Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of friends who met in the comments section (or "the basement," as they called it) of the women's blog Jezebel in the late 2000s. They later moved their discussions onto a private forum site, and eventually onto Facebook, where the group The Basement now has about 25 active members. In this interview, five of the Basement members discuss how a desire for connection brought them to the comments section, the argument over telling one another their real names, and the group vacations that cemented their real-life connection.
Jayne Andrews, 34, a director at a publishing company in the Bay Area
Melinda Diederich, 37, a manager at a software company in Denver
Lia Hernandez, 35, a tech-support professional in Huntington Beach, California
Ali Hewitt, 37, a publishing sales manager in New Westminster, Canada
Jessica Werner, 38, a children's librarian in Seattle
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: So you all started commenting on Jezebel around 2008 or 2009. Very important question: What were your handles?
Lia Hernandez: I was “TheQueenofNo.”
Ali Hewitt: I was “littlemissvan,” which is still to this day my handle on anything I comment on, and my Instagram handle.
Jayne Andrews: It was “yahtzii,” like Yahtzee spelled really dumb. I don't know why.
Melinda Diederich: Mine was “PreposterousHypothesis,” PH for short.
Jessica Werner: Mine was “Ipomoea.” It is the genus name for sweet-potato plants and morning glories. I've been using that on everything since 2002. I was working in a hardware-store nursery at the time.
Beck: I'd love if we could go around and each of you could tell me where you were at in your life at that time and why you started commenting.
Melinda: I had recently moved out to Denver because I was engaged at the time. I was trying to find some friends and a sense of community, because when you move somewhere new, you want to figure out who you can hang out with, and that can be hard as an adult.
I gravitated toward Jezebel because the things they posted on the site were interesting, but the commenting community was just really sharp, funny, insightful, and hilarious. I started commenting not just on articles, but also in the “open thread” area where you could just talk with people.
Ali: I think I'm similar. I moved to Vancouver in 2007, and it is a notoriously hard city to meet people in. People are just not super friendly and open. I had started a new job, and I was a bit at a loss. I was spending a lot more time on the internet than I had previously and somehow came across Jezebel.
Lia: I was 25 and I had just broken up with my long-term boyfriend, who was basically my whole social life at the time. I really resonated with Jezebel’s pop-culture vibe and accessible feminism, and I needed it at that time in my life really badly.
I was really impressed with how vulnerable so many of the people in the commenting community were and how much I could relate to them. I wasn't as vulnerable at the beginning. But I found a tribe of people who all felt like they were in a similar place.
Jessica: I started reading Jezebel in 2008 because it was right when I transferred from community college to college. I had a very slow temp job during the summer and a very slow job on campus, so I was commenting all the time. I got into Jezebel because it was funny and it was pop culture. And there was a very firm Don't say mean things about people's bodies rule, which didn't exist on a lot of sites at the time.
Jayne: I joined about a year after I got married. I was 23 years old at the time, super young. I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, which is where I grew up. I was going through a time of figuring out who exactly I was. I had spent a lot of time getting to know my husband and his friends. They’re great people, but they're also very big into the local music scene, which is really cool, but the truth is that I'm more of an indoor cat. I prefer to not be out late at places where people are smoking cigarettes.
Jezebel had this feature called “Comment of the Day,” which I was obsessed with. You can tell that I was not in a job that was very stimulating. I poured all of my emotional energy into trying to get the comments of the day, and luckily, I think it led me to a more lasting reward of finding The Basement.
Beck: Did you ever get the comment of the day?
Jayne: Oh my God, many times.
Melinda: Jayne was champion of “Comment of the Day.”
Jayne: When I got comment of the day, I would post the link on Facebook. It is so embarrassing. I wanted to tell my cousin and my grandmother and the bitch from high school who now sells shit in a pyramid scheme, “Maybe you own a house, but I got comment of the day.”
Beck: What was the commenter community like when you guys first started out? Were you mostly talking about the articles, or mostly socializing?
Lia: People would comment on articles, but every night there was an open thread and people would just hang out there. It felt like a slumber party. People would have their own threads where they would talk about really serious stuff going on in their lives. We all got to know each other like that, and it was very organic.
Beck: Did any of you ever comment on other websites, or was there something unique about Jezebel for you?
