Yahoo! Answers Was My First and Best Writing Coach
It wasn't just a site to ask how babby is formed—it was also the first place I could creatively explore
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By the end of elementary school in 2008, I was awkward. I hit puberty in the fourth grade; my doctors blamed hormones in KFC or suggested I would wind up being 6’2 (I didn’t). My mom was in and out of rehab and AA and my brothers were sending letters from jail. In all honesty, there isn’t a lot I remember from those years. Most of my recollection comes from stories of others. I scribbled out my own face in my sixth grade yearbook, and gave myself thick downturned brows and highlighted acne in my seventh.
I didn’t like myself, but I wanted to be liked. I would practice complimenting the popular girls’ outfits, in hopes they would return the favor. I let anyone copy my homework and bought souvenirs for my entire class when I went on vacation. And in my mostly-only-child loneliness, I turned to the internet.
If the first messaging board for millennials was AIM, for “zillennials” (1995-2000) it was Yahoo! Answers, the community knowledge market that was deleted this week after more than 15 years (much of it spent being famous for hilariously wrongheaded questions). As a sad and nerdy preteen, I didn’t think there was another person alive who could relate to me. I thrived in my English classes, often stating that my dream was to be a writer. J.K. Rowling or Stephen King were the only alive writers I knew, but they were old and had been famous my entire life. Still, there had to be other young people out there who loved reading and writing. Meeting them in college seemed likely, but that was a future hypothetical, and it seemed just as mystical as being a writer. No one I was related to had ever gone to college, but the media assured me it was filled with writers and artists.
Still, I wanted to find a community in the moment, and I had access to an iMac G3, thick and blue and stored away in my family’s “computer room.” My mom had believed the internet would be a fad that would pass like car phones or technicolor, but my dad had worked his way into an office at a massively growing energy drink company that gifted him with a desktop and a laptop. So, after I left school, I would head straight to the desktop and onto Online.
Yahoo! Answers was one of the only sites I knew. It was attached to my email, and although it said 13+ no one checked. I branded myself as “Kiwi,” a nod to a fruit I had tried once and a viral YouTube video. Now, I understand why so many people asked if I was from New Zealand, but at 11, I only knew to not use my real name.
I frequented multiple subsections. Under Gaming, I asked about Nintendo releases, trading shiny Pokemon, and the best methods to beat gym leaders. In Relationships, I ranted about my school crushes or how to stop having dreams about kissing girls.
I also linked to PhotoBucket images of myself, a preteen, asking if anyone thought I was pretty. On one occasion, I linked an image of my friend group and asked the strangers to rank us. I gave us fake names and ages and interests. I created an alternate world where I imagined I was well-liked and popular, but I was still begging for someone real to put me first.
But in the Books & Authors section, I shone. Here, I forged the perfect version of myself, cemented in my own creativity and honesty. Although I would still lie about my age, I did read the commonly referenced books and short stories. And I was creating the poetry and short stories that propagated my love for writing.
In Books & Authors, I waited to be discovered. I thought a publisher would email me after reading the plot for my book. They would sign me immediately, lifting me out of my small beach town and into New York City. Because that’s how it happened in shows or movies. I imagined being published in The New Yorker or The Paris Review and wearing chic pea coats and scarves.
The subsection was the home for students who didn’t want to read The Great Gatsby, or for those seeking the next Harry Potter. But it was also filled with wannabe writers looking for a community. In these early days when social media was MySpace and maybe Facebook, finding other people who valued your interests still seemed daunting.
I’m sure there were forums and niches across the Internet, but Yahoo! Answers was right there. And unlike fanfiction websites, you could talk about your original characters, poems, or grandiose novels with plot twists and magic.
I wasn’t actually writing these books, of course, and I doubt any of the other posters—who were probably also 11—were writing theirs. But Yahoo! Answers gave me a space to imagine the possibility of writing, and to treat it like a potential reality. I used the site to test out ideas about plot and character and setting. I would ask questions like, “What is the best name for my main character? She is 17 (like me) and has long dark hair and has a crush on her best friend but he likes the pretty blonde girl. The main character dies at the end.”
Or I would ask “Would you read my book?” and share a paragraph or two of text or the main events. Usually they were all about some tormented and sad girl who never “gets the boy” and always is surrounded by death.
But people would answer. They would respond with genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. These strangers with no icons would make good suggestions. I imagined them in their computer rooms across the world typing, “Your idea sounds so awesome! I can’t wait to read!” And then I imagined one day sending them all copies of my bound book.
Of course, I was on the other side of that desktop too. I would follow people who gave the best tips or had beautiful fully-formed visions for their novels. I refreshed the Books & Authors page, waiting to give advice, hoping I would be crowned as “Favorite Answer.”
The point of Yahoo! Answers wasn’t to develop a following, though. There was no attempt to add people I knew from real life. Instead, I invented this older version of myself, who wrote books and had boyfriends and took French in high school. This form of internet anonymity, and the storytelling that accompanied it, felt genuine—maybe even more genuine than my imaginary novel-writing. I wasn’t photoshopping myself or “lying for clout.” I used my questions and answers to embody who I wanted to become, who people listened to and respected.
Over the last few years, I’ve tried to access my old account. I would almost get in, but would get stuck on the security questions. The answer to “What’s your favorite fruit” was, oddly enough, not kiwi. In the erasing of my puberty—deleting my middle school Facebook account, burning old photos and throwing away my diary—my account on Yahoo! Answers was one of the only things that could tell me what I was thinking back then. I never got in.
Instead I searched keywords where I knew I’d find myself. I forged a collection of misassembled queries all dating back “a decade ago.”
The search for “What do you think of my story” drew over 830,000 results. “What do you think of my book” was almost 740,000. Hundreds of thousands of queries for poetry, next reads, and literary interpretations. An outlet for writers of all ages to pass around advice on a tiny and imperfect place on the Internet. Where you could be anyone, and people didn’t look at your followers before giving earnest opinions.
Now that Yahoo! Answers shut down, the archive of that moment in time is gone. The Internet adapted in the last decade, producing better question and answer sites, community forums, and baby naming groups.
The naiveté of Yahoo! Answers and the stories it allowed us to craft, not just under Books & Authors but across the site and with ourselves, cemented it into infamy alongside MySpace and Chatroulette. But its ability to produce genuine interactions, regardless of following, feels lost in time. It can exist in pockets, here and there, but for a site to let users be themselves—not commodities, not chasing clout or influence—doesn’t seem feasible anymore.
With our entire identities and data existing online, true anonymity is harder to access, maybe impossible. In any event, it’s not the default, like it was on Yahoo! Answers, where everyone chose what name they wanted to give to the world. And while on a hand that inability to hide has benefits (holding cyberbullies or racist trolls accountable), it also means kids and teens have one less place to explore being a different version of themselves. In middle school, there is nothing more terrifying than being authentic and vulnerable, and on Yahoo! Answers no one judged you for asking ridiculous questions or telling your most private secrets—or for trying to learn what it meant to be a writer, and make your creative dreams come true.
This often silly and informative platform allowed every awkward tween to dip their toes into cultivating their digital image, not curated or for likes, just for themselves. And now that the site is gone, it takes with it the proof of my first real steps towards writing, along with all of our poorly typed and embarrassing questions.