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Every few months, I get an email with the same huge PDF. It explains the concept of emotional labor, but the format itself is what’s interesting here. It’s weird: it’s grouped into themes, each with chunks of text attributed to “Eyebrows McGee”, “jokeefe”, “languagehat” and so on. The person who emailed it invariably says, “I have no idea what this actually is – seems like it’s from a bunch of forums? – but the content is really good.”

I never reply. But I’ve known since I was 11 who these people, this Eyebrows McGee and this languagehat, are.

The PDF is not from a bunch of different forums after all. It’s from a single site called Metafilter, which… how to best describe it? It’s like a very small scale Reddit. Statistically speaking, you have never been on Metafilter. But if you’ve ever had a long, shifting relationship with a website, or spent your teenage years on the internet, everything that comes next might feel familiar.

South Carolina in the early 2000s. A family friend has gifted me Computers for Dummies, and the appendix leads me to Metafilter. I’m sheltered, nosy, and impressionable – that is to say, like any kid. Metafilter proves to be eye-popping.

Every adult in my life loved harping on the importance of getting into a good college, thus guaranteeing a great life. Within days of browsing on Metafilter, this fraud was exposed for me. I’d see questions from lawyers who graduated from Ivies and lived in fancy cities (any city felt fancy to me). They’d ask how to make their life feel more fulfilling, and I’d think, hrm, why is a success story needing to ask that? It seemed nothing was guaranteed after all.

If such commonly-held wisdom could be wrong, surely there were lots of other scams out there. Metafilter was my best chance to find out the truth. But the site had a $5 joining fee, payable only via credit card. My parents wouldn’t let me borrow theirs (what sensible person would send money over the internet?) Besides, they were already fed up with Metafilter. I’d hog the modem for hours reading the site, blocking their ability to call their friends. I kept begging with the fervor that cooler teens saved for cars, piercings, later curfews. Finally, we came to a compromise: I could mail Metafilter a check for five dollars and 00/100. I was in.

On the site, I was careful to never mention my age or any identifying characteristics. My parents were already uneasy about me getting chummy with internet strangers. I accused them of being paranoid but harbored my own vague fears of being kidnapped, plucked one night right out of my cozy suburban bed.

Metafilter wasn’t all lofty lessons on the limitations of higher education. Most days, it felt like a twisty fun house, full of unexpected connections. No matter how obscure the topic, someone on Metafilter would be an expert on it: 18th century German baking, deep sea exploration, truly whatever. Ask whether the Road Runner from Looney Tunes said meep meep or beep beep, and the creator’s niece would answer. Ask about Steve Jobs’ relationship with his technical cofounder, Steve Wozniak, and sure enough, the actual stevewoz would type up 700 words in response.

That might not sound impressive these days, as companies have huge outreach teams working to get celebrities to use their products. But Metafilter has never had such teams. Everyone who joined just felt like it, and some of them happened to be famous.

I was beyond smug that I’d finally found my people. This was clearly where I belonged, far more than my high school and its pedestrian dramas. I got my first laptop, then my first smartphone, and no longer needed to hog the family’s desktop in the computer room. Every night before bed, and sometimes right upon waking, I’d check Metafilter.

Being a Metafilter member weirdly meant a lot. The only official hurdle was the $5 joining fee, but it took a certain kind of person to want to join. Members were really nice to each other. Throughout college, I got tours of libraries, leads on research papers, an internship.

Metafilter even explains the beginning of my career. I got a job offer to help grow a startup in San Francisco despite knowing absolutely nothing about that world. I noticed that the creator of Metafilter had previously worked for the startup’s founder. Would he be willing to talk to me? Sure, of course. He called as he embarked on a long drive, and I paced in tight circles around my dorm. It sounded like an adventure! And hey, what did I have to lose? I moved across the nation on the strength of that reassurance. Hey Matt, thank you for the call and that kick. Thank you for Metafilter and the rest of my life so far.

After graduating from college, I still thought of Metafilter as a rarified club of experts that I’d somehow snuck into. I also thought of Metafilter as a perfect window onto the world. I was sure I could better understand different life experiences because I read strangers’ thoughts, freed by anonymity to be honest. I knew I lived in a tiny bubble, and Metafilter seemed my best defense against that insularity.

Do you see the contradiction here, a perfectly elite world against a perfectly egalitarian one? I didn’t until I started going to meetups organized by members. I’ve been to meetups in six cities so far.

The two absolute standouts have been a cake vs pie party (price of entrance being a full cake or pie, leading to far too much cake and pie). And one at a pub where two people met, fell deep into conversation, and have since married and had a kid. All that happened because of this website.

By and large, though, I’d get to the meetup, look for the group meeting each other for the first time, and find that my window on the world was not so vast after all. The group was generally whiter, shyer, and more rumpled than I’d expected and worked in a small sliver of white collar jobs. I’d feel a sharp inhale of surprise, alerting me to just how detailed my subconscious expectations had been.

So it seemed Metafilter wasn’t actually full of geniuses and perfectly representative of the world. It might not even fulfill one of those expectations. I started drifting away, lured by the scale of Reddit and the speed of Twitter. Occasionally I’d go back to check on Metafilter (decade-old habits die hard) and notice how much slower and sparser discussions felt there.

At this point, the zeitgeist started warning, in op-eds and podcasts everywhere, that the Internet was destroying our ability to focus. I swore off consuming infinite streams of whatever an algorithm felt shoving me. I installed increasingly draconian blockers for Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter. Metafilter I allowed as an occasional indulgence, a diet soda every few days.

