Words: Feet Banks
Long before Facebook, MySpace or Tinder, snowboarders around the globe were uploading profile pics, talking trash, and hooking up on their very own social network.
It sounds laughable now, but at the time it was big news—a world event with the potential to drastically affect every aspect of human civilization. Newscasts spent hours dragging expert after expert in to dissect every angle and debate every possibility. It even had a sinister-yet-futuristic name: Y2K.
It was all bullshit of course. Little (if anything) happened when the clocks rolled over at 12:01am on January 1, 2000. Traffic lights stayed on, bank accounts were secure, dentist appointments remained on the digital books, and everyone who had feared the worst when all the computers in the world rolled their date logs from to 99 to 00 woke up a little disappointed. Nothing had happened.
Or so it seemed. In fact, the new millennium would soon usher in a technology that would indeed drastically affect human civilization—social media was looming on the horizon, ready to wrap its tendrils of connectivity around anyone with a modem and some time to kill. And here in the mountains, our first taste of it came via snowboard.com.
Owned by Whistler snowboarder Rick Godwin, snowboard.com was an online community of snowboarders who could create profiles, instant message chat with each other, upload pics and videos of riding, meet “friends,” set up dates, arrange rides, find places to stay and keep in touch with others stoked to shred. No skiers allowed.
“I wanted to create a cool place for snowboarders to go and get psyched about snowboarding,” Godwin told Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine in an April 2001 story. “There are not a lot of places out there to meet up with other members of the snowboard community—most of the sites are either stores or news sites, while this is based on the riders themselves. There isn’t another site out there like it.”
At the time, snowboarding was the hottest winter sport on the planet (and had just been “allowed” in the 1998 Winter Olympics) but for core riders, the years of discrimination and ridicule by the ski industry were still fresh in their minds. Having their own place to go and get psyched was a welcome concept.
Snowboard.com launched in November 2000 (over three years before Facebook launched to Harvard students). Within five months it had 80,000 members. Two years later, that number was north of half a million, then a million. And then, almost overnight, the bubble burst. Mountain Life tracked down some of the site’s creators and biggest fans to find out what happened.
Kyle Treleaven grew up in Whistler and was snowboard.com’s fourth employee.
Kyle: I saw a photo of my buddy on the internet doing something highly inappropriate and thought, “what the hell is this?” The next day Rick was over for dinner because his girlfriend was a nurse who worked with my mom. He was talking about snowboard.com and I was like, “no way, I ended up on it yesterday.” That’s how I became employee number four—I guess the job title today would be “community manager.” I was doing marketing, trying to get the industry involved, create content, and solicit feedback on what working and what wasn’t. I was 18 years old.”
Adam Arsenault was snowboard.com’s original programmer.
Adam: I got the job as a co-op student from the University of Victoria. That was 1999 and I would have been 21. I remember the job posting was popular, a lot of applications but I think I got it because I had so much ski, snowboard and skate history. I had the culture.
Joe Barnett was the other co-op student hired to build snowboard.com.
Joe: Like most start-ups, we all had a lot of stuff to do. I was front-end developer, graphic designer and the computer and server hardware guy. We’d buy our servers off eBay, no real idea what condition they were in, and I had to figure out how to connect them. All the servers were just in Rick’s house back then.
Rick Godwin conceived and owned snowboard.com.
Rick: We had to heat the cabin exclusively with the wood-burning stove because the servers drew so much power that the main breaker for the cabin would trip if we tried to use the electric baseboards. The heat from the servers themselves also acted like a furnace for the cabin. My tech background was more in infrastructure and management, but I came up with the idea for snowboard.com based on what I knew I couldn’t do with a traditional publication because of overhead costs and competition with all the other magazines. I wanted something where you could interact and upload pics, where the community created the content, but I couldn’t find any prewritten code to upload an image.
Adam: Rick was way ahead in that respect, he could really see the future and had a vision of how technology was changing and how people would use it. He owned a ton of domain names.
“We had to heat the cabin exclusively with the wood-burning stove because the servers drew so much power that the main breaker for the cabin would trip if we tried to use the electric baseboards.”
Joe: Rick talked Telus into installing the largest residential internet connection in Canada into his place, an A-frame he rented in Emerald Estates.
Rick: That was the year 2000. I got a fibre optic “T-1 line” which at the time was an insanely huge internet connection and cost $5,000 a month. A T-1 line is 1.5Mbps. Ninteen years later, I have a 300Mbps connection for $90 per month.
Dano Pendygrasse was already a top snowboard photographer by the end of 1999. He’d later write a book Out West: Snowboarding, Westbeach, and a New Canadian Dream, generally accepted as the definitive history of Canadian snowboarding.
