Culture

An Ode To Whirlpool: Australia’s Weirdest, Greatest Online Forum

God bless this confusing, messy, perfect site.

There’s a forum thread on whirlpool.net.au that begins with an irate post from someone who’s just spent god knows how long counting the number of tissues in a standard box.

“My partner was laughing at me for checking out tissues the other day,” the user writes. “Most tissues are now same size box, but only 95 tissues in them… and they use [sic] to be 224.” They proceed to vent at length about the betrayal (“we both use a lot of tissues for our eye drops as we have glaucoma and it soon adds up”), and wonder if there’s a way shoppers can alert each other of similar pricing travesties.

“I feel your pain,” another user writes in response. “Its [sic] costing me so much more to bat off these days.”

The ensuing thread lasts nearly a decade. Undeterred by the fact that inflation affects most tradeable goods, users have raged about everything from the dwindling size of toilet paper (“Feels like I’m wiping with a stamp-sized sheet. Maybe our arses are getting bigger?”), to allegations manufacturers are pumping ice cream full of air to cheat honest customers of their just desserts, to the supposed failure of Heinz baked beans to deliver “firmly textured, smaller tender beans cooked perfetto al dente in tomato sauce”.

This thread is at turns petty, dramatic, quasi-profound, actually profound, juvenile, hilarious, and intensely, unfathomably boring. It’s emblematic of what I’ve started to privately term “weird Whirlpool”: a site that has consumed hours, perhaps years of my life for no good reason I can place. The site has featured heated debates, weird questions and sanctimonious advice about nearly every topic under the sun, all with a distinctly Australian bent.

Extraordinarily, it was never meant to be this way. In fact, Whirlpool was never really meant to be a forum at all.

“Turbulent Waters In A Big Pond”

To understand where Whirlpool came from, we have to take a trip back to the beeping, blooping, deathly slow days of dial-up internet. Based on a hasty poll of the youngest members of our staff, readers of this site are probably the last generation for whom this sound triggers nostalgia and not bafflement; the quiet conclusion of the end of an era.

For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t remember, dial-up connected you to the internet via the phone line, pissing off anyone in the house who wanted to use the phone while you were surfing the ‘net. It was only in the late 1990s that internet service providers started to roll out consumer broadband services in Australia, beginning with Big Pond Cable in 1997.

Whirlpool was first launched by a guy called Simon Wright in 1998, at first as a list of useful links and news about broadband. In fact “BigPond” is, I shit you not, the inspiration for the name Whirlpool — it was meant to “represent turbulent waters in in a big pond, perhaps where all the relevant stuff gets sucked into a central vortex”, according to the site’s FAQ page circa 2002.

A screenshot from the Whirlpool FAQ

Brand recognition: who even needs it?

That 2002 FAQ yields many other treasures, by the way. This, for example, is how Whirlpool looked when it launched:

A screenshot of Whirlpool when it launched in 1998.

Gnarly outer glow, dude.

It’s got all the hallmarks of the late ’90s web: electric blue, drop shadow, outer glow, Internet Explorer running on Windows 98, and a creator proudly describing the version-by-version history of these “appealing visuals” as if they’re Renaissance art in the site’s extensive FAQ.

As it turns out, a site almost exclusively dedicated to news about the state of Australia’s internet connection was riveting to only a select group of people. As internet connections slowly improved, many of Whirlpool’s users began to demand open forums, where they could actually use their newfound broadband to discuss other things.

In 2001, they got their wish. Well, sort of — Wright stipulated that the new forums were to “discuss anything and everything related to broadband”. Rules, though, have always meant very little on internet forums. Almost immediately, users took to the site to bicker about whether smilies (low-res ancestors of the emoji) should be introduced, and if so which kind — a discussion that was thrown briefly into perspective when 9/11 happened in the middle of it.

There are no available archives of Whirlpool from that day, but here’s a look at the top forum topics just over a month later. As you’ll note, the broadband-discussion-only stipulation very quickly went out the window, in favour of threads like “‘Suck My Left Nut”, “Poll: Air Strikes In Afghanistan” and “RANT: Use language properly!”.

A screenshot of Whirlpool's Coffee Lounge from 2001

“Please explain…” seems to have the right idea.

Granted, this screenshot is from the Coffee Lounge, a specific part of the forum earmarked for non-broadband chatter. The other half of the site, the Broadband Lounge (earmarked for, you guessed it, discussing broadband), featured the slightly more on-topic threads “Am I Stealing Data?”, “How Stupid Are Whirlpool Readers?”, “Sorry, but I’m bored :)”, and “Is there a future for wired broadband ?”, which has aged hilariously given the current NBN clusterfuck.

A screenshot of Whirlpool forum topics from September 2001

The slightly more on-topic Broadband Lounge.

