This is a self-hosted mirror of the entry I wrote for the Yesterweb Zine's 4th issue in 2022.
The year is 2005, and I’ve just made my very first Neopets account.
With it comes a flurry of adorable pets in all sorts of colors and designs, fun Flash games, funny little items to use and a whole new site to explore.
But what catches my eye, and deep down the actual reason I even found Neopets at all, is the presence of “petpages”. Every single Neopet on the site has its own static webpage, where the account owner is free to do whatever their heart desires: art galleries, tutorials, wishlists, opinion pieces and rants and my personal favorite, character-focused pages. (the default petpages have been archived here)
It’s second nature to a lot of users on petsites to make a character out of their beloved pet. Neopets isn’t an exception to this. With these petpages, players can make an entire single page site devoted to the character they’ve created, waving over visitors and telling them all about the pet’s backstory and who they are and what kinds of relationships they hold with the other pets living both on the same account and friends’ accounts.
At this point in time, I’m already well familiar with personal webpages: Geocities, Angelfire, Tripod, Freewebs, you name it and I probably have a site in my bookmarks that’s hosted on it. In fact, I found Neopets in the first place because of an artist’s personal website, whose links section held a little button linking to a particular Neopet’s petpage, one that spoke of art thievery in the site and called out those who traced the pet owner's artwork, all set to the sound of an autoplaying MIDI. It was there that I first heard of Neopets.
Maybe it was the combination of all of that that drew me in. Before I know it, I’m absolutely hooked.
I spend hours and hours hopping from petpage to petpage, guided around by a trail of links and icons that lead me to new pages to be discovered. I am fascinated by all the different designs people create for their pets (some of which are closer to the actual site art than others), all the different ways each page looks (though Neopets itself kindly has tutorials for its users, I don’t understand HTML very well yet, so seeing what it can do feels like magic), all the different backstories people would write. As someone who’s always adored art, storytelling and characters, it feels like I’ve found the biggest of treasure chests. It feels incredible to witness that sort of boundless creativity and get immersed in so many people’s self-expression and stories.
In a time before Youtube, this type of webspelunking is also a way I have to find new music. My dad taught me the trick of opening a webpage’s source code and while I don’t know much HTML at all yet, I quickly figure out how to scout out the link for the songs that autoplay in a pet page, added in to help with immersion. Over time, I acquire not just a massive collection of bookmarked petpages, but a collection of MIDIs and MP3s as well.
I also try my hand at making a petpage of my own (in an alt account where I put in my mother's age, since my main account has my actual birthday and at this point I'm still under 13 and thus locked out of making petpages), despite my very limited knowledge in the HTML department. I know enough to put in a nice little MIDI and change the page's background image, at least.
I'm having loads of fun exploring countless petpages every day and I'm happy.
The year is now 2022, and I’ve just found the Firefox bookmarks file I had in 2005.
It feels like finding the key to a room in my house that’s been locked away this whole time.
The internet as a whole is a completely different environment than the one from 17 years ago. Algorithm-driven social media now dominates the online landscape. Sites like Toyhouse now serve as repositories for characters and their backstories (heartwarmingly, it also allows for HTML customization of a character’s profile, though not to the same extent as petpages allow). Neopets' popularity has waned a lot compared to its heyday, though it still has a loyal audience of players.
It's funny, really. The word neo means "new", and yet in those 17 years I’ve held on to a lot of things. The bookmarks file itself. A number of MP3s that I downloaded from long forgotten pages. Bits of pieces of backstories that stayed in my memory along with vague shadows of artwork I spent so long looking at, wondering just how they drew that. As I start clicking and opening each petpage’s link from my old bookmarks, I feel my mind light up as I read certain names and recognize them even across time.
A lot of these pages have been wiped and reset to the default Neopets HTML, but a lot of them have stayed as they were back then. Preserved in amber as crystals from a long gone era, some (or in some cases, most) of their images or music might be gone but the core of the source code remains the exact same as I remember. The webdesign is the exact same. The writing is the exact same. Some sites are permanently frozen in time with a message letting visitors know the page is under construction, promising further updates in a future that doesn't quite arrive.
Strangers' self-expression and creativity from so long ago survived this whole time so they could reach me again as they did in 2005.
And, as if time hasn't passed at all, I start bookmarking them.