An ode to Shelfari & other virtual spaces that don’t exist anymore

STEEPED BY SAMIA #2 | 6.22.22
A middle schooler, a book-ish teen community, and a now defunct website.

In my tween years, I used Shelfari to keep track of the books I was reading. It was a site that allowed users to browse, categorize, and review books. There was also a social / community aspect, where you could join a variety of book-related groups or chat with book-ish people on their profiles. It was like GoodReads but with a cute, virtual wooden bookshelf.

Shelfari doesn’t exist anymore. It was bought by Amazon in 2008 and merged with GoodReads in 2016. I think about it with such fondness, from time to time. Recently, two things occurred to me: a.) Shelfari was my first taste of social media and b.) So many websites we used to browse are simply…gone.

I was on Shelfari all the time.

— sneaking onto the family desktop computer after school, furtively checking messages and posts at random hours. I, unfortunately, can’t find any screenshots of my profile. I have a hunch that they’re buried in Facebook Messenger chats with high school friends. To give you a snapshot: My username was Mia A., and I had a profile pic of an anime-style drawing of Alice in Wonderland that I found on Google images. My bio probably identified me as “a reader, writer, dreamer, and tea lover” and had some sort of deep or dreamy quote. 

A couple of months after using the site, I became invested in the community aspect. I joined groups, made friends, and even sent welcome messages to new Shelfari users. I obsessed over an emo song called “Sarcasm” by Get Scared, because a Shelfari friend introduced me to it. And I may or may not have become mutuals with a user named Ariana Grande (I like to think it was actually her, lol).

I experienced, for the first time, that buzz of anticipation and notifications and attention and connection online. 

The Young Writers Group became a central part of my experience on Shelfari. 

YWG was a vast forum of teenagers around the country (or world?) who loved books and writing, of course. Although it was a pretty big group, there were only 15 to 20 users who were active when I joined. I remember weekly threads about what we were reading or watching and what we were up to lately. Members would ask if anyone wanted to join a Hunger Games RPG group or a fantasy YA book club they were admin-ing.

Sometimes, heavy topics came up. Members opened up about grief, mental health, and navigating difficult experiences. We came together to listen, support each other and offer words of support, like: “I feel that way sometimes, too! You’re not alone!” It didn’t matter that it was all virtual, that I didn’t actually know any of these people IRL. I could palpably feel the pain, the joy, the warmth, the sadness, the energy. 

Once, a Shelfari friend from YWG and I mutually decided to give each other our personal emails and eventually added each other on Facebook — a leap of trust that paid off because we were who we said we were. I recently searched “Shelfari” in my email and found a thread from 2012 with that very Shelfari friend. The amount of cringe and smiling going on when discovering the thread was priceless. Every other email started with apologizing for being “super busy” with school and life. We were awkward, thoughtful, curious, quirky — and possessed a superb vocabulary. 

In middle school, I didn’t have a phone or social media.

A brief snapshot of middle school: I did my little activities like Leadership, tried my best with academics, hated the Wednesday mile run, became friends with a vampire, and had to figure out “personal style” after wearing uniform for all of elementary school. It was the era of silly bandz and dystopian books like The Hunger Games. Oh, and a boy in sixth grade once called me “the girl with the Arabic accent” ?? Not sure what to say about that one, lol.

My parents didn’t allow my siblings and me to hang out with friends outside of school. So, there was that particular challenge of feeling like I couldn’t develop deep friendships compared to my classmates, who were going to Santana Row or Great America together (#locals). At the same time, I felt a growing sense of solitude. I remember sitting sprawled on my flower-printed bed, journaling in my red Staples notebook, and reading shoujo manga and YA books for hours.

My peers were starting to get on social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Tumblr. I’d peripherally hear about this beguiling virtual world — and who had drama with who — when my friends would fill me in at school. 

In An Ordinary Age, Rainesford Stauffer explores how young people are finding their way in a world of high expectations. She brings up the concept of place attachment, which is “the cognitive-emotional bond between people and their important settings”. For Gen Z, it isn’t as tangible as a location. She explains that some places can have “virtual meanings, like online social networks.” This definitely rings true for me and many of my peers of older Gen Z.

Shelfari and the Young Writers Group was that secret social media world I inhabited, my place of virtual meaning. It was exactly what I needed at that time: the community of like-minded, book-ish teens. The floaty, dreamy feeling of wandering wooden bookshelves and book RPG groups. The flurry of profile picture icons that surface in my mind right now.  

By high school, it was just another website.

Yes, those rose-colored glasses add a such a vibrant filter to my memories of it, now. But in high school, I got so wrapped up in high school things, that Shelfari wasn’t that important anymore. I just used it to keep track of books.

The summer before high school, I got a phone (my uncle’s old, brown Samsung slide-up phone, to be exact) and a Facebook account. All the other social media apps followed suit when I got a smart phone, my sophomore year. I would participate in 2012-era Facebook rituals (“Like for a tbh”, lol), watch Bethany Mota make DIY hair bows on YouTube, and create Valencia-filtered picture collages for Instagram.

Nonetheless, I felt a sense of loss when Shelfari emailed about their merger with GoodReads. This happened toward the end of high school. I logged on to reminisce and attempted to migrate my account of 600+ books to GoodRead — which didn’t work out, and I had to start from scratch with a new GoodReads account *upside-down smile emoji*. Given that I can’t find any screenshots of it, I didn’t really think to record my account in other ways.

There is such an impermanence to being online.

In an episode of How I Built This, Guy Raz speaks to the founders of GoodReads about their journey creating the go-to bookish platform and eventually selling it to Amazon. He mentions:

“The success of social media sites like Facebook in the early 2000’s…led to hundreds of other social media start-ups, especially niche-oriented sites, many of which we’ve forgotten by now. Networks like Eons (which was specifically for baby boomers), Capazoo (for sharing music and photos), or Delicious (where people shared website bookmarks).” 

“GoodReads: Otis & Elizabeth Chandler” / How I Built This podcast by Guy Raz

This struck me because sites I avidly browsed, like My Life is Average, don’t exist anymore or only exist as archives. A graveyard of websites is in our collective memories, regardless of their passing impact on our lives. That temporary nature conditions us to get caught up in the next big thing or decide to stick with what we know and enjoy.

I wonder:

  1. In 25 years, what will documenting our lives virtually mean to us? 
  2. How much of our online presence is our IRL self and vice-versa?
  3. How are we cultivating meaningful connections on the internet?
  4. What are we really doing here?

I read this striking quote in a recent New Yorker article that speaks to the relentless pace of technological advancement and the internet:

“Like so many technologies that came before, [the internet] seems to be here to stay; the question is not how to escape it but how to understand ourselves in its inescapable wake.”

“How the Internet Turned Us into Content Machines” by Kyle Chayka / The New Yorker

When I recently searched “Shelfari” on Twitter, it was a warm feeling to encounter tweets like, “The book community hasn’t been the same since Shelfari,” or “Do you remember Shelfari? I miss it.” Members of the Young Writers Group are probably in their 20’s or older now, just going about their days, immersed in the virtual sights and sounds of 2022. —S.A.

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