Escape Reality

I joined IMVU during quarantine and found the fever dream of the 2000s still very much alive

With the world under lockdown thanks to COVID-19, the 16-year-old avatar social network is having a bit of a moment again.

Welcome to the year 2004. Mean Girls just made its box office debut, Usher leads the Top 100, and every girl (except you) owns a pink velour sweatsuit with a rhinestone ‘Juicy’ stamped on the ass. We’re entering peak gauche as a culture and, individually, pushing the limits of our personalities to plug the coolest version of ourselves the accessories will allow.

Not in the real world, though, our mothers would never let us leave the house like that. No, instead the tweens are armed with the freedom of the internet — where the hoops are huge, the jeans are lowest-rise, and our boobs are as big as the pixels will allow.

Soon we’ll be testing out our most daring looks on DollzMania and marketing our personal brands on Myspace. But we’re not quite there yet.

In 2004, AIM was still our main social network and chatrooms were our proving ground; it was the Wild West and most of us were lying about our age to be there.

It’s into this market that IMVU made its debut — and it couldn’t have fit in better.

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The "avatar-based 3D social network" launched in 2004 and was exactly what it sounded like. Users could create 3D avatars in their own likeness or of an entirely new persona (or fursona), and meet up with friends and strangers in chatrooms of every imaginable design.

And apparently, nearly two decades on, it's still going strong.

Today you can kick it in a pastel pink lounge where the only rule is to keep it chill, or dance it up in a blacked-out virtual club. You can sip virtual cocktails on the virtual beach or host an exclusive penthouse party. Careful where you sit though; some spots are designated for making out. If you’re looking for something a little more hardcore, there’s a thriving community of XXX users who host private sex rooms.

It's over the top, a little tacky, and in the chatrooms there are no holds barred. In essence, it's everything the early 2000s stood for.

Like other fads of the time period, though, it's fizzled almost completely out of the public eye, becoming more of an underground gathering space for teens and holdouts from the early days. Most people have no idea it's still around, if they even knew what it was to begin with.

So you can imagine my surprise when this year, back in March, IMVU slipped into casual conversation.

200%

The spike in new user sign-ups IMVU recorded at the end of winter, during the height of COVID-19.

IMVU, March 2020

As it turns out, social distancing brought on by COVID-19 outbreaks all over the world had people flocking back to the site.

"My friends in the group chat want to have a meetup in IMVU," my boyfriend told me one day out of the blue, before sharing some pictures of the avatar he'd been working on.

At the time, words like quarantine and pandemic were just beginning to feel serious in the United States, and while maybe a bit random, the pull of a platform like IMVU made complete sense.

It was ridiculous, like a flashback to another time — so naturally, I had to join.

75%

The rise in daily active users IMVU recorded during the pandemic.

IMVU, March 2020

The site has undoubtedly seen a lot of improvements in the years since its launch. Virtual settings now look more or less realistic and avatars are no longer awkward and clunky. It's even got an Instagram clone baked into the feed.

But in many ways, it's still reminiscent of the time it was born into.

When it glitches it really glitches. It isn't uncommon to find avatars sitting inside a couch instead of atop it, or for arms and legs to pass right through another avatar's body.

Some avatars may be tiny while others in the same room are massive, making every space somewhat of a free-for-all.

The chats themselves feel like the internet of the oughts. In some, you're immediately smacked with strings of curses and racial slurs — cleary children testing out forbidden behaviors. Or you'll be hit on aggressively, and what counts as flirtation is often just a crude sexual remark.

I half expected to see "a/s/l?" every time I signed on.

There's something there for everyone, you just have to find your way into the right spaces. But, doing so isn't always easy.

“It's almost impossible to make new friends with the new IMVU.”

Most of the veteran users I spoke to said they'd been on and off the site over the last decade, each time coming back to significant changes. The desktop app, for example, now largely mirrors the design of the mobile app, which some find to be inaccessible. And like any social space dominated by teens, there are cliques.

Longtime users still keep coming back though, even as new users crowd the rooms. Both groups seem to agree that there's simply no other place like it. Where sites like Second Life (which is also booming again thanks to the pandemic) allow for more open-world play, IMVU at its heart is still a labyrinth of chatrooms.

The company is being unselfish with the renewed interest it’s seen in the wake of the pandemic. IMVU recently launched a charitable effort, Fashion for a Cause, during which it sold limited edition loungewear sets and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to the UN Foundation’s COVID19 Solidarity Response Fund for WHO.

It's now in the midst of prom season, giving quarantined users a chance to look their virtual best with physical proms off the table this year.

100K

IMVU says it raised $100,212 toward COVID-19 relief.

IMVU

It's safe to guess that many of the newcomers who signed up for IMVU during quarantine will trickle out as life starts back up again, myself among them.

But for some new users — along with those who have been there all along — IMVU will always be the go-to place to get weird and forget the real world for a little while.

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