“Searching for a Friend at the End of LiveJournal” by Hannah Cohen

I think I found you.

My cursor hovers above the Twitter DM button. The name on the account is her real name, but she’s still using the same online handle I knew from over fifteen years ago. To access my LiveJournal and Fanfiction accounts, I had to leapfrog through a series of email logins. I spent several months trying to remember old screen names and the stories she wrote. But now that I’ve found our old conversations, I know it’s her. It’s 100% my old online friend, D.

Her last tweet was in June 2021. She wasn’t very active, with just 100 tweets and replies since 2009. Did she abandon this social media site in the upheaval of COVID-19? Or was there a more staggering, worse reason she was no longer online? I consider sending her a private message, but I hesitate. What would I say? Would she even remember me, one of many cringey but enthusiastic teenagers she communicated with on LiveJournal?

I was a teenage girl in the early 2000s, and I truly believed I wasn’t like Other Girls™. I loved anime, cartoons, manga, and hated traditionally feminine things like makeup and fashion. My internalized misogyny was only encouraged by what I saw plastered on television screens and glossy magazines: thin, blonde, pink-wearing preppy girls who gabbed on and on about boys and shoes. I hated sports. Aside from the high school anime club, I didn’t participate in any other extracurricular activities. A greasy-haired Jewish teenager, I lived in a majority Christian city with few hangouts and fewer options to socialize. In my isolation, I was sucked into the void of the Internet, where I found a creative outlet and established relationships that would become an indelible part of my internal machinery.

As a victim of severe bullying by my peers and authority figures, I retreated into virtual fantasy worlds, cartoon websites, and blogging sites. I spent hundreds of afternoon and evening hours on GaiaOnline, a popular anime-themed social site where you could customize your avatar and interact with others in a virtual world. The most popular feature of GaiaOnline was their forum boards, especially the roleplay forums. Here, I could join other players in collaborative storytelling in either an original story setting or one based in a popular TV show, movie, or cartoon universe. We would plot out ideas in private messages and boards, recruit new roleplayers and members to our roleplay “threads”, and sometimes get into squabbles if someone wasn’t playing by the guidelines. I loved writing, especially online, where I could only be judged for my storytelling talent, not my looks or personality.

Naturally, my love for roleplaying extended into writing fanfiction for my favorite shows and stories. I kept this pastime a secret for fear of being further alienated by my school friends. I mostly wrote Teen Titans, Naruto, Harry Potter, and Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfiction. It’s not lost on me that I liked stories centered around fantastic teens fighting evil and rarely going to school. I wanted to know what it was like to write my favorite characters in new situations, interacting with new characters and new plots. I don’t remember how I discovered LiveJournal exactly, but I created a LiveJournal account as a form of posting daily entries about my interests, blogging about my new fanfiction stories, and sharing my opinions with other like-minded people. I became involved in countless LiveJournal communities for shipping, fanfiction writing, and other fandom nonsense and drama. Somewhere in the Avatar: The Last Airbender LiveJournal ether, I connected with D.

I don’t know D’s exact age, but judging by her skill with writing and tone, as well as her sisterly nature, she was likely in her last years of high school or a college student when we first started talking. While writing this essay, I reread the stories on D’s Fanfiction.net account and was still impressed with the overall quality of her stories. D’s writing, even back then, was a notch above the common asterisk-riddled script fics and poorly written crossovers on the website. When she wrote stories set in alternate universes, the characters still acted as they would in their canon story. For example, D wrote a fanfiction where Ursa, a character from Avatar: The Last Airbender, kills her royal husband, Fire Lord Ozai, to protect her son Zuko from being sacrificed as punishment. Ursa then escapes into the countryside with her daughter Azula. This divergence from the established story heightened the intrigue of this minor character’s motives. Ursa remained believable as a dedicated but troubled mother caught in a precarious situation. No “out of character” dialogue that broke the suspension of disbelief. D’s grasp on language and storytelling enhanced whatever fictional world her stories lived in. Though I consider myself a professionally published writer, I remain jealous of her ability to craft such unique stories that hold up nearly two decades after posting.

D would comment on my LiveJournal posts supporting my fanfiction ideas and life updates. She recommended songs and books to get my creative juices flowing. I still listen to the same playlist she made for me: a bouncy mix of Europop artists like Robyn, Vanilla Ninja, and Nanne Grönvall. Sure, I might have discovered these artists decades later on Spotify, but the personal recommendations meant the world to me. We were in multiple Avatar: The Last Airbender LiveJournal communities together, discussing our headcanons, ships, and opinions. I’d post a new chapter on Fanfiction.net and she would review it, offering her praise and feedback. Sure, I had other fanfiction writer friends who read my work and shared it, but she was the closest thing I had to a writing mentor.

Because I was raised during the height of the Internet Stranger Danger era, I never shared my location or identity. I did, however, share that I was Jewish. As a Jewish kid in a largely evangelical Christian town, I didn’t exactly have many Jewish friends who shared my interests (read: I had none). So I was elated to learn that D was also Jewish. I shared with her my ideas and hopes for my future, and she’d give me advice on how to navigate being a Jewish teenager; how to practice for my upcoming bat mitzvah while juggling a social life with my non-Jewish friends. Other than my rabbi (old) and my dad (distant), I didn’t have any real Jewish role models. D modeled the cooler, older Jewish girl I wanted to be—she was smart, friendly, and had a great sense of humor. Most importantly, she was a writer. When I think about the Jewish writer who has had the most impact on my life, it’s not Adrienne Rich or Elie Wiesel or Maimonides that come to mind—it’s D.

