Julianne Aguilar | Longreads | February 2018 | 14 minutes (2,894 words)
Once upon a time, in 1999, when the internet was small, when it came through your phone and not just on your phone, when the first browser war had not yet been won, when you had to teach yourself a few lines of code if you wanted to exist online, when the idea of broadcasting your real name for anyone to see was unthinkable — in those early days, before Twitter revolutions, before Facebook Live homicides, when the internet was small and most people didn’t understand it, and only the nerds hung out there — even then, it was already happening.
Even then, people hated girls on the internet.
* * *
Eighteen years went by before I thought about Sara again.
I’d just finished a project in which I had tracked down a fanfiction author I’d loved in the early 2000s. Jami had been relatively easy to find: It turns out that if you’d had a sprawling internet presence as a child, you probably have one now, under new names, on new websites. Not only had I found Jami, but I learned that she is now a successful, Hugo-nominated author. I was deliriously happy. She’d made it — this girl who’d written fanfiction had achieved the wildest dream and turned that talent into an actual writing career. I wanted the same for Sara, a tangible success that followed minor internet celebrity.
In 1999 Sara had a website hosted on Expage, and so did I. I didn’t know her: I was attracted to Sara’s website because it was incredibly well-designed for 1999, and because Sara, like me, was a middle school girl who loved the internet. Her “About Me” page listed her age as 12, same as me. I don’t remember how I found her site but I do remember that it’s what initially sparked my interest in web design and the internet in general.
Between 1999 and now, I would occasionally think of Sara. I’d been addicted to her website. In the design anarchy of Web 1.0, Sara had an eye. She had a sense. Her website looked like few others at the time, in that it looked good, like something you couldn’t make yourself. She knew how to hold an audience: she updated frequently, changing her layouts often and offered the code for free. Because of this, her website was hugely popular. Many years later I’d see her name mentioned in a discussion about early internet celebrities. I was there, I thought. I was one of her biggest fans.
When she suddenly quit her own website sometime in early 2001, I was disappointed, but by that time I had my own website, and high school was starting, and soon I forgot all about Sara. “I haven’t updated in a LONG time,” her final message read, “so, I’m not gonna do the site anymore.” That message sat there until 2007, when Expage finally shut down, itself a relic of an early and simple time in the internet’s history. “It really has been a great run,” its own goodbye message read, “but Express Pages has become outdated.”
(Expage advised its users to migrate their sites to Geocities. Two years later, Geocities was also shut down.)
And if that’s all her message had said, it would have been normal, unremarkable, the sign of a tween girl growing out of a hobby. It wasn’t, though. “Its not only b/c I dont have as much time anymore, but also it was just getting really boring and routine and people hated me so much.”
People hated me so much.
I’m not pulling this all from memory. If you look for Sara now, you won’t find her. Her web presence is long, long gone. When I started to think about her again, I used WaybackMachine to look at her website, frozen in time on archive.org’s servers. It’s a great way to look at the past, to remind yourself of things you’d long forgotten, and to remember how weird the internet was back then. Her website was so quaint, so small, so endearing. There were all the things you’d expect from a 12-year-old girl: an “About Me” page, a page of lyrics (Will Smith, Ricky Martin, Smash Mouth, N*Sync, and all the other Y2K superstars), a page of jokes, graphics she’d made, dolls collected from around the ’90s Internet of Girls. A guestbook. A view counter at the bottom of her home page.
If the internet is an archive of the things we make then it’s also an archive of the abuse we endure there, and our apologies for feeling outraged.
But I found something else, something I don’t remember from looking at her website in 1999: her online diary, right there, linked from her front page. It was short, she’d only kept it up for a few months, and I read it all. It was in these diary entries that I learned that Sara was being harassed by the people signing her guestbook.
The guestbook really was the hallmark of the ’90s personal website. It served as a bragging point for a webmaster: the more “signatures” in the guestbook, the more viewers you were getting. Along with their names, and maybe their email addresses, people could also leave short messages.
Before there were comments, there were guestbooks — but there have always been shitty people on the internet.
It wasn’t the graphics, or the jokes, or the N*Sync lyrics people had a problem with. It was that view counter, at the bottom of her home page. That view counter was into the hundreds of thousands, and that made some people very, very angry.
