Intimate Strangers

Growing up on Internet forums

by Connor McGuigan

published November 14, 2014


This is the most famous post in the history of Internet forums. On July 14 2004, a user registered as “lonely” posted it to the forums of The first reply came six days later. “Why are you lonely? Are you on your own?” Fairylady asked. Three days after, the third reply: “Dude, I typed in ‘I am lonely in Google, and your post was the very first response.” The replies filtered in rapidly as people disclosed they had turned to a Google search to subdue their loneliness. The thread became a support group for all who arrived looking for companionship. After nearly 1,500 replies, Wired referred to the post as the “the web’s top hangout for lonely folk.” Today, the thread has 44,000 replies and is still posted in nearly every day. is a site ostensibly devoted to the specifics of ripping video files, a seemingly unlikely place for such a gathering. But Internet forums are not just a place for Q&As or subculture hangouts. They often deviate far from their parent site’s original focus and become vibrant communities defined by individuals—online platforms to share miscellaneous thoughts with intimate strangers.

I first registered a forum in 2005. The site was Halo2Forum. com, an online social hub dedicated to an Xbox game. That moment was my first glimpse of the malleability of identity on the Internet. I chose the username “McGiggles.”

I was one of many adolescents in that era that to explore an increasingly specialized Internet. The web seemed limitless, but its uses were far less calcified than they are today. It was more common to seek out communities distinct from one’s personal life as a primary online social outlet. And even on Myspace, the most ubiquitous social network of the time, usernames and other profile customizations offered room for online personas less tethered to the social structures of real life.

Internet forums are vestiges of “Web 1.0”—they predate broadband, social networking and sophisticated data analytics. The Halo2Forum followed the traditional blueprint established by the “online bulletin boards” of the ‘90s. The site was host to a number of sub-forums, each with its own guiding topic. Most were related to Halo (Halo Discussion, Halo Videos), and a few were outlets for those tired of talking about Halo (“Complete Off-topic”). Inside these sub-forums, users would post “threads” with a specific topic or question relating to the sub-forum’s original topic.

The site also adhered to the aesthetic of its predecessors. Most forums are built using one of a few user-friendly software packages. A site’s proprietor (known as the “Admin”) can differentiate their forum by outfitting it with a “skin,” a unique color and graphic scheme. Halo2Forum’s skin was orange, green and grey, and plastered with poorly-Photoshopped graphics depicting heroic acts by the game’s main character.

User personalization also contributed to the slapdash look of the forum. Members could design their own avatars (analogous to a profile picture) and include graphics or text in “signatures” that would show up after each of their posts.

Along with avatars and signatures, there’s one other technique for standing out in a forum: post a lot. A user’s post count, displayed prominently beneath their avatar, constituted their social clout. I picked up my posting when I realized this, but it quickly became apparent to people that I was 12 years old.

I posted over 1,000 times on Everything I wrote on that website remains a Google search away (and is rather excruciating to look back on). I never fully assimilated into the community there—mostly just projected my adolescent transitions to a half-interested audience. It was a venue to explore new identities with no repercussions.

I remember the exact computer I sat at the day I met Adam Cooley. I was in my high school’s library during lunch period, browsing through, listening to the band’s 1986 record Evol on borrowed headphones. I was 15, a few years removed from my last forum post or Halo game, but with new obsessions taking me to new corners of the Internet, I had arrived at a forum dedicated to my favorite band.

Sonic Youth Gossip had all the trappings familiar from my Halo forum days—subforums, avatars, signatures—yet everything seemed more refined and curated. The skin was a tasteful gradient of blues, and the avatars were untouched by MS Paint. My first post included a question to the forum’s members: “anyone have any solid weirder or more underground music to recommend me?”

My first reply was from a user named “atsonicpark.” Below his name was the highest post-count I had ever seen in my years trawling forums—around 20,000. “Sure man,” he wrote back, “check out the complete recorded works of...” and proceeded to list 411 bands. The lists included names like Virgin Mega Whore, Necronomitron, and the Beatles.

I’m not sure I understood back then that Adam was making fun of me. I certainly should have known better than to ask a group of Sonic Youth superfans for “underground” music suggestions. Thankfully, most other replies were cordial and I was officially christened as a member of SYG.

The site was similar to Halo2Forum in the way that all large message boards are similar—few talked about what they had originally joined to discuss. The “Non-Sonic Sounds” and Off-topic boards were constantly alight with activity; the Sonic Youth-related sections were slow and predictable. Many regulars never visited these sections and claimed to be “over” the band all together.

