Loowa is Dead, Long Live Loowa
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This is a more autobiographical and humorous piece, and marks a break from focussing only on reviews. It was published Feb 9 2019, and recounts the story of an obscure social media website.
Thank you to Morgan Hardy Bell, Farnosh Mazandarani, Jordan Hammond, Evan Raitt, Miah Phillips, Carlos-Manuel Costa, Helena Brake and others for being awesome Loowinians and helping me to research this essay. And a special thank you to Scott Fitzhugh for creating Loowa.
An ode to a social media utopia (2006–2013)
I remember Loowa being exactly what I wanted out of MySpace or Facebook. It was simple, it had every best part of mid-2000s social media crammed together. Hi-fives rather than pokes were better to give to strangers. Actually it’s kinda interesting how Loowa pulled complete strangers into one platform and we ran with it, seeing what could be done. It was fun, and I met amazing people I never would have met otherwise. ~ Evan Raitt
We begin in 2006—post-9/11 and its geopolitical consequences, prior to the economic crash of 2008. We no longer believed Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 proclamation that history was at an end, but nor did we perceive the weaknesses in the global economy that have spurred on everything from Zuccotti Park to the alt-right; Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump; none of today’s battle lines were formed, or conceivable. Truly, it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
This was not an age of childhood innocence, but nor was it one of sombre adulthood. In the context of blood for oil and the theatre of atheist vs. theist internet wars, it was the time of emo bands in the vain of My Chemical Romance and accomplishments such as The Human Genome Project; it was the year of Eminem remarrying and then divorcing Kimberly Anne “Kim” Scott. I was leaving adolescence, and so — by coincidence — was the historical moment. A narcissistic projection? Perhaps, but it is also a good way to frame the story of the greatest ever social network.
Loowa was the utopia to define the end of childhood. And like St. Thomas More’s Utopia, it is a place of contradiction and whimsy, of joy and experiment, of pathos and hope. It was Nowhere, in the mid-noughties, and for the fortunately initiated, Loowa was a Cockaygne, a Big Rock Candy Mountain. Loowa was anyone’s anywhere.
Abstractly, we are all Loowa.
What happened? How did it end? Could it be replicated? The first question defies a definitive answer; the second is easy; the third must be rejected as a nostalgic delusion—but more on that later. To research my story, I reached out to fellow Loowinians, the Loowa Alumni, and created the Loowa Appreciation Society on Facebook. It was not just my utopia, but a place fondly remembered by many. Abstractly, we are all—intrepid adventurers of 2006—Loowa; even if most of us never heard about it.
Like all of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, Loowa began as a joke. Scott Fitzhugh was a smart YouTuber from Texas with unusually good production values for his channel UTNow, but he was also wryly self-deprecating and when YouTube was defined by atheist sceptics sparring against young earth creationists, Scott played the mild-mannered agnostic.
Later, as the dust settled, only the worst—the The Amazing Atheist et al.— refused to retire. Conservative Christian and New Atheist would go on to engage in a hideous dialectic, with many rallying under the alt-right’s distressing call for Christendom without Christianity. But back when the reactionary counterculture was in its vain infancy, Scott’s humour brought together people uninterested in the carnival of rage that was—and is—much of YouTube.
Conservative Christian and New Atheist would go on to engage in a hideous dialectic, rallying under the alt-right’s call for Christendom without Christianity.
Scott did not participate in the emerging next stage of the culture wars, but made MySpace his ersatz nemesis; that is, by demonstrating that it is relatively easy to build a social network. He did it on his laptop in a few afternoons. What I loved about Loowa was its basic elegance. It had little reason to exist and attracted hardly any attention. Nothing came of it and none of its features were unique. Although they were less obnoxious than the same features elsewhere; as one Loowinian put it: ‘Hi-fives rather than pokes were better to give to strangers.’ Loowa was invented as an absurd David to MySpace’s baroque, ugly but still flourishing Goliath. It worked.
Thefacebook existed, but it would be about a year before it registered. It had not become anything like the mythologised Facebook of today. In contrast, Loowa simply was — it occupied Kant’s Kingdom of Ends. To ask, why Loowa? was to entirely miss it’s raison d’être. MySpace, and later Facebook, had designs on you. Loowinians playfully spied on each other, Facebook spied (and continues to spy) on you, your family, your friends, and seemingly with sinister motives.
Recalling Loowa has proven an exercise in online archeology, rather than simply an act of Proustian introspection. A friend, helping to find evidence of Loowa , discovered a blog from the time that complains about the website’s linguistically impenetrable subculture and simplistic approach to design. It is a perfect snapshot.
Sadly, Meggan of oipom (playing Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ as she wrote) did not understand that ‘if a lion could speak,’ to quote Wittgenstein, ‘we could not understand him.’ To know the lost vocabulary of Loowa, to grasp loofination, loofa, hi fives, spying and Loowah, one had to participate in its lifeworld, to spy and send hi fives, join groups and write blogs about slugs and Avril Lavigne’s philosophical subtext. Loowa was a verb, not a noun.
