever into the fabric of the internet. Timehop has us watching our memories over again. A year feels longer when it’s refracted before your eyes in ten thousand screencaps. So give me — give us all — a break.
First I should mention that I have always had a close-knit group of internet friends. In 2003 I was a member of Animal Crossing Community (shut up, shut the fuck up, that site was cool in 2003) and I met this guy. I remember that his username was PianoMaster. We got along, to the extent that you can get along on Animal Crossing Community, and he invited me to a private message thread he’d started for his good friends. Every time he met someone cool, he invited them to the thread, and then they invited their friends, who invited theirs, and soon we had a gigantic thread involving hundreds of people, stretching to thousands of posts. It’s hard to carry on a conversation in a single forum thread, and sometimes our PT felt like being in the middle of Times Square, like there was a motion blur effect on the whole thing. There were a billion different conversations going on at any given time, and because it was 2003, most of those conversations were about sporks and monkeys and cows and waffles.
Our PT eventually stretched to such a length that Animal Crossing Community took a significant hit to its bandwidth. They locked our thread, and a fraction of us migrated to our own forum to keep up the very important discussions we’d been having about penguins and doom and cheese. What I love about the “lol waffles” era of the internet is that we all bragged about being so random, but all of our conversations looped back to the same roster of like twenty nouns that everyone had agreed, in some sort of supernatural preteen hivemind, were the funniest things in the world. How did we all decide on sporks?
This ex-ACC group thinned out over the years, and now there are only a few of us who keep in close contact — but I think that’s still remarkable. Shawn and Cory and Tom are three of my best friends in the universe, they know me better than I know myself, and I met them online, thirteen years ago, on an Animal Crossing message board. Like, what the fuck is that? That’s beautiful.
If 2003 was the golden age of lighthearted randomness, 2005 was its darker echo. Being t3h rand0m was still cool, but now it was also cool to be sad. My fellow preteens and I were discovering existential pain for the first time. I was in love with this kid named Kevin who was like seventeen in the eighth grade and wore Tripp pants with chains on them every day and probably washed his hair like once a year, if that. It was a difficult time.
The Evanescence album Fallen had been released in 2003. I think it did something to us, as a generation. We were all suddenly Amy Lee, lying in lethargic greyscale on a rising wooden plank. It was a time of perching in trees, knees pulled to our chests, glowering down as children played on the roundabout below.
Do you remember this? Suddenly everyone loved Invader Zim. We caked on eyeliner if our parents would let us; I started wearing black lipstick. In sixth grade, at the lunch table, my friend John and I were nibbling at our Gilardi max sticks when he asked how I was doing, and I told him — I swear to Christ above that I spoke these exact words — “well, darkness rules my soul.”
Speaking of My Immortal, I’m sure you have read the seminal literary work of the same name. I read it over again every year or so and am surprised anew by its brilliance. But it struck me recently that, back in 2006 when it was first posted, it wasn’t the ridiculous story or even the terrible grammar that most incensed everybody on fanfiction.net. No, what pissed us off was this: Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way insists — repeatedly, obsessively, eternally — that she is so goth. And you weren’t supposed to say that. You weren’t supposed to say anything like that at all.
Maybe it’s because I’m still young, so the two-decades-and-change I’ve got under my belt feels much longer than it really is — but I feel like there is such a difference, a cultural gulf, between my generation and the kids who are a few years younger than us. People who are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen right now are all about exploring themselves, finding boxes they fit into, articulating their identities; that’s why everybody’s tumblr bios are like ten pages long. And that’s great, but it is so utterly foreign to me, because when I was growing up it was the exact opposite. Identifying yourself as anything was the surest way to prove that you were not, in fact, that thing.
Everybody fit into one of these categories: jock, nerd, goth, punk, prep. You had to be part of one of these, but you couldn’t say which you were, because as everybody’s MSN icon decreed, labels were for soup cans. You had to imply where you fit without actually coming out and saying it; it was a delicate dance. Luckily there were about eighteen billion “Wat stereotype R U?” quizzes on Quizilla to help you navigate this minefield. All you had to do was provide your favorite color, favorite band, and ideal place to live (“IN THE MALL!!!! LOLZ :)” / “Alone in a house on a cliff by a graveyard”) and some sage quizmaker would tell you exactly where you belonged.
