Given that we recently reviewed “Kill Switch,” an episode about the pitfalls and the promise of the online world, I thought it apt to write about the influence and dialogue between the Internet and The X-Files.
Perhaps more than any other show in the 1990s, The X-Files took advantage of and eventually became synonymous with the Internet. The program debuted at just the right time, as the newly developed World Wide Web only a couple of years prior would allow people who never heard of the Internet to get online, transforming a tool for researchers and academics into a true global commons. In fact, the development of X-Files fandom can be traced through an evolving and growing community of Philes that banded together and would eventually transform a cult phenomena into a mainstream juggernaut.
Throughout most of the 1980s, anyone who had regular or semi-regular contact with the Internet basically had it through two services: BBSes and Newsgroups. BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) were like the AOL and Prodigy of their day, allowing ordinary people with a computer and a modem to connect with each other, chat, play games, and gather around common interests. Right above that though were newsgroups. Part of the Usenet system, a decentralized cousin to BBSes, newsgroups were specialized discussion forums that soon grew to include nearly every conceivable topic people on the system considered worth talking about.
Alt.tv.x-files, the newsgroup set up to discuss our beloved program was created in December 1993, mere months after The X-Files began its nine season run. It would prove to be the place for hardcore fans to discuss everything from episode titles to Mulder’s sexuality. It is where the terms X-Phile and Smoking Man were coined, as well as being the forum for people to (as they tend to do on the web to this day) endlessly argue plot points in episodes. The newsgroup became so infamous, that the writers of the show lovingly teased X-Philes with Langly’s line about “nitpicking the scientific inaccuracies of Earth 2” in the episode “One Breath.”
Things changed as more non-technical users got online, as services like Geocities allowed anyone to create a website and share their thoughts and obsessions with the wider world in the new medium of the World Wide Web, which promised even greater versatility and features than the old newsgroups and BBSes. The technical wizards didn’t go away, and in fact one of them, Charles McGrew, would make the first popular fan website about The X-Files. It is with a bit of pride that I point this out, given that Charles is a staff member of Rutgers University (Radhika and mine’s alma mater), and the site was hosted right at the top level of the Rutgers web infrastructure. What hosting sites like Geocities (which later became part of Yahoo!) did was democratize the web, and scores of sites popped up where users proclaimed their love of the show, of Mulder, of Scully, of Mulder and Scully, and of course Mulder and Scully together. Webrings became a thing, where different websites that shared a common interest were linked together, allowing people looking up the show via sites they never would have heard of otherwise. Of course, these sites look positively archaic to our contemporary sensibilities, with crude graphics, an overabundance of GIFs, and many many pages under construction.
The burgeoning web culture was also a perfect place for those who write fan fiction about their favorite shows and characters to publish their works for general consumption. People were writing X-Files stories since the newsgroup days, but with an increasing number of people getting online through newly created Internet Service Providers, the pump was primed for an explosion of interest. The Gossamer Project was a site created to store, archive, and exhibit X-Files fanfic, and quickly became one of the top fan fiction repositories on the web. A whole article can (and will) be written on this aspect of the show’s fandom, so be sure to look out for that one later down the pike.
Websites soon gained the kind of messageboard functionality that was the newsgroups’ main stock and trade, another avenue for webmasters to attract the legion of users that now flooded the information superhighway. I was one of them, looking up everything I possibly could about The X-Files, as my interest in the show reached a fever pitch during the season we are currently covering. Not only that, but the movie was on its way, and Fox spared no expense getting official websites up for both the show and the movie.
Radhika and I have plenty of experience with messageboards dedicated to the show, and in fact this is where both of us met a lot of of good people we’ve been interviewing for our My First Time interview segments. She was a part of the official forums set up by the show itself, while I found a community on IMDB of X-Philes a few years after the show went off the air. Chris Carter and company, during the final season of the show, saw fit to honor longtime fans of the show by including a rotating listing of official messageboard user handles in the credits of every season nine episode. It’s a rather wonderful move, given how the popularity of the show can be accredited to those early adopters on the Internet that made a lot of noise about a wacky Friday night show about aliens and things that go bump in the night.
Today, there are still thriving corners of the Internet ecosystem where people gather to reminisce about the show. Social media websites like Facebook and Tumblr allow old friends and X-Philes to reconnect and share GIFs (better ones this time), fan videos, image macros, and other assorted memetic material. YouTube has allowed the easy sharing of the Bree Sharp “David Duchovny” music video that could previously only be seen via tape trading, and Skype has connected us to people on the other side of the globe that we’ve only talked to via text. Now, we can video chat with them and see and hear good friends we’ve known for years, and crack jokes about Mulder dropping his gun or Scully’s steadfast skepticism. It’s even allowed two old schoolmates to get together and write about The X-Files as they rewatch the program episode by episode.
Esther Nairn in “Kill Switch” dreamed of the possibility of being permanently connected to the network, where her consciousness would exist in a kind of silicon immortality. In a way, our celebrations of X-Files fandom in the form of sites and posts and stories and images is a way of leaving our own immortal mark on a show that has given us an embarrassment of riches.
This is a talk given at one of Google’s offices about the different ways individuals thought of organizing information and serving it to those looking for it even before the Internet and the World Wide Web were in existence. It’s a fascinating look at the various pathways that lead to the technology you are reading this piece with.