World Wide Wut - Lurking on the Palace
By Deanna Havas
The 90s were a weird time for the social internet. There wasn’t much besides text chat and shitty graphics, and eventually they were combined to create the Palace, a visual chat program.
In the Palace users would identify themselves with avatars. These were usually pixelated Bratz-type icons that came in contrasting sub-cultural flavors: sk8trs, punks, thugs, goths, preps. After dressing up your avatar you could chat with other users through text bubbles in front of a compressed jpeg of cheap furniture. You could also trade accessories, called props, like pixelated Korn t-shirts, Pikachus, and $20 sacks.
Sounds kinda like Habbo, yes, though the main difference between the Palace and Habbo is that the latter started in 2000 and the Palace started in 1994. This means Habbo is entirely pixel animation (which looks sharp and crisp), and the Palace is based on both pixel and jpeg/gif images, that have what we'll call a "lowbrow quality." Plus, Habbo runs on Flash player while the Palace runs on its own software. Habbo also has a currency system that you can use real-life money for, while the Palace doesn't incorporate real currency.
The Palace user base consisted of socially repressed teens and bored housewives who had already taken to GeoCities scrapbooking. It was only a matter of time before a huge cyber sex scene emerged and quickly became the Palace’s greatest commodity. Cultural theorists called this exchange “teledildonics.” I don’t really know how it worked, but I think they would rub their avatars together or something.
Eventually development on the Palace halted due to bankruptcies and lack of developer support. It currently runs on abandonware, virtually unchanged for almost two decades. Strangely enough, there is an active user base. But who are these pixel perverts deriving sexual gratification from anonymous 16-bit color exchanges? What lies at the root of this perplexing scene of masturbatory nostalgia? I had to find out.
I returned to the Palace for the first time since 1998. It appeared that very little had changed in the time since, with the exception of some Lady Gaga avatars and 9/11 memorial gifs. An eerie cyber ghost town vibe permeated the once densely populated chat rooms.
Traversing the Palace involves a lot of clicking on images to find where the mapped coordinates are that link you to the next room, not unlike feeling around walls in pursuit of a trap door, but significantly less gratifying. After a bit of clicking around I discovered a room occupied by OG Palacians who claimed to have been online since 1995. They couldn’t articulate what brought them back to the Palace day after day, for all these years, and seemed really bummed out about time being so fleeting, etc. They weren’t very helpful in directing me to the cool props either so I left. The other chat room conversation topics were painfully mundane.
(The dressing room on the M.S. server)
Most of the traffic to the Palace, usually around a thousand visitors per day, is distributed among a dozen popular servers. According to the Palace directory there are hundreds of servers online that receive absolutely no traffic, many of which are non-English speaking. These are primarily in Spanish or Turkish and are maintained by some eccentric—and apparently wealthy—admins who can afford the monthly hosting fees accrued by their obscure Palaces. Each server has dedicated chat rooms for avatars and props, and lockable guest rooms with sensual interiors to help you get intimate. I “walked in” on some users in an unlocked bedroom chat and was quickly banned before I could catch the gist of the conversation. I visited a “Multiple Sclerosis awareness”-themed Palace, which, incidentally, had a decent collection of porn avatars. Another interesting note: Palace game rooms are scripted for interactivity, and for some reason virtual Yahtzee is really popular.
(Playing Spin the Bottle alone is just one of the many games to choose from.)
Adult Palace servers cater to many sex fetishes but most subscribe to a branch of BDSM that is loosely inspired by 1970s science-fiction writing. Server rules dictate the general guidelines of chat room behavior. Naturally, sex slaves have their own rules of conduct that span several pages. Flaming, which plagued the Palace during its prime, can now get you banned. This problem disappeared along with all the traffic so the rule is useless. In fact, there aren't even moderators online to enforce any of this.
The Palace's most redeeming aspect is its role as an artifact of our internet history. It's a living archive of low-res graphics, cliché fantasy art, and some of the worst graphic design ever. For the remaining Users, that seems to make for an erotic virtual community ideal to spend decades in. I suspect that many of the other former Palace users have moved on to bigger and better things, such as making cash on Second Life or showing their genitals on Chatroulette.