I don't remember how I found the message board "All Things Not Weezer." Nor do I remember the spark that prompted me to jump from anonymous fifteen-year-old lurker to frequent poster under the handle "stale cheezits." But I did that, and eleven years after the fact, I look back both horrified and amused, a reaction that should be fairly familiar to many people who grew up alongside the World Wide Web.
The fact is, the board transformed my life.
ATNW was a weird little neighborhood on the web for people who liked Weezer, or at least one era of their career, as my pal Jim (bootknocka22) diplomatically put it. But it was also much more than that.
We liked the band, but there was more to talk about. It was a place for people who felt nervous, apprehensive, a bit shaken about socializing in the meatspace. I know I felt that—I began posting in my sophomore year of high school, around the time my childhood friends started partying harder, leaving me stuck at home feeling scandalized and awkward.
ATNW offered me community when I felt like I had none, a sentiment my fellow board member Kevin echoed when I emailed him recently in a fever of nostalgia. "It felt like we'd carved out our own corner of the internet where we could be ourselves."
Across the sea
For the emotionally clumsy teenagers like myself who were the primary inhabitants of the board, the distance engendered by our screens made some of the typical growing pains of high school slash early adulthood just a little easier to handle. It almost seemed like practice for "real life," which was that thing that happened in between sessions of rabid posting.
We had good times, like Boardie Prom, and dark times, like the attack on Ne-Yo's message board. We bonded over private memes and, through picture threads, sought "the approval of strangers on the interwebs," as my friend N. (bittrswtsymfoni) noted. All this seems so trivial and a little, maybe a lot, embarrassing now, but at the time, these moments were what made ATNW such an absorbing space, as important as any basement hangout or drunken pool party.
While niche communities akin to ATNW have since formed on sites like Tumblr, and message boards with equally dynamic user bases definitely exist, modern social media are for the most part entirely different species.
One of the biggest differences between message boards like ATNW and what passes for online social spaces today is the sheer public nature of the latter. Developing a presence. Hoarding followers. Checking your various stats. Sure, there were larger-than-life personalities on the board, those that thrived on outward symbols of notoriety like post counts or being the first on the list of logged-in members. Ultimately, though, it was about interacting, socializing, and connecting.
Of course, "connecting" is one of the foundational premises of contemporary social media and the increasingly giant companies that control that media. But what we get in the breadth of the network, we lose in depth. That's not to say meaningful discussions and relationships can't thrive on newer platforms. It's just that these days, it's all too easy to maintain a presence in someone's life without engaging in actual communication. Likes, Favorites, re-blogs, and other quick fixes allow us to pop up as needed, as if to say, "I'm still here," without expending the energy necessary for actual dialogue.
I'm spread so thin I don't know who I am
Because ATNW consisted mostly of strangers, it was not enough to simply open a thread and write "+1" under someone's thoughts. A user started off as a blank state and needed to converse, really converse, with the people with whom they wanted to establish and maintain contact. "If you wanted to learn about people, you had to glean it from what they were saying," my friend Doug said.
The people I considered friends were the ones I regularly private messaged or the folks to whose threads I frequently contributed. Our relationships were based on conversations, not gestures. We weren't debating the Blue Album versus Pinkerton (though Pinkerton totally wins); we were talking about bigger things. Friends. Parents. School. Music. Everything and nothing at all. So while it was more difficult to keep up with an entire social network via the boards than it is now, community formation felt more organic. (Apparently, Rivers Cuomo was not one of its members: "I didn't use ATNW but my impression was that it was a very active community:)" he told Motherboard in a Facebook message.)
Then there's the issue of privacy, something especially relevant in light of recent whistleblowing (by the way, Edward Snowden was a frequent message board user over at Ars Technica). At the point in the early 2000s when ATNW was most active, the public was not as concerned with privacy issues that monoliths like Google and Facebook have sprung on us. Posters openly shared pictures, phone numbers, and snail mail addresses, sending packages to one another with mix CDs and handwritten notes.
That comfortable, semi-anonymity is almost unthinkable now: we were able to share information and ideas without each move becoming part of an ever-growing trail of data haunting our digital personas. I can think of very few spaces now where people have the opportunity to share so much with so few consequences. Perhaps one of the closest contemporary equivalents to non-corporate message boards would be mailing lists, like The Listserve, or, to a certain extent, online dating sites, which allow a user to operate under a handle and share information while still keeping a certain degree of privacy.
With present-day social media outlets, it almost feels like you have to: the internet creates an implicit social pressure to have a Twitter, a Tumblr, a Facebook, a LinkedIn, if you want to be a valid contributing member of virtual society. You never had to do anything on ATNW: if you joined, it was because you wanted to; if you saw someone cute on a picture thread and messaged them, it was because you wanted to; if you posted in the long-running gag thread "boners in math class," it was because you wanted to post in "boners in math class."
ATNW's golden age came to an end in 2005, a little over a year after The Facebook was launched. As the release date for Weezer's album Make Believe approached, the entire Weezer website was overhauled and the forums were shifted to a new platform. Karl Koch, Weezer.com's webmaster, gave us a six week warning that cited stability and usefulness as reasons for the change. But it still felt sudden. One day, we signed in and everything was different. And totally wrong.
I wanna go back
So the mass exodus began. Some absconded to the Weezernation boards, but I had been drifting away. It was my last year and a half of high school, and I became more interested in defining myself as Lex than as stale cheezits. And so the switchover seemed like the perfect time to sign-off for good.
While other internet outlets of yore—the Myspaces and Friendsters—may be cause for blushing and self-deprecatory laughter, recalling ATNW's heyday still invokes fondness, the sort of hazy nostalgia that evaporates when you focus too hard on it.
Last summer, someone who was probably feeling a little more wistful than usual started a Facebook group to reunite ex-ATNW folk. When I saw it, my heart started racing. Memories began rushing back, as did the compulsive need to reload, reload, reload just to make sure I didn't miss anything.
And then, unexpectedly, I was bored. Within a few hours, the group felt like a shambling corpse of a phenomenon that once gave me so much comfort as a shy high schooler. I'm not sure if it was my having grown up, that the Facebook format felt stifling, or something else entirely, but I quit about thirty-six hours after joining. Just before I left, those more gung-ho than I were talking about establishing a subreddit for us to rekindle the voracious message board vibe, but I haven't heard anything about it since.
The internet moves so rapidly that ATNW as I knew it is dead, buried, and a whole shopping center of new virtual culture has been built over it. You can still find remnants of the old boards via The Wayback Machine, including a post of two from my alter-ego. Despite the years between us, I still feel a genuine love for the board. How can I not when so much of my life has been unwittingly shaped by the community there? My music taste can be directly traced back to conversations on there. I signed my first lease on an apartment in Astoria last year with an ex-boardie, one of the first people I ever met from the internet. My longest romantic relationship from 2007-2011 was with a man I first spotted on a picture thread when I was fifteen. I'm not the only one either: couples who have met on the board have since gotten married and I believe there is at least one board baby in existence.
This is an age where time is constantly punctuated by updates, where nothing lasts and everything is ephemeral (except, maybe, the data collected on us). But it is possible to have real emotional attachments to things on the internet, even to forums dedicated to everything in the world except for Weezer.