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Infiltrating Makeup Alley, the Internet’s Most Secretive Community of Beauty Obsessives

The first rule of Makeup Alley? You do not talk about Makeup Alley.

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The first rule of Makeup Alley is you do not talk about Makeup Alley, and I broke that rule, disastrously. I've lurked on Makeup Alley, the premier website for beauty addicts to review and discuss products, for the better part of a decade, starting when I was an acne-smattered high school student with stretch marks on my stomach. Makeup Alley, it seemed, held the key to my becoming a more beautiful person, if I was willing to pony up for the products users raved about.

I found some small miracles as a result of cross-referencing the site during every beauty run I made — Mario Badescu Drying Lotion really does treat zits the way celebrities say it does, Band-Aid Blister Block is a genius chafing solution on brutal summer days. That's part of the mad genius of Makeup Alley: No matter how much stuff you have, you'll keep coming back to the site to learn about the latest and greatest so you can buy even more.

I'm still the same product hoarder I was back in high school, but most everything else has changed. Makeup Alley, founded in 1999, is one of the only remaining vestiges of the old-school beauty internet, having existed well before British teens on YouTube ruled the tutorial world (in fact, Makeup Alley predates YouTube by six whole years) and famous bloggers shilled products for cash via sponsored posts. Gone now are the days of LiveJournals, Yahoo Groups, and Internet Relay Chats devoted to the minutiae of makeup and skincare brands.

Despite the evolution of the beauty industry, Makeup Alley continues to hum along as it always did thanks to an intensely close-knit group of users. Even if you're not a Makeup Alley poster or lurker, you're likely still a part of its far-flung network: Makeup Alley's SEO is so crazy-good that its review pages are often among the top results when you Google beauty products. Go ahead, try it.

Hara Glick and Elky Mart founded Makeup Alley as a place to host product reviews and beauty forums in February 1999. Glick is still the president of Makeup Alley, and Mart, who wrote the site's original code, was actively involved from launch day until 2005, though he has maintained a relationship with the site ever since. Michal Mart, Elky's sister, is Makeup Alley's product manager tasked with executing the site's development plan.

In 2000, Makeup Alley was acquired by and remained under its purview for a brief period of time; after acquired, Makeup Alley severed ties and became independent once again in 2001. Even with small design refreshes throughout the years, the site still has an early internet feel, much like message board behemoth Reddit (which happens to be 10 years old, to Makeup Alley's 16). According to ComScore, the site had 704,000 unique visitors in June; the audience is overwhelmingly female.

In its initial iteration, Makeup Alley featured a product review section (at that time called ProductVille) and three message boards for discussion: a support board, a beauty board, and a non-beauty board. Makeup Alley is probably best known to outsiders for its product reviews, but the world of the Makeup Alley boards is far more compelling. Today, 23 boards exist, dedicated to a range of beauty and lifestyle topics. The most active board by far is the Cafe Board, a descendant of proto-Makeup Alley's non-beauty board. It's not uncommon for an average of 25,000 messages to be posted to the Cafe Board in a matter of just 24 hours.

I never had the guts to post on a public Makeup Alley board until a few weeks ago. In order to find OG Makeup Alley users (or MUAers, colloquially) to interview for this story, I posted to the Cafe Board asking if anyone would like to talk with me. This did not go over well. I was met with responses ranging from "FURST [sic] RULE, CLAIRE. FURST RULE" (referring, of course, to the first rule of Makeup Alley -- you don't talk about Makeup Alley) to "Flee while you can, mortal" to "Can we keel [sic] her?" to "Michali gone get you" (Michali is Michal Mart, who also acts as moderator). Michali did indeed get me. I got flagged so many times by angry users that my post, and all subsequent posts I submitted to tamer Makeup Alley boards, were deleted. Later that week, my account was removed for violating message board terms of use.

This is how I learned that the Makeup Alley Cafe Board is exclusive, overwhelming, and riddled with trolls. Fights start out of nowhere and devolve into type-shouting matches. (For some time in the mid-aughts, a separate website called Beauty Bash was established as an offshoot of the Cafe Board where Makeup Alley users could go to talk in an unsavory manner about other Makeup Alley users.) Newcomers are not particularly welcome. It's clear that Cafe Board members don't want the massive thing they've built to be corrupted by outside influence — this is, after all, a social network that existed before Twitter, Facebook, and any other you can name.

The Makeup Alley Cafe Board is exclusive, overwhelming, and riddled with trolls. Fights start out of nowhere and devolve into type-shouting matches.

