Growing Up and Role-Playing on Xanga, the Proto-Tumblr
How high school roleplaying on Xanga inspired me to become a writer
Image: Marcle Casa/Flickr
This year, one of my New Year's Resolutions is to learn to code. While completing a HTML/CSS course on Codecademy, some repressed memories have come to light. I previously learned HTML basics on Xanga, a primitive form of Tumblr.
Starting at the age of 11, I microblogged about my middle school lunch periods, wrote open love letters based on Phantom of the Opera lyrics, cropped photos of celebrities to create 100x100 pixel icons, and created my own blog layouts. After school, I maintained a Xanga blog as a creative outlet.
The first night of summer following seventh grade, I stumbled upon a Xanga account called Lake Wanaka Academy, which followed a fictitious high school community in New Zealand. Hundreds of blogs were connected through Lake Wanaka's "blogring," or a group of similar Xanga accounts. Everyone interacted with each other through pseudonyms. I didn't know it at the time, but this was the first roleplaying community I was exposed to.
Upon acceptance into the community, a new member would create a Xanga blog to represent a fictional character, along with an introductory "about me" post. To visually represent their characters, the community used Myspace "celebrities" including Melissa Millionaire, Tila Tequila, Kiki Kannibal, and Victoria Murder. It sounded a little like the My Chemical Romance fanfiction I read; the community collectively created plots and stories through a fictitious world, based on real life people.
Within minutes, I created a separate Xanga account for my new alter ego and student at Lake Wanaka Academy: Alexa Hawkins. I created her personality based on who I wanted to be. She was from Napanee, Ontario where my childhood idol—Avril Lavigne—grew up. She studied instrumental musical since she was four. She was skinny with blonde hair, a nose piercing, and black lowlights.
That night, I started to introduce myself as Alexa Hawkins to other characters in the community. I commented on every single member's blog. I was surprised to find returned introductions with enthusiasm. Everyone was incredibly friendly and I found this unusual. This was the first time I interacted with online community full of teenagers. Unlike my peers in school, other role-players warmly welcomed me into their space.
The afternoon before I created my new Xanga blog for Lake Wanaka, I graduated from seventh grade. As you'd expect, middle school was not kind. I was bullied for what felt like every reason under the sun. I wore scarves around my neck as if they were neckties because Avril Lavigne wore neckties and my mom wouldn't let me wear neckties. I obsessed over band class, yet played the saxophone horribly. I never completed the mile run in under twenty minutes. I had the nickname "donut girl" the time lunch aides assigned seats at lunch time. (Seriously, who's idea was it to assign seats at lunch?)
Alexa started making friends that told her secrets. She flirted with boys. She went to parties on weeknights hosted in temporary chatrooms. The Lake Wanaka Academy's gossip blog talked about her. She quickly became popular, a phenomenon I never experienced.
By my 13th birthday, only two weeks after joining, I cut my birthday dinner short with my parents to go online. I wasn't interested in celebrating my thirteen birthday. Why bother, if Alexa Hawkins could receive more birthday wishes? I had all the friends I wanted through Lake Wanaka. That summer, this became a pattern. Instead of swimming in the pool outside or hanging out with friends, I spent my days logged into Xanga, from the moment I woke up until I fell asleep again. The community consumed me and started taking over my life. I wasn't interested in anything beyond role-playing. No one wanted to be friends with Danielle Corcione; everyone wanted to be friends with Alexa Hawkins.
However, this was all a secret. No one in real life knew about my alter ego. After the principal sent home a letter about online predators during the school year, I wasn't even allowed on Xanga. There were rumors that my classmates used Xanga to gossip about each other, and I remember a time where group of girls getting called to the principal's office about it. However, my online identity was separate from my school identity, so I didn't need to worry about that. Once my parents approached me about the letter, I shrugged it off like I didn't know what they were talking about and that was the end of it. Luckily, I knew how to delete history. If a parent approached me from behind while I was on the computer, I'd minimize the window and browse a site about music.
I thought it wouldn't last. I thought this was a summertime hobby that'd die once September came around. I tried to restrict myself from logging in until I finished my homework. Although I rushed through schoolwork, this worked. The community became more lively at night, particularly after 9:30 PM, my scheduled bedtime. I somehow managed to stay up past my bedtime. I sneaked to the computer after midnight, when my parents were already asleep. The lack of sleep caught up with me quickly and I lost interest in my studies, but I didn't care. This was my life now and I lived it to the fullest. I not only interacted with other characters, but I wrote narratives through comments and created collective storylines.
I was not kind to Alexa. She birthed a son at age fifteen, married her rapist, and fell for close friends that ghosted away when the relationship failed. Each time, she stood taller after the hardship she faced. Although I controlled her plot and reactions, I admired her ability to snap back to reality—something I couldn't do. I was no longer Danielle Corcione; I was Alexa Hawkins. I was the girl that had a tightly-knit circle of friends, partied frequently, had a brother, became an established singer/songwriter in college, succeeded academically, and slept with whomever she wanted.
When Lake Wanaka became less active that fall, new role-playing communities popped up to replace it. This happened every couple of months. I'd have to sign up for a new Xanga account, even though I stayed with the same character. While the schools and locations changed, Alexa Hawkins lived on for another three years through over fifty different Xanga blog accounts.
In tenth grade, I finally started to understand the impact she had on my life. I started enrolling in more academically rigorous courses. I got involved with extracurricular activities. I thought about applying to college for the first time. I started having less free time to role-play. I either ignored responsibilities or ignored my character. I couldn't maintain a healthy balance.
One night after winter break, I added the biggest plot twist yet. I diagnosed Alexa Hawkins with acute myelogenous leukemia. She slowly said goodbyes to close friends and former partners. By Spring, she died.
When I cut myself off from role-playing, I repressed every moment of it. I had a difficult time understanding my relationship with the Xanga role-playing community. It was intense and invigorating, but no one around me in real life knew the double life I lived. I felt embarrassed by my internet obsession and didn't feel comfortable talking about it to anyone outside of the role-playing community. I didn't want to think about all the wasted time I could've spent studying, practicing music, or even interacting with people my age in person instead of online.
Two years ago, at an academic conference, I attended a presentation about fanfiction. The presenter researched the benefits of fanfiction and similar online communities in an educational context. She concluded fanfiction helped students develop reading and writing skills. Through fanfiction, students practiced grammatical structures, planned storylines, created distinct personalities, and explored new vocabulary.
During the presentation, Alexa Hawkins resurrected. Although it wasn't exactly fanfiction, it was similar enough. Repressed memories poured in. I remembered her in a new light through narrative. I wrote her backstories and song lyrics. I planned plot twists on my own and with other role-players. I expanded my vocabulary to use in conversations. Each conversation included actions and details, not only dialogue. It hit me: my passion for writing began with Lake Wanaka.
Once I started role-playing, writing became less of a tedious task and more of a hobby. I wrote multiple times a day in a journal—lyrics, short stories, poetry, encounters from my everyday life. I started writing for the student newspaper.
My love of writing, though, did not fade once I stopped role-playing. In college, I majored in Literature and minored in Creative Writing. I published my work anywhere that wished to publish it.
I created Alexa Hawkins to escape bullying, gossip, social acceptance, and other frustrations of adolescence. I accidently found who I wanted to be in the process: a writer, and because I still use writing to escape the chaos of everyday life, Alexa Hawkins will never die.