It’s an interesting reminder of how small the internet was in the late 90s. That this middle school girl could reach so many people by simply understanding how to make a website look good is remarkable. Her website truly didn’t have anything spectacular or unique or even that interesting on offer. Her popularity was based almost solely on her design abilities, and that is damn impressive. She was at the forefront of a revolution none of us were even aware was happening, and she was internet famous because of it. “I started it a long time ago, when the Internet was like slowly becoming popular, and webpages were like…whoa,” she wrote on her FAQ page. “Heheh so I think my page was like ‘extraordinary’ then, and it got people kinda hooked on it…now its just like any other webpage, but people come to it anyways.”
People came, in droves, and they signed her guestbook, and in their messages they berated Sara for her popularity. She wrote in her diary about the people who were harassing her about her extraordinarily high page views. She lamented (half-heartedly) that she wished she’d never added a view counter. She defended her popularity, and then down-played it, and then defended it again. She angrily, reluctantly, offered advice to other webmasters on getting views for their own pages: sign other people’s guestbooks, update often.
And then, the next entry, the mea culpa. The apologies for getting angry, for writing “all that stuff.”
If the internet is an archive of the things we make then it’s also an archive of the abuse we endure there, and our apologies for feeling outraged.
* * *
The thing about being bullied on the internet is that no one sees you cry. Maybe that act would soften the heart of someone tormenting you in real life, but when you’re a kid, and you’re sitting at your computer, and you can see your reflection in the big glass screen of your giant tube monitor, it’s just you. Imagine the absurdity of telling the person on the other side of the screen, “I’m crying.” I know that feeling, because those are words I typed out when I was a child and my best friend “broke up” with me over AIM.
I can’t really classify this as bullying, but it was and remains the most difficult breakup I’ve ever experienced, one that I’ve carried around with me, in one way or another, ever since. She didn’t even give me the chance to break down in front of her: she was safe, so close and so far, and I wanted to tell her what was happening to me, and I did. It felt bad, both crying and typing that out to her, but my insides were twisting and my head was hurting and I needed her to know that.
So I think about Sara reading her guestbook, this thing on her website that was supposed to support her, reassure her, and I imagine her sadness, and even more, her anger. Because, reading her diary, that’s what I saw: anger that so many strangers could hate her for being popular because she was good at something, and not just any something. She was good at writing code, at a time when “writing code” was a phrase that almost no one knew and almost no one valued. And you know what? A lot of those guestbook signers were adults. I don’t know this for sure. The guestbook wasn’t archived by WaybackMachine, which is good, because some things maybe shouldn’t be archived. But statistically, realistically? There were probably adults harassing Sara. And I think about her sitting there and reading it and no one being there to see her face, her sadness or anger or whatever she must have felt. Exasperation, maybe.
You follow the cables and imagine the light inside, taking bits by the billions across the earth, and how much of that might be hate, directed toward some little girl.
Maybe it’s good. I suppose most people don’t want to be seen crying. Sometimes it’s best to hide this pain and put on armor and turn away, and turn it off. But when pain is hidden for so long eventually it’s going to find a way out, and slip through some crack like smoke from a house fire, and the whole goddamned thing is going to burn down.
And so to escape the flames you leave land entirely and walk into the sea, down, down, down to where the submarine internet cables are, thousands of feet below, the parts of the ocean where light can barely find you. You follow the cables and imagine the light inside, taking bits by the billions across the earth, and how much of that might be hate, directed toward some little girl. I crossed oceans of data to find Sara, but I couldn’t. She’d been driven from the internet, and into the darkness, under the surface, she vanished.
* * *
I don’t know why I get these feverish urges to find internet girls I used to love, but I do, and Sara was no exception. After I read her diary, after I re-read her final message, “People hated me so much,” I just wanted to know that she turned out all right. I had a fantasy about finding her name on some tech giant’s website, finding her Twitter and her millions of followers, her blue checkmark, the way I’d found Jami and her Hugo nomination. I had so little to go on, but I needed to try anyway.
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It seems like it should be so easy to find someone on the internet in 2017, but I couldn’t find Sara. From reading her website, and her diary, and reading between the lines, I figured out her birthdate, her city, and then her school, and then her graduating year. I knew her AIM name and email address, both Pepsi-themed, and both virtual dead ends. I know from her diary that she studied hard, and got good grades. Her parents sent her to riding camp, and rafting camp, and other camps that I didn’t know were things. She and her father vacationed on Cape Cod. While she was away at these places she pleaded with her readers not to flood her inbox with emails she didn’t want to read. It’s too much to come back to, she wrote. I doubt they complied.