Jayne: At a certain point, the community on Jezebel petered out. I tried The Toast and The Hairpin and some other different sites. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I really wanted to find people. I did make some really great friends through that, but it just wasn't the same kind of lightning in a bottle that The Basement was.
Ali: When Jezebel shut down open threads and changed the commenting system, I realized that I actually read a lot of Jezebel for the comments, not for the actual articles. When they changed the comments I was like, “There's just not really anything on here I want to read that much, it turns out.”
Lia: When the site changed, somebody took it upon themselves, thank God, to create a ProBoards account, and we all just moved over there.
Ali: It was a forum site, and you needed to be invited. Not just anybody could show up.
Melinda: That was in 2009.
Beck: Did a lot of the active commenters from Jezebel jump over there?
Ali: I think we had 120 or something like that. But it wasn’t necessarily just active commenters. It was more the people that you see in the comments and are like, “This person seems cool, we should invite them over to ProBoards.” There were definitely people who commented a lot who were not invited.
Beck: At what point did you learn one another’s real names?
Ali: It was actually controversial. There were a couple of people who were really determined that we should stay this anonymous online group, even though it was clear that we were becoming emotionally involved and it was an important relationship for a lot of us. There were people who were resistant to sharing real names and were like, “We shouldn't do this on Facebook.”
Melinda: We started meeting up with each other in real life, and I'm not going to meet somebody in real life and introduce myself by my internet handle.
Ali: “Hello, I am PreposterousHypothesis.”
Lia: I did not like being called QON, for “Queen of No”. I was feeling connected to these people and there was no way I was going to go by anything but Lia. I would say like 40 percent of people didn't like it, and then 60 percent of us were on board for real names.
Jayne: It was profound, like This is what I have been waiting for. These people mean so much to me and to be able to call them by their actual human names … It meant a whole lot.
Ali: These people are my friends, and when I'm telling a story to somebody else, it's awkward to be like, “Yeah, my friend yahtzii said this really funny or introspective thing.” It's really awkward. That was a time where it was still a bit weird to have internet friends, right? There were people who would judge you about it. It made it a lot easier to be able to say, “My friend Jayne said this.”
Melinda: Now with Facebook, everybody is using their real name online. Thinking back 10 years, I remember I didn't have a smartphone when we started talking. There was simply more division between the internet world and the real world. But if you're talking with people every day about your life, creating real friendship, it just seemed natural to merge those threads. There's not an “internet you” and a “real you.” At the same time, some people very much wanted to keep those realms separate, not because the friendship was unimportant, but because they thought it was private.
Beck: What was the result of that? Did some people leave the ProBoards and make their own ProBoards group?
Jayne: We don't really know what they're doing. We self-selected into this group of people that wanted to have this real-life, in-person connection. Also, we wanted to be on Facebook because it was much easier.
Beck: When did you make the move to Facebook?
Ali: I’m looking at The Basement Facebook group right now. It was created on April 2, 2012.
Melinda: We had the Vegas group that preceded that. We went to Las Vegas as a group together in April 2011. We had a group for the people going on the trip, and then I think it was a natural evolution toward just moving the group toward Facebook. Mostly because it was way more accessible to everybody.
Beck: Was the Vegas trip the first vacation that you guys took together?
Beck: What was it?
Jayne: The best moment of my life. We had been talking about doing a big group meet-up somewhere and we picked Dollywood. We felt like Dolly Parton embodied the spirit of us in that she was tacky and amazing and wonderful and a beacon of light in a troubling time. A bunch of people ended up flying to my house in Nashville and I almost combusted of happiness. The logistics were a little rough, but we all met at this giant cabin in the woods. Again, maybe not the best choice for when you're meeting a bunch of internet strangers for the first time, but nobody got murdered, and we had an amazing time.
Lia: Everything was perfect.
Ali: Getting to Nashville from Vancouver is a huge pain in the ass. But going to Dollywood was one of the best things I've ever done in my entire life. We did a long weekend and I was so jet-lagged afterward and all my flights had these awful connections and it cost so much money and I was like, I'm doing it for The Basement because I love these people.
Melinda: We got matching airbrushed T-shirts. I still have mine.
Ali: Mine too.
