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An Oral History of Despair Faction, AFI's Tight-Knit Fan Forum

ByAideen O'Flahertyillustrated byDan Evans

Key message board members look back on how the now-defunct site created marriages, friendships and, um, lifetime MTV event bans.

In 2002 the Despair Faction, a new AFI official message board and fan club, started attracting awkward teens with access to a reliable dial-up connection. Everyone who joined the board started out as a nervous teenager, looking for a community of people who understood why AFI meant so much to them. Most people signed up as regular members, which was free, before taking the next step for the dedicated fans: paying for a Despair Faction membership. That fee covered the cost of your "box" – a big cardboard container, delivered to your door and emblazoned with "AFI" and "The Despaire Faction". Inside, you'd get limited edition DF-only merchandise, including a T-shirt, a poster, a membership card and a patch.

I joined the Despair Faction in 2006, in my early teens, and the excitement of finally being given an outlet to express my passion for a band that I felt so drawn to, and understood by, felt huge. For a lot of DF members, the message board was like a little enclave. Since then, members of the DF have gone on to marry each other, form strong friendships and travel internationally to see the band that started it all.

Karen, Ramon, Aaron, Graham and Sarah, and board moderators Michelle and Eddie, were seven of the key members of the DF, who newbies like myself looked up to in 2006. Below, they speak about their experiences on the now-defunct site and how it has ultimately impacted their lives.

The Beginning

Karen, 31: I joined when I was 17; I'd saved up gas money to buy my membership. I asked my mom if I could join the Despair Faction, and she just looked at me weirdly and said 'no'. I remember putting up with… not abuse, but the typical kind of bullying, and I just dealt with it and then eventually it stopped. It wasn't like it went on forever, but the more you hung out with people, the more you have a reputation of not being terrible, so people left you alone after a while.

Ramon, 31: It was snarky. People weren't totally welcoming to new folks, but if you were able to hang and you stuck around and you got to know people then eventually everything was cool. It wasn't malicious, it was just 'hey, you're new, we don't know you'.

Graham, 28: By the time I joined the DF in about 2002 (I must've been 12, 13) it was already at around 20,000 people. I'm talking tons and tons of kids, with over a couple thousand active members, so people were posting every day. It was this strange little ecosystem and hierarchy that I romanticise a lot, but it also had the high school dynamics that would happen anywhere else. There were different splinters of friend groups and people who were the cool kids and whatever else.

The contents of a typical Despair Faction "box"

Aaron, 28: I got my Despair Faction box in the summer of 2003 – I'd asked for it for my birthday, which was in May. And so I think I got it about a month afterwards. I just remember being really excited. I still have the welcome letter, I still have the box. I think everybody keeps their box.

Eddie, 30: Even before I joined in 2004, it was already very tight-knit. The friends that I have now had known each other five years prior to that. When you come in, you're like an outsider for the most part, and you have to find a way to get in on that. It didn't always work, but if you found the right people you could make a nice, close-knit group of friends.

Casual Fans vs Die-Hard Fans

Michelle, 32: You'd have people who used to like the band but were still there for the chat, who looked down on people who were really excited about the band or were just discovering them for the first time, or who were new to the band. There was always friction, but I think people stuck to their own sections. There's always going to be some dickhead who will be elitist or whatever, and I guess the thing about DF is that even if people weren't fans of AFI they would still be on that message board, which is interesting in that it became a community outside of the band.

Karen: After the release of Decemberundergound there were a lot of new people – it was overwhelming. It made me not want to go into the AFI Everything part of the board anymore, there were a lot of people who were weird about the band, but before that it wasn't so intense.

Eddie: There were people who were over the band, but who liked the connections they'd made up to that point so they stuck around, even if they hated the music that was coming out. And that was cool, because I felt that it kept you grounded; you'd get these opposing opinions about where the band was going. It wasn't like, 'this band is amazing and anything they do is amazing', you'd kind of get, 'oh, this song kind of sucks, but if you like it that's fine.'

Five Flowers/ Clandestine Mystery

Michelle: The label and the band put together this really cool treasure hunt around Sing the Sorrow, and it went across different countries trying to figure out all these clues. People were calling up strange phone numbers; I remember this kid got his uncle to go to a record shop and then pick up a clue from some random place in California. And people would spend hours on this thread poring through the different clues or sleuthing things out together. I thought that was really cool and inclusive.

Sarah, 28: If you would've tried to do something like interpreting a cryptic message from a band with your regular real life friends they would just think you're a psycho, but all the people on the AFI board – they got it, and they didn't judge you for loving a band so much that you would go through all of that.

Forming Friendships and Relationships

Karen: I think the DF has changed my life drastically. If I didn't join that message board, I never would've met Ramon – and we're married and have a baby now. That's the biggest impact it's had on my life. I'm looking at our son right now, he's my little almost-two-year-old. That alone blows my mind, that all it took was me signing up for a message board.

Ramon: And honestly the majority of our friends came from that message board. Talking to these people online, going to shows and meeting them, and then continually seeing them at other shows. It's really cool how this band, this message board, this fan club, brought us all together.

Eddie: Most of the people I still talk to daily – friends rather than colleagues or whatever – are people I met through the band and that message board. On this last tour for the Blood album I think we all went to like six or so shows together. We've known each other for definitely over ten years now, so it was cool having the same group of friends doing the stuff you were doing at 20 years old. We were all crankier than we usually are but it was fun, because you're there with that one thing that brought you together. You forget that you've driven 300 miles to get to the show and you're dead tired and hungry, because you're in the middle of the pit and Davey's in the crowd and you just forget about it for that split second. You get to appreciate it because you're there with the people who you want in your life.

Sarah: Every one of the friends I have now, except for the people in school, are AFI people. I feel weird even calling them AFI people. We met because of AFI, but over time you find other things that you have in common and you can still hang out without talking about AFI - they're just our friends. I didn't officially count, but I'm pretty sure about half of [Aaron and I's] wedding guests were AFI people.

The author's Despair Faction membership card

Graham: I think AFI were a band where, if you were into them, you felt pretty isolated. Maybe that's a big generalisation, but finding them at the point I did it was very intense, very emotional music that spoke to a lot of the misfit kids out there. For me, I was this kid who felt isolated and strange and lonely, and so finding a bunch of other strange, lonely kids was really, really helpful for me at the time. It's all those kids that don't fit in all in one place.

The Demise of the Board

Eddie: I feel like the board kind of died right after [2009 AFI album] Crash Love. They had a version of the board during Burials but I think by that point it just died, and nobody continued on with that next version of the board. I feel like if they would've kept the one that was around during DU and STS I think we'd still be posting on it, but as soon as they left and went to somewhere else and they kicked out all the mods, I don't think anybody went. I don't know if it was a technical thing, because by that point Facebook and all that stuff was prominent. I'm sure that had something to do with it too. It kind of just died, and technology changes and that stuff happens. It was a bummer because you lose your little internet hang out spot.

Michelle: The interesting thing about the message board is that it transcended the community and transcended the message board. People haven't gone on there in years, and going back is like a blast from the past, but if you open up Twitter or Instagram you can see almost on a daily basis what these people [from the board] are up to and I think, you know, it's like the friends that you wanted to have at school. That kind of stuff is so important to you when you're a teenager.

Graham: It was good that it ended when it did because it kept me in stagnation. There was a point where I couldn't really move on from my adolescence if I continued to act out my adolescence through there over and over again. It was, I think, ultimately good that I got cut off from that because it forced me to make some more friends in real life and exist in a different way.

You can find Aideen on Twitter and see more of Dan's illustration work on Instagram.

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