september 15, 1999
Books / Digital Culture:
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.
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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