Above is one of the first signatures I created for myself when I joined a Britney Spears fan forum.
I've been online since I was a kid, but during my teen years, I discovered the world of digital celebrity fan art and it was the start of a lifelong passion that I'm only now – partially through writing this – starting to understand. If you were on the internet during the early 2000s, you probably know what I'm talking about – blends, avatars, desktop wallpapers, website layouts and more, featuring popular celebrities, created by professional and amateur graphic designers alike. It was pure pastime for some, side-hustle for others.
It's difficult to formally track the origin or rise of this specific genre of internet art, but I wanted to try to piece together at least an anecdotal overview of it from my own experience – a virtua(or)al history, if you will. Because I'm realizing this type of art – and the communities associated with them – may have actually made a significant impact on me, and likely other people. And I think that's something worth preserving — especially since it doesn't really exist anymore.
And also – and I may be reaching – but I feel like these communities and my experience with them actually say a lot about the internet and it's history, and society and culture. I can't promise I'll explain it or explore it all well here, but I feel like it's still worth reflecting on, especially as the internet faces so many radical changes.
Usually centered around a specific fandom/pop culture interest, the graphics I'm thinking of were usually shared on internet fan forums, photo sharing websites, personal portfolios or celebrity fan pages. They were always created by the fan communities that connected via these sites, for fan community. My favorite types of graphics were “blends,” which are small graphics that usually featured several images of a subject (usually celebrities or fictional characters from visual media) composited together and layered with effects, filters and textures.
These are some signatures I created throughout my time as a forum "graphic designer." The first includes my username from the Britney forum I used it on; the rest were made for other members of other fan forums and featured the name of the celebrity subject.
These types of graphics originated on internet message boards and forums as “signatures” or “siggies”/”siggiez.” They were usually created either by the user, or another user of the forum known for their ~design skills. Sometimes they featured a quote or something, but they usually included some type of illustration and the user's username or first name. They were then embedded into a user's message board “signature”, which was included at the bottom of every post that user made. They served as visual sign-offs, and a form of personalization and identification on popular message boards.
User avatars were another form of identification and design on message boards – these were much smaller (usually between 100x100 and 150x200 pixels) and were displayed next to a poster's username on a forum. Designers often created matching sets of signatures and avatars, but avatars (or “icons”) were popular on their own, and many users opted to use them alone as a form identification on online forums.
I created these avatars for my own use on Livejournal and forums, and also shared some of them on Livejournal icon communities.
Icons were especially popular on LiveJournal (an early blogging platform) and many communities (blogs on Livejournal that multiple users could post to) were created just so users could share their creations – sometimes, even individual celebrities, or popular shows and movies, got their own communities.
And across the internet, multiple websites, run by regular internet citizens, popped up to showcase this type of art in various ways.
In the 2000s, there were countless fan-run websites for celebrities, or specific shows/video games/movies, that often provided graphics fans could download to use as their signatures and avatars online. Different types of personal websites also shared graphics in a similar way. Some designers even created entire online personas and websites devoted to sharing their designs of various celebrities. It was a whole community, made up of countless smaller communities across the internet.
Teen stars popular with young women like Hilary Duff, Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne were often the subject of the blends, graphics and avatars I created.
My personal experience came from fan forums and sites for teen stars like Hilary Duff and Britney Spears, and general pop music forums and sites (HilaryDuffHouse, BreatheHeavy/Exhale, ATRL and PopProdigy REPRESENT! Oh, just me? ok). But honestly, I think these types of websites got these ideas from fandom websites for more nerdy stuff. I've stumbled upon video game forums where people had similar designs to their signature graphics. And TwoBeats.COM, a popular graphics-focused Avril Lavigne fansite that was legendary in certain music communities online, later expanded to include general fandom art, including things more associated with nerd and fandom culture, like "The Fifth Element" and "Pirates of the Caribbean"
Here are a few screencaptures of the TwoBeats website, a popular Avril Lavigne fansite whose dreamy, elegant fan art style influenced other celebrity websites and fan art of the time, including my own. Later, a general fan art site was created, as well as a photography portfolio for the webmaster.
I'm not saying my girl Johanna (the webmaster of TwoBeats, who I don't know personally but feel like I do because she was so impactful on my early internet life) invented this trend; nor that my experience is universal. But it just kind of makes sense – nerdy people are always early adopters, so the content they created for their interests likely served as inspiration for websites about more mainstream stuff that came along as the web got more popular. Once teen girls learned HTML and CSS from MySpace and LissaExplains, the internet was no longer the nerds' domain!
That was kind of a joke, but I think there might actually be something there. Our culture can tend to mock the interests of teen girls and downplay their impact on culture, so it makes sense that that would happen online. They may have been standing on the shoulders of nerds (some who may have been teen girls/women themselves!), but the celebrity fansite culture that emerged in the early 2000s may have very well been an example of how teen girls and young women have helped shape culture, but don't get credit because of misogyny. But that's beyond the scope of this article.
Yet it's not because that intersection between the mainstream, teen girl culture/the feminine, and the geeky/nerdy/underground is where I've found myself in more ways than one, and it's impacted my experience on the internet and beyond.
I've struggled to find a (pop) cutural home – IRL and online – for various reasons. Part of that is that I have a nerdy/subcultural heart, but a pretty mainstream taste/aesthetic. I like to think I'm not basic, but I like a lot of pop music and mainstream TV shows. I'm not into video games or nerdy stuff like “The Lord of the Rings” or anime or whatever. But I love the internet and websites, and I share the all-consuming passion nerds and geeks have for their (once) less-mainstream interests.