A pertinent detail: everybody’s spelling, at this time, was terrible; yet everybody, without exception, could spell the word “stereotype.”
We were all about authenticity, but we were also brilliant fabulists. We were the first generation to really be born into the internet. Everybody had sixteen fake accounts on every website. It used to be so easy to lie — all you had to do was log onto the Neoboards and post a message that said “hi im hilary duff” and voila, you were Hilary Duff, at least for the next three hours. I had a sock account that was supposedly my French friend Lucie. I would have two-way “conversations” with myself that I just ran through Google Translate, and nobody ever busted me. We were kids; we were catfishing before catfishing was a thing. Nobody knew how to investigate anything.
I am mesmerized, incidentally, by Catfish. I love how they act like fucking super sleuths when all they do is like, do a reverse image search on somebody’s profile picture and run their phone number through Spokeo. I think Nev Schulman would shit himself if he ever read about msscribe.
But I’m getting distracted here. I want to tell you about one website in particular.
“A website dedicated to loser wannabe punks with no lives. This website is full of fake assholes that want in somebodys pants. But also, its a good place to make friends if you want somebody to talk to.” — thedollpalace.com, as defined by UrbanDictionary
If you were to go this very moment to thedollpalace.com, if you were to open a new tab right now, you would find it preserved exactly as it was when I knew it. The webmistress, whom we knew as Jessica, evidently still rakes in enough pageviews to continue paying for the domain. But she doesn’t update anymore. And so the palace just sits there, glittering inviolate, waiting for the girls to come back.
Its affiliates list includes elouai, mugglenet and i-am-bored.com. It has dolls optimized for Myspace pictures, and 100x100 icons for use on MSN or the shitty PHP forum of your choice. It had a short-lived editorial section, but the last post anyone ever made there was in 2007, in defense of Britney Spears. There are tumbleweeds blowing across its sparkly menus now, but when I went there, it was alive.
This was social networking before social networking got big. You had a profile (a “pro,” as we called it) where you could answer a few inane questions about yourself (“my friends would describe me as…” and “type of music i like” but also “body type” and “ethnic background”) and then proceed to fill the rest of the allotted space with Blingee graphics, click-counters where people could leave you hearts and hugs, and that elusive ancestor of the selfie, the screenie of you hanging out with your online friends. You could indicate your age, and if you were really clever you set it to 99.
99 was the highest the age counter could manually go, but you also had to enter your birthdate and it was programmed to count up from the day you listed. My profile now states that I’m 110 years old.
Your worth was defined by how many pages of comments you had. If you could get an argument going in your comments, you were especially exalted and popular. In these days you didn’t have a dashboard or a news feed — you had to manually check each of your friends’ pages every day to see if anything was new. Frequently, something was new. Since the feed as we know it now hadn’t become mainstream yet, we had to tweak and update our pros constantly to assert our identities, to be heard above the noise. There was a “last updated” ticker that you had to get on.
I should explain what this website was for. In its origins, it was ostensibly for making dollz, with a z, which are different than dolls with an s. If you go on DollDivine today, you’re making dolls. If you grew up on DollieCrave, you were making dollz.
Dollz represented you — not as you were, but as you wanted to be seen. Behind your computer screen, in the days when our mothers warned us never to share pictures of ourselves online because of the pedophiles on Myspace, your identity was whatever you built with the little pixel blocks that more and more girls were starting to make. The Doll Palace wasn’t the only website that offered dollz; there were people all over the internet who built their own bases and elements that you could incorporate into your designs.
Here’s a quick sampling of what was achievable on TDP, though of course the possibilities were endless:
These dolls are built on the classic “prep” base, but that’s hardly the only style of doll. There were goth bases and uniques, divas, tiny brightly-colored ravers and emos and thugz, elouai-style candybar girls, and towards the end, Jessica began releasing themed bases: Miley Cyrus, Sailor Moon, Girl Scouts. There were male dollz too — there were even boys on TDP — but they were always an afterthought.
And this was who you were. In an era when labels were everything, but you could not label yourself for fear of being seen as a poser, clothing your dollz in the easily-recognizable trappings of your subculture of choice was a foolproof way to communicate your identity.
The internet is not so coded anymore. These days, you are whatever you say you are, and anyone who tells you you’re not is wrong. That’s it. These days everyone’s word is unimpeachable, and maybe that’s better, but something of the old days — the sophisticated footwork, the fanatical self-editing — has been distorted, if not lost.
