It’s 2006 and my friends and I are in the ICT suite at lunchtime. We’re sitting side-by-side in our navy school uniform sweatshirts, tapping methodically on our chunky keyboards. Our hair is ironed poker straight, and we all have a row of brightly coloured charity bands strewn up our arms. It’s lunchtime, but we’re working away on a grind that never stops: building our Piczo websites.
For those of you who, much to my dismay, will have no idea what I’m talking about, Piczo was a website builder and social networking site that launched in 2005, around the same peak years as Myspace. Users could create their own web pages and add photos, “blinkies” (flashing graphics), text, guestbooks, music and other content using plain text and HTML. Imagine Tumblr before Tumblr, but gaudier and more glittery.
Despite being founded in San Francisco, Piczo found its most devoted audiences among teen and preteen girls in the UK and Canada. By 2006, according to stats at the time, it had become the largest teen site in the UK. It was these girls who created the trademark kitsch aesthetic associated with Piczo and the 2000s internet more generally. Think: garish colour schemes, rotating Playboy bunny logos and sparkly phrases written in alternating caps (“aLl AbOuT mE”). Among the garishness was carefully arranged photos of friends, inside jokes, hot gossip and the occasional message from visitors – all accessible via customisable URLs.
“I named my first site something like, cutiebootiechris.piczo.com,” says Christie, 27, from South London. “I remember getting in trouble with one of my friends’ mums because she saw it on her daughter’s internet history and thought it was a porn site.”
On Piczo, Christabel uploaded the first photos of herself to ever exist on the internet. “My first mirror selfie on a digital camera would have been taken for Piczo and it was around the time that the emo aesthetic was getting popular, so my pics were very fringey. The theme [of the site] was black and hot pink with glittery bubble text and a lot of cute but evil imagery – that glittery bunny holding a knife was definitely on my page at one point.”
There was a community element to Piczo, too, with a handful of featured pages on the homepage. This ramped up the competition to have the best page, with the goal of getting one of these coveted spots. “I’d go through all of these featured sites and take inspiration for my own,” says Alekzandriia, 28, from Ontario.
“In exploring other people’s pages, I found myself learning about HTML and how I could use it to customise my site even more. I didn’t know how to make anything from scratch, but I would take other people’s widgets or layouts and then tweak them to make them my own.”
While Piczo was typically used for sharing photos and messages, it also had a catty side. Among my friends, the site became a sort of digital Mean Girls burn book. Any slight falling out and the photos we had of each other on our sites might get deleted, or edited with snide captions and rumours. This wasn’t unique to my school or friendship group. If anything, it was a sign of what social media would hold in the future.
“The release of Gossip Girl coincided perfectly with our own adolescence and inspired us to create our own version [on Piczo], fuelled by the kinds of silly rumours that thrive in middle school,” says Alekzandriia. “There was lots of drama at my school, so there was no shortage of content to share.” Alekzandriia’s friendship group shared a Piczo login, so they could each update it. Though, she adds, they quickly shut it down when someone outside of their inner circle found out about it. “We didn’t want to get in trouble!”
This was such a common phenomenon in schools that Piczo founder Jim Conning was once even contacted by a Canadian headteacher whose students had become embroiled in a “name calling, finger pointing” Piczo drama. “She’d never seen anything like it,” he recalls over Zoom, nearly a decade after Piczo shut down in November 2012. “This was her first experience of an online incident spilling over to the physical school. I was amazed that Piczo had become so deeply intertwined in that community.”
Conning never initially intended to make a website for this community of teenage girls. His first formal venture – a photo-sharing site called Funtigo launched in 2002 – was targeted towards “tech-savvy adults who wanted to tell a story with their photos” via “their own customised website.” But when the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, Funtigo was launched as a paid service with a free trial, with little success. Just two percent of the site’s users opted for a paid subscription.
Conning started getting hundreds of emails from teenage girls begging him to make Funtigo free again. Instead, he decided to create a separate, ad-supported site called Piczo. Not wanting to “cannibalise the Funtigo audience”, Piczo would be targeted towards these teens – the most avid users of Funtigo’s free service. “The day we launched, I replied to each one of them saying, ‘If you want to keep your Funtigo site, click this button to convert it to Piczo’,” Conning explains. “From those 100 emails, 1,800 users had soon signed up. Over the next two years, this became 10 million unique monthly visitors, all without any formal marketing.”
Piczo dominated for a while. By 2005, it had grown by an astonishing 9,669 per cent in the UK. – but its adulation began to wane after a proliferation of social media sites emerged. In 2006 – the year Piczo hit its top growth – MySpace launched in the UK, three years after it premiered in the US. Conning believes Piczo didn’t take off in America because of the popularity of Myspace; almost expectedly, then, when it did eventually launched in the UK, it poached Piczo’s primary userbase.