Because of that, I found an early digital home in the celebrity fandom community of the early web and the creative communities within them. Not only were they spaces where my mainstream and ~nerdy(-ish) interests could intersect, but it was a space devoted to creation. It was special then, and has only gotten more special as the internet has changed. So much of the internet has become nothing but mindless, disposable content, shameless money-making schemes or both, thanks to things like TikTok, the Metaverse and NFTs.
Though some more popular graphic designers would charge for their designs – and some may very well have been in it purely as a side-hustle or freelance business endeavor – for me, and many others, it was just a hobby, done for the pleasure it provided people, not for the money it could generate. (Though, ironically, the skills I learned – and securing access to Photoshop – would later allow me to beef up my resume as a communications professional.)
Some professional designers even had sites that were pure passion projects (UhLikeThat is one example that was popular in the pop music fandom in the later later 2000s; the site featured fan-made album art of popular music and it was run entirely by one freelance web designer who went by the alias AirRockStar). Even those who charged money were just trying to make a living creating digital art, which surely is a much more honest and worthy endeavor than whatever NFTs are. (Which I refuse to believe are about empowering digital creators – but more power to anyone able to cash in on the hype.)
UhLikeThat was a passion project of a freelance graphic designer who went by AirRockStar. It started as a Britney fansite but evolved into a music blog featuring original iTunes album art for popular single and album releases of the late 2000s and early 2010s, as well as original playlists and mixtapes. As the site grew in popularity, an interactive forum, Spill It Now, was launched. For a time, the site was hosted on the same webspace as the webmaster's real-life graphic design portfolio.
Whether or not there was money involved — and despite its dedication to glorifying and immortalizing major celebrities — what this type of digital fan art gave so many people was an outlet for creative expression of personal passions. That many of these people may have been teen girls; or trans/queer kids; or people of color with different cultural interests than their families/communities makes it all the more meaningful. All those examples apply to me in some way, which is precisely why I'm so sentimental about it (I'm a nonbinary, femme, queer Latina with a complex relationship to my culture and mainstream/American culture).
And it's why I think this online tradition should be preserved – not just the memory of it, not just this style of art, but the spirit of the communities who created it. I'm interested in exploring what preserving that kind of passion and creative expression for it's own sake on today's web might look like. While Tumblr was a spiritual successor to the fansite in many ways, it was also it's own thing and is itself pretty much over. Stan culture, for a time, led to a resurgence of a similar fan art community, with accounts that designed modern versions of blends and avvies – header images and display pictures for people on “stan Twitter” (another way those early celeb shrines were culturally impactful – they arguably created stan culture).
But from my view, anything hosted on an app is already significantly different from the self-hosted endeavors of the early web. Even if I can acknowledge there's a ton of pure, honest, for-its-own-sake creativity even on apps like TikTok, the fact that this creativity is housed on a handful of ubiquitous apps, owned by a handful of monopolized corporations, is already a universe away from the web that I remember, even if it too had its share of profiteering and corporate commodification. With how much the web has changed, maybe all of this – forum signatures; an internet that's not purely about generating profit for major corporations – is impossible to recreate.
Maybe that freedom and creativity was a myth. After all, Geocities — the host of creative user-generated websites that is often romanticized in the indie web movement, and inspired the name of free web host Neocities — was itself a service of Yahoo! (who now owns Tumblr). And in hindsight, a couple of sites I used to frequent as a teen appear to be obvious cash-grabs from my cynical adult eyes (“Portrait” – a by-teens-for-teens e-magazine — mirrored its print inspiration's business model by including affiliate links for media and merch related to the celebrities they wrote about throughout the website; it makes me wonder how many of these fansites, which often featured ads, were business endeavors by adults or industry people). But I know there was at least some organic passion or creativity within these communites.
Portrait was run by the same New Zealand-based fan who ran a popular Olsen Twins fan sites and other fan pages for teen stars. All of the websites prominently featured Amazon affiliate links and banner ads alongside original, curated and crowd-sourced content.
But whatever the internet really was or is or becomes, I can at least share some of the graphics I made and screenshots of the websites I visited during this earlier era (they're sprinkled throughout this article) in hopes of remembering what at least felt like a simpler, yet more exciting time of online life. Even if you don't have the same interests or experience with the time or spaces I've talked about, I hope looking at these and reading this still gives you some kind of inspiration to create something, for its own sake; for your sake. At it's best, that's what the internet does.
And you know what? Not to get super-meta (though as we enter the Meta-verse era of the internet, perhaps it's appropriate?), but writing this article kind of did that for me. So maybe there's hope. Maybe that creative, subcutural, nerdy, free spirit of the internet never stopped existing. Yesterday it was personal web pages and fansites, today it's the indie web, tomorrow maybe it'll be underground metaverse nightclubs (God, I hope not.), but whatever it is, maybe it'll still be here.
Maybe it started with nerds and computer geeks, but it influenced those teen girls and baby gays (who just wanted to make and share pretty pictures of their celeb crushes and fave pop girlies) and it spread and it lives on. Maybe it's where it's been all along.
It's not quite as deep as the dark web, not as ubiquitous as sites like Gawker and BuzzFeed were/are and social media is, but no less influential. Perhaps more so. Because that spirit exists not on a specific app or website or server or fandom or on the internet at all. It exists in a way, in a place that is far bigger and complex and significant – it's in everyday people's hearts and minds. And when people come together with passion that comes from such a pure place, there's no telling with beautiful things we can create.
n-e-wayz, visit my site for more graphics, wallpapers, avvies and siggies of celebs and hot guyz!!* xoxo luvya