A Long Time Ago, on an Internet Far, Far Away: How the Web Anticipated Star Wars the Last Time Around

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It’s entirely possible that today, on the eve of a new Star Wars film, you are tired of reading about Star Wars online. The new movie, The Force Awakens, dominates the Trending Topics and Recommended Videos that make up the 2015 web’s well-oiled content recirculation machine; any publication with access and information has a large and resource-rich internet presence. But this was not always the case.

In 1999, when The Phantom Menace premiered, only 36 percent of people used the internet. That number stands at 84 percent today. Gathering online to talk about Star Wars was still relatively novel back at the turn of the century, and was dominated by fan sites and message boards, not well-funded start-ups and well-known media organizations. Many of the sites that dominated the Star Wars anticipation machine have either gone dark or moved on. Still, plumbing the depths of the Internet Archive reveals tons of good stuff.

One of the earliest, still-running fan sites is theforce.net, which was initially called the Star Wars Page at Texas A & M. Old versions of it online are mostly broken now, but the earliest version points out that the site is “best viewed at a desktop area of 800x600 pixels.”

On November 15, 1997, site admin Chris Kivlehan posted an editorial (this was before blogging software) called “Six Episodes or Nine Episodes?”

If you asked me what I think the answer behind all this is, I’d say George Lucas may have developed more about the sequel trilogy then he is letting on, but he may be unsure whether he’d actually want to commit another nine years of his life to Star Wars. George Lucas has always been considerate of his fans–his tolerance of web sites like ours is just one example–perhaps he doesn’t want to raise our hopes on a project he may elect not to make.

I’m just some twenty one year-old with a web site who occassionally [sic] hears from people involved in the production of Episode I, but here’s my advice to fellow Star Wars fans: nevermind the sequels, focus on the prequels or those three wonderful films that you can pop into your VCR whenever you want. Right now we have six incredible hours of that galaxy far, far away with six more on the way. Let’s focus our Star Wars-related energies on those episodes rather than on questions the Jedi Master himself may not truly know the answer to.

There were also, ahead of user-generated content sites like Wikipedia and Archive of Our Own, pages dedicated to an encyclopedic breakdown of vehicles and technical aspects of the series, as well as a robust fan-fiction section.

When Geocities went the way of the dodo, many early fan sites vanished along with it, though early snapshots still exist on outmoded services like Webring, which let people establish ad hoc website networks.

One of the best ones that I discovered is Sycamore Star Wars Place, which contains broken links to desktop themes and screensavers, email lists (so far, none of my attempts to subscribe have gone through), and a list of mythological references in the films (“Yes, Star Wars is a great story, fun, exciting … but it’s also crammed full of all sorts of mythological motifs.”)

At least one index page for an email list called the Pod Race Reporter has survived, though the actual content of these emails has not been archived. Some things about the web haven’t changed that much, as indicated in a March 1999 email titled, “ FLASH! Star Wars trailer South-Parked!”

The website countingdown.com was established, according to a 2002 writeup in Slate, as a way to harness intense fandom. “Sponsoring lines in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, then, [the site’s creators] used the Countingdown.com Web site to promote the lines, leak Episode I-related information, and host live Web broadcasts from the Hollywood line.” In 1999, the three-week-long line-waiting effort brought in “30,000,000 streams of video to Web users, and raised a total of $75,000 for the Starlight Children’s Foundation.”

Archives of the site’s news section around the time of the launch of The Phantom Menace show frantic and obsessive updates that are now commonplace.

And who could forget Star Wars’ humble beginnings at the forefront of viral content, the Star Wars Rap. An at-the-time-impressive Flash animation that asked, “What if Darth Vader … rapped?” Over on Scott’s Star Wars Message Board, known as the Cantina, a 2001 thread entitled “Star Wars Gangsta Rap!!! LOL, you gotta see this!!” implores users to head over to atomfilms.com.

The official Star Wars website celebrated the rap’s accolades back in 2002. The post, for some reason, no longer exists on the franchise’s official site.

Star Wars Fandom in 1999