Are You There God? It’s Will’s 20-Year Search for Community

I made my first post on Al Gore’s internet on July 10th, 2003 – twenty LONG years ago! Typically, my anniversary posts are fluffy recaps, where I breeze through how this site came to be, and then cap it off by thanking y’all for reading. Yeah, that’s all well and good, but 20 years is something of a bigger deal. That’s two decades! So I think that deserves something special. I’ve been in an introspective place lately, in an attempt to “Do The Work”, as the social media mental health gurus put it. With that in mind, we’re gonna have a little counseling session, and I’m bringing you along with me. Maybe you’ll be bored. Maybe you’ll learn something. But I’ve got to do this for me. We can laugh again at the 25-year mark! Anyway, this is the kind of post that would be exclusive to my Patreon, if I had one, as I’m kinda putting myself out there, but whatever…

If you’ve been here for one of my blogiversaries, then you’ve already heard the bullet points: just graduated from Cornell, working a temp job where I spent all day discovering this new-to-me “internet”, created a Blogger site for rambling, named it after the fact I’d been to Russia, etc. That’s all true, but there’s more to it. Ultimately, this site was built on a desire for community, coupled with my discovery of the concept of a “parasocial relationship“.

There have been several times in my life when I realized just how possible it was to be lonely despite being surrounded by people, and summer of 2003 was probably one of the loneliest times of my life. I didn’t really know who I was, nor where I fit in. Up to that point in life, I could have been summed up in pretty concise “elevator pitches”: Ages 13-17, I was “The weird kid who had gone to Russia and really loved Power Rangers. Like, TOO MUCH. Way more than a kid his age should”, while ages 17-21 saw me as “That Black guy who sings in that a Cappella group. No, not THAT one. The other one”. You see, you could count on one hand the number of Black people in Cornell’s a Cappella community: The Class Notes had Andre, The Hangovers had Omar, The Chordials had Jojo, and then there was me, over in Last Call. That was my college experience. I used to tell people I “majored in a cappella”, as that’s really all that I cared about. Due to how seriously I took all that, I don’t really look back fondly on that era these days. I guess you could say it was my “Four touchdowns in a single game” but, in context, Married…with Children fans realize just how sad that truly was. It wasn’t “bad” at the time, but I didn’t realize how fleeting it would be.

Like many, I’ve never been great at starting friendships. Or, I guess, even maintaining friendships. Luckily, I’ve had the benefit of being in a few environments a long time so, while the beginning might be rough, I’ve eventually found “my people”, and have been better off for it. In high school, these were the theater kids. I never thought that would be something that would interest me, but I tried it and I was good at it. So, when college came along, I felt I needed something like that again. Seeing as how I liked the musical aspect of the stage more than the acting, a cappella seemed like an interesting thing to try. After all, Last Call, in particular, was the reason I had decided on attending Cornell in the first place (longer story, for another time). I got into the group first semester, freshman year, and never looked back. And I rode that thing til the wheels fell off. Even stayed in Ithaca past graduation, doing summer gigs and fall orientation, simply, because I didn’t want to let go. After all, what came next? Who was I going to be now?

Anyway, summer following graduation found me temping in the registrar’s office but, like many folks at the stage of life, I was really just goofing off and getting paid for it. For you young folks, I’ve got to set the scene: The Internet – especially anything outside of the America Online portal – was still kinda in its infancy, compared to what it is now. I mean, there were message boards and AOL Instant Messenger (or ICQ, for the techies), but the concept of *high-speed* internet was very new, and limited to places like college campuses. Oh, and video hadn’t really become a core part of the experience at that time. So, it wasn’t like I was sitting there, watching cat videos (as those weren’t even a thing yet), but I was scouring web comics and whatnot. Then, one day, I randomly found a website that sort of changed everything.

