By Joy Xiang
Edited by Grayson Lee
Do humans dream of each other?
i forget what it’s like to build a pixel version of myself or any other persona i could possibly take on. the free clothing you get through habbo, without paying for credits, are sorely lacking. i settle on a gray and black tank combo with goat horns (to signal that i’m, you know, a little edgy). i (peonyeater) land in rea’s (vivilane) “kiss pad” along with other participants crowding the door. her place is automatically cozy, red-hued with a hot tub and dance floor. we chat to introduce ourselves and why we’re here. someone gets lost going from room to room. i think of vivi as mother goose herding us through the buttons of what to click to transport here, here. here. this feels old school for the internet now, collecting without (hyper)real faces or making your own image into a capitalist aura. i welcome the sweet release.
Rea Sweets’ Through the Virtual Aether made me dream easily of both nostalgia and future. I wondered why journeying through digital rooms as a pixelated avatar felt relieving—in November 2020, deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt surprisingly more connected to these beings in the MMO (massively multiplayer online) world of Habbo than any Zoom rendition of human contact. As an immersive art project, Rea led participants through user-made rooms in Habbo, some existing online for years with their own recorded and unrecorded histories of meaningful interaction. A separate browser tab live-streamed her voice and custom playlist to us, a mix of upbeat pop and techno. Worlds such as Habbo—as Rea explained—often feel different from social broadcasting platforms (designed to endlessly stream users’ posts to a feed) because they’re based on people experiencing things together in real time. In Habbo itself, there is no specific end goal or grand game to be won—users chat to each other, roleplay, complete smaller games and quests. With Rea’s voice guiding us, it felt like an offering of closeness intensified by an arena of play and discovery, again.
we pop into a place called the Liberation Church, tagged “A place for inclusion and discussion! Liberation, LGBT+, post-colonial and feminist theologies abound!” i feel a simple and automatic “damn right” in my chest. rainbows align the gate into the multi-roomed, vaguely gothic-style space, featuring an organ, libraries, a preacher on a pulpit. here, religion feels more like an uncomplicated idea to hang the creation of an idealized world on. i think about the glossy ease of this ideal—in habbo, what consequence does it have but to abbreviate and placehold such liberation that doesn’t exist IRL? vivi speaks to us about how the main feature of habbo is real-time socializing that differs from the limits of other life circumstances, and users return again and again because of the people they’ve met.
Rea often dives into intimacies in her work, inviting others to share in experiences of neurodivergence, loneliness, love languages, digital realms, and intentional connection despite alienating systems. Mad-identified, green-haired, and doll-collecting, I would also call her determined, gutsy, caring, and a fierce dancer. As a dear friend of mine, she is someone through whom I’ve seen that intimacy continues to be a practice. I’ve witnessed audiences and strangers react to Rea’s work with the type of feeling that would make gallery engagement departments envious, perhaps recognizing their own vulnerabilities in her hyper-personal sharing or troublemaking of ableist, sanist, and societal norms in overt and covert ways, edged by softness. Earlier in 2020, Rea held her show “LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS” through Margin of Eras Gallery in Toronto. Exploring through the lens of executive dysfunction, a symptom of ADHD, she installed elements of her bedroom and a wall of journal entries and emails navigating the soul-sucking neurotypicality of higher education under capitalism. Rea did most of her own outreach and made sure to be in the gallery, speaking in-depth to people and creating a place for reciprocal affirmation, cast with a red glow like her Habbo room, like diffused lights in her real room.
the way vivi speaks about other/”older” forms of online communion reminds me of the internet forums i grew up on in the early 2000s, for music, poetry, mental illness. they, if i’m being honest, helped keep me alive within an unfriendly emotional environment and severe anxiety disorder. i was, mostly, unable to be verbal. i used those forums and music blogs as much for escapism as for feeling connected to people and hungered-after worlds that promised to broaden mine and return understanding. for the many who relate, this was a particular feeling before the rise of social sites like myspace: being somewhere niche enough to feel part of a community that doesn’t include the whole internet, but away from the judgments of your “real” persona. as vivi invites participants to share experiences of online disinhibition, the feeling of having less restraint in online engagements (in both cruel and freeing directions), people’s colourful chat bubbles pop up reminiscing about shy lurking and needing the slower processing time of typed versus verbal communication. in habbo, roleplaying is a major element, when users create themed rooms and embody characters like vampires, 1920s mobsters, or from various fandoms. in less fantastical ways, roleplaying can be about playing out better connections for ourselves as lost and lonely peoples, roleplaying a wished space like Liberation Church, roleplaying a future, in the way our current online personas still do.
