Tech, Now + Beyond

I was shocked to find this when I first signed up for Neopets – but I have no regrets

"Don't talk to strangers," my parents would lament. "You can't trust anyone."

Finding a community isn’t always simple, but it’s such an important part of the human experience.

My family, my Filipino American community, and my broader Asian American community are some of my core communities. But I’ve also felt other communities that have come and gone throughout my life, such as my closest friends in high school and college, that have been just as significant.

Our ideas of a community can often be rigid because of our differing views on what’s even considered a community. Little did I know that communities, especially in the digital age, could be fostered anywhere. And it’s much deeper than simply a group of people together by coincidence.

Growing up, my parents were pretty clear about their warnings of using the Internet, which fed to the stigma I felt around interacting with people online.

“Don’t talk to strangers,” they would lament. “You can’t trust anyone.”

I more or less followed their advice (they are my parents after all). That is until I discovered that interacting with people online could actually form a sincere community.

As kids, my sister and I stumbled across a website called Neopets, an online world where users could care for virtual pets and interact with fellow “Neopians.” I eventually got involved with Neopet “guilds,” which were essentially clubs users formed around shared interests.

It was also where I met one of my first online besties.

It seemed like we were worlds apart, but our friendship started very simply: we were the same age, shared common interests and got along really well. The fact that we lived in literally in two different countries was irrelevant.

I was painfully shy in elementary school, so being able to meet the number of people I did and foster sincere interactions was huge for me. I felt the wall I so often put up against my peers was non-existent with this relatively judgment-free environment because nothing else mattered but our ability to converse.

This space gave me the confidence I wasn’t sure I could ever foster.

Even as I grew older and was coming of age in high school, I still valued the presence of online forums in my life as a legitimate support system along with my “real life” one.

I remember being a part of a LiveJournal community that although initially began as a forum to discuss pop culture, quickly spiraled into a platform where we talked candidly about life, relationships, and everything in between. In this space, I felt like I could be unapologetically myself and have conversations I was too shy to have with my peers.

This community was the first space in which I could have frank discussions about sex and relationships when my friends and I were too shy to talk it about as teenagers. Not that we weren’t genuinely curious, but we were still naive about intimacy and having a love life because we largely hadn’t experienced either at that point of our lives.

Many of the women in these communities were in their twenties and had some experience under their belts. I felt safe having conversations about this often taboo topic because it was coming from a space of relative anonymity and non-judgment.

This community would also know about all the milestones, anecdotes, and trials and tribulations of my high school life just as my actual high school friends were experiencing them with me. When I went through depressive episodes, for example, and did not want to burden my friends or family at home, I took to this forum to talk frankly about the negative feelings I often felt.

It was therapeutic and absolutely necessary because I knew I wasn’t alone in these feelings.

I felt as comfortable talking to these folks online as if I’d known them for a lifetime. Thinking back to that period of my life, it was pretty profound. Along with my “in real life” friends, this community was a pivotal part of getting through an often tumultuous period of my life. It very much helped me grow up and become the woman I am today.

Let’s face it: the process of finding your community has changed significantly since the advent of the Internet. We aren’t just forming communities in-person anymore—they’re happening through our computers.

Although I’m not active on Internet forums anymore, I’ll always recall the solace I found in these online communities. It’s time to break down the preconceptions with online communities and, instead, embrace the value they add to our lives.