Nexopia is one of the few social networks where a young girl still has to write, “I won’t get naked on webcam” on her profile. Girls are accustomed to inboxes full of requests to meet or swap pictures with boys and adult men. Other profiles boast come-hither urgings, like “MESSAGE ME ;).” Here, strangers are friends you don’t know yet.
Although the social network lost members to Facebook in 2009, the Edmonton-based site is experiencing a resurgence in Western Canada. That small but dedicated core audience is due in part to the fact that its users can be anonymous. The site’s slogan says it all: “Because your mom’s on Facebook.”
While a social network like Facebook aims to offer privacy, Nexopia has no such concerns. “Talking to strangers online is a big part of Nexopia,” says 16-year-old Jayden Burnett from Prince George, B.C. “It’s kind of like a gathering of people for a party.”
Real names and ages aren’t necessary. There are no restrictions on who you can talk to, and the site offers forums for conversation with strangers. Profiles can be customized with fonts, colours and pictures. To Burnett, Facebook is “boring,” with its basic blue-and-white colour scheme and no design flexibility.
As when it started, Nexopia is flying under the parental radar. At its peak, between 2004 and 2008, parents and police were acutely aware of the dangers it posed. Alberta police began working closely with site administrators to weed out predators. In May, a 28-year-old Edmonton man was sentenced to 9½ years in prison after meeting two underage girls on Nexopia, a 13-year-old in 2007 and a 12-year-old in 2008, and arranging to meet them for sex. He took pictures in both instances, and even a video in one case, which he had on his BlackBerry and laptop.
Nexopia was started by Timo Ewalds, an 18-year-old high-schooler living with his parents in Edmonton. It launched a year before Facebook as the country’s first national social network in 2003. In its heyday, it was massively popular among junior high and high school students in Western Canada, where it became an extension of school: they could go online to hang out with friends, bully, be bullied and flirt. Ewalds, who started the company “just for fun,” sold it in 2008. He now works as a programmer for Spotify, a digital music service, in New York.
The site maintains a small but faithful hub of teenage users in Alberta and British Columbia who use it for the same reasons they did in 2004: chat, tease, romance, connect. In July, Nexopia posted a job for a Toronto manager to handle the site, its first expansion east of Alberta. The site has changed hands several times since Ewalds sold it; he doesn’t know who owns it now, either. The website offers no names or contact information, and interview requests sent to moderators and other staff members who were tracked down online were not returned.
Facebook may be king, but the less popular site offers its own kind of privacy. “Teens are able to do whatever they want without being monitored,” says 16-year-old Shania Blanchette from central Alberta. “You do see boys and girls, mostly girls, dressed skimpier to attract older guys.”
For Burnett, it’s about having a place to be himself away from his parents. “I use Nexopia to talk to people and share a bit of my life story,” he says. “I’m just shy of what (my parents) would say if they read about me.”
Like any site, the risk of predators remains. “There are a lot of older men that I do receive messages from,” Blanchette says. “There’s a lot of pervs out there who do send nude photos as conversation starters.” Older men approach Blanchette and other girls with offers to pay the $5 a month fee for a “plus” membership—an add-on that allows users to customize more of their profile and upload more pictures—in exchange for nude photos.
Nexopia is a catalogue of teen styles. Blanchette’s is goth chic, with self-portraits in heavy eyeliner. She’s young, but savvy, like many girls her age who grew up with the Internet. The first thing on her profile? “IM NOT INTERESTED IN SEEING YOUR WIENERS.”