I would come home each day and get right on the dollmaker. My dad paid a dollar a month for my premium membership (my “premi,” as we called it, because any multisyllabic word had to be trendily chopped) so that I could have access to hundreds more props and keep my dollz looking fresh. I would spend maybe an hour getting ready, dressing my doll, preparing to face the scrutiny of the entire internet. Your doll was critical. She was the first and often only thing people would use to form an impression of you. She could win you friends, or provoke enemies, at first sight. She had to be perfect.
For me, the baby goth, this meant black dresses, black hair, the pallid “goth” recolor of the standard prep base, and occasionally black angel wings. I would primp and refine, and then I’d go to the avatar chat.
Av chat consisted of a series of stock photo backgrounds on top of which everyone’s dollz were placed. You could click and drag yourself around, and anything you typed into the chat would appear both beneath your doll and in a feed along the side of the screen. Some of the backgrounds were nebulous and confusing — Stairs Show, which was a white marble staircase that led nowhere; the Tower, which makes me think of Yeats; bizarrely, a Dunkin Donuts — but others were very much coded into the intricate subcultures that made up TDP. Preps went to the Beach; goths went to the Graveyard. The people who used tiny emo dollz with fox ears and tails, who used the :3 emote a lot and punctuated every sentence with “rawrr,” tended to hang out on the Playground. They’d sit their little avatars on top of the monkey bars and occasionally pretend to fall off.
The crown jewel was Palace View, which was where you initially spawned. Lots of people didn’t bother to go anywhere else, and on weekday nights it would be teeming with cartoon bodies, people with a billion x’s and underscores in their usernames, friends and strangers and goths and preps, everyone. I can’t do it justice with a jpeg. I can show you the glittery grass, but how can I transmit that feeling — the thrill of connection, back before we took it for granted? We were thirteen, fourteen, and we were reaching into this shimmering expanse, and other girls were reaching back. They could be across the world or in the next town over, and they were just like us.
It was kind of like Habbo, but not. Habbo has always been a battleground, a land of mischief — it belonged to 4chan almost from the beginning; the pool first closed in 2006. I used to fuck around so much on Habbo. You remember the AI people, like the bartenders who’d serve you soda? I used to engage in dialogue with them, in what I thought of as performance art. I’d go up to Ryan behind the bar and turn on Shout and start screaming at him — “I know you killed my father, Ryan! I’m not letting you get away with this crime!” — and a crowd would gather, curious, watching as I poured my soul out and Ryan just kept saying “Enjoy your drink!” and handing me sodas.
I used to go up to strangers on Habbo and start breaking up with them. I would pick some random guy and block him into a corner and start going on about how I had tried my best but this relationship just wasn’t going to work. He’d get confused and try to leave, and I’d shout again: “YOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM YOUR PROBLEMS!”
But TDP was not like that, at least not in the beginning. TDP was unique among websites of its ilk because it did not prevent you from giving out personal information, so the friends you made there often became AIM or MSN contacts. I had a clique. Sylvia and Gabby and Cara and Rachel and Megan and Meghan and me, and we called ourselves the Emo Thugs — come on, it was 2005 — and we met up on TDP most every night. We were high-profile, mostly because Megan’s poetry was popular on the Dollz & Stories section (more on that later) and I was notorious for stirring up drama in other people’s comments. Megan was so well-known that people used to create sock accounts and pretend to be her; I was constantly, publicly feuding with my archrival, a British girl named Emily who went by Emz.
Today I paid $2 to unlock the archives of my old premi account and dug through two years’ worth of my D&S posts, trying to pinpoint the exact moment that Emz and I became mortal enemies. I came up empty. I think we must have met in av chat, and though I’ve spent all day playing the role of amateur archaeologist in my own childhood, I’ve found no evidence of the original fight. But I remember her. I wonder if she remembers me.
“u r so smart! we also used to argue! but I have complete respect 4 u now!” — Emz giving me a public “shout-out” on D&S, after our ceasefire
D&S was a late addition to the site. A D&S post included a doll and your writing. What you were supposed to do with this feature was pick a doll and use the allotted space to imagine a story about it, and sometimes people did this, but I used it to editorialize endlessly in a series I called Rants.