Whirlpool’s Coffee Lounge/Broadband Lounge division did not last long, largely because the Coffee Lounge was an unmitigated disaster. Without the guiding light of broadband-relevant topics to keep it on track, it was quickly overrun by, as a wry history on the current site puts it, “all manner of loonies who haunted this hallowed forum and turned it into a stinking cesspit of dross in no time flat”.

As a result, the Coffee Lounge was closed, and its members flocked briefly to the short-lived spinoff forum whingepool.net.au until it was overrun by pornographic spambots and abandoned. These days, Whirlpool’s only truly off-topic forum — the coveted Pool Room — is accessible only to members with high “aura”, which is obtained by sensibly and regularly contributing to the forum for at least a year. In all my years trawling Whirlpool, I have never been there.

A Relic Of A Messier Time

I’ve been trying to work out what’s so compelling about Whirlpool for a while now. The site blends uniquely Australian dilemmas (how to keep redback spiders out of ceiling fans; requests for help installing an extremely ill-advised padded beam above a swimming pool so as to duel one’s neighbours) with the more global mistake of single-threaded online forums, which don’t allow unpopular commenters to drop out of the picture as easily as on platforms like Reddit or Facebook.

The result is the ideal germinating environment for a very specific kind of entertaining content: throw a bunch of incredibly opinionated idiots a suitably polarising topic, in a discussion format where they can’t help but get enraged by each other’s opinions. It’s the same premise that has sustained reality TV for nearly two decades: lock personalities in a house/room/island and start beef.

Take, for example, a recent thread about dealing with coworkers who steal food (take note, whoever is eating all the Vita-Weats in the Junkee office). Very early on, someone suggests laying a trap by spiking food with laxatives to catch the culprit, and the thread escalates from there.

“A few years back at work some pizza was stolen, a bum was wiped with the remaining slice, remaining slice was then stolen, the word got around and there hasn’t been another theft since,” one user swears.

Unfortunately, on Whirlpool, even the assumption of human aversion to eating pubic hair on pizza is up for debate. Not to be outdone, another user charges in to let us know that “if somebody has a mind to steal food, they will not be unphased [sic] by pubic and beard hair. The thief, when encounters hair, will think: ‘Oh, hair !’, and then throws them away, and continue drinking without further thinking about it.”

A third user concurs. After all, “if you are willing to steal a workmate’s food from the fridge, then how far will you go?”, they write. Evidently, much farther if you are a Whirlpool user.

Money is another topic that often strikes gold here. One post, which simply requested “how to become rich?”, attracted the sage response: “the easiest way to become a millionaire is to follow Whirlpool advice”.

Meanwhile, a guy asking how much to spend on an engagement ring gets responses ranging from DIY instructions to create a $16,000 ring, to “ignore the ‘true romantics’ above, go all in and spend $35”. “Put it towards a deposit on a house,” another person advises. “Engagement ring is for now, property is for the future”.

As entertaining as these threads are, stripped of their context they’re just that: threads of something, failing to fully capture whatever it is about Whirlpool that keeps it nestled in my bookmarks after all these years. After all, you can find funny internet comments anywhere now. Whirlpool offers that and then something. There’s a reason this forum survives long after so many others from its era went fallow; that I and 13,499 members have logged on in the past 24 hours.

The internet has gentrified since I was a kid, but Whirlpool is still a big old relic of it.

For me, and I hope for others, it’s because Whirlpool sits in the shrinking overlap of a Venn diagram I treasure: the nostalgic old web and the distinctly Australian internet. I grew up on an internet you could see the bones of, building and traversing sites coded from scratch in Notepad (with conspicuously copied-and-pasted chunks of code from whatever other site looked nice at the time). People owned the sites more in every way back then — they didn’t have audiences so much as communities of people who stumbled across a niche they loved and expanded it.

Traversing this internet as an Australian was always a little disjointed: online autumn always arrived when spring was beginning outside, and I subsequently spent hours of childhood summers stuck indoors updating my blog with a winter-themed layout. It was always particularly special, then, to stumble across a site where the seasons aligned and the cultural references made sense, with a community that logged on when you did instead of while you slept.

The internet has gentrified since I was a kid, but Whirlpool is still a big old relic of it. The site still doesn’t run banner ads, which makes logging on feel like stepping out of time for a moment. It harks back to the internet as a great blue expanse, where scraping the surface yielded odd delight and sincere weirdness, but only after some hunting. Finding weird shit on Whirlpool still feels like finding a cool new blog before social media existed; like winning some coveted, exclusive lottery.

BigPond has since long since dried up; it became Telstra, which slowly transitioned its products to Telstra-esque names, ditching the pond metaphor for good. Whirlpool lives on though. I hope it always does.

Sam Langford is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @_slangers.