Rebecca Garcia was 12 years old when she bought her first domain name. She asked her dad for his credit card to purchase the address. He didn't think she knew how to actually buy a site.
"When my parents saw the credit card bill and it had, like, XoAriesGirloX or something, they called the company and were like, 'Yeah, we didn't know our 12-year-old daughter could figure out how to buy a domain,' and they returned it," Garcia says.
Garcia's first website was an extension of her Neopets account, and survived despite her domain name being revoked by her parents. Neopets, a virtual pet game spread across an expansive website, was launched in 1999 by two independent developers, Donna and Adam Powell. A mix between Tamagotchi and Pokémon, taking care of pets was the basis of Neopets' design, but the digital creatures were able to battle, too. Much of the game takes place inside a virtual world called Neopia, populated with themed lands for players to visit and explore.
But like plenty of girls her age in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Garcia wasn't just caring for a digital pet or battling with it online – she was experimenting. Neopets, and other sites like it, was deemed acceptable as a safe place for girls to play in an often unfriendly Internet. Such a space allowed for girls to create a culture of play that supported a breadth of creative endeavors.
"It was an unlimited playground," Garcia says. "There was a stock market where you could buy fake stocks; you could make digital money from there. You could open your own shop and sell items. Neopets had this separate world to connect on whatever hobbies you had. It was the idea that it was really an open playground and that you were, in a way, self-made."
Neopets provided the overarching structure of play, but it was girls like Garcia who expanded the web game’s presence. Creators set out no objectives for Neopets users. A vague story pushed the evolution of the site, but it was the economy and community that drove much of the culture. Now a software developer and founder of CoderDojo NYC, an organization that teaches kids to code, Garcia started her first business in Neopets, with virtual employees and everything. The community eventually expanded past the bounds of the Neopets platform and began to spread elsewhere on the Internet, as explored in game designer Nina Freeman's 2017 title Lost Memories Dot Net.
Neopets was the wireframe for a community of girls that continuously expanded its expressive reach. Not bound by the limitations of a traditional open-world game built on a console system, Neopets began a collaborative building exercise for those that played it. Even in the aspects of play that were regulated by Neopets developers, users provided input: A player could publish reported and researched stories or opinion pieces in the in-game newspaper, The Neopian Times, or build out shops that filled Neopia's marketplace. Players gathered in forums and in guilds – partly responsible for the Neopets DIY media scene – to forge relationships and share experiences. Communities of storytellers, artists, reporters, designers, and poets emerged, alongside an economy that fed off its collaborators.
Garcia and other girls like her, including Madison Kanna, now a software engineer, looked outside Neopets' set system to earn Neopoints, capitalizing on the skills that drew them to the site. "I would build profiles for people with HTML and CSS and exchange that for goods and supplies," Kanna says. "Just going on and knowing I could create anything I wanted was huge."
Both women taught themselves as girls to design and code websites for their Neopets, and, in turn, started "businesses" designed to use those skills. "I designed my profile page, my shop," Garcia says. "I coded everything. And what came out of that was my first tutorial site where I was teaching people – other girls, mostly – to code. I had a 'staff member' when I was 14, also writing tutorials. That's what I was doing in my spare time."
"I didn't start coding because I thought it'd be a promising career,” Kanna explains. "I just wanted to create something really cool, and on Neopets, you could do anything you wanted. From there I just started tinkering around and experimenting."
Neopets was framework for creativity for its community of girls. The buying and selling of an aesthetic enabled the community to proliferate and expand outside of the site in search of DIY media expression.
Cibele and Kimmy creator Freeman's Lost Memories Dot Net embodies the early 2000s era of girls' digital creativity. Originally commissioned for the Manchester International Festival, Lost Memories Dot Net is a dialogue-driven drama that allows players to interact with the digital dashboard of 14-year-old Nina. The focus switches between a website editor and a chat screen, both of which require intermittent attention. A story is told through the tangled conversations and switching of pages. It’s a story in set the height of Neopets' influence, an exploration of the girls who connected through it.
"[Neopets] just literally introduced me to the concept of, 'you can build a thing on the computer and it shows up on the screen,'" Freeman says. "I had to be 12. I was really young."
Lost Memories Dot Net captures the aesthetics of the era: Glossy, stylized graphics that harken back to the days of Geocities and Angelfire. The graphics were all over the place with regard to color and subject, but consistency is apparent when looking at images: hyper-saturated color palette, large hero images, punchy fonts, and liberal use of brushes and filters.
Like Garcia and Kanna, Freeman speaks of the openness of such a space – the endless possibility of creative endeavors – as a reason for Neopets' female appeal. Certain spaces on the Internet were hard-coded for boys; sites were rarely explicitly labels "for boys" or "for girls," but it was the broader social world that imparted gender exclusivity. Likewise, Neopets had no labels, but societal influence pushed it away from neutrality.
