BlueKaffee or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write the Blog
When I was thirteen I had terrible grades in school. In fact, around the time that I became fascinated with the internet was when I couldn’t begin to care less about homework. Due to a sharp decline in academic performance, in my first year of junior high I was enrolled in after school school. Though I pined as precious hours of my youth ticked by in a sterile classroom for the dull-witted, looking back now I would never trade those crisp fall afternoons spent in the so called ‘learning center’ for what I received in return.
Y’see, there was this cool girl there, cooler than me by virtue of being in the eighth grade, and she told me about a blue café that all the eighth graders were hanging out at. I soon learned BlueKaffee was a social network who’s demographic is made up almost entirely of people from Newfoundland.
The site functioned as a lively forum but also hosted sections for journals, galleries and writings. I created my profile on September 18th, 2004.
When I realized last month that my account was on the verge of being a decade old, I began to ask myself questions about the site and its cultural significance. There is no question that BK played a major role in my personal life, and the lives of thousands across the island.
In order to learn more about the site I turned to longtime media representative of BK Heather Labonte, also known as Dagny, user id 141. Many people familiar with BK know about Chad, the founder, and Aaron who eventually took the reigns. I recognized Heather’s username from the moderator’s list, but had no idea how Dagny became involved with the site.
Dagny: “It’s kind of interesting. I met Chad through friends who talked me into joining BlueKaffee in the Summer of 2003. He always laughs at me and rolls his eyes, but basically I wouldn’t be doing my job now if it weren’t for the way I kind of got pulled into that. So what happened was, after a year of hanging out on the site and sometimes being like, ‘hey, you’re a troll, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ and writing him [Chad] a little message saying ‘this person shouldn’t be doing that.’ [Chad] was like, ‘do you want to be a moderator, and maybe take some responsibility?’ So I started to moderate the site, and eventually kind of run the administrative team from a user and a content standpoint. […] Chad took a step back … because for him it had originally been just his personal blog that exploded out of nowhere. He was very gracious about the fact that it was this huge thing, but also it was never his dream to run a community site. As it turned out, it was something that I was really interested in. […] Talking to the press when they wanted to do a story about BK, something that happened on BK, we often got requests for comments on youth culture context, or ‘what does the BK populace think about this.’ So I sort of became the go to person for all of that kind of detail. […] It was a really lucky experience for me that I got to find what I ended up doing with my life, totally by accident, and totally getting to do something that I really believed in.”
I asked Dagny to describe the site to someone who has never used it before:
Dagny: “Sometimes, depending on the context I’ll favour the past tense when I talk about BK, even though that I recognize that it still very much alive now. The reason I do that is because of the significance that it especially served anywhere between seven and twelve years ago. But the way I would describe it is that it was, in technical terms, a hyper-local community focusing on the youth St. John’s and the greater St. John’s area, about 95% of users were based there. So it was a very unique social networking experience before the age of peer networks. […] On BlueKaffee, people were sharing their innermost experiences, like the trauma of being a teenager, or the excitement of seeing a new girlfriend or boyfriend, with people that they ran into in math class every day […] That just wasn’t a thing then. So for a lot of us it was an exposure to social networking with peers that they knew in real life before that was a common experience.”
This notion of interacting with peers on a larger scale than a one on one MSN messenger was incredibly exciting. Being fascinated with broadcasting, I had often dreamed of having a way of communicating my thoughts and ideas through some form of media. Much like the modern day twitter, BK was a platform through which it became possible to broadcast. In this sense I will go so far as to say that the site was ahead of its time in many respects, when compared to the current state of social networking. While some might have viewed the limited demographic of BK as a barrier for the website’s growth, there were clear benefits of its localized nature.
Dagny: “One of the things that made BlueKaffee really special was its uniqueness and its sense of intimacy. Because it was a special kind of St. John’s thing there was an inherent level of trust and also a sense of camaraderie, especially between the first few thousand users, that has really been maintained to this day. There was a sense of community that I think doesn’t quite happen on the same level when you’re looking at a publicly traded company that you subscribe to, to interact with your friends. So I mean BlueKaffee was Chad [Kaffee], and he had a blog, and people wanted to comment, and then they wanted their own blog. It happened in this really lovely, organic way. […] It was a very personal experience to be part of the community, and I think that that made people feel like they were really part of something. Even though at its height, you have thirty-thousand users who are active or semi-active, by no means a small group, but when you went out into public you knew you were going to be walking past people who’s forum posts you saw, or who’s journals you were reading or following. It created this really interesting live social experience where you felt like you knew a lot of people. It gave it a very small town feel if you were in that age range at that time and I think it was a very special time for people coming of age in St. John’s because of that. I think that is something that doesn’t necessarily happen with Facebook or Twitter.”