Nowadays, most fanfiction and original work exist beyond websites. Fanfiction.net gave way to Archive of our Own, formed in 2008 by the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. Also known as AO3, Archive of our Own is a multimedia platform for all creatives. A platform with few limits and countless niche tags, AO3 is home to over 40,000 fandoms. There’s also Wattpad, a social story sharing site that would go on to publish books based on their most popular fanfictions. The latest literary discourse goes viral on Twitter. People dance, lip sync, and start book drama on TikTok. Aesthetics and vibes become novels. The chatroom is now Discord. What is Twitch but liveblogging persevering? Tumblr is still around, though it likely will never regain its 2010s relevance. When I log into my old Fanfiction account, the website structure looks the same as it did ten years ago: dark blue hyperlinks, grayed-in text boxes, plain font. The same with LiveJournal—the icons, backgrounds, and text are all items you would find in a 2005 digital time capsule. I find strange comfort in knowing these sites haven’t aged well compared to current social media apps like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat. No minimally attractive aesthetics accented with brand-friendly colors like Millennial Pink or Gen Z Yellow, no Live or Story feature like the other social platforms. The internet blankness that once embraced me now demands more content, more input, more me to fill it.

In the Slate article “Why Did Fans Flee LiveJournal, and Where Will They Go After Tumblr?,” information sciences professor Casey Fiesler talks about fandom platform usage and documents the changes that social sites underwent as fandom users hopped from site to site. But it’s this comment that drives the knife into me: “Fandom is fragmented. [W]e’ve moved across all these platforms, we lose people, it’s less tight knit than it was, but I think this is also because fandom is so much bigger than what it [used to be].”  It makes sense. The social spaces I grew up with as a teenager aren’t congruent with the social media that craves instant gratification and in-the-moment content. Because websites were accessed on personal computers and laptops pre-smartphones, you spent more time (physically) in one place doing one thing at a time. You uploaded a document to the website. You posted the story. You waited for reviews. You waited minutes or hours or even days for a response. Every review, good or bad or trolling, felt earned.

I stopped regularly posting in LiveJournal around late 2009. With the advent of Tumblr in the 2010s, I migrated over to Tumblr in favor of a new robust platform for cool sad girls and fandom lovers. There I could post stories, share images, and interact with even more people with hashtags. Because fan culture had grown acceptable (or profitable) in the “real world”, Tumblr capitalized on this zeitgeist. The boundaries of the “online” and “offline” identity blurred. Eventually, I too stopped posting on Tumblr. I entered grad school in the hopes I would become a “real” writer, which meant I had to shed that fandom persona.

Although I never entirely forgot about D, she became part of the bygone communities I associated with my cringy teenhood. The digital world is shrinking, yet the loss of online friendships from those 2000s Internet days remains irreplaceable. The irony isn’t lost on me in that I graduated from these diverse social sites only to enter an endless loop of two-three mega platforms that all share the same so-called innovative features that originally set them apart: live streaming, voice chat, picture-post, hashtag, video.

I will never meet D in real life. Despite all the creative writing professors I’ve had since college, the writers’ conferences and workshops I’ve attended, no other person has come close to fostering my love for writing and the digital community like D.

I still think about D whenever I reflect on old friendships. Does she have a good job? Does she have kids or a spouse? Is she still writing? Maybe she became a super famous novelist, writing under a pen name or pseudonym. Maybe she gave up on writing entirely. Is she in good health? She’s likely in her late thirties or early forties now. Is she someone I’ve unknowingly interacted with online in the years since LiveJournal, our traced pasts looping into one another? Maybe she found me too and is hesitating to send me a message, worrying that I might not remember her.

D, if you’re reading this: hey. Remember me?

Note from contributor: The internet world I grew up with is near-extinct. True, it’s easier now than ever to find people and make friends based on shared interests. But if you were on a social platform that phased out in the early-mid 2000s such as LiveJournal, it’s difficult to track down old internet friends if they don’t use the same username or handle. As our identities become indistinguishable from an “online” and “offline” self, I often wonder about the friends I made on anime forum boards and blogging channels–I don’t know who they are and they don’t know me. I miss the people who knew me for what I liked and loved, not as a potential brandable product or projection, but as my most authentic self, even if I never shared my first name

Hannah Cohen is the author of two poetry chapbooks from Glass Poetry Press: Year of the Scapegoat (2022) and Bad Anatomy (2018). Hannah co-edits the online literary journal Cotton Xenomorph. Publications include Michigan Quarterly Review, Booth, Hey Alma, Pidgeonholes, The Offing, Cherry Tree, The Rumpus, and others. She was a 2018 Best of the Net finalist and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Hannah lives in Virginia, and is currently working on a fantasy novel and an essay collection.

Categorized as Issue Nine