Instead of building secret websites, young girls started to upload selfies to MySpace, trading ‘pc4pc’ (‘picture comments for picture comments’) and tasting the kind of instant gratification – via likes – that would become the bread and butter of mainstream social media platforms. In a further blow to Piczo – and, later, Myspace – Facebook surged in popularity in 2007 (though Piczo did remain more popular than Zuckerberg’s offering until the following year).
Faced with stiff competition, Conning and his team decided to adapt Piczo in a misguided attempt to remain relevant. “In 2007 to 2008, we really tried to change Piczo into something more resembling social media, rather than the original photo website builder that had social energy at its core,” he explains. In 2009, Conning sold Piczo to Stardoll – yes, the people behind the dress-up games – who later told the founder that he’d “really screwed up”. “They felt that the original Piczo was fantastic, but our attempt to morph it into social media had ruined it.” After its acquisition, Stardoll tried to fight Piczo’s declining traffic by turning it into a blogging site, without much success.
By November 2012 – two years after Instagram launched and hammered the final nail in Piczo’s coffin – Stardoll relented to failure and Piczo shuttered for good. “The biggest disappointment for me is that Piczo didn’t end up being a successful business after I worked so hard on it and we had gained so much momentum,” admits Conning. “I wish all those Piczo sites were still up so we could go and look at them.”
Despite how huge Piczo once was, we don't hear it spoken about very often, save for a few tweets, TikTok videos and the occasional nostalgic Reddit post. Still, this doesn’t mean its legacy isn’t felt all over the internet. Conning points to the ubiquitous format of photo-sharing social media sites, like Facebook and Instagram (the latter of which launched in 2010), as a key example of this.
“Piczo helped to identify the untapped demand for social sharing that ubiquitous digital cameras and the internet have enabled,” he says. “[On Facebook and Instagram, users] don’t try to lay out and decorate their photos in an artistic arrangement, but the social energy that Piczo embodied has carried on in a big way.”
Piczo’s legacy also lives on via its users. For some, their early experiences of coding (of sorts) on Piczo has even helped carve out their careers. During the pandemic, Alekzandriia – who studied biology at university – started to reconsider her job as a lab technician.
“On reflecting about the things I enjoy the most, I realised I was at my happiest when I was creating Piczo websites,” she says. “So, earlier this year, I decided that I would transition to a career in tech, and I’ve been working on teaching myself the skills I need. There’s a lot to learn – a lot has changed since I was 13! But I once again find myself staying up late into the night to create websites, and I couldn’t be happier.”
For many, Piczo completely shaped the way they use the internet today. This might manifest in the curation of their Instagram grid (even if it’s ugly), or even in their penchant for oversharing on the internet, having learned at a young age to use social media sites like Piczo in a diaristic way. For boomers, the way younger generations use the internet might seem completely out of this world. For those who grew up using Piczo though, this has always been normal.
“Piczo showed me the power of the internet to be this creative, exciting place where you could express yourself any way you wanted,” reflects Cristina, 24, from Toronto. “But my page was rarely viewed by anyone else, so it was truly a free place [to do this].”
That said, for many millennials, Piczo is a reminder of what the internet used to be like. But it's not like that anymore. “The MySpace and Piczo generation feel disenchanted with the controversies coming out of today’s ‘it’ platforms,” says Ysabel Gerrard, a digital media and society lecturer at the University of Sheffield and the co-author of a recent analysis of nostalgic MySpace discourse.
“Older social networking sites belonged to a purer time when their founders didn’t make headlines for, say, shaping political elections and dismantling democracy. While older companies had their fair share of problems, people seem to feel that they weren’t as ethically unsound.”
Cristina says that the exposure of today’s internet has “definitely slowed down [her] posting.” She says she's “now hyper aware of the longevity of posts on the internet, as well as the infinite audience that could be viewing your posts. I’m always longing for a space like Piczo on the internet, where I can experience that full creative freedom once again.”
Although we may never be able to return to this (possibly rose-tinted) era of innocence, Piczo's ethos of aimless, private online creativity hasn’t been totally erased from today's internet – even if censorship and the demand for monetisation has made it harder. “There are still people – mostly on the indie web – who create amazing things on their own personal sites and on platforms like Neocities [a revitalisation of the 90s website builder GeoCities], which aim to foster the creative spirit that made sites like Piczo so precious,” says Alekzandriia.
That said, maybe Piczo simply couldn't exist today. But it was fun, for a while. Alekzandriia sums it up succinctly: “There’s a saying that comes to mind to describe how I feel about Piczo and the internet in general at the time: ‘I wish there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them’.”