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Mindjack Magazine

september 15, 1999

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Books / Digital Culture:
The Last Page
by Rachel Singer Gordon
Review of Seth Shulman's Owning the Future.

Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

Selected Articles:

Technology:
The Struggle Goes On
by David Howell
Class and the Information Age
09/05/1998

Culture:
The New Face of Customer Service
by P.L. Frank
A Razor's Edge column.
02/10/1999

Books:
The Nudist on the Late Shift
by Po Bronson
reviewed by Rachel Singer Gordon

Games:
Ridge Racer Type 4
reviewed by Donald Melanson

What I've Learned
In Sixteen Years Online

By Elizabeth Lewis


Sometime back around the dawn of the renaissance -- the summer of 1983 to be precise -- I first read about how computers could connect via modems in ways that let people talk to each other people via their keyboards. I had no modem in my home in those just-out-of-the-dark ages. I was roughing it, I didn't even have a home computer. But I had access to both through my job and enough curiosity to make me stick around late one night to figure out how this online talking worked.

I vaguely remember the thrill of discovery. I have no memory of what I read or posted. I do remember that when I finally looked up from the screen, it was 7:30 a.m. and people were coming into the office for another day.

I've been hooked ever since.

The idea of an online community was magical. I was no longer limited to meeting those who just happened to be in front of me in the checkout line or who were chosen for my circle of associates by an employer uninterested in my criteria for friendship. I could meet people from all over the area, people I would otherwise have never had the chance to know. And finding the "right" people was so much easier online, where the system thoughtfully sorted everyone by interest and activity. Better yet was this wonderful feeling of being on the cutting edge. I was part of something that few people knew existed, which made it all the more cooler.

I saved my pennies and bought a computer of my very own, complete with modem that whipped my conversation through the wires at the mind-boggling speed of 300 baud. And I found, to my astonishment, that right within my calling area there were a couple hundred bulletin board systems (BBSs) just waiting for me to call. They were amazing! People left messages, which you came along and read whenever you liked. If you had something to say, you left your own message. And others responded! I took to the first one I called and hung around there for the better part of a year.

Then someone told me about a chat line where people were all online at the same time. It was a Friday night when I took that plunge. After many hours online, I made a middle-of-the-night run for groceries and supplies, came home, logged in, and didn't log out until Monday morning.

Okay, so I've been known to get a little carried away.

It wasn't long before calling a BBS wasn't enough for me anymore -- I wanted one of my own, dedicated to the quality conversation I enjoyed most. Another woman brought me on as her partner and I made the leap from Regular User to Sysop. The discussions were intoxicating, with all of the best of those intense late-night college dorm conversations but without the exams.

And it seemed like every few weeks the technology made things better. Suddenly we could exchange email with BBSs from all over the country, so we did. Then we joined a confederation of BBSs that exchanged not only email and but also conversation in online forums called conferences. Once or twice a day, our BBS called another that served as the regional hub to send out our latest posts and to receive the latest batch from an ever-widening area. Eventually we were receiving email and newsgroups from the Internet. I joined America Online and Compuserve. My circle widened.

Geography shrank before my very monitor. Before I was meeting people from all over the region. Now I was carrying on conversations with people from across the country. And then from around the world. I found myself flying to occasional gatherings of people I knew only from being online. When online friends came to my town, we had dinner. Some people formed romantic relationships. A couple who lived in different states but met online got married. I "attended" the wedding online and threw a lot of virtual rice.

This was no pastime any more. It was neither a mere hobby nor anything so mundane as an obsession. I was part of a real live thriving community. But aside from brief immersion (much nicer word than obsession, isn't it?) periods following the arrival of another novelty, the truth is that online activities did not take over my life. I went to work, I saw my friends, I spent time with my family.

