From "SonicFanaticism" to Second Lives

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Eight years ago, ‘SonicFanatic’ joined The Sonic Foundation and began a journey, the end of which I only now understand…

I’m going to place talk of World of Warcraft, Second Life and console games aside for a moment. Something much bigger just appeared on my radar, and it’s an institution which predates the MMO boom, Google and even console MMOs like Phantasy Star Online. It’s known as tSf, or The Sonic Foundation, and it is a fansite.

I don’t expect this name to resonate with many people, and even the Sonic fandom gave us some bigger names. Still, it’s an institution which, as far as I know, pre-dates the likes of SEGA Europe favourite Sonic Stadium, and rivals Team Artail for the impact it had upon its loyal members. My long-standing account was, bizarrely, reactivated yesterday, with an email arriving to inform me that a whole chunk of my online life has simply laid dormant, rather than been made extinct as I once thought.

tSf was my first internet home, probably found originally in a Compuserve search, back when my internet use would hijack the house landline. I joined when I was about 14, and look back upon it now as a man of nearly 22. It is this forum which may be most responsible for my career choices and skill set today, having exposed me to the idea of fanart and set me on a path to wanting to design my own play spaces. As internet homes go, I’m pretty proud to have lived there.

My recent reunion with this ‘site has brought some startling truths home, as well as resurfacing some fond and surprisingly detailed memories. Firstly, it shocked me to realise just how much of a sense of ‘place’ can be instilled in a medium which uses only words and images. Years before the 3D web, I and many others had found ourselves space to express ourselves, to socialise and to share in a common experience. Such fora are part of a wider phenomenon, which I might say (despite my limited experience) is probably unique to fan communities. It set me up for an entire online life – one which I had laid to rest some years ago now.

Although we’ve had opportunities to live second lives online since long before Linden Lab came along, and the chief medium for this was the internet forum, it took my reuniting with tSf to really appreciate that. Although I never shied away from my first life while interacting on these boards, I did still adopt a different name and, in the same way that I react differently to friends than with family, I was approached as and felt like a different person from the one sat at the desk. Only once did I meet a friend I’d made there, but the virtuality of this community didn’t make it any less real. In the same way I have come to understand how Second Life communication is no less real than the telephone line I have to my hometown, I realised that through a body of memories, both abstract and visual (in the form of ‘gift art’ stored on my hard drive), the youth known as SonicFanatic did inhabit a complete world.

I eventually drifted apart from tSf of course, initially because my attention was led elsewhere but eventually as part of a move away from the community of Sonic fans. A friend of mine, also a fellow fanartist, once remarked that the idea of “leaving the fandom” – a common phrase amongst forum posts in which a member announces their departure – was somewhat ludicrous. I wasn’t sure how to respond at the time, knowing only that when people did announce this, they generally meant to say they were going ‘cold turkey’ on any future cult talk, media-related drawing or ‘fanfic’ sessions; instead devoting themselves to creations of their own design, to the Army or to something else entirely. Now that I’ve had time to live other lives online and explore the new media which put the internet to new use, I realise more clearly just what it means to have left ‘SonicFanatic’ – a forum member, a community participant, a persona – behind.

It’s nice to look back and see my own youth, recognising both the 14-year-old typist with a 14-year old’s view on the world, and the first of my many subtly-splintered personalities – all of which have merged at some point into this fleshy, corporeal body of mine. SonicFanatic knew people, learned and grew from them, and eventually when I left the fan community I took all those experiences with me. The inspiration and motivation I gleaned from my time at tSf wasn’t lost, but rather channelled into other exploits.

Should I ever design and release an established game or pen a book, its acknowledgements will no doubt read rather differently from “for Kate and my Father”. My credits will have to accomodate folks with numbers in their names, amusing puns and capital letters in all the wrong places. Is that unique to myself and those members I shared an internet lifetime with? I doubt it.