At its best, the Cafe Board is a productive outlet where MUAers can tackle topics that are hard to discuss with their family or friends. In just the past few months, the Cafe Board has seen conversations about police brutality, trans visibility, and racial profiling in the workplace play out in a mostly respectful manner. Every year, a thread from September 11, 2001 is reposted on the Cafe Board, and the community relives how a loose assemblage of beauty enthusiasts were brought together as they witnessed and reacted to the terrorist attacks

Makeup Alley is far from lawless, or heartless, it's just that the laws are their own.

MUAers have a code of unspoken rules, as well as their own language so complex that the site now offers a glossary. Some terms make sense to the casual reader who might be browsing the site for tips -- BHA means Beta Hydroxy Acid, TF$ refers to Tom Ford (as opposed to the far less pricy Too Faced, known as TF), NC## alludes to one's MAC Cosmetics skin code (necessary information for any real makeup lover).

But some are far more obtuse to outsiders. When Makeup Alley's much-loved swap function existed (more on that in a bit), swappers would participate in RAOKs (Random Acts of Kindness) in which one swapper would send a product she owned or saw in a store to another MUAer who expressed lust over it, just because. DD and DH stand for Dear Daughter and Dear Husband, respectively, and are used when sourcing info about the right products for loved ones. MLBB was a revelation for my face when I discovered its meaning: My Lips But Better, referring to a lipstick that matches your mouth, but it enhances its natural hue. You'll know what that means when you find your own MLBB shade.

All of the boards are fascinating for a curious interloper, but perhaps none is more accessible than or intriguing as the FOTD (Face of the Day) Board, where women (and the occasional man) post selfies of their beauty looks. These voyeuristic peeks into the lives of strangers can be addictive: past the gorgeous, completely made-up face, are people's messy bedrooms and toothpaste-smeared bathroom vanities. Their faces might be shellacked to sheer perfection, but their hair is often completely undone, their bodies draped in ratty old T-shirts.

Offering your face up for review (or CC — Constructive Criticism — in Makeup Alley parlance) is a brave act, and by and large, the responses of fellow users are supportive and genuinely helpful. In June, a hot-button issue on the FOTD Board was how and why MUAers left feedback for other MUAers. For many posters, CC is the whole point of posting, but some people just like having a place to show off their looks if they're all dolled up with nowhere to go.

Emily Loke, a Makeup Alley member since 2011 and a frequent FOTD poster, often submits professional-looking photos of herself with the help of her photographer husband. Loke has been called the "browspiration" of the FOTD Board, and found the community out of sheer loneliness while away from her home base of Singapore. "My husband and I were renovating our second home in the US, and I was stuck indoors a lot, in a city where I didn't know a lot of people," says Loke. "Even though I'm now home in Singapore with my real-life friends, I post and check in regularly with my MUA friends too."

Intense kinship is felt throughout the site, even if users sometimes have a roundabout way of showing it.

If I learned anything about this amalgam of people who have collectively posted over 700,000 products reviews and millions of board posts, it's that intense kinship is felt throughout the site, even if users sometimes have a roundabout way of showing it.

Take Susan Di Staulo, a model and art educator who joined Makeup Alley in 2007. Di Staulo, who splits her time between Arizona and New Jersey, met one of her best friends on Makeup Alley, even though the two have never interacted offline. They first bonded on the Makeup Board five years ago over a mutual passion for a now-discontinued Bobbi Brown lip color called Ruby Stain, a shade that Carolyn Bessette Kennedy favored. Moonstone, as Di Staulo knew her friend at that point, suggested a good substitute (or duplicate, also called a dupe) for the shade, and the rest was history.

"I really feel like she's my good friend even though I don't know her," says Di Staulo. "There's this ex-boyfriend of mine who is now my boyfriend again, and when we broke up, she was like, ‘I know you'll be together.' And then he called and was like, ‘You're my soulmate!' She's been with me through heartbreak, the whole thing." Di Staulo has gradually weaned herself off Makeup Alley, but she still belongs to a super-exclusive Makeup Alley spin-off group on Facebook that is devoted to tracking the beauty products preferred by CBK, what this collection of diehard fans call Carolyn Bessette Kennedy ("God rest her soul").

Taya Faber, a late-night TV writer in Los Angeles, found Makeup Alley out of necessity in 2004. "My mom never taught me how to put on makeup, and I had a job waiting tables," says Faber, "This is so horribly sexist, but the owner of the restaurant told me, ‘You really should start wearing makeup,' and I didn't know how to do it." Faber stumbled upon Makeup Alley the way many people do — through Google — and was sucked in.

