The death of a community: A tribute to the first site I was a part of on the internet.
Dates are approximate, as a lot of the stuff being referenced here no longer can be found on the internet. I might be shifting things by whole years in my head, but the exact dates aren’t the important bit.
This is a tribute to the first internet community I was a part of, the 39 Clues Message Board. As it has now recently been shut down, I feel that an obituary is in order. (This may have been written in a way that is a little confusing to anyone not already familiar with the sites. You’ve been warned.)
In September 2011, when I was 9, my grandmother bought me the first two books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, by Rick Riordan. She had heard about it from her students, and she thought I might enjoy it. As it turns out, she was right. I did enjoy it.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was obsessed. I read those books over and over and over again. I could list all twelve Olympians off the top of my head cold. I was begging for the third book. I wanted the t-shirt. I would correct people on the pronunciation of “Riordan”.
Naturally, as part of my obsession I ended up checking out the author’s website. He had quizzes, information, camp schedules.,… all the stuff that a young superfan would want.
I also found out that Rick Riordan had written The Maze of Bones — the first book in another series, called The 39 Clues, published by Scholastic.
Being curious, I went to go look it up. It was about a brother and sister, part of a family called “Cahills”, who went around the world looking for “Clues”. Apparently they were in some kind of danger.
I wasn’t interested.
It was totally different from Percy Jackson. Why would I want to read it?
A couple years pass, and I come across The 39 Clues again. By this time, in 2013, when I read the description I was interested. I clicked over to the 39 Clues website. And lo and behold, I had found my new obsession.
The 39 Clues website was awesome. They had tons of in-depth games, that actually connected to the story. They had tons of cool animations, interesting stories, and an immersive experience.
I really started getting into it in early 2014. At the time, I was 11. I played all the games, hunted around the library for the books, and generally just mucked around on the site.
Then, in April 2014, I discovered the forums.
They called it the Cahill Command Message Board. It had been around since at least 2011. It was jam-packed with admins running cool projects, kids roleplaying, lively discussions about every topic imaginable, some of the best writing I’ve ever seen being written by pre-teens, and what has to be some of the strangest content on the internet. I instantly fell in love.
I made my first post to the forums on April 29, 2014, on the sticky thread for new users to introduce themselves. I was welcomed by existing users, and got some helpful tips. A few weeks later, I was joining a writing project and having discussions about zombies. I felt at home.
For the next two years or so, everything was perfect. I became rather well-known on the MB (message board). I had lots of friends. The content being posted was reaching whole new levels of weird hilariousness. The admins were, on the whole, present and interacting with the kids. (To put my parents’ (hi) minds at ease: Don’t worry, I didn’t share any personal information. I’m smarter than that.)
Then came the wars.
The first war was the oldie/newbie war. Basically, a new user got into a heated argument with one of the older users. The whole MB split and took sides, which generally aligned with newer users fighting against the older users.
It was nasty. Both of the users involved were my friends. I just wanted the fighting to stop.
Unfortunately, it didn’t.
The outcome was that within weeks, half of the older users on the MB ended up receiving permanent bans, and the MB started to change forever.
Almost immediately after that, another war broke out, this time with a couple of neighboring forums. Scholastic also had sites for series called Spirit Animals and Infinity Ring. The Infinity Ring users were on the whole also older 39 Clues MBers, and were by this point in their teens. The Spirit Animals users were usually younger. This caused some… trouble when a bunch of SA users decided to head to IR and check it out.
It happens that this happened at the worst possible time. The IR community had just received news that one of their members had committed suicide, and they were observing a day of silence. One SA user decided to disregard this.
This led to people again taking sides, and eventually turned into a IR vs SA war. This blew up enough that eventually, almost all of the IR users were banned or left, and the IR forum became completely desolate, and tensions between SA and T39C started to develop.
By the time all was said and down, things had drastically changed. Gone were almost all of my old friends. The MB was full of battle-weary users, mostly newer users who didn’t really interact with the older members. People were sick of the fighting. One user confided in me that they had been feeling depressed and slightly suicidal throughout this whole thing. (Yes, I obtained permission to write that here.)
The community had, although I didn’t realize it at the time, started a process of decay that would culminate three years later when the forums were shut down.
The Beginning of the End
In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross presented an idea in her book On Death and Dying known as the Kübler-Ross model, or the “five stages of death”. She noted that the terminally ill and dying usually go through five stages: First denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, and finally acceptance.
The same can be said of when a community is dying. The 39 Clues MB, however, went through this twice. The first time was an extended process that lasted all through 2016 and 2017, into 2018.
Directly after the wars that tore the MB apart, the few older members that remained, including me, tried to pretend that nothing had happened. We tried to keep the way things had been. We would write funny stories. Interact weirdly. Keep using the same memes. But it just wasn’t working. Without all the people that had left or been banned, it just couldn’t work the way it had before.
As soon as this realization came about, we grew angry. Angry at the newbies who had come in and ruined the place. Angry at the mods for unfairly banning people and not banning the people who started the fight in the first place. Anger at the people who left for not staying. Anger at the people who had been banned for being banned.
This anger lead to people taking it out on the admins who were still hanging around the place. At this time, the admins stepped back and started working almost entirely from behind the scenes. They stopped interacting with us at a personal level.
When the anger had subsided a bit, we tried bargaining. We begged the mods to give the suspended users a second chance. We tried making friends with the newbies. This stage lasted basically all through 2017. But it just wasn’t working so well.
