I’m a full-time freelance writer. I’ve done two freelance stints in the past four years, sandwiching a year-long, full-time gig at an esports website; I left that job in January and have been juggling freelance jobs since. But this work wasn’t my first encounter with the gig economy. When I was 12, long before I understood what “the gig economy” even meant, I got a full-time education in freelance writing. On Neopets.
The Neopian Times, the paper of record for the online game Neopets, has been running for more than 19 years. The first issue was published on January 25, 2000, almost two months after the website itself launched, according to a Neopets user who outlined the in-world newspaper history for its 350th issue. An entirely user-submitted endeavor, The Neopian Times and its player-journalists have covered class hierarchies on the website, lab ray ethics, a changing economy, and cold-messaging popular people. Some issues had pitch guides to publishing in the newspaper. Others had sarcasm-laced rants on what not to do to get published on the site. The Neopian Times was around for the introduction of new games, pets, and worlds for players to explore, all of which was documented by a roster of unpaid, freelance writers desperate to be published.
I started playing Neopets shortly after The Neopian Times was first introduced. My first account is 18 years old, opened when I was 12 and not officially old enough to have a full-access account. (If you were under 13, you couldn’t access Neopets multiplayer functionality and would mainly keep to yourself.) Naturally, I got around this by inputting a random year for my birthday — a move that would thwart any attempts at accessing my account as an adult. Over the years, I’d input my birthday month and day and click any random year, to no luck. A few weeks ago, I tried again and finally got in, allowing me to access my account after nearly a decade.
Things had changed since my last log-in. All of my pets — a Disco Kacheek, Starry Poogle, Apple Chia, and Darigan Scorchio — were dying, I had 26,609 Neopoints (the in-game currency) in my pocket and 769,215 more in the bank, but no way of getting more, as all of my favorite games no longer load. (Flash is now automatically disabled on Google Chrome, leaving Neopets a barren world.)
My profile looked drastically different, too. I clicked my username, which is, embarrassingly enough, baybee_dawl7, and found some now-broken code I wrote when I was 15, trying to change my profile’s font to Verdana. I had an underwater gallery that’s now empty. Along with a section highlighting my Neopets, I revisited my trophy box, which collected all my in-game accomplishments. I never had a ton of trophies: second place at a game called Mystery Pic and another called Cheat, others that everyone got for participating in events. But at least I’d earned the golden quill from publishing in The Neopian Times, I thought as I scrolled through.
The reality is that there wasn’t a Neopian Times trophy on my profile page, no golden quill in my trophy box. I immediately opened The Neopian Times and searched the archives for my username. Across the newspaper’s 872 issues, I had not been published — not the multi-part fan-fiction series, nor the dozens of news stories documenting the site’s history and ranting op-eds complaining about the changes. Instead, as I slowly remembered it, my experience with the Neopets’ in-world newspaper was my first taste of the unforgiving world of freelance writing.
Every Neopets player has their daily routine. Visit the massive omelette to get free food for your pets. Play a round of games to earn Neopoints. (My favorites: Meerca Chase, Destruct-O-Match, and Hasee Bounce.) Collect your bank interest. Test your luck at the Lab Ray.
Neopets had strict policies for what was acceptable; nothing about the real world, especially nothing about cell phones, computers, or social media
Submitting to The Neopian Times was one of mine. I collected ideas daily, making notes of community trends and additions to the site. I worked on drafts, polished stories, and copy-edited my own work. The Neopian Times, aside from an "editorial" section where players could ask staff questions, ran purely on spec work. (Spec work is when a publication asks for a completed draft before deciding or not if they’ll pay you, as opposed to pitching ideas and confirming future payment before sending a draft. Of course, as freelancers know, a contract doesn’t always mean you’ll get paid on-time or at all.) Hopefuls like myself would dutifully submit our work for each issue using a submission form on the website.
Articles were to be at minimum 1,000 words, with a maximum word count of 50,000 words. (Yes, 50,000.) Neopets had strict policies for what was acceptable; nothing about the real world, especially nothing about cell phones, computers, or social media. Dating was a definite no, as well as death and dying. You couldn’t write about corruption on the site — scams or frozen accounts, for instance — either. If wasn’t going to be published on The Neopian Times, it wouldn’t be published elsewhere. (The paper also published comics, too, submitted on the same page.) Following submissions, we would wait for a rejection or acceptance; unlike real-life freelancing, you always got a response.