I would spend ages making custom dollz that got progressively gother and gother as time went on — chains, black wings, fishnets, flames and lace — and then write, hysterically, scorchingly, with surprising verbosity for a thirteen-year-old girl, about someone or something I didn’t like. I was famed for this; I had a following. I was the cultural critic of TDP, and for every person who hung on my words, there were five who despised me. The comments section on my pro was always seething with anger about something carelessly mean that I’d said in av chat. I would comment on other people’s posts and critique their spelling; I’d call them dull and uncultured and degenerate. People would send me hatemail and I would post it all on D&S, correct their grammar and assign them a grade. I was insufferable. I was twelve.
It’s so strange to read again through these things that I half-remember posting. On top of my eternal righteous anger, I was also publishing plenty of my own stories and poems on D&S. I had to — I needed to keep proving to the lowly denizens of TDP that I was fit to be their grammar queen. All of my own creative work from this period is uniformly terrible, but I can’t help envying this furious child with her precocious vocabulary and her ironclad conviction of her own importance. I can’t imagine being that prolific now.
“U NEED TO LEAVE PPL ALONE! AND STOP WRITIN MEAN COMMENTS ON THERE STORIES! I DONT KNOW WAT UR PROBLEM IS, U MOST OF BEEN DROPPED ON THE FLOOR WHEN U WERE BORN….BORN FROM AILENS! U THINK UR SO COOL MAKEIN FUN OF PPL BUT UR NOT! UR JUST A LIL BRAT WHO WANTS ATTENTION. SO LEAVE SO_SXC_BABI AND EVERYONE ELSE ALONE!” — a dollmail sent to me, July 7th, 2005
Emz and I tore at each other all summer in a series of mounting attacks until one day, randomly, we stopped being angry. I posted a long apology on her pro and she responded with one of her own. I don’t think our hearts were ever really in the fighting. We just wanted to feel important. Forever after, if we ran into each other, we would ❤ and ❤ and ❤❤❤ until we ran out of characters.
I look back now and feel such tenderness toward Emz. I wish I could talk to her. I have no idea where she is today.
I used to try to get my irl friends into TDP and it rarely worked. My best friend Chris did get into it, though not in the way I had meant. He became kind of a performance artist. He’d go into the custom dollmaker and fill his 500x500 space limit with naked torsos and graphics that said ~*~Hottie~*~ and ~*~Angel~*~ or, sometimes, just a single item: an empty couch, or a mermaid tail with no torso, or the letter Q. Then he’d go into av chat and harass people.
I remember the strangest things. I remember Raegan finding out she was pregnant at seventeen (though of course she could have been lying; it was cool to be pregnant because it made you seem grown-up). I remember Lyzzi and her boyfriend Danny, who serially dated a string of popular TDP figures before finally revealing himself as an eleven-year-old girl. I remember that Sylvia’s AIM name was PlasticSmileRealTears and Megan’s was UndeadRose13. Somebody hosted an awards show in av chat that summer. All the girls voted. I won “Cleverest.”
But this was before Facebook. It was before we all started merging our online and offline lives. The internet hadn’t gone corporate; websites were ephemeral things. Your friendships on a site existed only within the space of that site; if you lost one, you lost the other.
And so when we all outgrew TDP, when school started back up again and we didn’t have the time or the inclination to maintain those online presences, all my friends slipped through my fingers like sand. They are gone from me, absolutely gone; they may as well be dead.
That is the sadness of the old internet, the loss. The distance that existed between us, before we fused the digital with the real. All those old websites, a thousand little shimmering islands with miles between them, and all of us drifting around in space, colliding by chance and then parting again.
The website, though, is still there. It hasn’t been updated in 2968 days. Like an insect in amber it is untouched but pristine, standing vigil, a shrine to my girlhood. The glitter is just as bright as it was when I raced to the computer every evening, composing my next rant in my head. “47208867 Dolls Made,” a ticker proudly states, and Emz made some of them, scrutinizing a row of pixel dresses until she found the one that best suited her mood. We used to talk about “the TDP community.” So much love lived here. The palace is silent, ready for us to come back. But we’re not coming back.
I visited today, chose a premade doll and just sat around in an empty av chat for a while, by myself. I always liked the Winter Palace room but could never persuade my friends to hang out there. It wasn’t good for taking screenies.
Jessica’s last news update was on June 10th of an unspecified year, and all it said was “I guess it hurts to be away for some time.”