I am twenty years old, which means I am old enough to have nostalgia for the "old internet" but still too young to truly understand what the "old internet" was.
I have always loved dress up games, and in loving them I found a few precious sites. The Doll Palace. Dressupgames.com . Websites I used very early, always finding the same games again and again, always excited to see a new one and determine quickly whether or not I liked it.
I found The Doll Palace in probably 2007, two years past its heyday but one year before its death. The short-lived editorial section was new, but I didn't know that.
Like everyone, I crafted dolls. I couldn't find the 'av chat', didn't know how to access it with anything other than (yuck) premade dolls. Premium was a lost cause for me; I never displayed interest in it, as I had only ever been interested in buying Toontown's membership or Neopet's premium.
But I quickly found "Dolls and Stories". As a writer, I wrote. I added my own tales to the collection that was there. Poetry, too, and short stories. As Unistray208, at the time.
As always, I left. As always, I returned.
But by the time I returned it was 2009 or 2010; the Doll Palace was dead. The mysterious webmistress, Jessica, had disappeared. I still didn't figure out the Avatar Chat, but I quickly went back to the Dolls and Stories.
That section of the Doll Palace, so rarely untouched by anyone but prolific, passionate writers (as I'd like to consider myself) I imagine was active until the very end.
Now my account was Ilyria, or something akin to it. I crafted a tale of a mermaid in the deep-sea, protecting aquatic creatures considered extinct. Trilobites, I remember specifically mentioning, because I had just learned about them in one science class or another.
I wrote a short story series about a girl 'moonstruck', because in her world stars didn't exist. It was decent, though years later once I made my next return I would cringe at it.
I escaped the constraints of her, when I came back in 2013, 2014. I became Kunabee. And, as always, the Dolls and Stories section was active. This time however, there wasn't a flood of stories. There was a small group of regular writers, good friends who had had their friendships formed on The Doll Palace. I was 'Kunabee Sakura Tiger', my full online name, formed from years of playing on the internet with people and my many name changes.
I wrote, as I always do, and I was welcomed into the fold of less than ten people. I have vague memories of them, I can form their individual personalities in my mind when put to the task, but I can't remember the specific number or usernames or what, exactly, they wrote (beyond the one-time theme we all participated in, where we all talked with our characters).
This round I found the avatar chat, and I sat in it, alone, with something other than a premade avatar. I explored, I looked, poking around. Before it had always been busy; now it was curiously empty.
But the Dolls and Stories was where I belonged.
Some clever, crazy girl who had assigned everyone last names dubbed me 'McKangaroo', and until mid to late 2016 I added it as a second last name before at last shedding it. I remember deciding "you know what, Kunabee Sakura Tiger McKangaroo is just too much".
I wrote, and they wrote, and it was good and fun.
But like always, I disappeared.
Today, nostalgia overcame me. I opened thedollpalace.com to be greeted by a "the doll palace is undergoing daily maintenance, please wait a few minutes."
Excitement rushed through me. Was Jessica at last returned? Was the site getting an update? So I waited. And then rationality returned. Had The Doll Palace at last closed its doors? After eight years of sitting, untouched, allowing us few nostalgic folks to return to play with the dollmakers, Google declared it has.
But Google also allowed me a portal; yummilicious.com, the last update in 2005, but owned by the Doll Palace. With the same makers. No Dolls and Stories, and garish coloration, but makers that can give me the brief feeling I had in the Doll Palace. The first sense of community I felt, WE felt, but unable to relive.
Now, of course, newer, brighter doll makers have come into play. Dressupgames.com has gotten an update as of a couple of years ago, one I personally do not like, but it still lives. Dolldivine has the community that The Doll Palace once had, yet its community is only reachable if you pay the two dollars for two years pricing (which I do). In this community I see young girls reaching out, making dolls. Thirteen and fourteen year olds - and in some cases, those as young as ten - making dolls. Better than anything we made at thirteen and fourteen in the doll palace, and some who are just as bad as we were. And then older girls, girls who I could even call 'women' - Olga, the mistress of Dolldivine is a mother - making fantastic art, observing the younger folks of dolldivine like guardians.
Azaleasdolls.com, where Azalea works closely with Olga and who has made dress up games with her, yet her website doesn't afford the sense of community that dolldivine does. Rinmarugames.com with her manga makers, created by her and another: PrinceofRedRoses these days, though Mileysknight for the first one, and for four pages (never to be complete) of a second one.
One wonders if the community built up with the Doll Palace is now for the elite, a paradigm shift from social communication being free to paid; but Neopets still exists, and last I checked (less than a year ago, more than six months ago) Neopets still has a community that's shifting. For two or three years its roleplaying boards were dead, mostly silent, updated with a bump every three or four days, but now they have returned. Gifted and gifted school roleplays don't rule them, but they have a new stereotype, and there are 'literates' versus 'illiterates' once more.
I hold out a hope, that old friends will find me. In my old Unistray208 accounts I do everything I can to leave a trail to Kunabee. And, of course, I'm Kunabee. Simply googling the name will lead you, ultimately, to a website or two I'm still active with.
But there is nothing like the old days, and in many ways I hope I am not found. Believing that my old friends have had and found happiness, have created beautiful, brilliant lives for themselves, have grown up and danced away but always kept that same, basic sense of wonder - it's a sweet belief.
Still. I leave the trail, the breadcrumbs, and keep the hope while I hope from one website to another, while I find my niche of These Are Where I Go, where I disappear for months only to return much later. My habits are still much the same.
Habbo Hotel is still up, and still active, with updates both good and bad. Neopets exists, as does Furcadia. Old websites, places that are always changing and yet never change very much. The same stereotypes will always return; new pre-teens and young teens will come with their 'lol random' and emo phases and grow out of it, shaking off the old as they adjust and redefine and discover new labels that fit them better.
The greatest hope I have is that they have the time I did. That new roleplayers have their Mary Sues and then learn why the older roleplayers they so admire don't like them. That their pre-teen and young teen selves will slowly grow and change and realize as they redefine and reorient. That they will find some place, some group of people, to call their internet "home" and even when they grow so far away the distance seems irreparable, they will once more reach out and connect and hold the tenuous threads of family.
That one day, when they're twenty and twenty-one and twenty-five and even thirty, they'll be writing what it was like in their own version of the "old internet" and be filled with nostalgia and yet, that small, precious, pristine hope for the new, that they see their own paradigm shifts and are absolutely amazed by the human condition and the fact that, for all their differences, people are still terribly, terribly the same.