How Everskies became a “hellsite” and a safe haven for a tiny section of the Gen-Z Internet

Monday paused, just for a moment, to watch the chaos unfold. He let out a giggle as his friends yelled over each other, accusations jumbling together, as the person he just accused of murder presented their alibi.

“You almost convinced me to vote myself off!” one of the innocents said to him, when the voting was done. They were on hour three of a hybrid game of Mafia and Clue, dubbed the “Murder Mysteries”, and they still hadn’t caught the culprit. It wasn’t Monday, (he never got to be the murderer), but he had a habit of accusing the wrong people, and his friends almost always fell for it. He wasn’t even trying to divert them, he was just universally skeptical, but he managed to convince them every time.

It didn’t help that the narrator, Bee, kept adding plot twists that confused everyone. But he didn’t mind. The Murder Mysteries were the highlight of his week. Virtual of course, there’s only so much a second-year university student can do when the United Kingdom is on lockdown. But between Bee’s wild storytelling and their costumes (you had to look the part), for Monday, it felt like they were all in the same room.

Except they weren’t. He doesn’t know their real names. He hasn’t even seen their faces. Monday, Bee, or rather “Beeblegum”, and the other eight players of the “Murder Mysteries” only knew each other on Everskies, a virtual forum-based dress-up game. Rapid fire defense and accusations flew down the comment section of a forum. Roles were assigned via DM. The costume changes were courtesy of the site’s main feature, pixel-based dolls.

But that didn’t make it any less real. For Monday, Everskies was as real a place as any physical location. From January 13th, 2021, he was hooked on the site: he woke up and checked his notifications on the site; in between virtual classes, he’d post on a forum or two. And when his day was done, he’d chat with his friends, reply to posts, and play the mini-games on the site. Everskies was his social life.

Everskies was once a part of the internet so niche, we shouldn’t know it exists. The browser-based game, best described as Dollz Mania meets MySpace, was created by a group of Scandinavian pixel doll creators as a small virtual community for young adults (16+). For nearly a year it grew slowly, only accumulating 300 users, mostly transplants from games that used Adobe Flash Player (RIP). That is, until December, when one user’s TikTok went viral. Everskies gained nearly 3000 new users overnight, most of them teens, completely changing the demographic of the site.

As quickly as it rose to fame, Everskies had evolved into what can only be defined as a “hellsite”. The term, defined as a social platform which one uses despite finding it’s design, userbase, or culture problematic, is usually reserved for Tumblr or Twitter, but between constant critique of the staff and the game itself, users developed contentious relationships with the site. At the same time, Everskies has expanded its user base exponentially, with many people finding their communities at a time where social interaction is scarce. For some, Everskies is a hellsite, but for others, it’s a safe haven. And for a few like Monday, it’s both.

Everskies OG, Ad0xa, is no stranger to the world of pixel dolls. She first found fame on the Scandinavian dress up site goSupermodel for her designs. The site, like Everskies, allowed user-generated content and Ad0xa was hooked, putting her Microsoft Paint skills to use. She was a bit older than the target demographic and almost left the site, but when she started getting messages from other users on the site about how she inspired them, she decided to keep going. “It was hard to ignore”, she says.

When goSupermodel shut down in 2016, Ad0xa was devastated. “Pixel dolls were my main hobby”, she says. She found her new home at Virtual Popstar, a fansite with a very similar concept to goSupermodel, on a much smaller scale. It wasn’t a great fit. Virtual Popstar’s owner was secretive, “elitist”, and had a host of allegations against him for mistreating people. While she loved the pixel dolls, she found it hard to ignore the glaring issues with the owner.

She wasn’t alone: the toxic community at Virtual Popstar had ostracized several other users. One user, Tut, introduced her boyfriend, known as Parrot, to the game. He knew he could build a site like Virtual Popstar, but better, and in January 2020, Everskies was born.

“The actual site was more like something we talked about,” she says. “We were just a friend group on Discord, maybe 10–15 people.” Many of them were neurodivergent, queer, or dealing with mental illness. For months, the discord group threw out ideas about the site. People came and went, mostly former Virtual Popstar users. But Ad0xa kept talking, she wanted Everskies to work. They were going to build a community, much more transparent and comfortable for users, people who just wanted to chat with friends and make pixel dolls.

