Fansites really suck nowadays. For one, I don’t even remember the last time I’ve seen one, do you?
If you don’t remember or weren’t around, there was a time before blogs were our main medium of contact with the fandom world. There were forums, sure, but niche forums were often run by moderators with a tight fist. If you were an independent person wanting to post about your favorite characters or ships, you probably had a fansite, and it was probably hosted on GeoCities.
The shift from fansite to blogging had already begun with the rise of LiveJournal, but journals were still incredibly personal spaces, and advertisers left it the hell alone. If anything, LiveJournal was a great space to promote and link your personal webpages, and they flourished there.
The death of the fansite started to feel very official once fandoms started moving onto Tumblr. It began with the “Fuck Yeah, [Thing]!” formula of blogs, which rapidly supplanted ‘character shrine’ fansites as a space where people posted screencaps of their favorite characters. Then everyone had a blog, including directors and writers and storyboarders and character designers … and now, nobody has a fansite.
Fear not, fellow web surfer: there’s still a place on the Internet where we can see all the fansites we want, and that’s the Wayback Machine. Today I’ve prepared for you a fansite from 2002, before Tumblr devoured the internet and left us with Kpop Twitter.
Wow. Now this is graphic design.
Noisy tiling background that clashes with the Comic Sans text. Flashing sparkle gifs. Cartoon screenshots clearly ripped from VHS. Adoptable web-dolls. A (broken) pageview counter. A guestbook.
Webcore bloggers fucking wish this was them.
Helga’s Love Secret is a fansite with a topic that defies the typical convention of fansites: it is neither character shrine nor ship tribute, but rather specifically about Hey Arnold! character Helga Pataki’s secret romantic side. You could argue that this is a Helga/Arnold ship site, but Arnold himself rarely makes an appearance, instead superseded by pictures of Helga lovesick and swooning. This is a site for a single topic, and it covers it well.
If you’re unfamiliar with Hey Arnold!, you’re free to read my other rant about its internet presence, but I’ll go ahead and give you the rundown about the stuff relevant to this article: Helga Pataki is a rough-around-the-edges 9-year-old girl with a secret crush on the titular Arnold. Helga is a true romantic, but she’s deeply sensitive to rejection, so she masks her softer feelings with superficial meanness and hides herself from others. Part of this is tied up in that she doesn’t see herself ‘as funny, and kind, and feminine’ as the other girls in her class.
Helga was a very popular character among young girls who were struggling with self-esteem. I should know because I was one of them. I took to femininity like a fish being stapled to a tree, and I guess puberty is the staples in this metaphor? Helga is neither conventionally cute nor kind, but she has an abrasively lovable quality that the show celebrates. I would not be surprised if the author of this webpage, being a burgeoning web-artist and an enthusiast for fanfiction, would have made this site to project some of their own neuroses.
That’s a lot of assumptions, but this site comes with neither introduction nor explanation for its existence. It was common for websites to have an extensive monologue at the front about the webmaster and their intentions for hosting this content, plus maybe a news or updates section, so I’m actually a bit surprised that this person has very little voice on the front page of their own site.
Only the adoptables give me any hint as to their identity: they are all signed “I, Ladyghost, have adopted [this]”. Ladyghost does not seem to exist online anymore, or if they do, they’ve changed usernames and certainly aren’t running a Hey Arnold! fansite. I hope they’re living their best life, and I kind of hope they aren’t online anymore because seriously the internet sucks now.
If you were born into web 2.0 you might be wondering what the hell is with the adoptables. Nowadays, an ‘adopt’ is a term for character designs you can purchase, so ‘adoptables’ of copyrighted fictional characters raises interesting legal implications. But wayback in the day, adoptables were little images people distributed for you to put on your page for free. They were basically a novelty for webmasters to get free advertising space – notice how these all link to an ‘Adoption Center’? That Adoption Center is linked to a much larger site, so it’s kinda like “put my site banner on your page!” with extra incentive.
This section hosts a whopping 3 pages worth of Hey Arnold! screencaps, all of them equally low-quality. The pictures of dreamscape adult Helga and Arnold pretty solidly date this website in 2002, when the episode “Married” would have first aired – that episode was a pretty big deal at the time, so I have to imagine screencaps from it would have been in high demand.