So, how to properly describe this particular site? Well, at the time, we didn’t have a name for what the writer was doing, but today we’d call him a “nostalgia blogger”. And he was probably the first of his kind. I don’t have to tell you that there’s comfort in nostalgia, as it’s basically a billion dollar industry. However, to see it all lovingly referenced in one place was a sight to behold! In the Family Guy episode “The Road To The Multiverse”, Brian and Stewie end up in the Robot Chicken universe, and the joke is “Look! G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, He-Man! Yay, those shows existed!” It’s a sarcastic joke when delivered but, considering I found this site post Family Guy‘s initial cancelation, yet before the debut of Robot Chicken, online acknowledgement of those properties was still kind of a big deal.

Plus, while there was discussion of what you might consider the “low hanging fruit” of 80s and 90s pop culture, the writer was also more nuanced than that. You might get an article about an obscure Fruit By The Foot commercial, followed by a recap of a popular public service announcement, complete with screencaps. Just think about that. This was before YouTube, and here’s some guy out here screencapping old VHS tapes for what we now call “content”. It was a side of the internet I’d never seen. I didn’t know such a thing was possible!

It should be noted that the site was sort of broken, so it had almost nonexistent search capabilities. Instead of being able to type in “89 Batman”, you just kinda had to link-hop all over the site to get to articles. In something of a digital Quantum Leap, you didn’t always know where that next leap was going to take you, but it rarely disappointed. So, while falling down the rabbit hole of the site, the feelings of “I remember this!” or “He saw that, TOO?!” continued to well up inside me. At a time when I wasn’t really sure who I was (or, rather, who I was going to be), I felt like I had found “my people”. Even if it was just some random dude on the internet who I’d never meet or interact with. I mean, if there was one, there had to be others, right?

In a total “If you build it, they will come” moment, I thought, “I could do this!” Now, don’t get me wrong: I never thought I could replicate that experience, or even do it on that level. I wasn’t copycatting, but it was more the theory that if I put myself out there, it might attract others who could relate. We didn’t have social media yet, but there had been years of news stories of folks meeting on message boards, and having that turn into real life friendships. But one step at a time – I wasn’t about to start inviting web strangers to my birthday party! I just wanted to make a connection.

Now we’ve come to the part you’ve already heard, so we’ll try to speed through it: I signed up for Blogger and created a site I called “The World According To A Russian Exchange Student”. Let’s talk about how funny the English language can be: In my haste to get this all set up (it wasn’t exactly planned out, but rather more of a manic process), I didn’t really think about how I, having been an exchange student to Russia, would have been the American exchange student in the transaction. Yet, I hate to be wrong, so I found a way to spin it, and thought it could be something of “performance art”. I could examine 80s/90s pop culture through the lens of my former Russian host, Sergei. And that whole thing lasted about a week. Just couldn’t keep it up. But the name stuck for a few years, until it became (I was really into branding, folks were constantly telling me I had a “cool name”, and nobody cared about things like Internet Privacy at the time), as it remained for over a decade, eventually becoming what it is now,

In the beginning, I used it like proto-Twitter: I’d post multiple random “microblogs” throughout the day. Something popped in my head, it was probably going up on the site. I couldn’t scan or upload pics yet (that stuff wouldn’t come til years later), so it was text-based, taking a lot of its inspiration from LiveJournal, which existed at the time, but seemed geared to the younger, more…emotional scene. Due to the fact that social media wasn’t really a thing yet (my first foray wouldn’t be until Friendster, a year later), I didn’t really have a place to promote the site. I mean, if I was trying to reach “like minded people”, they had to be able to FIND it, right? So, I spent a lot of time really pushing it on IRL friends who were in the midst of creating their own online enterprises. Maybe we could exchange links and whatnot. Over time, though, it became apparent that our perceived audiences didn’t really overlap, so it was back to the drawing board.

You know how there are stars who are perceived as “overnight successes”, when they’ve actually been toiling for years? I would never consider this site a success, but, boy, did I toil! The years of 2004-2008 were what I consider the “Write Like No One’s Reading” era, because no one was. Even with the advent of MySpace and Facebook as new channels for exposure, I just wasn’t making any sort of online connection with folks. Remember how I thought LiveJournal was too emotional? Man, did I ever surpass whatever was going on over there! If you want to know every thought, fear, insecurity, “adventure”, whatever – it’s ALL there. It’s the kind of stuff that a smarter man probably would have scrubbed, but it’s all part of the Cumulative Whole, and nobody’s got time to scour through all that unless I eventually anger the wrong QAnon person. Which is actually the perfect segue.