By May, Parrot, Everskies’ sole developer, had built a beta model: a dress-up wardrobe function, shopping section, a few mini games, and the original forum system. Ad0xa created the site’s pastel sky background, which gave the site a more personal, homey feel. It was time to let the public see.

Julie Bonk, also known as Pet Simmer Julie, first found out about Everskies in the summer of 2020. The site’s owners, Parrot and Tut, saw her reviews of Virtual Popstar, including her boycott, and asked her to beta test the site. “I was hit by the most ridiculous wave of nostalgia, because they remind me of early 2000s MySpace, and the type of content people were creating,” she said. She played regularly for about a month, but her interest waned due to the slow development. Still, she decided to check in once a month to track it’s development. In August, there were 20 users online, she saw the same in October. On Nov. 2nd, there were just 5 users online.

“Some games make it, and others just don’t,” Bonk said. But when Bonk checked in on Dec. 2nd for what should’ve been her final log, she was shocked. In one month, Everskies had grown from 5 users online to nearly 3000. How? TikTok.

“I don’t know if you can even say there was a ‘before’,” Ad0xa said. “The blow up happened so quickly”. During the beta test, the site grew from 30 users to 300, nearly all from Stardoll and MovieStarPlanet, other dress-up games. The move coincided with the death of Adobe Flash, the software that made many of the pre-existing dress up games nonfunctional. They were a little younger than the original ES users, around 16 to early 20s, but they knew most of the site etiquette.

“The newcomers liked the site for being inclusive, and though we had to remind some of them to be nice, it was the perfect situation,” Ad0xa said.

Then, on Nov. 30th, everything changed. TikTok user @everskiesfits dueted a video of another TikToker, recreating their outfit on the site. It went viral, with over 54k likes and nearly 500 comments asking about the website. Within days, Everskies usership skyrocketed from 300 to 5000, then to 10k. Most were teens.

“You can imagine how we were not equipped to handle that,” Ad0xa said. “No one was getting paid or did this as full time work. This was just a hobby.” As the site traffic increased, it became clear that it wasn’t sustainable. One night, the Everskies team only had one American who could moderate. The team, mostly Scandanavian, and used to the niche virtual dress-up community, had to go back to the drawing board. They closed the site to new users and announced an official launch in January.

“I wanted to join in November, but registration was closed,” Monday said. Instead, he waited about a month before he was granted admission on Jan. 13th. It was right on time: the United Kingdom was entering its third lockdown since the pandemic began, and school, yet again, would be virtual. For Monday, who has autism and ADHD, it was hell.

He was more isolated than ever. It became harder for him to keep up with assignments, and his friendships. School, and life, didn’t feel real online. “I didn’t know what to do with myself, and without being able to see my friends, my anxiety exploded,” he said.

So Monday dove headfirst into Everskies. Even as his anxiety grew, he found a community on the site, users who were autistic and neurodivergent like him. Unlike in real life, where people never seemed to want to listen, on Everskies, Monday could vent post in a forum, and seconds later he’d find comforting responses. “Everskies users felt more peers who understood that my issues are complex and it isn’t always as easy as going to therapy,” he said. “They were my friends.”

Like other students across the globe, Monday missed social contact with his peers. It’s no secret: teens are replacing the social interaction they would’ve gotten in school with the internet. A California study on teen internet usage during the pandemic found that what students miss most isn’t necessarily their friends. It’s how much they miss the short, random encounters with classmates, “saying hello to people whose names they may not know, but who they see at every passing period in school hallways.”

Sure, there’s an endless stream of TikToks to keep them occupied and Twitter to tweet into the void, but what Everskies provides is much deeper than those social platforms.

Everskies is a microcosm of the Gen-Z internet- it’s pretty much high school, drama included. Hallway conversations are replaced by forum threads, lunch time gatherings substituted with chat rooms. The highly-customizable, MySpace-like profile page could double as the inside of a locker. And everyone wants to show off their latest outfit via their avatars. It’s grown large enough that there’s always someone new, but it’s niche enough you can know people, or at least know of someone. And like Monday, users find people with similar experiences and form affinity groups, so yes, there are cliques. And that’s its appeal: in the midst of a pandemic, even with all of the drama, it simulates authentic interactions.