Since then, I’ve learned I wasn’t alone in counting Neopets as my first freelancing experience. Multiple reporters, writers, and Neopets fans responded to a tweet I’d made recounting their experiences with The Neopian Times — some with a few clips for their efforts, others, like me, with no byline. Author Jordan Ifueko, whose debut novel Raybearer is forthcoming from Amulet Books, published an eight-part retelling of Pride and Prejudice starring Neopets. Historian Catherine Stiers wrote a list of reasons why pet rocks rock.
“I encouraged my mom to cut my 13th birthday trip short so I could go home to our desktop and finally log-in with all the privileges finally being 13 would bring,” Stiers told me over Twitter DM. “I thought of myself as a writer when I was that age. I wanted to be a novelist.” Stiers said she didn’t become a famous novelist like she thought she might, but she did graduate with a master’s degree in history. “Writing that article was a way of fostering my natural desire to do research,” she said.
I didn’t necessarily see my future as a freelance writer when I submitted draft after draft to The Neopian Times. (If anything, I would have much preferred to be a freelance marine biologist.) And yet, here we are. I’ve certainly found more success in actual freelance writing, but that one byline had remained out of reach for nearly two decades — until now. The paper was still publishing, I realized, and accepting new submissions. I kept asking myself: Did I want to spend time working on something dumb, at least 1,000 words, for a fake newspaper that definitely won’t pay me? A way to punctuate an extremely stupid joke that’s funny only to me? To risk that thing being unpublished and unpublishable elsewhere?
The answer to all those questions, though, was yes. Over the course of a few days I wrote a very earnest story detailing the best ways to make the most of late summer in Neopia, aptly titled “How to make the most of late summer in Neopia.” It was written as if Neopets is a real world location for you to visit, because, after all, it felt like that to me as a kid. I wrote about visiting the new worlds, one that’s sunken deep underwater and another that’s on a magical lake.
The best and worst part was that I could no longer see the maps of these places directly on site, because they’re Flash-based and automatically disabled in Google Chrome. Most of the website is drowning in Flash, all of which will become obsolete when Flash gets shut off in 2020. Because of this, Neopets is crumbling. (The Neopian Times will absolutely not cover this.) Jumpstart, the company that now owns Neopets, said last year that an HTML-5-friendly app would be released this summer, which could save the site. There’s been no word on that front recently. (Jumpstart did not reply to a request for comment.)
In 2017, Neopets PR told Kotaku that the website had 100,000 daily active users at the time. It’s unclear how many the website has now, but the website still publishes it’s issues near weekly. Ellie Sims, a St. Louis-based cartoonist, told me she’s published 65 comics in The Neopian Times, and she’s still submitting. Others have congregated to The Neopian Times Writers’ Forum, which is delightfully old school and reminiscent of the heyday of Neopets itself. On the forums, writers preview their upcoming work and ask for advice. They talk about grammar and structure, too, and has been active as recently as earlier today.
I submitted my story, the one about late summer in Neopia, to The Neopian Times on July 25. I read on the Writers’ Forum that I’d hear back from the editorial staff in about a week, with either an acceptance, rejection, or hold. After submitting, I logged into Neopets every day to check my mail, waiting for a response.
Finally, on August 1, I got the message:
By Aug. 5, the 873th issue of The Neopian Timeshad been published. It’s up on the site with little fanfare, my story presented exactly in the state as I had posted it into my submission. The story’s dek — the little blurb of information that tells what the story is about — is the note I left in a comment box for the editors, that there are three sections that needed to be formatted. (There is no formatting in the story.)
I won’t be paid for it. I probably won’t tweet it out. (OK, I absolutely will tweet it out.) Nobody will e-mail me, thanking me for introducing them to something new or reporting on a crucial issue. But what I do have now is a sparkling gold quill on my Neopets page — "Neopian Times CHAMPION!!!"
I’m absolutely adding it to my LinkedIn page.