Dano: I was an early adopter, probably in the first 100 people. It was way ahead of the curve with sharing photos quickly. You could share photos that you’d shot very recently. It was insular, and self-protective—if someone came on that was a skier trying to be cool we’d be like, “this isn’t the place for you.” It was an extension of the culture, and snowboard culture was always progressive. The whole thing felt like it was ten years ahead. For the next decade some new platform or idea would come out and we’d say, “oh that’s like snowboard.com.”
Adam: It was an interesting thing to build, an exploration process. I was trying to build things on the web that we now use every day. We had chat functionality like MSN messenger, notifications, photos, videos, direct messaging and email.
Kyle: We’d sit around brainstorming new features or concepts for the site. Then Adam would have to make them a reality. Back then there wasn’t really any other examples to pull from so we’d have to figure out how to build everything. Adam would often say, “I don’t know if that’s possible.” Then he’d find a way to make it happen. We had a feature where you could see who had viewed your profile, that was a huge thing that everyone was into. I remember LinkedIn did that like seven years later and I thought, “finally figured that out, eh?”
Joe: Being able to see who had viewed your profile was a big deal. I think paid members were able to go dark, and pros.
Kyle: Stealth mode wasn’t limited to pros, anyone could do it but you had to know how. So, then it became that if someone showed you that they were checking out your profile; that meant something.
Greg Weins was a snowboarder living in Vancouver when he got the job as Snowboard.com’s first salesperson.
Greg: At the time, it was not easy to sell online media. It was right after the dotcom crash—the dotcom millionaires agreed the internet was the next media platform but no one could figure out how to monetize it. They were trying to replicate print. I remember being at the Vegas trade show and Rick had pissed off some nerds or something and they were bombing the site, giving us a hard time and causing problems with the servers. Rick and I were there in Vegas with printouts of what the website looked like so we could show people.
Rick: It wasn’t me pissing off nerds. Snowboard.com became the lab rat for a Russian university hacking course. Hacking is an official career in Russia. They posted their course material online, with a few days’ delay, in Russian, and we could follow along (translating it to English) about all the various techniques and methods of how one should go about hacking a social networking (although that wasn’t a word at the time) website. At one point they managed to corrupt our database and we had to resort to restoring from backups, which caused the site to lose a few weeks of content activity.
Chantal Limoges was a snowboard fanatic living in Calgary who joined Snowboard.com in the early days and used it religiously right to the end.
Chantal: There was a contest with an opportunity to win a trip to Whistler for the World Ski & Snowboard Festival. I entered every day because I was on Snowboard.com every day. It was a serious addiction. I had just come back from a trip to Whistler during my university reading week and I got an email from [email protected] saying I won the trip! I couldn’t believe it. I snuck back to Whistler in between my final exams. Came home, wrote my last exam and moved to Whistler to live on my best friends couch for two weeks. I’ve been here ever since.
“There were definitely people on snowboard.com, men and women, looking for something more than snowboarding. We were all dumb, young, and full of…enthusiasm.”
Joe: Moderation was a big thing—a rival website could come bomb the site with dirty pics that a sponsor or someone might see and it’s hard to manage when you have a small team. At one point I ended up building a multi window video chat, there were four webcam windows and they were first come first serve. It was a moderator’s nightmare—we saw so many dicks on there.
By April 2003, snowboard.com had over 438,000 members and was on its third design overhaul.
Kyle: And then it blew up. I used to have to delete thousands of profiles that were on there just for dating, lots of bikini pics. If they didn’t have any snowboarding content we would shuffle them over to a generic site.
Pete Anderson was a professional snowboarder, writer, filmmaker, and a member of the legendary Wildcats crew.
Pete: Like any user-generated platform it goes where the user wants it to go. If you wanted to post photos, you could. Connect with riders in California? Sure. If you were looking for a date… it was a well-stocked pond, let’s say that. There were definitely people on snowboard.com, men and women, looking for something more than snowboarding. We were all dumb, young and full of… enthusiasm.
Rusty Ockenden is a professional snowboarder now, but in the heyday of snowboard.com he was just a kid who loved snowboarding.
Rusty: It was a dating site. I was probably about 14 years old and I remember going on there to look for hot chicks. My buddy Donny Ellis was a pro rider and he lived with Adam from snowboard.com so he got me on there. I ended up crashing with them when I came to Whistler for the summer. I was just a kid who liked snowboarding. I’d put any snowboard pics up on my profile, not even pics of me just stuff I had found. It was way ahead of its time, if it had been about anything other than snowboarding those guys would probably all be billionaires now.
Leanne Pelosi was a promising young snowboarder living in Calgary in the early 2000s.