The difficulty comes when you realize Everskies wasn’t originally built for 13–18 year-olds, and it certainly wasn’t built for thousands of them.

Teens need structure. Large companies like Twitter, or even the notorious hellsite Tumblr have structured rules, regulations, and moderators who are fairly independent from the site. Everskies, which was built to be a smaller niche community (remember 300 users was the sweet spot), did not. Many of the changes made during its month-long hiatus were to improve the server to accommodate the new users and recruit more moderators, especially Americans. Even with several thousand users, the intimate moderator-user system could still survive. Except Everskies kept growing.

The first major drama began in February. A forum post titled, “non-black users read this”, went up one night. “IF YOU ARE NOT BLACK DO NOT WEAR ITEMS SUCH AS DREADS/BRAIDS n do not do digital blackface- so don’t make your avi look black so you can use aave n get away w it either,” the body of the post read, and within seconds the post had 12 pages of replies. The discussion on digital blackface, including the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), began with calling out users who had participated, but soon, it extended to the designers. Ad0xa quickly got mentioned for her occasional use of Black skins and hairstyles. A longtime pixel doll creator, she didn’t see the dolls as a representation of IRL selves, she just saw it as dress-up.

“I was just surprised people took the dolls as “them” or assumed others were the representation of the dolls too,” she said. After a few back-and-forths with other users, she issued an apology. But it was clear that there was a major disconnect between the culture that the original users and staff existed in, and the one being created by its dominant user base.

Later Ad0xa tweeted, “Sweden and Scandinavia is weird in the scope of the world because we’re like a super privileged little bubble, we’re both ahead of our time and “super ignorant.” While the original users found a home at Everskies because they were queer and neurodivergent, they also had very limited knowledge of the complex race dynamics that exist in the rest of the world. Several other incidents followed, including the exit of one of the owners of the site due to a rape joke resurfacing.

The drama, typically summarized by Google Slide presentations with screenshots, often featured commentary and critique of the “evidence”. Most people issued apologies, but apologies typically weren’t enough, users wanted the staff and moderators to be cancelled.

“It seems like the student body is rebelling against the principal for something the principal said, which was wrong,” Bonk says, in her latest video about Everskies. “But the difference between a principal and a game developer is that the principal hangs out in the teachers lounge. They don’t go to the cafeteria and eat with the students.”

Under the current model, moderators don’t just moderate, they are active participants in forum conversations, blurring the lines between an authority figure and a peer. When they are “exposed” for something problematic, they issue an apology and are allowed to stay, (though as Ad0xa pointed out, much of the original staff have left the site).

However, as a quick Twitter search could point out, many users have been banned for inappropriate language, content, and, sometimes, things they haven’t even done. “The [Everskies] team doesn’t check the fact that mods do abuse their power over the biggest part of Everskies,” Chy, a 17 year old user on Everskies and MovieStarPlanet, said. It’s a growing sentiment among game players. Many believe that Everskies moderators are too visible and too quick to exercise their authority.

The results can be devastating, as in Monday’s case, when he was permanently banned for “hacking the mini games.” In addition to hanging out in the forums with his newfound friends, Monday had made it his mission to get as many achievements as possible on the site, and he was particularly good at the mini-games, earning the nickname “Planet Popper Boy”. He even hosted contests and helped others play the game to get as much Stardust, Everskies’ virtual currency, as possible. But one day, in the middle of playing a game, Monday was locked out, with a notification saying that he was banned for cheating. He had spent hours playing the mini-games, over the four months he was on the site, of course he was good at them.

“I cried,” Monday said. “A lot.”

While much of the drama on the site should be attributed to growing pains, a few in the community are already planning on creating another site, not unlike Everskies’ creation in response to Virtual Popstar. But with over 1 million users as of April, Everskies isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. And most don’t want it to, even those who’ve been banned.

“I just hope the mods will let me come back,” Monday said. “More than anything, I just really miss my friends.”

Olivia is a journalism student at Newhouse.

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