Fantastically, Scott responded:
Another review from those bygone days was slightly more generous, dubbing the greatest social network to ever exist a Barebones Myspace Wannabe. Pete Cashmore of Mashable concluded, ‘I admire Scott’s courage to go out and “build my own MySpace” (as he puts it), but frankly I’ve no idea what the world will do with yet another social network. He’s certainly got some skills, so I expect Loowa is a stepping stone to something bigger.’
It is amazing the degree to which Pete failed to understand Loowa—that it was easy to build a MySpace, that connecting people online is as banal as it is worthwhile. It is Scott’s humanising thesis that’s even harder to make now, after David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s melodramatic 2010 biopic The Social Network and the many online CEO cults that have mysteriously flourished since. Suffice to say, Loowa did not break the internet—but, laudably, Loowa’s ambitions were always elsewhere.
One reason I recall Loowa with gratitude, I was consistently at the apex of its blogging ecology—not so, Medium! My Loowa scribblings were a haphazard journal more than anything sophisticated. I had a gimmick of starting blogs with an Emil Cioran aphorism — the pessimistic Romanian spoke to someone recently detached from his childhood’s Anglicanism. At that time, on a holiday to Italy, I took Jean Baudrillard’s somewhat impenetrable Simulacra and Simulation and referenced it in my blog too — at least, I hope, with more nouse than the Wachowskis’ managed.
I loved my Loowa blog, it served more than my vanity, and I saved every one of its 17,520 embarrassing words on my computer. I even indexed the titles, from the first ‘Loowa, Memes & The Hyperreal’ to the last ‘One Hundred Blogs of Solitude’—and by ‘memes’ I meant Dawkins’s concept and not the internet one-offs we know now. Favourite blogs include ‘Avril Lavigne: Philosopher Superstar?’; ‘Wales: Slugs and Melancholy’; ‘The Camus Killing God Cult’s Manifesto’ and ‘Kippleization of the Internet’.
I also loved joining Loowa groups, which did nothing but facilitate further jests qua jests but were all the better for that limitation. One embodied the popular feeling of Loowa that its great purpose was in overcoming and vanquishing MySpace (today, an abject lesson in be careful what you wish for).
But what made Loowa the best was not its features, which weren’t unique. It was the characters that made up its singular community, that distinguished it. I talked often to a man, a resident of Texas like Scott, who worked with death row inmates and campaigned against capital punishment. At his request, I even sent a letter from rural Wales to the Texan state demanding an inmate be spared. Loowa was usually more lighthearted, but in its low stakes, high trust confines, I had some very meaningful interactions that helped to shape me.
Loowa was usually more lighthearted, but in its low stakes, high trust confines, I had some very meaningful interactions that helped to shape me.
Cleverer folks than I humoured my posturing and showed interest in my ideas. I interacted back, creating games and content and welcoming newcomers. I never saw a single melodrama on Loowa, never witnessed one act of vicious spite or vindictive bullying—what other interactive outgrowth of Web 2.0 could claim so much?
To this day, I regret not purchasing the ‘We Are Loowa’ poster. I would certainly have had it framed as an invaluable momento to something silly, but precious and singular too. Fortunately, by contacting Loowinians I was able to access a great photograph of this strange creature that is Loowa—a timid beast formed, like Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan, from a collage of its citizens:
There is a value in remembering Loowa today, so long after History defied Fukuyama; it represents a moment eclipsed by what came before and what was still to happen. Reacquainting with Loowinians, I saw how their lives continued since 2013—as, I hastily add, did mine. It is the opposite experience of going back to many of the YouTubers of 2006, where stagnation hideously transformed too many of the anarchists, libertarians and sceptics I knew into petty-minded advocates of a dystopian ethnostate—the poets, somehow, remained sane.
Loowa, because it had a resolution, a finale, and was therefore not dragged into the nostalgic undeath that befell much else, is more a time capsule than a walking corpse.
Loowa, because it had a resolution, a finale, and was therefore not dragged into the nostalgic undeath that befell much else, is more a time capsule than a walking corpse. Memory is not a chronological record, after all, but an impressionistic self-portrait to be conjured only through association. Loowa doesn’t allow itself to become a self-parody, a zombie. It didn’t exist after its time.
Today, Loowa.com can be purchased by any would-be maverick for twelve monthly payments of $200. It does not (at the time of writing) get a mention on Wikipedia’s list of defunct social networking websites. Before it died, Scott—characteristically cheerful—wrote a simple goodbye.
All that remains of UTNow is a lighthearted jape about hating the haters. It was made in that first year of our Loowa and is completely of its time. The most shocking thing about the trolling highlighted, at least to us worldweary time travellers of 2019, is the seeming mildness of the attacks. These prompt Scott to reincarnate in something of the spirit of Sam Raimi’s 2007 (and underrated) evil Peter Parker in Spider Man 3. This was the video Scott used as his goodbye to YouTube; I contacted Scott and, like all good Loowinians, he has moved on with life.
Was there a greater social network? Did we deserve Loowa? Such questions are open-ended, but I am happy to have written this essay as a testament to the once and future social media, to an island of sanity drowned by the world wide web’s madness, and to dedicate it to every Loowinian wistfully remembering the utopia of 2006 while getting on—even if they weren’t on Loowa.
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