So how did my family and offline friends respond to all this? Most told me that I was absolutely insane to be talking with so many strangers in this day and age. I tried to tell them all that this was the wave of the future. My family laughed while my friends remained polite but noticeably concerned. I was, in short, treated like anyone else with a dotty kind of hobby. More frustrating, though, was getting that treatment from a group who truly should have known better -- coworkers at an multi-national telecommunications company. They insisted that going online would never interest anyone, especially our clients.

Those clients are now all online and my old employer no longer exists, having been inhaled into a bigger company that got on the net bandwagon relatively early.

So what have I learned in all these years online? The main lesson is that online is not about technology at all, but about people. That is what drew me in, and what hooked just about every onliner I've ever known. With all the increase in speed, with all the years of killer aps, with the advent of graphic interfaces, the Web, and streaming downloads, even with the fantastic amount of information available with a few mouse clicks, what makes online so compelling is the same thing that glued me to my work computer that summer night in 1983 -- the chance to connect with people I'd never get to know otherwise.

But there is also something about interacting online that brings out the both the best and worst in some people. There's no room here to delve into why that's the case, although there's been plenty written on the topic. Instead, let me share a few insights about what you can reasonably expect from any virtual community.

  • It is not Utopia.
    Some people come online expecting a futuristic perfection where people all act with a higher purpose. It's interesting, this expectation that human nature will change simply because communications technology takes a giant leap forward. Perhaps it will over the long haul, but online hasn't yet had a long haul. People can usually be expected to act online much as they do offline.

  • It's just one way to interact
    As wonderful as it is online, virtual communities built on conferencing form a firmer foundation when there are multiple forms of contact: face-to-face, phone calls, chat, instant messages, and email all form the fabric of VCs.

  • People can be incredibly kind and giving.
    I've seen people go out of their way to console others who are terminally ill. People have raised money for others who lose their income due to illness. They've supported each other through diseases, new parenthood, loss of jobs, divorces, and natural disaster. I've even seen an online community rally around a lawyer who lost everything in a moving van fire. If an outpouring of kindness towards a lawyer isn't the best of humanity, I don't know what is.

  • People online can be horrendously cruel and clueless.
    A friend of mine was stalked by her ex-husband who followed her everywhere online just so she would know he could. Others hide behind anonymity to wreck havoc on reputations and to say things they are too cowardly to say otherwise. When online discussions get heated, someone is almost always quick to compare their opponent to the Nazis (which spawned the creation of Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.) When the Holocaust isn't being watered down for someone's pet peeve, free speech is used as an excuse to behave like a jerk.

  • It's easy to move way too fast in online relationships.
    It often amazes me how people craving intimacy will rush to disclose everything about themselves in their first five posts. Or they'll fall in love in an hour of hot chat on AOL. While there are many people who do form lasting friendships and loving relationships with people they meet online, the road to those successful bonds is the same both online and offline. People need time to form attachments. Exchanging core dumps of your emotional lives is not getting to know each other intimately.

  • Some people believe they have a right to your time and attention.
    As has been said frequently, attention is the currency of cyberspace. There are energy creatures around who insist that everything be about me me me. They don't care whether they act like morons to get your attention or whether they just do the whiny narcissistic thing. People who wish to avoid energy creatures can find themselves pursued by those others because they must get a reaction from you. How dare you ignore them! You must spend your time attending to their every, every need, and resolving trumped-up conflicts with them, or hearing about their latest online romance gone bad with someone they've known for three whole days. Or you can have your life. I'm not sure it's possible to do both.

  • Some of the strongest moments of human connection happen online.
    Whether through fascinating debate in a forum, a hysterically funny run of wordplay in chat, or a caring email at just the right moment, there are moments that are intensely meaningful and poignant. Don't let anyone tell you it's "just virtual" and not "real life." Which leads me to...

  • Going offline isn't getting back to your real life. Online is part of real life.
    People who can easily divide the two so that they can act one way online and another offline are people to avoid. Those who integrate their online activities and relationships into the fabric of their lives are people who get it.

Elizabeth Lewis is a freelance writer and online community builder who is still online after all these years via her little modem on the prairie.

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