It wasn’t just my imagination that Metafilter felt smaller: it actually was shrinking. Usage peaked around the 2016 election and has steadily diminished ever since, primarily because Google’s algorithm showed it less prominently in search results. Metafilter itself also resisted all the trends of the social web: gamification, videos/gifs/images, forced uploading of address books. It looks like it was designed in 1999, because it was. New users complained of it feeling actively hostile, impenetrable.

The shrinkage felt especially discordant for me. My career, including the job Metafilter’s creator had encouraged me to take, was growing usage of online products. I should have been full of ideas about how to keep Metafilter growing. But I was both intimidated – how do you modify a 22 year old site without disturbing what makes it work? – and skeptical. What exactly was there to save?

As a kid, I’d taken care that no one on Metafilter could find out my real life identity. Now I’d started doing the opposite. No one in my life knew my username, and I tried to never mention Metafilter in real life. At a dinner a year ago, someone kept mentioning the exact same things I’d recently seen on Metafilter. I was nearly certain he was also a member but decided not to ask. It’s the same impulse that stops me from responding to the giant PDF every time it appears in my email inbox.

I can’t think of anything else that’s been a part of my identity for a decade and yet is so hard to describe. It’s daunting to try to give Metafilter its proper measure. A literal description would understate it grievously. An honest accounting of how it’s shaped my worldview would sound hyperbolic.

If someone, on my recommendation, went to check out Metafilter, they might notice that conversations can fall to the lowest common denominator. An article is shared that dissects a specific regional Mexican cuisine. 5 comments in, someone mentions how much they love Chipotle. It’s barely relevant, but that topic is easier to participate in, so the rest of the conversation devolves into debating: Chipotle good vs Chipotle bad.

“Lowest common denominator” isn’t even the full truth. I actually mean white, American, left-wing, and upper-middle class. Anything outside that frame can end poorly. In one infamous thread, an Asian user asked for help deciding what percentage of their salary to give to their parents. White users rushed in to call this absurd and declare that adults didn’t owe their parents anything. Prolific Asian users disabled their accounts out of frustration, never to come back. Similar tussles kept happening across each axis of social location. The dominant viewpoint drowned out relevant minority perspectives, causing minority users to leave, and the cycle would repeat, strengthened, in another thread.

In summer 2019, Metafilter turned 20. It’s remarkable for anything on the internet to survive that long. I baked a cake, brought it to a meetup, and snacked there on deviled eggs. But the site’s anniversary fell in the midst of existential debates over its dwindling userbase, inclusivity, and revenue struggles. Everyone advocated for what they’d do to turn things around.

None of these debates have gotten resolved in the years since. Strikingly, there isn’t even consensus on what Metafilter fundamentally is. It’s set up as a normal business, though users seem to think of it more as a club or nonprofit or cooperative. Some users compare it to a church. This might sound like useless hairsplitting, but I think the lack of definition is central to Metafilter’s malaise. How you’d fix a business is dramatically different from how you’d fix a social group.

Online networks often follow the same trajectory. The first few months or years, people are just messing around, having fun. But with popularity comes the possibility for monetary gain: merch, sponsorships, subscriptions. It starts feeling like work. Are your posts funny enough? How quickly are you gaining followers? Even if you don’t personally care, when enough other people do, the feel of the whole place changes.

I miss the hobbyist days of the internet. Metafilter is the last vestige of that time for me – I can’t even imagine influencers overtaking Metafilter. But hobbyists are an inherently limited group. The candidness and unexpectedness that I cherish about Metafilter is inextricably linked to its frustratingly limited demographics.

Mentally, I often attribute things to Metafilter: this is something Metafilter taught me; Metafilter thinks; and so on. This is sloppy. There isn’t one Metafilter voice: everything that you see was posted by an individual for their own reasons.

On Metafilter, the username only appears at the end of a comment. Two years ago, I was looking up advice on negotiating and saw quite a helpful comment. When I went to bookmark it, I noticed that attached to the comment was my own username. I checked the timestamp. At that point, I’d never had a full-time job and certainly had never negotiated. But lots of people had bookmarked the comment.

Objectively, I had no business writing that comment. But it was sound advice, and it seemed to help people – it was even helping me many years later. Why had I originally felt compelled to leave that comment? I’d probably been procrastinating on an essay or applying to jobs myself. Or waiting for a subway to pull in. I typed out my illegitimate conviction, hit send, and who knows what all grew from it.

Trying to figure out what exactly Metafilter is, I keep looking at my old comments and bookmarks and emerging hours later, wild-eyed, overwhelmed at the best extant record of who I’ve been and what I’ve thought.

Some of the most helpful things Metafilter has taught me [see, there’s that sloppy attribution again]: – Emotional labor, from that huge PDF: that managing feelings and societal expectations is real work, despite what your boyfriend or parents or boss might think. – Ask vs Guess culture: that some people ask every time they want anything, and others resist asking unless they really really need it, and how this disconnect can steadily erode relationships. – How growing up poor stays with you forever, extended to all different types of early experiences.

They all boil down to the single idea that things affect you more than you’d expect. If that’s the case, then what happens when everyone on a site decides to care about what the others have to say, despite no screening other than a $5 signup fee? What is the effect of blasting thousands strangers into your brain daily for decades?

I’d like to think I’m better for having grown up on Metafilter, more empathetic and open to new ideas. And watching it dissect the rest of the world has taught me to become dissatisfied with it. I see how wise, irreverent, and posturing it is through eyes it has trained.

So much of the internet feels legible. It’s well-documented how Instagram or Amazon affect our perceptions and expectations. But Metafilter still isn’t sure what game it’s playing, two decades in. Despite all its ups and downs, I’m still rooting for it. I want it to continue to entertain, infuriate, and bewilder its scattered users. It’s so rare getting to be bewildered these days.

Thanks to Jackie, Jacob, Elizabeth, and Kevin for loving advice on very confused early drafts.