One of France’s earliest social networks, Skyblog, is closing down for good this week. Launched in 2002, the blogging site gave millions of French internet users their first taste of interacting online before it fell out of fashion with the arrival of bigger competitors from the US.
Before there was Instagram, before there was TikTok, in the beginning was the blog.
In France, that meant Skyblog – a one-time internet phenomenon that, on 21 August, will finally go offline after more than 20 years.
While the name probably means little to anyone born this millennium, to those who were hitting adolescence in France in the early 2000s, “les Skyblogs” were a big deal.
“Everyone had a Skyblog,” says Astrid Perdrix, who created hers in 2005, when she was around 14. “It was like the old Facebook or Myspace.”
While both of those platforms existed when she joined Skyblog, neither had penetrated France to the same extent.
Founded in December 2002 by the head of the rap radio station Skyrock, Pierre Bellanger, the site was a French-made version of the blogging platforms then emerging in the US. By 2007, it was one of the biggest social networks for French speakers in the world.
It offered users the equivalent of a teenage bedroom on the internet: a space to decorate, pursue obsessions in and invite friends to, for free.
A place to experiment
“I accidentally started mine for Harry Potter, on a day when I was sick and I couldn’t go to school, so I was getting bored,” says Perdrix. “And so that’s how it started.”
Her Skyblog – dedicated to news about Harry Potter books and films, which were coming out at the time – would become one of the most visited on the entire platform in 2005.
Not everyone was so successful. At its height the platform hosted around 30 million blogs, many of them esoteric.
Pauline Ferrari, today a tech journalist, had three when she was in her teens: one for Harry Potter fan fiction, another dedicated to the French band BB Brunes, and a third to share photos and “some dark poems that I wrote that were very not good”.
She remembers Skyblog as a place to try things out, whether it was chatting to strangers for the first time, exploring online personas or learning how to personalise your page.
“There was this whole wall behind the posts that you could customise to infinity,” she says, recalling how she would seek out ways to create different effects.
Unlike social media apps today – designed to give every profile a standard look with as little technical know-how as possible – there was a DIY element to Skyblogs that encouraged experimentation, according to Ferrari.
“You want to have a pink sparkly wall on your Skyblog, so you just go into the HTML and try to figure it out.”
Speaking to other young women working in tech fields in France today, she says, she’s struck by how many credit Skyblogs with giving them their first experience with coding or content creation – not that anyone was calling it that at the time.
“I remember my mum saying, ‘You spend so many hours on the internet!’ like it’s a bad thing,” she laughs. “And now it’s my work.”
Perdrix, who nows works as a digital marketer, also sees a straight line between her career and her Skyblog – which she includes on her LinkedIn profile to this day.
“When I think it through, I was doing marketing without knowing it,” she says, describing running competitions and collaborating with other users to raise her profile.
When she made rudimentary GIFs, screenshotting Harry Potter videos and putting the images together, she started adding a watermark with her username so that whenever others reposted them it would generate exposure for her blog.
“All those tricks that you learn in web marketing, I was doing without knowing it,” she says.
The dawn of social media
Skyblogs was sowing the seeds for wider phenomena, too.
Its young users were developing internet slang – “replacing the E with 3, putting a lot of Xs everywhere, a lot of Zs”, recalls Ferrari – and organising themselves into communities that depended on interests or political views, not on geographic location.
They were figuring how much and what version of their personal lives to post online, and testing how it translated into numbers of page visits and followers.
#Skyblog is one of the key internet instruments that shaped my life, my perception on the world, & my identity. On 2005, Found the gate – all together w/ msn7.0 – to discover the social media world. If it wasn’t for @skyrock, I wouldn’t be the now ME – THANK YOU! pic.twitter.com/j9z9YzYFMW
— Caramelo (@CaramelisedGuy) July 2, 2023
“It was really the beginning of all these internet habits and uses that we have today, but on a very small level,” comments Ferrari. “We were all like guinea pigs.”
That made the whole experience less self-conscious and more authentic than social media today, she says. While apps like Instagram and Twitter encourage users to curate their looks and personality, “with Skyblogs, it was really just vulnerability. It was really rough in the way that we presented ourselves.”
From local to global
By the late 2000s that era was ending. Early adopters had become savvy, the broader public had begun to realise social networks weren’t just for kids, and the web was becoming a little more worldwide.
Skyblog thrived in the unique ecosystem of the early French internet, populated by home-grown services like CaraMail email, the search engine Lokace, social network Copains d’avant and gaming site JeuxVideo.
While some of them survived, Skyblog was among the French sites that found themselves abandoned in favour of slicker competitors from the US.
Facebook launched its French-language version in early 2008. It started the year with roughly 2 million unique visitors in France compared to Skyblog’s 10 million; by December, Facebook had overtaken Skyblog on its home turf with an estimated 12 million visitors.
“It was a much more global platform, a much more grown-up platform,” says Ferrari, who remembers most of her friends switching from Skyblog to Facebook around that time.
“I think we just let our Skyblogs die in a corner.”
France’s digital heritage
The platform didn’t die, though, but limped on for another 15 years – until June 2023, when its creator Bellanger announced it would be closing down for good in August.
By now 19 million Skyblogs remain online, including Perdrix’s Harry Potter fan blog and at least one of Ferrari’s that she’s forgotten the name of and can no longer find.
Avec un soupçon de nostalgie, nous tirons notre révérence à l’épopée #Skyblog. L’aventure prend fin ce 21 août 2023, après avoir illuminé le 21e siècle du numérique à la française. Un giga merci à vous tous : pionniers du net, développeurs, administrateurs, hébergeurs qui ont… pic.twitter.com/3PGB98yXQr
— Jérôme Aguesse (@jerome_aguesse) June 23, 2023
They won’t disappear completely when the site – since rebranded as Skyrock.com – goes offline. Instead they’ll be archived at the BnF, France’s national library, as well as the national audiovisual institute INA.
“For us, it represents a truly emblematic period of the internet – it’s part of the history of the French internet,” says Vladimir Tybin, digital curator at the BnF.
“It’s a moment in web history when young people – and others – seized on this new space, which became a new place of expression.”
His department has used a web crawler to capture the source code of 12 million remaining Skyblogs, which will join the two petabytes of other French web content – some 44 billion URLs – stored in the library’s specialised archives.
Preserved offline at the BnF in Paris, the vast collection is available to researchers who want to study the traces France has left on the internet since the mid-1990s.
The library has already had inquiries about the Skyblog entries from historians and sociologists “who are very interested in the ways this era of the web was foundational”, Tybin says.
Cringey, kitsch, magic
When Ferrari thinks of other people reading her teenage stylings on Skyblogs, she cringes. It was precisely that prospect that prompted her to delete her personal blog – the one with the poems – though she did save the text for her own reference.
“I find it funny to see what I was writing at 14 now that writing is my job,” she says. “It was really kitsch and really strange to go back… It’s cringe and it’s good at the same time.”
Perdrix, meanwhile, says she doesn’t plan to keep her Skyblog, but she’s glad it will continue to exist somewhere.
“When I see it I’m like, ‘why did people follow it?’ But at the same time it reminds me of all the good stuff it brought me,” she says.
“It was a time when I think I felt more confident with my computer than I was with other people, so I really created a magic world where I felt like home.”