"There are a lot of Internet social spaces from that era where you could kind of conceal who you were or experiment with your gender, conceal your gender if you wanted to, that were more welcoming to women than social media is today, where you really have to be who you are very publicly in a way that makes you vulnerable," says Claire Evans, author of upcoming Broad Band, a social history of women and the Internet.
"That's something that’s not really part of our experience anymore," she says, adding, "And if it is, it's been kind of inverted. Anonymous people with anonymous avatars are usually the ones that threaten us, not the ones who allow us to feel like our most free selves."
Still, Neopets attracted more girls than boys. According to Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown in their 2006 book Packaging Girlhood, nearly 60 percent of Neopets' visitors were girls, which is high for a computer game in the early 2000s. Glixel reached out to Neopets' original creators for more detailed data, but did not receive a response.
"Neopets' creators tried to toe a safe line, where they didn't also code it in any way that is specifically going to appeal to girls, because they didn’t want to close it off to boys," says Alison Harvey, games scholar at the University of Leicester. "Research has shown that if there's anything that smells like it might be for girls, male audiences will run for their lives, whereas that's not the other way around."
Caring for a pet isn't inherently masculine or feminine. But gender stereotypes and marketing that deemed that sort of behavior as feminine may have labeled Neopets "girl-friendly," which could explain the gender breakdown.
For Harvey, digital girl culture on Neopets mimics an earlier movement of pre-Internet girl culture – the bedroom as a private, girl's space.
"The uptake of these sites was so popular with girls, but they are kind of these closed spaces at the same time," Harvey says. "Is there kind of an extension happening here of what we saw with girl's culture in the pre-Internet days, where it tends to be quite private and cloistered away? Girls are in their bedrooms and they're creating kind of their own media and cultural content, but it’s not being shared or circulated beyond that space."
The public domain, Harvey said, is seen as a more masculine space, which has more freedom of movement than in a closed off space. But as the outside world was deemed more and more unsafe, boys moved inside – to video games. American media scholar Henry Jenkins outlined a transition from a boys' culture embedded in public domain to an explicitly digital space in a late Nineties essay.
"As the streets became more dangerous, boys were pushed more into the private space of the home, and in some ways, this was the birth of video gaming as process," Harvey explains. "There's freedom of movement in those spaces instead. But I was wondering about these spaces where we're seeing girls participating in a digital culture. Are they again replicating these kind of closed walls around what you’re able to do?"
Neopets is a kid's space, and it operates like one. Limitations and restrictions bar certain expression as to what's kid-friendly: Girls on Neopets, like Freeman, Garcia, and Kanna, were able to push boundaries as far as the site would allow them, but no further. Rules determined what sort of content was acceptable: nothing deemed too violent or too sexual. Likewise, the site's technical limitations barred girls from pushing boundaries in that regard. That's what sent them all looking outside of Neopia to command their expressive desires, while using Neopets, the site itself, and its exuberant economy as a framework for creativity.
Girls on Neopets took what they needed from the site and used the skills acquired there to further develop a burgeoning digital girls' culture, whether it be in expanding their guild pages into personal sites, teaching others to code, or exchanging those skills for economic gain in Neopets.
"The Internet wouldn't be what it is if there weren't people who understood what to do with the medium, and that's a really essential part of building a technology, is building a context and a use for the technology," author Evans says. "It's using a creative impulse to actually push technology in another direction, or to anticipate the uses of the technology by doing things that aren't expected."
Microblogging and social networking site Tumblr is an obvious extension of the early 2000s Neopets era. It's the current generation of digital expression: Tumblr is not just a diary service. It’s art, editorial, and community. And like with external sites, like Geocities and Angelfire, and Neopets, Tumblr allows communities to build around games, too. Overwatch has a robust community of followers on Tumblr that iterates on what the game actually is. Shooting and capturing objectives becomes irrelevant to the fantasies explored on Tumblr, whether it be short stories, "shipping,” or fan-art. The girls and women remixing Overwatch's lore and story on Tumblr aren't confined to a private space monitored specifically by the developer.
A space like Tumblr allows for the kind of sharing that closed worlds, like Neopets, didn't, Harvey said. It's a natural extension of the socio-technical design of the Internet and its spaces. With more people on the Internet, content on Tumblr is easier to spread. There's more access to engage with a property outside of what's regulated by the company that owns it.
Community websites, sparked by Neopets, created by Freeman, Garcia, and Kanna when they were girls pointed to this future of expanded girls' space: The desire for collaboration is still around, and built upon, the frames of Neopets and the communities it gave rise to.