Leanne: I never used it to get laid. Maybe… but I don’t think I was using it for that. It was just an underground community of snowboarders connecting with each other. I used it to befriend the Skids crew, Kevin Sansalone and Jeff Keenan, but I’d met them before at the Camp of Champs—that was like another Tinder.
Dano: I know people who met on snowboard.com and are now married with kids.
Colin Whyte is a writer and is the exact person Dano is talking about.
Colin: I met my wife, Livi, on snowboard.com. A lot of my friends on there were friends with her, including Dano, and there weren’t that many of us on there who weren’t 15. A love of snowboarding is a deeper thing to have in common than some stupid band or celebrity and, in my view, people who’ve been riding since the earlier days of the sport tend to have something kindred-spirity about them (Mambosoks notwithstanding). Plus, she was hot and smart and a rad artist. It was a really great community for a minute there—especially for introverts like me and Livi.
Leanne: My claim to fame is I actually turned pro from being on snowboard.com. I’d posted this video of my riding and one day I got a message from Bobby Meeks from K2 saying, “Do you want to ride for K2?” I didn’t believe it was the real Bobby Meeks but the next thing you know I got a package with two new snowboards and a K2 contract in between. I was in school at the time, but I dropped out and moved to Whistler and forgot about my future career in bioengineering. I found my roommates on snowboard.com too.
Ming Kao was a young snowboarder and clothing designer living in Whistler with Leanne and Suzie Davis, another pro snowboarder.
Ming: It was how we communicated. My roommates, Leanne and Suzie didn’t get along so we’d come home from riding and get on snowboard.com and talk to each other. I’d be talking to both of them at the same time and they’d be talking shit about each other, but we would literally all be sitting on the same couch talking to and about each other without saying a word. It was the first “zoning out” on social media.
Dano: It allowed that second or third generation of snowboarders to connect in a more modern way than going to contests or tradeshows. Snowboarding culture has always been progressive.
Early on, professionals in the snowboard industry found ways to utilize this new community of like-minded shredders to do more than share pics and stoke. Digital video was a game-changer.
Adam: Digital video at the time was hard to create—phones weren’t good enough so you had to use video cameras. We were ahead of our time for file sizes but we needed fast, durable hard drives because we were hosting everything ourselves. Eventually, we used Amazon for hosting and moved to the cloud—cheaper and easier.
Pete: I was a horrendous snowboarder but I understood media and how media translated into value for me with certain brands. Snowboard.com was a spot where you had 100 per cent control over how you were represented, we could shape our own brands. It was the beginning of content creation. Everyone had to create content to go on there—a bio, photos, videos, even shit-talking is generating content. That was a tipping point for snowboarding media, everyone’s voice could be heard. I started shooting and editing two-minute
video clips and my sponsors loved it. Some pros understood it better than others—Sansalone was one who understood the whole game, and how much exposure you could get.
Kevin Sansalone was a professional snowboarder and filmmaker.
Kevin: We used it to promote film premiers in other towns. We’d show up in Banff and the snowboard.com members there would have tons of people come out, and lots of girls. Whistler was a sausage party and suddenly we were getting all these girls coming to premiers. We joked that it should have been a dating site, but it was everything—social media, chatrooms, dating, promotion. People were using it for ridesharing to the hill, or finding places to stay—like Airbnb but just crashing on couches for free.
Dano: It started out as just a bunch of our friends but then it broadened the scope of snowboarding in ways I couldn’t imagine. I remember planning a trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula and I was on snowboard.com talking to a girl in Russia who was giving us hints on how to put the trip together. This was before Google, when information was one-on-one, so it felt really DIY and punk rock, digging for info from regular snowboarders on the other side of the world.
Dave Birnie was the marketing manager for Timebomb Trading.
Dave: Once one guy was on it, everyone was. That was how we communicated. You’d get into the office, turn your stuff on and go to snowboard.com. See who looked at your profile. It was addictive—the bad parts of social media were already there.
Colin: At one point I was genuinely addicted to snowboard.com. I would wake up and check my page/messages—whatever it was called before the term ‘feed”—and go down the rabbit hole for hours. At one point, Dano came to the city and gave me shit and told me to get off the computer and get back to my roots and actually go snowboarding. Maybe he saved me from becoming a social media victim before Facebook and Instagram turned the whole world into victims. Thanks, Dano!
Kyle: Some industry brands understood it right away. They would pay for connections or content or to have their riders featured or host events with us. Endeavour Snowboards was a company that totally got the tech, they created vlogs, mini-series shot on Nokia phones, they made a ton of content. At the same time, we were getting traffic and selling banner ads and campaigns.