The details of her life she chose to share were incomprehensible, in the best way. “One of my best friends is the daughter of Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer,” she wrote. “Al Gore’s kids went to my school — his son got kicked out for smoking. My friend’s mom teaches George W. Bush’s niece. One of my BFF’s dad controls all the trade between the US and Asia & Europe.” I’m not sure what that last one means.
For all her visibility, for all her internet presence, Sara proved elusive. A few years ago I Googled myself and discovered that I had revealed my full name in my own childhood internet diary, this one on my ancient Angelfire website that I’d lovingly made and maintained all through high school. Deleting it wasn’t a straightforward process: the email address associated with the account had long, long been dead, and I ended up writing a desperate email to Angelfire pleading with them to understand my predicament and make some sort of exception for me. They reset the password, no questions asked. I’m continually impressed with the restraint of the other members of my generation. They listened to our parents and didn’t tell the internet their real names.
(I didn’t delete my Angelfire website, by the way. How could I? Sara had inspired it.)
I tried to Google her other website, an HTML guide for kids, to see if I could find her full name, but that, too, got me nowhere. This was a website I referenced often in my very early website-building days, and I’d been wondering if I was the only person who remembered it. I wasn’t, but, it turns out, I am apparently the only person who remembers it fondly. “I like it because it contains html knowledge, but looks incredibly retarded, mostly due to its blue and pink color scheme,” some asshole in some forum wrote in 2007. They weren’t the only one to express disdain for the feminine color scheme. Another asshole somewhere else said they wanted to “bitch slap” whoever made it.
More bullshit, years later. The view counter was long gone, but, apparently, for as long as people remembered Sara, the abuse would endure. I thought about her guestbook again, and how glad I am that WaybackMachine didn’t archive it.
In an attempt to find a list of students in her graduating class, something did pop up, a New York Times article published fifteen years ago with the eerily relevant headline, “Internet Gives Teenage Bullies Weapons to Wound From Afar.”
For as long as people remembered Sara, the abuse would endure.
The article details upsetting anecdotes about high school girls bullying each other over mundane things, the types of stories that are now so commonplace that we expect the word suicide in the headline. Nothing particularly extraordinary, until:
”Everyone hates you,” read an anonymous comment directed toward a girl who had signed her name to a post about exams on a blog run by middle-school students at the ____ School in ____, last term.
That’s her high school, at the same time she was there. I have no way of knowing if the blog mentioned is Sara’s website, and if it is, that’s horrible, and if it isn’t, that’s horrible. That means another girl at the same school, at the same time, was enduring the same abuse Sara was, from probably the same people saying probably the same things. “People hated me so much.” “Everyone hates you.” More bullshit.
Even if the article wasn’t about Sara, it had come up in my investigation of her, and only reinforced what I already knew: People hate girls on the internet.
* * *
I gave up trying to find her, at least for a while. She had wanted to disappear, and she had, and I should leave it at that, and trust that she grew up and left this shit behind and had a normal life. Stop stalking the ghosts of internet girls past. Leave them be. Let them go.
But I’ve never been one to yield to a challenge, or common sense, and, weeks later, late at night, I found myself Googling her again. Each attempt requires a new technique to uncover new intel, and so this time I tried Googling Sara + her birthdate, and I snapped out of my sleepiness, and gasped, because the first Sara with this birthdate that comes up has been dead since June 2017.
Thankfully, Sara is an incredibly common name, and I’m sure dozens of Saras were born in the United States on that date, but I couldn’t resist clicking the first link, the funeral home’s memorial page for this Sara. Dozens of people lit virtual candles. “A candle was lit by Mom” has become my new most-hated phrase. Many also wrote messages for her:
“My heart broke when I read this news.”
“I will never forget your face or your smile.”
“To my sara. My Pepsi!!! Words can’t describe how I am feeling right now. I feel like part of me Is gone.”
My heart stopped. “My Pepsi!!!” Pepsi, like her AIM name, like her email address. No, this can’t be her. There are thousands of Saras out there and a hundred of them are bound to have the same birthdate. I read more. These Saras aren’t survived by the same people, the brother’s name is different from the one Sara mentioned on her website, the region is the same but the state is different. This isn’t her. This is just a weird coincidence. Two weird coincidences.
Instead of feeling relieved, I just felt worse, learning about this other Sara, dead at such a young age, also my age. I scrolled down and down and read every word, and saw every candle.
And there, at the bottom of the page, with a big, blue link: a guestbook.
* * *
Julianne Aguilar is an artist and writer who is interested in the literal and figurative landscapes of the internet and video games. She is a writer for Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Editor: Dana Snitzky