I really genuinely enjoy the image choices here. Just about any fansite of this era has some trouble keeping on-topic and will inevitably falter into covering the webmaster’s other interests, but Helga’s Love Secret has only one thing to show you: Helga, and her ridiculously clandestine crush. Such a wide selection, too: the aforementioned dream versions of them as adults, the dream from “What’s Opera, Arnold?”, the wedding fantasy from “Best Man”, the kiss from “Summer Love”, the super-pandering umbrella scene from “Beaned”, Hilda from “Arnold Visits Arnie”, and many, many pictures of ‘Cecile’ from “Arnold’s Valentine”.
None of that meant anything to you and I’m sorry I made you read all of those episode titles. But it’s a lot of episodes! It’s very cool! I wonder where they got all of them, if they took them from their own VCR rips or if some of these were being distributed through other parts of the Arnold-net. Even into 2008 I remember going to a Misadventures of Flapjack fansite for screencaps because I didn’t want to record the episodes to DVD just for icons.
Here we have multiple pages for every character the webmaster could think of to compare to Helga, some surprisingly appropriate (Usagi Tsukino) and some, er, less so (Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion).
I enjoy how vividly this paints a picture of life before TV Tropes. Nowadays you can find all of this information readily dissected per hair style, body type, and fun personality quirk. But Ladyghost here wrote this out by hand, and they even bothered to include pictures!
Ladyghost also offers that you can email them your own characters that are comparable to Helga. I have a veritable laundry list of ones I’d love to send them if this site was still up. I wonder how many of the character comparisons here are ones they came up with, versus ones that were viewer-suggested.
Oddly enough, the second page asks “Why don’t you see this cute video?” with a link to Shii’s Song, a popular-at-the-time video about a homeless cat in a box a la Oliver and Company set to a chipmunked version of “Wind’s Nocturne” from Lunar: Silver Star Story. What on Earth is the meaning of this? Is Helga a cat? Was this just a trick to get me to watch Shii’s Song again? What does it mean??
Warning: the background image of this page is a flashing gif. Ah, GeoCities.
In this section, the webmaster offers various awards they can give your page: Elegance, for cute web design; Fan Fiction, for fan fiction; Great Site, which I guess is the Elegance award for boys; and Romantic, for especially ship-tastic fanworks. Wow, can I win one of these? All I have to do is message their presumably-defunct email!
The webmaster is kind enough to specify that your website must not contain “racism or bad taste themes”. Behind every rule is a story for why it had to be put in place…
There are TWO archived pages of this website’s guestbook! Isn’t that lovely? I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a guestbook proper. Nowadays the closest experience you can get is yelling into someone’s Tumblr ask box.
All of the messages are fairly kind, though quite a few people are clearly just there to advertise their own personal websites. Back in the day this kind of behavior was a little more socially acceptable, I guess because we didn’t have The Algorithm to promote us and this was the only real venue of circulation we had.
On Yahoo guestbooks, you could input custom questions to ask your visitors. Ladyghost put in the question “what’s your fave HA character?” and EVERY SINGLE PERSON answered with Helga… except for the owner of the character shrine Rhonda’s Place, who answered Rhonda, but their username is ‘helga098’ anyway. Lots of solidarity going on here.
In this page added sometime between May and October 2002 (I’m just gonna go ahead and guess June), Ladyghost invites us to “Enjoy with this pictures of the show!”. There are a whopping 4 images: 1 is a textless version of the film’s now-iconic poster, 2 are promotional images, and only 1 is an actual screencap from the film.
This is another interesting highlight of the early internet’s role in distributing information. Nowadays something like this could be accomplished with a simple link to a Fandom.com gallery. The idea of hosting content like this on your own webspace is certainly a bit weird and archaic-feeling now, and we’re used to the idea of personal websites being solely dedicated to our own content.
Helga’s Love Secret is a testament to an age long gone, when having a website was a much more manual process than it is now. For all that I’ve praised it, I have to acknowledge that I was there back in 2002 making GeoCities websites myself, and it was not easy. It’s hard to imagine, but something like this took effort – a lot of effort, and a lot of time that we simply don’t have anymore, especially now that capitalism has thoroughly invaded the Internet. The hustle of the modern era has destroyed the concept of just doing things for fun, especially when fun things are moderately difficult and require free time to maintain.
I’m glad things like this can exist even in a historical context. It makes me happy to see a vision of what fandom was like before fandoms became basically multi level marketing schemes for pedophiles: just weirdos, often weirdo girls, doing harmless weirdo shit online and not really caring about if they’re being redundant or cringey or whatever the fuck. That’s what life should be.