I never had goal metrics for the site. I’ve never been a goal setter because, honestly, the process gives me anxiety, so I’d rather just kinda take things as they come. If you asked me how many Monthly Unique Visitors I’d like to see, I would have just said “A LOT!” I never had a vision of what “success” would look like to me in this whole thing other than, maybe, I’d have more friends? By this point, we had seen the rise of the Mega Blogger, and that seemed kinda sexy. I never wanted to be, say, Perez Hilton, but being something of a pop culture tastemaker (that’s what we now call an “influencer”) had a certain appeal to it. I mean, I was just some random guy with opinions, but so were these other folks. They were popular because they were relatable and/or had something to offer. But did I have something to offer?

At this point, I had moved away from standard nostalgia blogging, and focused more on the NOW. I felt that there were enough nostalgia folks out there, who were doing a better job at that than I would have been. Plus, The OG was still out there, plying his trade. No, I leaned into present-day pop culture, which was probably somewhat to my detriment. You see, I’ve often joked that I have the musical taste of a 15 year old White girl who lives in West Virginia. Funny, but true, on many levels. If I thought I originally had trouble connecting with my 80s/90s peers, then I wasn’t even prepared for the volume of crickets I heard when I’d write long, impassioned screeds about obscure UK boybands and forgotten one-season teen shows, like Swan’s Crossing or Breaker High.

As far as metrics went, I still had no goals, but I was constantly scouring Google Analytics stats. I still wasn’t seeing the “A LOT” of visitors I always desired. However, the internet is a strange place, where things don’t always play out as you might think. You see, I always knew I wasn’t a success – not because of low readership – but because I had no “Haters”. Increasingly, it seems that your level of online popularity is directly correlated to the number of people who wish to debate and/or disparage you. It’s the blogger’s equivalent of “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”. And I, simply, have never been worth those folks’ time. They don’t care enough to even engage. There have been times where I felt like I’ve used that to my advantage – started the conversations that I wasn’t confident that folks were ready to have. Ultimately, though, that’s still pretty much the case.

Things didn’t really look up until 2009, when I signed up for Twitter. Unlike the more insular social media platforms of the past (where you were typically connected by people you actually knew “in real life”), Twitter just put you right out there, into the thick of it. It can be sort of jarring initially, but it can also be wonderful once you curate it to your needs. Or, at least, that’s how it used to work. After 6 long years in the desert, I was beginning to find My People. The catch, however, was that the blog had little, if anything, to do with it. They didn’t find me through it, but rather from some random thing I tweeted – the sort of thing that, in 2003, would have ended up here, read by 5 people. So, in 2023 speak, I had to pivot my content creation to a new platform, resulting in the blog becoming a supplemental portal to provide a unique user experience.

It was at this point that the West Week Ever concept was fleshed out. Instead of long-form writing about some forgotten piece of pop culture, which would never be found by its desired audience anyway, I leaned into “up to the minute” pop culture opinions. If it happened this week, I have thoughts on it, so let’s get this discussion started! It played better on social media, as it established a reliable framing device: for those who followed me, they grew to know what West Week Ever was, and what they were going to get from it. Still, it was too vague to really play to unknowns, so it didn’t really pull in folks who weren’t already here for some other reason, like, “Oh, Will watches 24, too.”

The biggest problem with West Week Ever, however, is that it’s disposable. The post is essentially meaningless once that week passes. These are not evergreen posts so, to someone looking to sort of “plant a flag” online, it wasn’t the best avenue to take. I shifted from thoughtful stuff that might age well to simply chasing the zeitgeist, hoping I could hop on the frenzy for whatever folks were buzzing about at that time. Might make for an interesting time capsule of pop culture, but it’s not the stuff I’ve done here of which I’m most proud.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the entire state of being “terminally online” hasn’t been without its benefits. I’ve had opportunities to guest on a bunch of podcasts (another aspect of the internet I could never have imagined when this all started), and I have made actual, genuine friends. These are people I’d eventually meet and hang out with, in the flesh! I’ve also got close friends I may never meet. I’ve inadvertently offended a handful of D-list celebrities, but I’ve also had the chance to interact with people I never thought possible. Yes, including him.