I was used to forums feeling like ultra-familiar chat rooms. Reading through posts during my first days on Sonic Youth Gossip, I felt like a voyeur poring over private correspondences between best friends. The site’s regulars frequently swapped intimate stories and sought advice from each other in the non-music related sections. Though I didn’t post that frequently, I started to pick up on the first names and life stories of many of the usual posters. “Diesel” was a heavy-drinking British guy named Craig with a home recording project and a drinking problem. "HaydenAsche" was working on his thesis and had a prescription drug habit. These users knew nothing about me. In fact, I could have been anyone with an Internet connection.

Adam was among the forum’s most candid.

Scrolling through "atsonicpark"’s post history became a typical Internet diversion of mine. I quickly learned part of the reason he posted so often—he was practically teeming with music. He posted over 100 threads detailing albums he considered “classic,” and rounded out every year with a giant list of albums I had never heard of. As I spent more time on SYG, the majority of new music I listened to came from wading through his old posts. And if I found a band without his guidance, I would search the forum to see what "atsonicpark" thought of them. With none of the institutional validation of a music critic, Adam became the primary tastemaker in my life.

The music he lauded was unbelievable, and of a seemingly endless supply. He had an insatiable taste for pop melodies shrouded in and fractured by dissonance. The best of the bands he wrote about—Polvo, Thinking Fellers

Union Local 282, Number Girl—were fundamental to my teenage years. An association developed between some of the most important things in my life and a guy in Indiana who didn’t know I existed.

I learned a great deal about the life of Adam Cooley while parsing through "atsonicpark"’s posts for music recommendations. He devoted most of his energy to making experimental music and films, and was known for his prolific output in some circles. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth once reviewed a cassette by one of his bands. “These guys revel in deep-well sonar-death where the skies threaten to break in a rain of shrieking ghoul shred,” he wrote. To the members of SYG, Adam may as well have been lauded by the President.

Like those of many SYG members, Adam’s posts often chronicled personal issues in great detail. I read rants about his upheavals in his life, his relationship with his mother, his drug problem, his girlfriend—and I found myself genuinely interested.

I slowly constructed for "atsonicpark" something close to a full-fledged identity. A projection, with color and character entirely gleaned from the Internet. My activity on SYG slowed and images of other members eventually faded. The opaquely rendered Adam Cooley stuck with me, living within the music I cared about the most.

Aside from a few Facebook messages, I never reached out to him personally. I knew him well enough to know he probably wouldn’t like me very much.

Adam Cooley died in his sleep in Columbus, Indiana last February. He was 27 years old and choked after vomiting up pills he had been prescribed. He was buried in jeans, a red flannel and a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt.

A short obituary was published in The Columbus Republic the week he died. Adam was a loving son, a good friend and a long-time Wal-Mart employee, it said. At the service, one of his friends mentioned that Adam would be survived by a number of “online friends” that cared deeply about him.

A thread titled “Goodnight, Sweet Prince,” became the venue for tributes and eulogies. Many who posted knew "atsonicpark" far more intimately than I did. One user named Derek recalled his near-daily correspondence with Adam. They had never seen each other in person, but had arranged plans for a meet-up. “He was my best friend,” Derek wrote.

Others seemed more reticent to unabashedly eulogize someone they had never met. Often, remembrances were tempered with sympathy for family and friends who “actually knew him.” These were some of the first times I saw the distinction between the digital and “actual” realm surface in forum discourse.

I learned of Adam’s death after entering “atsonicpark” into the Sonic Youth Gossip search box earlier this month. It had been a while since I checked up on him.

The next day, someone mentioned after class that I seemed despondent. An “old friend” of mine died, I told her.

Adam had been dead for 9 months.

I know enough about Adam to understand what vanished from the world when he died. Yet, everything I know is highly accessible public information. I felt shades of genuine grief, but they were grounded in the solipsistic exercise of mourning a projection.

I often wish that I chose a less public venue to share my musings as I grew up. But perhaps forums, to their most dedicated users, offer a primitive private space on the Internet. The members of Sonic Youth Gossip who knew Adam best commiserated like a group of estranged friends revisiting an old hideaway. “Death brings old friends together. Yall mean more to me than most ppl i physically know,” "SONIC GAIL" wrote.

In their worlds, online and off, I don’t exist.