The allure of Habbo, its first version launching in 2000, was already as a glorified chatroom (in Rea’s words), and the platform lost momentum with the rise of social media and more nefarious reasons. In late 2021, Facebook announced changing its brand name to Meta and brought the “metaverse” into popular conversation; their version of a metaverse involves a more embodied, immersive Internet using virtual and augmented reality, where users could build holographic avatars of themselves. Kyle Orland writes for Ars Technica that metaverses already exist, depending on how you define them. The term originates from a 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and could apply to many consistent online worlds that provide a shared social space for users-as-avatars to interact, such as Habbo.
Like others, with Meta’s announcement, I wondered who wants or needs this? I’m sceptical of the techno-utopic talk (that increasingly enhanced technology will save us or solve all our problems), especially by a corporation. But it also occurs to me that Meta’s vision doesn’t necessarily make connection any easier, or more intimate than existing platforms, and maybe the Internet shouldn’t converge uncannily with the three- and multi-dimensions of IRL. Do we need online shopping revolutionized? I think: a gap must be maintained. In dreaming.[JX1]
wandering through habbo, i can’t help but think about internet metaverses in relation to maladaptive daydreaming. i only learned the phrase in adulthood and it helped affirm so much of my youth, where digital spaces also contributed fodder to the substance of my fantasies. MD describes an excessive, vivid fantasizing that disturbs the daydreamer’s functioning to a high degree. like other behaviours labelled disordered, it begins as a survival coping mechanism, a self-protective force, turned compulsive and disruptive. eli somer (clinical psychologist and professor) gave it a name in 2002, and found MD was
with dissociative and personality disorders, as well as childhood trauma. while experiences vary, maladaptive
can spend hours or the majority of days, weeks, years, inside their created scenarios of—often, it seems—safety, love, and accolades, even while experiencing immense shame. it’s important to distinguish that maladaptive daydreamers know their fantasies aren’t
. to this day, it’s like an overactive muscle i have to not indulge sometimes, where i could easily slip into imagined scenarios that feel as real as, sometimes moreso than, real ones.
Without collapsing the specificity of MD, it maps curiously onto cyberdreaming’s compulsions (like doomscrolling or habitually checking messages)—if the virtual space is a dimension we constantly project our selves and bodies into and travel through, like daydreamt worlds, called to multiple places at once, some kinder than others. At what point does the allure of the dream become “too” strong, or the dream overtakes other ways of experiencing connection? This is subjective and ambivalent, not to ignore how tech development companies try to invisibly shape the way users engage online, to make the engagement process itself “invisible.” I wonder if it’s maladaptive to not show the seams of the dream, as in Meta’s strange mime of real space. There is value and agency in obvious roleplay, in recognizing when you’re dreaming and choosing how to. Other metaverses, at least, realize this.
one of the last rooms vivi guides us to is Landa’s Gay Girl Hangout, created by the user ToNaY who joined Habbo UK in 2002. she tells us the room was popular, but somewhat taboo at the time. if habbo has anything of a queer history, this is probably it. i’m astonished by what exists—stickie notes line the dark violet walls of a lounge outfitted in neon lights, lava lamps, and rainbow flags. ToNaY and other users’ messages on these stickies are sometimes dated, to 2006, 2008: ban lists or “[xx] was here” and “ive not been on for years and now everyone has gone :(.”
one particular pink stickie catches me, dedicating the room to “my good friend Laura Rhodes” who passed away in 2004, with a link to a memorial page. i’m compelled to follow her, in this moment of the real, a real name, a young girl (like i was once). my quick search brings up an article from The Guardian, describing the bullying that laura, who was 13, faced at school and a death pact she made with another girl she had formed a romance with after meeting in an online chatroom. the other girl survived. i feel at once invasive, like i shouldn’t know this, but also how many others have her in a part of memory now?
Our journey through Habbo ended with Rea’s deliberate voice, speaking about how these platforms weren’t meant to recreate or poorly imitate physical life, and perhaps because of this, they embrace the complexity of human interaction.
i think about the virtual aether, how vivi also created a space to consider the history lineage of our interactions online, the different modes of feeling of different platforms that have shaded paradigms of communication, closeness and its opposite at once. Sometimes the value of obsolescence or aging media is in its evasion of what doesn’t work in present technological monopolies, among the audience of everyone. later, i change the outfit on my habbo.
 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
Vice Motherboard: https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgxvkk/habbo-hotel-20-years-old-online-game. In 2012, a Channel 4 investigation found that adults were regularly using Habbo to engage children in sexually explicit conversations. The site muted its live chat for months as a result and many users left.