Before becoming the corporate and cultural monolith it is today, in the early 2000s "social media" mostly consisted of things like message boards, chat rooms, and web rings. Nowadays those types of platforms seem archaic, but they were once the prototypes for how we would eventually interact with each other online.
While the majority of these early online communities have long since died out and faded into internet obscurity, the Newfoundland-centric proto-social media community known as Blue Kaffee still stands, its garish blue layout looking positively ancient by today's standards.
We tend to think of social media as a particularly modern construct, but it's been around in one form or another practically since the inception of the modern internet. The difference these days, of course, is that we're operating on an absolutely massive and global scale. Yet at the very beginning many social media sites revolved around regional or interest based groups.
Blue Kafee, which was created sometime in 2003 by programmer Chad Levesque, was initially meant to be a personal blog but quickly grew into a flourishing online community for Newfoundland youth predominantly based in the St. John's area (the provincial capital city of the remote island). At first, it was the ideal way for people to communicate and share their lives online before Facebook came on the scene.
"It's hard to say if we were ahead of our time," said Aaron Rudkin, a former administrator of the site who still helps work out the occasional technical problem to this day. "I think it's easier to look at us as part of an emerging trend of people expressing themselves online, and the logical execution of that organized around local communities."
A fairly slapdash combination of features like journal entries, photo galleries and forums, the site basically served as a clunkier precursor to social media platforms like Facebook or Google+. You could upload photos, spill your heart out for everyone to see, have long-winded discussions, and send private messages—it was all just a little more work, and a lot less refined.
In Newfoundland, a province that's fairly isolated both culturally and geographically from the rest of Canada, connecting with other people in you could actually understand and identify with was a huge thing.
"There wasn't a larger analogous platform so, as a result, I never really thought about the fact that it was only used in Newfoundland," said Zaren Healey White, a former Blue Kaffee user. "At 17, your worldview is still pretty narrow and so as long as everyone you know is using something, it must be the thing to do. I used it to invite people to parties, to get to know new friends, to interact with new dating interests, to share my poetry and photos. It quickly became something you used regularly and daily, certainly every evening."
According to Rudkin, at one point the site garnered the most traffic in the province. It was seen among young people as the ideal place to share stories about their relationships or to exchange information on the best local bands.
But when the social media wave hit, the site lost users. That being said, not as many as you'd expect. The migration was slow, with many of its users preferring the uniquely personal touch of the site, and all of the friendships and memories they'd carved out there.
"I remember finding Facebook weird and I didn't immediately know what to do with it because it was a new platform that, up until that point, had no place in my life," said Healey White.
"Later, when I started using Facebook regularly, my use tapered off. Facebook did more and was growing more rapidly and extended all over the world—there simply wasn't a need to maintain two similar online personae and profiles," she continued.
Even though a large portion of Blue Kaffee's user base inevitably migrated to more global social media platforms, the site retains a plethora of dedicated users who still post regularly and interact on a daily basis.
Some feel that Blue Kaffee offers an easier way to express themselves and interact with people they know, and some just don't like the big business, corporate feel of Facebook. For whatever reason, the diehards aren't going anywhere. They're still content to post about who might have an extra graduation ticket or what apartments are for rent in St. John's.
It was seen among young people as the ideal place to share stories about their relationships or to exchange information on the best local bands.
With the ever growing concerns about how some social media sites handle user data and the decline of trust in big corporations, there are some people who feel more comfortable heading back to older platforms like Blue Kaffee.
A site like Blue Kaffee is a look back to when the the internet was something you actively used, rather than something that we're almost constantly passively interacting with. It reminds us of simpler times, of less hectic schedules, and of a sense of belonging in a regional boundary.
For Rudkin, Blue Kaffee will always be something he can look back on fondly, and something that will remain an integral part of growing up in the digital age for many Newfoundlanders, as well as something that will inform how they move forward.
"I think in the wake of a world where everything is increasingly big, increasingly centralized, and increasingly commercialized, having this little weird independent artifact of the past is wonderful," he said. "We're not that and we never were, and that's something to be proud of. That's my view: in a way, we were and are punk or independent or off-the-beaten path, and I like that."