Rat.org: the original fan repository returns
After a 20-year hiatus, Rat.org has returned, at least as a read-only museum. Few today may remember it, but for some fans it was their first furry Web repository, and a launching point or inspiration for many other sites.
Rat.org was founded by Kilorat in the ancient stone-age year of 1994 as a combination Sonic the Hedgehog and Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron fansite. Later a Gargoyles section would be added as it grew in popularity.
This was the first home for many artists and fanfic writers, launched before Windows 95 came out (most used Mac OS 7.5.x or Windows for Workgroups 3.11 to connect with dial-up), and before giants such as Yahoo!, GeoCities, deviantART, and Fanfiction.net took over.
The website was hosted on a humble 80386DX with a "gigantic" 500 MB hard drive co-located at MV Communications – the first ISP in New Hampshire, where Kilorat was working. Despite being one of the only sources for fan materials on the Internet [compare S'A'Alis' Avatar Archive], the server was able to handle the low levels of traffic of the day.
Fan interaction at the dawn of connectivity
Once Windows 95 and Microsoft Internet Explorer came out in mid-1995, the Internet began to see an explosive rise in use. Traffic began to increase and many other websites began popping up. Sonic HQ which is one of the largest Sonic the Hedgehog fansites and one that is still around to this day, traces its origins directly back to rat.org, having been inspired by it around 1996.
Aside from hosting artwork, the Sonic section was home to the first incarnation of The Knothole Library Archive (later The Mobian Central Library) by Serithina "Bookshire" Dratwood - a collection of Sonic fanfiction by herself and other authors. Swat Kats fansites such as FyreSight, The SWAT Kats Encyclopedia and The SWAT Kats Fan Fiction Archive also owe much of their existence to rat.org for spearheading that fandom on the Internet during its formative years.
Thanks to this new-found publicity, rat.org became the target of brief tension with SEGA, who were put-off by certain user submissions (notably Guppy's yiff art of Sonic and Tails) that would be among the earliest "Rule 34" on the Internet. An IRC channel on Eris Free Network (now EFNet), #Sonic, was formed so fans could chat in real time about the website and the fandoms it represented.
As 1996 arrived, Kilorat founded the furry-art-only Squeeky Clean Furry Archive, though that was always kept separate from the fan materials (at rat.org/furry, and later rat.org/yerf). This would later be handed over to furry artists Scotty Arsenault and Jedd Marten in 1998 and spun off as Yerf: the G-Rated Furry Archive, hosted at yerf.com. [The site went down a decade ago, but much of its content has been archived.]
The rat packs up and moves on
The good times would not last, however, as Kilorat gradually got bored of being a system administrator for a Sonic the Hedgehog fansite. With the Internet's growth bringing larger competitors, such as Team Artail (1996-2013), The Sonic Foundation (1998-2014), the previously-mentioned Sonic HQ (1996-Present) and Sonic Stadium (2000-Present), the audience beginning to fragment and the portions of website's fan directories were removed, starting with SWAT Kats in early 1997 and Sonic the Hedgehog in early 1998.
For a time, the site remained as more of a webpage about Mortal Kombat and the Squeeky Clean Furry Art Archive. It went offline in mid-1999, replaced with the words "Got Rats?"
For close to twenty years, rat.org's fan areas would be offline and inaccessible (returning as just a blank HTML page), with the home page resurfacing in 2006 as a basic page to display Kilorat's email address and LiveJournal, and a Half-Life 2 and later Team Fortress 2 server.
This changed in late 2016, however, when Kilorat re-launched his website and its fan portions (at least, the Sonic and SWAT Kats sections) from what backups he still had (the Gargoyles portions were lost in a hard drive failure; some parts are accessible via the Wayback Machine).
While, like the Yerf Archive, rat.org no longer accepts new submissions, at least for the time being, it exists as a fascinating time capsule from the distant, pre-commercial past of the Internet.
My thanks to Kilorat for his correspondence and permission for this story, and for filling me in on some forgotten information form the intervening years.