In all my time online, I’m continually amazed by the number of people I meet who have been inspired by that nostalgia blogger, myself included, to get into the blogging game. In many ways, whether he acknowledges it or not, he is akin to a father. And, like the relationship can be between fathers and sons, ours is complicated. Ooh, that sounded deep!

No, seriously, when I read that site all those years ago, I don’t think I ever thought to myself, “One day, he shall know me and we shall be friends!” If anything, he was an analogue of the kind of people I was seeking. Sure, it was a different place and time, and the concept of a “blogging celebrity” wasn’t really a thing but, as the years went on, I began to discover that’s exactly what he’s considered in many circles.

So, I can’t even tell you when I realized I was somehow on his radar. Maybe I replied to something he tweeted, I don’t know. But I soon realized I knew people in his orbit, and somehow, before I knew anything, so was I. Scroll all the way back to the top – ya know, the part about how I’m bad at making friends. I didn’t know what I was doing, or how to play this, so I feel like I was just awkward “around” him. I mean, I had been inspired to create this outlet that, for better or for worse, had been my identity for the better part of several years – because of him. Sadly, I felt like the girl in that meme, holding the sign that says, “Your music saved me!” Based on my web travels over the years, I’ve come to realize he’s probably heard that a lot, and is either put off by it and/or just tired of hearing it.

Plus, despite having this VERY ONLINE presence all these years, he comes off as something of an introvert himself. So there was probably never going to be this “Oh my God! Remember when Cherie got locked in the refrigerator on Punky Brewster?!” gab session between us. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try! And it just…never…took off. If I didn’t know the concept of a parasocial relationship, well I know it now! Like Steve Urkel, the more I felt I wasn’t getting through, the harder I tried. I mean, it eventually worked on Laura, right? It was a period of awkwardness, checkered with perceived slights and misunderstandings. I didn’t always like who I felt I had become, nor did it feel good to me. To look at it today, I’d say that I don’t think he cares for The Willster too much and, well, I’d be lying if I said that’s not disappointing. Yet, life lessons were learned, and I still thank him for getting me on this road, as I really don’t know what my life would be like without social media and this little “vanity project” of mine! See? I told you we were gonna get introspective!

Twenty years. I’m not a “blogging success”. I’ve never been published anywhere of note. I’m not a tastemaker in any sense of the word. I can still count on 2 hands the number of folks in my everyday life who actually read this thing. And I think I secretly sort of like it that way. Still, this site came about when I needed it most. Just as I honestly don’t know how I would have weathered Cornell without singing, I don’t know how I would have navigated my 20s and 30s without this place. It serves many purposes, even if I can’t convey them all.

And maybe I just needed to change my perspective. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the watering hole where everyone gathered to share thoughts and ideas (“Norm!”). Maybe I just needed a place to store my own, so I could look back on them one day and learn from them.

A lot has happened in the past 20 years. I went from recent college grad, with no idea what he was doing to husband and father of 2 who, still, has no idea what he’s doing. I’m beginning to accept that that’s OK. It’s a shame it took me 20 years to come to that realization, but I guess it’s “all part of the journey” and the “true ‘blogging success’ was the friends we made along the way”. Or something like that.

Ya know, this probably would have made for a great Final Post. A deep retrospective of the last 20 years to cap off what was done here. The problem, though, is that I don’t know how to leave well enough alone, and I also don’t know how to quit things. So, be sure to come back Friday, as I’m sure I’ll be here, rambling about something! After all, I hear there are toddlers wandering down the interstate in Alabama! In the meantime, thanks for reading, sharing, clicking the Like button, etc all these years. I might not be able to define it, but we’ve built something special here, and I couldn’t have done it without you. In the immortal words of the theme song to The Golden Girls, “thank you for being a friend.”