I was thirteen when I first stumbled upon Wattpad. Growing up, I had been a picky reader, but any book that caught my fancy was soon devoured. It should come as no surprise, then, that I quickly ran out of books to read at home. My school library, while stocked with a good collection, required sifting through, and I didn’t often seek it out between classes to find a book that could very well be a hit or miss for me. After long google searches of “read books online free,” I found Wattpad, a place where I could read stories that hadn’t been published in print.
Based in Toronto, Ontario, the website was developed in 2006 by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen. The Wattpad of then wasn’t half as sleek and attractive as it is now. My memory of the old site is vague. I remember the homepage had a selection of its most popular works, while a search bar let you look up the kinds of stories you wanted to read. Whenever I read a book, there’d be a side panel listing similar stories. This feature is still active, although the list is better formatted. I wasn’t lucky enough to meet the first version of Wattpad, but I did watch it grow. Early book covers were enlarged pictures someone had probably taken from google images or Tumblr, sometimes without the title on it. They didn’t look as gorgeous or well-edited as most of the ones you’ll see on the site today. I was there when classics were added to their database, and when it was revamped to add genre tags. I knew the people of Wattpad understood me because they had separate sections for “Vampire” and “Werewolf” stories. My favorite development was when you could see if a book had been completed. Before that, most authors had to write “COMPLETED!!!” at the end of the book title. It was pure agony to find a story I liked, only to read five intriguing chapters of it.
The upside is that there were always more stories to discover. I still remember the night I found Wattpad vividly. My first read was a teen fiction book: a supernatural love story. It had dark forests and the protagonist was a dream walker with a very pretty name, although the name itself escapes me now. It wasn’t completed, which was just as well, because I clicked on one of the stories on the side panel. Then another, and then one more. YouTube holes have nothing on Wattpad voids.
While Wattpad had a number of stories, I delved into romance, my favorite escape. It’s funny, but a lot of the book titles then were simply tropes: “my brother’s best friend” was a popular hit, or “arranged marriage to my worst enemy.” I used to marathon stories under the latter category. It was always amusing to me, a South Asian kid, to see how authors would come up with scenarios to get white people into arranged marriages (to end gang wars, to pay a debt between business partners, and in one case, because the protagonist’s sister ran away from her wedding, and they needed a replacement bride). I had relatives and parents of friends who had arranged marriages, and it was never like anything I read on Wattpad.
What started as a simple place to read soon became more. I was finishing middle school when I found Wattpad, and I was at the most sensitive time of my life. Every broken friendship felt like the end of the world, every fight with a family member – outright war. Even before my teenage years, I had been an emotional child. Puberty, school, and growing pains amplified that. I was always on edge, always one wrong word away from bursting into tears. Sometimes I think back on those years and wonder at how dramatic I was, but the truth is that every small instance felt overwhelmingly large then. The world was big and loud and there seemed no escape from it.
No escape outside of stories, that is. I spent every instant of my free time glued to my computer screen, a worrying development for my family. Usually a chatty person, I became reticent and withdrawn towards them. I was always talking inside my head, though. To the characters, commenting on every decision they made, and mentally thanking the authors when I found a story that made me intensely happy. I was a picky reader, but at Wattpad, I found all the stories I could love.
The screen time wasn’t a friend, but I was vulnerable and anxious, and Wattpad became my rock. I crawled under it and hibernated, hiding away from the rest of the world until I was ready to face it again. I don’t have my original account from ten years ago because of how I tried to get off the website after my mother voiced her concerns about my antisocial behavior. When high school began, and I became more engrossed with studying, I would save my marathon reading for weekends and summers. Gradually, I found a way to use the website without straining my eyes – or my mother’s nerves.
Besides being a safe refuge, Wattpad got rid of any snobbery I had about unpublished books. If anything, I realized that the books that do get published barely scratch the surface of all the talented voices out there. The website must have been thinking along similar lines, because it began to provide more opportunities for authors. They collaborated with different publishers to offer deals to select books through writing competitions. Of course, Wattpad’s native Watty Awards had been bringing stories on the website to print for years before this development. In recent years, Wattpad books have also been adapted into films and TV shows as well. The Kissing Booth and After both got made into movies, and Light as a Feather was adapted into a series by Hulu.
Wattpad has grown since I first discovered it one lonely night as a teen. It’s officially in now, and I have more friends than not who have heard of it, if not use it themselves. That being said, it hasn’t lost its charm. Even now, at the end of a hard day, or in the middle of a reading slump, I can just visit the website, and the feeling comes back: I’m home, safe among the stories.