Melinda: We took an old-timey picture together. We went on all the rides. We drank all of the alcohol in Sevier County, Tennessee—
Ali: Which is not very much. This is a dry county.
Lia: We got all of us in a hot tub.
Beck: How many people were on that trip?
Ali: I think it was about 15.
Lia: I had just gone through a really bad breakup and I was like, “I’ve got to go.” I joined the trip at the last minute. It's the best decision I've ever made. I get to the airport by myself and I see Jayne with a pink clipboard and a pink hat, and she literally runs at me and I think she almost knocked me down. It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.
Jayne: Mine too. I still have the pink hat. We’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out trips that are not total nightmares for people. We went to Vegas, which was awesome. Then we went to Palm Springs. It was all of us in one house and an entire refrigerator full of La Croix, every flavor, top to bottom.
Jessica: I literally bought one case of every flavor of La Croix in the Palm Springs Target.
Jayne: We were so hydrated.
Ali: You're making me feel so left out, because (a) I didn't go to Palm Springs and (b) I don't like bubbly water.
Jessica: Ali, I was too pregnant to go to Vegas.
Melinda: I deliberately delayed my family to go to Vegas.
Beck: What do you mean?
Melinda: I was intending to get pregnant toward the beginning of 2011, but then I was like, Wait, shit. No, I've got a Vegas trip planned. This is going to be on hold.
Jayne: How many babies have been born since we've been in The Basement?
Ali: A lot. This is a group of women who met in their mid-20s who are now in their mid-to-late 30s. Those are prime baby-having times.
Beck: Do you feel like there are eras of the evolution of The Basement, and how would you define the eras, if so?
Melinda: I would say there was the proto-Basement on Jezebel where we all got to know each other. There's the ProBoards era, where we all went from knowing each other as internet people to knowing each other as real people. I realize I'm defining it by place, but I think it makes sense. Once we got on Facebook, we had been friends with each other for three or four years. We were more settled into our dynamic.
Jessica: We’ve bought houses, we've had kids, we've gotten married, and settled into adult life for the most part.
Melinda: It’s not that we did things in lockstep either. Some of us are single, some are married, some are divorced, like me. Some have kids, some don't. We’re doing all sorts of different jobs. But I would agree that, yeah, we're all more mature.
Jessica: I would hope.
Beck: In your current era, do you mostly talk on Facebook or do you use other modes of communication?
Jayne: Facebook mostly, but also Google chat; we text each other. I think most people have one another’s phone numbers.
Melinda: In the Facebook group—this is a holdover from the Jezebel days—we have a daily thread. Somebody starts a thread every day. We've been doing that basically for 10 years, and whatever iteration we've been in, that's been the one constant. People pop in and out. It's almost like the corner bar: It's always there, we're always hanging out, and you can always talk to somebody.
Beck: A lot of publications have gotten rid of comments sections, and it strikes me that communities of the sort that you all had on Jezebel feel a bit like relics of the past. How do you think the internet has changed since you all first connected? And do you think those changes have had an effect on how people meet friends online?
Ali: I honestly think there are very few places on the internet where a comments section is good, honestly. I understand why a lot of publications have gotten rid of the comments section, because it's just horrible people being horrible. I don't know what the special magic was that we had, but I'm not sure it can be recreated.
Lia: Something I really liked about Jezebel back then was that it was heavily moderated by all the people who used it. You were held accountable for shitty comments. I made a shitty comment once and I was reprimanded by someone, and it changed my whole point of view. It made Jezebel better. I don't feel that way about any other comments section I've encountered since then. It was almost like I needed that sort of rigidity. It really helped me to police myself and think about the things that I said.
Melinda: At the beginning of this, it seemed like we were all in a place where we were looking for community. We ended up finding this community in a place that had rules that made it really pleasant to be in. Over the life of The Basement, I think the internet has gotten a lot more polarized. I don't know how much people are willing to learn anymore. Like Lia was saying, I learned a lot, in terms of thinking about people respectfully and thinking about privilege and the broader context of feminism. I don't think it's as easy to find, because now you can tailor your internet experience to a point where you don't have to be nice.
But I also think the friendship dynamic is hard to replicate. Jayne used the term lightning in a bottle. Who's to say if that’s a result of the internet as it was then, or just the unique collection of personalities that we have?
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.