“You’d get into the office, turn your stuff on and go to snowboard.com. See who looked at your profile. It was addictive—the bad parts of social media were already there.”
Adam: I think that was our biggest struggle. Being accepted by the snowboard brands.
Rick: The snowboard industry was never interested. You would think they’d return our calls—their own pros were begging them to talk to us, but they never did. Our revenue came from third-party brands that wanted to be associated with snowboarding, not from the industry itself.
Kyle: There was money coming in, I had a credit card to just go have fun. Driving around in a big branded F-350. It was awesome—pull into a parking lot at any resort and there’d be a flood of people around us, all stoked.
Dave: I know we bought some banner ads on there but it was so long ago that no one looked at it as a media site. Brands saw it as shit-talking and hitting on girls and they didn’t know how to make money on that. Once they started doing pro interviews that changed a bit, but it was still hard.
Kevin: Snowboard.com was our outlet, teaching us about digital and putting stuff online. And they were as authentic as any brand. They gave back to the community and you’d see them on the hill. As they expanded, they moved out of the house and into an office space in Function Junction (Whistler’s industrial park). I remember seeing all these desks, it felt like there were 50 people in there. Like, whoa, these guys are getting ready for a takeover.
By 2007, snowboard.com had over a million members but other non-niche social media sites were beginning to lure users away. Add in a global economic meltdown and it made for difficult times.
Rick: As the other social media sites came online we came up with “colonies” which were still organized by your interests—skateboarding, mountain biking, tattoos, snowmobiling, whatever—but you wouldn’t have to create a separate account to go from community to community. I still think that is the way to go.
Joe: When everyone from Friendster migrated to MySpace, we wanted to be the next destination. Our goal was to get everyone. When Facebook introduced the news feed we were impressed—to program that is tough, it has to aggregate info from all these other places. Adam got that up pretty quick though. But it all takes funding.
Rick: When Facebook came out it was obvious they understood social media and were adapting quickly. At the same time, I was looking for capital—it was go big or go home. We knew we had to move quickly or get overtaken. I had two deals for a couple million bucks on the line at the same time. And they fell apart at the eleventh hour. It’s time consuming to chase capital and run a company, I was stretched pretty thin.
Adam: We saw Facebook come out and recognized them as a bigtime competitor. We were trying to get investment and were growing quickly at the same time. I think part of the challenge was being based in Whistler. Them being in Silicone Valley was a huge advantage.
Leanne: They were local. I remember being like, “Oh my god there’s Adam from snowboard.com!” He was the coolest. They used to sponsor events and it was always such good vibes. They had the keys to the culture of snowboarding at the time. I wish it could come back.
Chantal: It started petering out and I think people navigated away to new and different things, connecting with friends outside the snowboard community. I remember thinking Facebook was stupid. I used my snowboard.com email right until it stopped working.
Ming: I remember trolling and bullying—just stupid comments. You had to be a snowboarder to be on there, that was the downfall of it. But it didn’t collect our information for political or economic gain either. It was innocent.
Kyle: It felt like an overnight thing, but actually it was a slow death over six months. We grew too fast with not the right leadership in place. I had a team of community managers reporting to me, but I didn’t really know how to manage a team that big. I had no training or mentor, plus if it puked snow we were all on the mountain and nothing would get done. That isn’t always good for business.
“I didn’t really know how to manage a team that big. I had no training or mentor, plus if it puked snow we were all on the mountain and nothing would get done. That isn’t always good for business.”
Joe: It grew quickly and then the funding ran out. We kept feeling like we were about to get funding, we hired a lot of people, but it never happened.
Kyle: As we grew, the chemistry got lost in the mix. People had different ideas with where we should go, and they felt entitled due to how they were hired. At one point some people walked away and took a bunch of code with them. Suddenly we had key functionality missing. Imagine if you couldn’t post a comment or a photo on Facebook tomorrow. How long would you stay with it?
Rick: There was one person who did an incredible amount of damage to the company and to this day I haven’t really talked about it with any of the original team or anyone.
Dano: Once there is no traffic, it’s like going to a party and you don’t want to be the last one to leave. When the lights turned off, it turned off.
Kyle: It’s hard for three people to do what 36 people were doing. The last day, it was just Rick and I sitting in this empty office saying, “Well I guess this is it.”
Rick: I’m proud that we could bring all these snowboarders with a shared passion together. That we helped on-ramp all these new people into the sport and gave them a chance to dip their toes into the culture. If you have a passion you want to share it, and there’s a tremendous positive energy there.
Ming: In those days we all ate, slept and lived snowboarding—you could go on there and it was a fourth dimension. Social media isn’t fun anymore. Snowboard.com was fun.
Rusty: They paved the way, but the second mouse gets the cheese, right?