AOL 'ZINES AND NOSY TWEENS: Sometimes I Miss The ’90s Internet

The Internet of yore was a weird, beautiful place.

Jul 2, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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I'm pretty sure this is the first selfie I ever took, and it is terrifying. I am 11 years old, and there is DEATH IN MY EYES.

It was 1999, or maybe 2000. I had finally figured out how to skirt AOL's Parental Controls via the cunning maneuvers "figuring out my mom's password" and "changing my setting from 'kid' to 'teen.'" Though our family computer was in the public space of my dad's office, I was an expert at hastily minimizing windows that might lead to awkward questions. And I was obsessed with the total stranger who sent me updates about her life via email on a regular basis.

In general, I have the memorization skills of a concussed gray squirrel, but details about this person's existence have seeped their way into my brain in a way that basic arithmetic, the name of my elementary school principal and yesterday's breakfast have not. 

Her name was Sarah. She worked at a Sam Goody. She had blue hair and wore baggy raver pants and was dating someone -- possibly engaged to them -- who had a rad nonspecific burly-person music industry job. And every week, Sarah would send me 1,000-word diary entries enumerating the various dramas she and her gorgeous, unpredictable friends were involved in. 

Such were the ways of AOL "'zines," an odd little niche of late-’90s Internet in which I found myself thoroughly entrenched as a tween. Much like their much-cooler analog cousins of the same name, 'zines were independent ventures that allowed budding writers, mostly young women, to share their thoughts on feminism or Harry Potter or Smash Mouth with a host of like-minded individuals. 

As AOL's email HTML capabilities became more complex, so too did the 'zines; one frequent trick was to futz with the font sizes of your letters so that they all blurred together, creating fancy zig-zag borders that, if you messed up your formatting, just looked like you'd typed "hhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Reader Submissions hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," only in neon. Customized cartoon "dolls" were also very popular, for some reason.

I still don't remember exactly how I stumbled upon my first 'zine -- I think maybe it had something to do with Pokemon fan fiction -- but once I did, I was hooked.

I liked the fan-oriented 'zines fine, and even participated in a few, but my favorites were called "diary 'zines." Like Sarah's, they consisted of people writing out mini-essays about the shenanigans they'd gotten into over the course of a week or so, then sending them out to an alphabetically organized (and blind-copied) list. I subscribed to at least a dozen, but only a few made a lasting impression. Abby, the girl with anorexia who would methodically list every item she'd eaten that day. Chris, who lived in Ireland and was raising her younger siblings since her parents weren't in the picture. And Sarah.

Sarah was particularly compelling to me. She'd had sex before; she was bisexual; she posted photos of herself with her arms around her doe-eyed friends, all of whom had names that I rolled around my mouth like "Siobhan" or "Elyse." She'd even annotate their names with hovertext, so that when you paused on them they'd inform you that they were "16. Bi. Lola's best friend," or "17. Gay. Debate captain." I pored over the minutiae of their interactions, more invested in their likes and interests than they themselves probably were.

They all struck me as being so comfortable within themselves, in ways that were completely foreign to me. Until that point, I'd always tried to avoid taking up space, saying the wrong thing or making a rash decision. At the same time, though, I was desperately curious to know what everyone else was thinking, possibly so I could more fully grasp what was OK for me to think, too.

People rarely said what they meant to me, though. I spent a lot of time as a kid with my breath held and listening at closed doors, straining to crack the mask every adult I knew insisted on wearing. But everyone Sarah talked about, and Sarah herself, appeared to lack those nerves. Even her struggles, like her depression or body image issues, were honest.

"This is who I am," she seemed to be saying. "And if you don't like it, you can f*ck off." I loved it. I envied it. I read about it every single week.

In retrospect, these diary 'zines served the same function as Livejournal or Tumblr: They were ways for people to outline their lives in ways that made sense to them, and to invite connection with others. At the time, getting their updates in my inbox felt magical, like these older women were whispering secrets to me that were beyond my experience or even most of my comprehension. They showed me, possibly for the first time, that so much of the world was happening outside of my tiny California town, and all I had to do to find it was look.

Unlike people I meet on social media these days, I also had no desire to interact with any of these diary 'zine authors. I'm sure I could have -- we already had each other's direct email addresses -- but I didn't want them to be my friend or my mentor. I didn't want them to treat me like an equal; I wanted them to forget I existed, to allow me the privilege of seeing them the same way they saw themselves. 

And for the most part, they did! This was Old Internet, remember, where caution and candor went, oxymoronically, hand in hand. We all knew the hazards of giving out our Real Last Names online -- that way lay getting ax-murdered, or possibly invited to "cyber." So long as that remained sacred, though, every last detail was up for revealing.

Now, so much of what we say online is tempered by the knowledge that it's all getting stored away somewhere, for the amusement of our future employers or the government. A decade ago, as long as you stuck to the rules (i.e., no home addresses), it felt like a safe space. We were all explorers in a weird, dangerous land, but we all had our maps and each other.

As much as I loved reading about the intimate drama of these women's lives, though, I didn't want to create a diary 'zine of my own. I mean, sure, I tried -- I distinctly recall deciding to pretend to be 14, because it seemed more "grown-up" -- but I gave it up after a few installments because, well, it bored me. I also created a very short-lived one from my dog's point of view; like the one from my own perspective, it involved a lot of repetition and capslock. I much preferred the chance to dig through other people's adventures than relive my own.

I'm not sure what happened to AOL 'zines; I'd guess that they fizzled out right around the time Yahoo Groups and Livejournal started to bloom on the scene. For that matter, I don't know  what happened to Sarah. I guess I could try to track her Facebook or Twitter down, but I'm pretty sure that would tip me over from "dedicated fan" into "actual stalker" territory. I liked Old Internet, yeah, but something about the idea of merging it with Present Internet -- getting the chance to blend a person's intimate digital soliloquy with the self they present to the respectable rest of the world -- feels incredibly invasive to me.

Today, though, I'll still sometimes end up deep in a rando's "#personal" tag on Tumblr at an ungodly hour, grinning at their Friday date night outfit or listening to a voice post they made about the pronunciation of "water." Again, it's a peek into the day-to-day lives of strangers -- and it reminds me that, no matter what year it is, there will always be a world outside of my own that's only a few clicks away.

Kate is divulging intimate details on Twitter: @katchatters