At age twenty-five I was passionate, opinionated, adamant. I believed in an undefined Utopia, and that it could be created right there and then. In pursuit of that goal I had started nonprofits, finished graduate school, had two kids. I'd embarked on and abandoned a career in government when I realised the limits of service.
Eventually I became a first-generation web designer (before that was technically a career option), and I felt that I was part of a practical, technical revolution. We were pioneers, we were creating not just a new industry but a new way of working - and thinking.
By 1997 I had a ton of commercial work but my real interest was in setting up sites for activists, artists, and independent publishers. One day I offered to create an online community for a radical parenting zine called Hip Mama.
All of my work attempted to offer an alternative to mainstream notions of acceptable dialogue, to change the discussion, alter the rules. I wanted to create radical virtual salons, but I also wanted to encourage real change. I wanted people to use the internet to find what they truly needed: friends, allies, and sustainable communities in their own towns. Hipmama.com was the perfect receptacle of my vision, because the audience was already there: small, distinctive, and hungry.
The concept was deceptively simple: I would create a safe place for welfare mothers, disabled parents, teen parents, queer parents, anyone who feels disenfranchised and lonely.
Within a few months Hipmama.com had displaced all of my other work. The site was growing exponentially, far exceeding the circulation of the print version, and reaching a different audience. I had taken on complete financial, ethical, and editorial responsibility for every aspect of the online project. I was the publisher, editor, technology evangelist, and visionary.
My original concept was shared by an intrepid crew of volunteers scattered across a huge geographic distance, all of us committed to creating a new mode of social enquiry in an entirely uncharted medium. And what we imagined, what we hoped for, actually happened - from the very start there were remarkable examples of women helping each other with tangible resources, from sharing advice, clothing, money, and food, to literally rescuing each other from chaos.
We were also, aside from these revolutionary notions, incredibly popular.
The growth of the site was exceptional. From a core group of thirty members and a couple of hundred hits a day, it grew to hundreds then thousands of users, thousands then millions of hits. My days were largely dedicated to keeping the servers stable as the discussion boards were bombarded with ten thousand, then twenty, then thirty, then fifty thousand messages a month. All on a site hand-coded and largely maintained by one person: me. Eventually I stopped counting, and turned off the stats because they kept breaking the server.
I had always assumed that people living in the mainstream, by definition, did not need support, and that was a mistake. Hipmama.com offers daily, illuminating proof that the experience of being a parent is intrinsically alienating - for everyone.
Huge audiences sometimes translate to dollar signs; many of my friends in the industry became wealthy selling projects with substantially less traffic and press interest. Hipmama.com has been viewed, visited, debated, used, loved, and hated by numbers that go far beyond the scope of what could have been accomplished in an earlier era. The internet has revolutionised publishing - and Hipmama.com was an active part of that insurgency. The numbers are unwieldy, enormous, and from a business perspective, problematic. Because although we accept advertising, we never turn a profit; since 2001, like nearly every independent publication, we have not earned enough to cover the basic bills. When the site faces economic difficulties, I make up the difference working elsewhere.
Venture capitalists have come calling to Hipmama.com, and I listened to their bids (and accepted the occasional free trip or goodie bag), but I have never considered selling out. It might be difficult to make ends meet, but it is unacceptable to squander hope and reciprocity for a paycheck.
Throughout the years I have encouraged community members to start their own zines, sites, events, bands, books, sharing resources wherever and whenever I could. Hipmama.com became an incubator and outlet for a flurry of creative and unexpected new work from countless people, connecting and finding each other via a site with a vast global audience that somehow, through it all, managed to remain real. Raw. Handmade.
Great success has inevitable negative consequences, and one measure of our impact has been the trouble encountered. I've been subpoeaned by local law enforcement, the Canadian Mounties, the FBI. The site has been hounded by cyber-attacks, and vilified by rightwing militants. I have been stalked and slandered. I have received kidnapping and death threats.
Ultimately, I had to make the decision to slow the growth - to decide what level could be managed without any paid staff, and calibrate the site accordingly.
I went looking for a model of sustainable creative non-growth, and I found it in the projects of friends who run record labels that do not sell out to multi-national corporations. In companies that work collaboratively with artists in mutually beneficial ways. In organic farms where food is tilled by the same people who eat it. In the idea of a family, the essential building block of society: an entity that is inherently creative, sometimes breaks under duress, but can have magical restorative powers - if you are willing to do the work.
I looked at those examples and elected to follow a quixotic path. The site is self-sustaining, by necessity, in every sense, and will not grow just for growths sake. The site exists to provide a safe place for the original core audience: the people who do not fit elsewhere, the dismayed and disenfranchised. It isn't about fashion or hairstyles (though we like both) or any of the superficial stuff people use to judge each other. Hipmama.com is inclusive, not exclusive. We don't care what you look like or how you vote, we just care that you show up and try. Even when life is difficult, even when you want to give up. In a world that says no, we say yes.
The work has been brutally hard and largely thankless, but it was all worth it. Real change has happened. People have staged effective protests at the local and state level and joined with international movements. Battered women have left their abusers. Friendships have formed, true love blossomed, weddings and babies have ensued. Teenage mothers have been encouraged to feel fierce pride (and go to graduate school if they wish).
Over the years the project itself has changed, using different technology though always with the same purpose. The people have also changed. Editors, producers, moderators, and interns have contributed vast quantities of time and devotion. The community has expanded, matured, graduated, and new people have joined in natural cycles. The transition is sometimes painful, but always illuminating, because the circle of friends now extends all the way across the world. Wherever I go, I know someone, and that is a gift beyond words.
The print and online versions were always independent, and have also evolved in different directions. We are more than a zine, more than a site, more than all of us separately or collectively. We have moved beyond the original vision of two women to a whole constellation of ideas and experience. We are not a publication, we are a social movement.
Fifteen years after I started this community, I can review the facts and say that Hipmama.com began with a purpose and it has retained that directive. We are an activist tool for social change.
I'm forty now, and I no longer believe in Utopia. But I still believe in people, and in Hipmama.com.