Gather round, Generation Z, and take heed: There was a time when the internet was still the World Wide Web (or, to some, “America Online”). Before Youtube, Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia formed the Mount Rushmore of the digital age, we searched for information with something called an “Alta Vista,” and we got our sports news from the “Go.com” family of sites.
Today I share with you a tale from this forgotten era. This is a story from the Internet Graveyard. This is the story of JustATip.com.
I’ll be the first to admit that my generation was initially primitive when it came to navigating the information superhighway. So, anything remotely clever or more sophisticated-looking than a Geocities homepage became an overnight sensation. One such sensation was JustATip.com.
I first became aware of Just-a-tip as a senior in college. In a nutshell, the site allowed you to create precisely-tailored (yet prefabricated) “advice” for anyone with an e-mail address while you yourself remained safely anonymous. This could be done in the form of a compliment or a criticism. The combination of utility, comedy, and cowardice was instantly appealing.
This is roughly how it worked: A user selected a particular characteristic or habit about a person, good or bad. Horrible breath. Beautiful eyes. Incompetence at athletics. Great sense of humor. Unconvincing toupee. Users could then choose from a series of applicable or inapplicable qualities associated with this person’s feature. Upon doing so, the user then input the target’s e-mail address, and—presto—the recipient would be startled to receive an unexpected e-mail directing them to go to a special link with a summary of their flaw / strength just as soon as they dialed up to their local ISP.
Was it cruel? Sure. Was it funny? The two are not mutually-exclusive.
Examples: If you had a crush on someone you didn’t have the guts to ask out. If you hated some guy who would most definitely kick your ass were you ever to square up in real life. If you thought a friend of yours needed to be made aware of something, but you didn’t want to damage the friendship by telling him.
Here’s what a typical message on the other side of the link connected to a JustATip.com e-mail would look like:
Someone has asked us to tell you that there is a problem with your underwear. Please do not be offended. Just a Tip is only trying to help.
Here is what the person sending this tip said about an undergarment you wear:
– The problem is with your panties.
– It is white.
– The problem is that it’s too large.
Most people never see your underwear. You should be thankful for this, because those who have seen your it think it unfashionable in various disturbing ways. Your underthings should be tools of seduction that enhance your image, not tawdry displays that distract others from how you appear. You may wish to consult a fashion magazine or purchase underwear that resembles more closely what those around you wear. If you do so, seeing you undress will be a delight rather than a horror.
My own personal use of this site as something other than an amused bystander didn’t occur until my first year of law school. I was 22 years old. I had the misfortune of taking civil procedure from a woefully-inadequate visiting professor who provided me with the worst academic experience of any professor I had in my otherwise-happy time earning my JD.
I’ll put aside her issues for the moment (many of which didn’t become apparent until I realized later just how much vital information she had not taught us). Suffice it to say that she was both an ineffective teacher from a technical perspective as well as someone who had poor personal skills when it came to interacting with students. One of the two is bad. Both is a death sentence.
Feeling that my class’ burdening her with the worst teacher evaluations of any visiting professor in the history of the institution wasn’t quite enough, I took it upon myself to craft a meticulous tip courtesy of JustATip.com. I can’t recall the particulars a decade later, but I do remember that there were comments specific to poor teaching skills. I checked nearly all those boxes.
Although I have no way of knowing what her reaction was to receiving this information (or whether she even read it at all), I do know that, even at the time, I felt a little guilty about it. Not because I shared a negative opinion with her, but, rather, because I did so without having the guts to take ownership of it. Had this happened when I were 25 or 28, I would have simply crafted a carefully-worded e-mail.
The end of her story was that she was quickly sent packing at the end of the year. The end of the JustATip.com story is that the young men who ran it, who were about the same age I was/am, decided that balancing schoolwork with the site was too much of a time commitment. The site was quietly sold to an internet marketing company called Traffix. Once word got out that Traffix was selling the e-mail addresses sent to the site (which, remember, were not submitted by the owners of those addresses), JustATip.com quickly went south.
As a sidebar to this story, one of the original JustATip.com creators was also an intern or campaign staffer for Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. Had it not been for the time he had to commit to JustATip.com, perhaps Gore would have garnered the handful of votes he needed to carry Florida. In a way, then, JustATip.com may have played a secretly-pivotal role in American history. I guess we’ll never know.
What I do know is that, like so many late 90’s / early 2000’s websites, JustATip.com was fun while it lasted, but the world is probably better off without it.
Rest in peace, JustATip.com.