ɪɴ ᴀ ᴄᴏʀɴᴇʀ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ɪɴᴛᴇʀɴᴇᴛ

Jessica: 2003-2006

How long have you been RPing? How or why did you start, and what makes you keep going?

"i was on the palace in the hp place and we decided to make journals for our hogwarts characters and from there i found celeb rp...it's been like 10+ years" "about 16 years but on and off some of my breaks have lasted up to 4 years i started with hp and what has drawn me back in is when i get really into a particular fandom or celeb" "i started in 2004 when i found a comm on livejournal and i stopped for a couple of years but i recently came back out of boredom and now i sit here and anxiously refresh all day because i desperately want to join comms and have fun like the old days but it's just not happening anymore"

The particulars of your origin story are fuzzy and boring. You stumbled into this world by accident when you clicked through an OpenDiary website where you pretended to keep a diary but just complained about your little brother. In a way, you were made for it. You started writing fanfiction when you were ten years old and wished you could turn into animals. On your mother's old Compaq desktop is the final chapter of your as-yet unfinished Animorphs novel, in which a plucky heroine sacrifices herself in a heretofore-unthinkable act of bravery. It seems only natural, then, that you would take your flair for melodrama to an audience of strangers. Everyone you talk to seems to start this way: they dribble in by accident, but never really leave.

You write her from the basement of your mother's home. You are fourteen and clumsy with character work, so you do the only natural thing and write a prettier version of yourself. She has family trouble, doesn't work well with strangers. She’s seventeen, which makes her impossibly wise, and through her, you meet a network of friends whose writing you admire and whose personal lives seem as mired in trouble as your own. Through them, you learn about sex education, and receive your first hard lesson in self-preservation when one of your friends threatens self-harm every time your collaborative storyline stops going her way. By the time you enter high school, you can type nearly a hundred words per minute, and have folders of unpublishable stories in the Compaq graveyard, each with heroines as plucky as the ones from your childhood.

Learning is slow.

Walden: 2004-2006

The anonymous community, often the only way in which large groups of writers communicate with one another out of character, is a notoriously cruel place. Writers are openly cruel to players whose characterization or bedside manner they find off-putting, or to characters who do not conform to the strict aesthetic du jour for layout or avatar design. Anonymous journals for specific communities will dissect interactions between characters, particularly romantic couples whose male character is considered desirable. Name-calling, stalking, and insults are commonplace, and are the reason that anonymous journals are widely considered to be detrimental to the continued growth of a community. However, anonymous journals are also sources of networking and kindness. It's not uncommon to find commenters comforting a stranger who confesses to a personal trauma, or to send money to someone via PayPal if he or she expresses food insecurity.

This is a story you don't tell many people. You are sixteen and in Georgia meeting the Internet stranger who will become your sister. You've written together for over a year now, and in the humidity of her bedroom, you swap laptops for a notebook and pen and write stories back and forth while old Roswell DVDs play in the background. Your mother has left you to live with a cab driver in Shreveport, Louisiana. You tell her this, and she drops everything, nineteen to your sixteen, and helps you come up with a plan. It's fragile, naïve and fraught with contingencies neither of you are equipped to handle. To this day, you can't remember its specifics, only that it involved pretending to be in college and renting an apartment that neither of you can afford. You'll finish out the semester at your Colorado high school and both of you will make the journey to Shreveport to meet your new daddy as friends. You concoct stories to tell her family, your family, and strangers about how you met, each as flimsy as any other part of the plan. Both of you agree without saying that the stigma of online friendship is somehow still greater than the possibility of having to explain your status as a temporary orphan.

The night before you're set to leave, your mother calls you teary-eyed from the road. She and the cabbie have had a falling out, the details of which she will never tell you. Your friend, five days from a stranger, doesn't hesitate. The plan hasn't changed. She'll still follow you to Colorado, and you leave Georgia with all her things and a roof over your head. Her family goes with you to Shreveport to “meet your mother,” and you fumble your way around a city you've never seen. Your mother, now somewhere near Kansas, is of little help. Eventually, you're back in Colorado, and your mother and sister meet one another with no questions asked. Later, she'll leave you a second time and won't come back. Your sister becomes your safe place.

Everett: 2009-2012

"i have really bad depression and anxiety but idk i just come here because ive always come here. anon journals give me panic attacks but i come because id rather know what my slps are saying about me than not know."