By the time 2018 came around, almost all of the users had given up. They drifted off, lost interest in the site, and simply gave up. At this point, there were less than 10 users still actively participating who had been active users before the war. All the rest just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.
In 2014, shortly after joining, I discovered that a bunch of users had formed an off-site group on Wikia, where they could communicate more freely than on the heavily moderated Scholastic site. I didn’t use it much, though, until the war. That became the only way to talk to a bunch of the users that were banned. I kept them posted on our attempts to get the admins to reconsider. And, by the time everything was gone through, most had accepted what had happened. Most of them had joined the MB at young ages in 2011–3, and had kinda outgrown it anyway. It simply wasn’t worth it anymore. Let the newbies have it — it’s their turn. We had it for a while, we can let them have it now.
And then, slowly, the Wikia began to die itself. People had gotten busy. They were dealing with high school now. They didn’t have as much time. It wasn’t so important anymore.
And so, by 2018, it was basically just me and one other person left who would interact with each other on the MB who had been there since 2014.
A second life and a second death
And it seemed like that would be how it went. Things were quiet on the Wikia all through 2018 and into 2019. The MB was being used by a bunch of newer people, and seemed to be thriving again. Aside from an incident where thousands of old posts mysteriously disappeared, which happened at the same time as several of Scholastic’s sites that were abandoned by all users being deleted, things seemed to have fallen into a groove. I was an old relic, just watching.
That’s when Scholastic dropped the announcement that they’d be deleting the MB entirely shortly.
Well, that woke up some people. The place exploded, and we started the Kübler-Ross process for the second time.
Denial and anger kind of blended together, as hordes of kids railed against the poor newly hired community manager. She bravely fended the anger of hundreds of kids, and was able to work with them. Scholastic wanted to move to a new platform, and part of that would include entirely removing the old sites. Hundreds of kids begged for the forums to be left.
Ultimately, it didn’t help. There was no way to get Scholastic to change their mind.
When the news made its way to the off-site groups, it breathed new life into them. Suddenly, faces that hadn’t posted in years were posting goodbye messages on the forum. There was a project to save every thread to the Wayback Machine (which I eventually did through some scripts). Goodbyes were said, and then the forums were put into read-only mode.
And that was the end of the Message Board.
So what happens when a community first falls apart, and then, afterwards, the very platform dies?
First of all, you permanently lose contact with some people. There are dozens of people who I met and became “friends” with that I wouldn’t even know where to look to find them. I know that if I go looking on Discord, I’ll find people — there are servers mentioned on a couple different Wikias. I could communicate with people on Wikia — there are a whole bunch of former users on there, and I have interacted with a couple people here and there. I’ve even found some users on Scratch of all places. And, of course, the first place to look would naturally be the replacement that Scholastic created for the MB — an app called Home Base. I know that if I ever want to go find them, I can. But not everybody will be there, and so there are people that I will in all likelihood never speak to again, even if I go after all the leads I’m aware of (which I likely won’t; I’m not attached enough to all the users to go bother joining a dozen Discord servers and messaging random Scratchers).
Second, you lose content. There were hundreds of stories written that were posted to the MB; not all of those have been saved. A whole lot of stuff was lost when thousands of posts were suddenly, without warning, deleted. Among those were at least a hundred, almost definitely more, of posts consisting of writing, submitted by users of the years. People would share their work, collaborate, get feedback, sandbox… Then poof, it was all gone. Everything that survived that purge is still available on the Wayback Machine, but there was still a lot lost.
Third, and most importantly, you lose the community. What does this mean, to lose the community?
What I mean is that there is no longer a native place where people enthusiastic about a single topic will naturally congregate. There will be no natural growth of new users in those small congregations on Wikia or Discord or whatever, because they are essentially transplanted small parts of something that no longer exists. They will thrive so long as the people already there remain active; but any natural growth is stifled due to the fact that the step in between, the MB, no longer exists. They are isolated, doomed to extinction.
You can’t ever exactly recreate something you’ve lost. It’s the same deal with these communities. Scholastic has created a new app, with a message-board-like feature, that they are replacing the old forums with. I have no doubt that they will be successful, and that some of the people who would frequent the MB will still be there. That community will grow, and thrive, while the old, transplanted communities will thrive, shrink, and inevitably die. There’s no getting around it — people will get older, go to college, join the army, get jobs, whatever it may be — and the transplanted community, made up of people who met when they were in their teens or younger and has no natural growth, will eventually die.
And that’s okay.
All good things come to an end. That includes a community. I have personally learned tons from the MB, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. (It was, indirectly, the MB that has shaped and completely changed my life for the past four years, but that’s a story for another time.)
I consider the MB to have been a crucial part of my development stage as a person. That stage still has a while to go, but this small section of it has drawn to a close. I’ll always have the memories of the place, and knowledge of the way it’s changed me. I can even go back, log onto Home Base, and talk to some of the people there — but I can’t recreate the MB. It’s gone, and that’s okay, because good things don’t live forever. The MB served its purpose, and it’s time to stop worrying about it.
A lot of the users who were there when I joined are now legally adults. And still, they communicate with people they met through an internet form when they were 12. I know that there are ways to reach them if I need to. The threads are archived in the Wayback Machine. It’s time to let it go, and let the MB rest in peace.
Farewell, CCMB. I won’t forget you.