When it came out that Facebook, Google and several other internet powerhouses had been cooperating with the American government in collecting the data of millions of people, I felt relieved. The reason for this being that my darkest, most embarrassing secrets which I would never want to see resurface are not hosted on those websites, but rather are locked away in private or friends-only journals on BK. If BK truly was ahead of its time, the evolution of the internet may prove this to be true once again.
Dagny: “Well, towards the early part of the decline of BK, when people started using it less in favour of bigger services, my instinct was like ‘oh hey the wild west days of the internet are over, now it’s going to be all big organizations running the show.’ But there is a lot of mistrust in some of them and the way they use data for advertising and the fears about things like NSA and general security. So I think there will at least be a core niche of users, and maybe even an expanding user base, of people who will gravitate towards something that is not there for profit, that is privately owned, or owned by someone they know, or that they feel like they have a more real world, a more accountable connection to. I mean the team of us who were running BK were a bunch of teenagers, to be perfectly honest, at first- and then we all kind of grew up. I mean we were all accountable in the sense that we were public individuals, and very much peers of the people using the site, so socially accountable. I think that is something that people are looking for more and more, at least within a certain demographic of people.”
As more of my friends began using Facebook I became incensed at the thought of giving up my beautiful profile with custom colors, slick avatar and kick-ass username. Not unlike the learning center I’d pissed my Fall months away in, the blue and white, sterile Facebook feed was an affront to the idiosyncrasies I had valued as an anxious youth. I couldn’t help but feel as though a part of my very being was being eclipsed.
Dagny: “I use Facebook as a shorthand for more streamlined, more corporate, social networking. I also see that as kind of an inevitability, I’m not sure that could have not happened. If it hadn’t been Facebook, it would have been something else. We were doing something in a very casual way. The site went down all the time, new features were added when people had winter break from school. Obviously at some point, someone with more investment, and more of a business mind was going to come along a eclipse that for the mass public. […] That said, it was odd that you contacted me recently because in the last couple weeks a few of my contacts started this little grassroots campaign on Facebook and on BK to get people to go back to it [BK] for some of the reasons that you actually mentioned in your previous question, which was that it was something that we’re all familiar with, something that felt like we had a stake in it. We identified culturally with it at a certain point. So there is a little ground flow of activity of people going back, people will do challenges like ‘I’m going to write a journal on BK every day for a month.’ So, it’s interesting to see that, even if it goes nowhere, it’s interesting to see that level of loyalty after ten, twelve years.”
Kieran: Yeah it seems like all the users who are still active on BlueKaffee are diehard users who probably won’t quit until the site is shut down.
Dagny: They will be there until it is not on the internet anymore.
Kieran: Is there anything you’d like to say to these BKers?
Dagny: “Well I know most of them in person I think. I wish that there were more of you. I feel an immense debt of gratitude to the site, and to the community because for me it was a really formative experience to be involved with it early on, and on a ground level. So to see people still using it is actually a little emotional to me, that they still feel connected to it in the way I do, even though I’m not particularly active anymore. So I would just say thank you and I think Chad would say the same.”
For more than ten years my homepage has been BK. Once, when BlueKaffee was in need of financial support to keep itself going, it was taken down and replaced with an empty bar which filled up as people made donations to the site; if the donation goal wasn’t met, there would be no way for the administrators to keep it online any longer. The move was a controversial one, but as the final date of the site drew near it reached its goal. Since then, when I open my browser, I breathe a little sigh of relief when I connect. Not solely because I wish to blog the monotony of my life, but so that I might revisit the monotony of my youth– whether through my own writings, or someone else’s: The summer following high school graduation my friend David passed away, marking an egress from adolescence for our friend group. Every day I think about what it would be like to have one more conversation with him, one more game of Mario Kart in the shed, one more joke. On good days, these thoughts come and go manageably, but sometimes when the night fades into early morning and I am exceptionally homesick for a place in time, I find myself reading his old journals. Not because they are extraordinary, but rather because they offer a glimpse into something typical, something real. There aren’t many individuals who I might point to as being so real as David. When BK finally does go down, it will take the tangibility of those memories with it, for myself and others, including Dagny.
Dagny: “I don’t know if one of your friends was ——— , but he was a good friend of mine for a long time, before BlueKaffee. He was very active on the site and after he passed away it was a really emotional experience on a couple of occasions, but also just this really nice thing to go back and to be able to read his thoughts as he shared them and as he wrote them. We live in an interesting age when it comes to memorializing people and when it comes to how we remember them, how we are able to remember them so much more fully because of the way people share their ideas and thoughts now. BK has on several occasions definitely served that purpose for a lot of people.”
When one considers what is most important, it is often sentimental, that which has no monetary value. For thousands of young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, BK holds a key to our individual past– each journal, each comment representing a small portion of what it meant to grow up on the island during that time: which, when pieced together, begins to look much more like a cultural landscape than the frenzied diatribes of melodramatic teenagers. For many of us, the comfortable blue screen represents the closest we have ever been with each other, and ourselves.