From other users of the site, she learned her MAC skin code and all the insider lingo. She stays away from the Cafe Board, but otherwise finds Makeup Alley to be a positive community with a sense of humor. "I'm a big Reddit lurker because it's a little exclusionary," says Faber. "I've looked into the makeup subreddit, but it just doesn't do the same for me." She's particularly drawn to Makeup Alley's spirit of diehard fangirl devotion: "It's such a nerdy kind of place for something as stereotypically feminine as makeup and aesthetics. There's such a technical, communal hobby side to it."

As Faber alludes to, Reddit is just one of the many web communities that is notoriously hostile to women. Makeup Alley's boards are steeped in the kind of obsessive devotion stereotypically associated with male-dominated online spaces like Reddit, with users fervently posting about lipstick the way their counterparts do about gaming or gadgets; Makeup Alley even has its own trolls. In this way, it's a far more revolutionary site than it gets credit for. Why should the merits of the Clarisonic brush be taken any less seriously than rumors about new Apple products?

For MUAers, a full-on obsession with beauty geekery translates into meticulous documentation of limited-edition cheek stains and discontinued nail polish shades. Up until this year, Makeup Alley featured a swap function which allowed MUAers to trade both new and used products with interested parties across the world. In January of 2015, swapping was removed from the site, much to the dismay of the entire Makeup Alley community.

Chicago-based writer Suzanne Cohen remembers her first very swap, which occurred shortly after she joined the site in 2001 and involved her sending a Nars lip liner to a woman she had never met. "I remember sitting in my little apartment in New York with my significant other, and he asked, ‘What are you doing?' as I was bubble-wrapping a little lip pencil," says Cohen. "I answered, ‘It's going to Switzerland!'" She participated in 391 swaps, earning her 391 Swap Tokens (Makeup Alley's form of currency) and a 100% approval rating.

Cohen had been steadily accumulating Swap Tokens until last December, when she and every other Makeup Alley member received the following message: "Makeup Alley Swapping will officially end for all members on December 31, 2014. Thus, we're suggesting an alternative for you to continue swapping your beauty and fashion items! Our friends at Swapidu have created a community dedicated to swapping, and as active swappers on Makeup Alley, Swapidu is inviting you to be the first ones to try it out."

Makeup Alley members were outraged, and understandably so: the shuttering of Makeup Alley Swapping destroyed an essential part of the 15-year-old global community. Members found Swapidu, the suggested alternative, clunky, ugly, and hard-to-use. As they tend to do, they took to the boards to speculate over why and how swapping was being put out to pasture.

MUAers successfully lobbied to have Makeup Alley Swapping exist through January so they could tie up loose ends. A couple of theories about its demise floated around the boards: either the founders of Swapidu were getting a kickback from Makeup Alley for getting members to switch over, or Makeup Alley had been bought by a large cosmetics company. Neither is quite true.

Indeed, one of the founders of Swapidu is Elky Mart. He now runs 7berge, a German-based company that works with Makeup Alley, as well as owns Swapidu and operates an online math tool called Tiger Algebra. Mart, who stressed he is not a representative for Makeup Alley in his current capacity, denied a rumor that Estée Lauder had bought the site.

"Makeup Alley had to stop doing the swap for many reasons," says Mart. "My German company decided to not let this thing die and to create a site where people can continue swapping. That's the short version of the story." An official Makeup Alley representative declined repeated requests for comment. Some on the boards believe Swapping was shut down because of liability issues surrounding "swaplifters," or swappers who make away with someone else's products without returning the favor.

Swapidu, which is organized by category instead of allowing swappers to post in an open forum, is proving confusing for new users. "We built it and launched it, but it really had to be tested by the people," says Mart, "A lot of the things that we planned did not work exactly how we expected them to, but overall we stabilized it." He claims that "we have a lot of people who participate on both sites," referring to Swapidu and Makeup Alley.

But most MUAers seem unwilling to get on board, instead taking to more established swap sites like Glambot, Edivv, and Reddit's r/makeupexchange. Some Makeup Alley users have even taken to doing IRL RAOKs, giving away the stuff they may have swapped in years past to women's shelters or little sisters. Every MUAer I spoke to for this story reported observing that since the removal of Makeup Alley Swapping, the boards have seemed more sluggish and less populated.

Is this the beginning of the end of Makeup Alley? Probably not. It would take far more than an archived function to dismantle a community as vast and dedicated as this one. Not to mention, the beauty internet wouldn't be complete without it. What could possibly be next for the secretive army of MUAers though? They'll never tell. First rule.

Editor: Julia Rubin

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