"anxietyanon here i'm at work and my boss just sent me an email saying she wants to talk at the end of the day and i'm having a panic attack oh my god"

When you return home from military school with a sexual assault tucked in among the rest of your secrets, he is waiting for you. You spend more time in your sweatpants now, staying up late and inventing new ways to hate your body. When you're not doing that, you create him and pretend his depression is the same as the one you're not ready to name yet. Things get worse before they get better. You fold yourself into the crook of your father's sectional sofa and ignore calls from friends. Your father thinks you're a good kid because you choose not to go drinking, choose not to go anywhere at all. Instead, you write letters in-character to an imaginary therapist with whom Everett shares a codependent relationship. She asks him the questions that you've heard therapists ask on television, recreate conversations from your one failed attempt at psychotherapy in eighth grade. As the months progress, he grows distant and eventually stops seeing her. Stops seeing anybody.

He attempts suicide on August 4th, 2010 so that you don't have to. He doesn't complete, keeps breathing. The anonymous journals erupt with uninterrupted chatter for the back half of the day, and you are suddenly primetime entertainment. That day, you tell your stepmother you're depressed and begin a round of SSRI treatment that you'll quit when you meet your boyfriend in September. He makes you happy, and you assume that's the same thing as cured. Later, during the breathless week your little brother travels across nine countries in Europe and North Africa in search of a perfect place to commit suicide, you fear that you somehow caused this, wrote it into existence. He doesn't complete, keeps breathing. Your family tucks it away amongst its other secrets, and you stop imagining fake therapists.

Dee Jay: 2012-2014

The vast majority of text-based roleplayers are female, so much so that when speaking out of character about another person, writers will unanimously use female pronouns. In most writing communities, there is a disproportionate number of female characters to male, which creates competition between writers for romantic storylines, one of the most popular to play out among storyline partners. Anonymous communities suggest that this is a result of a desire for wish fulfillment.

You are two years into what sometimes feels like a failing relationship and in love with the idea of being in love with another man. There's another slam poet in your town who writes about love the way you write about tragedy, and you're so enamored with the idea of loving him, it tangs in your molars. You write him into a neater package, make him taller, more successful. You stretch him into a caricature of a man in love with love, and watch him dive heavy-handed and heart first. For the next two years, you write love poems for strangers on the Internet while your real relationship treads water. Through him, you write poems to girls you loved in Georgia, to boys made girls by sloppy last-minute pronoun changes, to the version of yourself you feel deserves some measure of love you aren't receiving. You lap up the praise you receive in the anonymous journals, where people first accuse you of stealing, Google your lines and realize the words are yours. And when that's not enough, you take the poems—his poems, your poems, you can't be sure—and you perform them at slams in a slipshod attempt to repeat the process. You win on their legs and tell yourself that's basically the same as being in love. When it's still not enough, you publish a handful of them in journals no one will ever read and marvel at their permanence.

His namesake—still shorter, still heavy-handed and heart first—never notices. Instead, he leaves Juneau to fall in love with Thailand, or whatever it is that young artists do in Southeast Asia. When he goes, you're left with nothing in your hands but the knowledge of how far you'd go to make him look at you and a few unimpressive lines for your someday-curriculum vitae. You decide that's not good enough, so you pile those poems into folders and use them to get you out of this town and into graduate school. Piece by piece, you mend your failing relationship. You try to write him love poems, but they come out tin-eared, staccato and strange. When that doesn't work, you do him the service of trying not to write him into your tragedies anymore, and you write about the world instead.

Alyce: 2015

"people bitch about not getting to have the comms they want anymore but what they don't get is that the people they used to do it with all aged out. the only people left are critters and weirdos and even they're moving on to tumblr rp. it's ever gonna be like it was."

Your reentry is as clumsy as ever. You're twenty-six, one foot barely in the water of this quiet corner of the internet you keep trying to grow out of. You've made peace with it, somewhere between hobby and obligation, and watch as the pool begins to dwindle around you.

You start writing her at the same time you begin writing another in a series of boring white males and try to examine the ways in which you internalize your perception of their respective privilege. School and activism have made you think, made you cringe at the ways in which you see communities erased. Coming back to it now makes you feel like you did when you rewatched Top Gun as an adult and learned it was never that good a movie in the first place. The stories you write for her are rife with the same melodrama—you never knew any other way—but they're shorter now. Careful in the way your nonfiction instructors taught you to be. And when you post them, you get the distinct feeling that no one is reading them but the friend you've found to write with you. There's nothing left for you here now except the knowledge that every hour you spend writing is another poem that won't get published, another line that won't wind up on your CV someday. But the deadline for your next piece is fast approaching, and you're not ready to log out just yet.