Debbie Chachra: So, my first memories of using…it wasn’t even the Internet, this is before the Internet, it was BBSes, was when I was a kid. My father had bought a second-hand computer and it came with—God, like a 600 or a 900-baud modem. And I don’t even know how I discovered what BBSes were, or that there was a local one. But I at some point started dialing in to BBSes.
And again, I don’t know how it evolved to this point, but for a while, I would go to bed at the normal time for like a 12 year-old, and then I would wake up at three o’clock in the morning, head downstairs, plug in the modem, dial into one of these BBSes, and spend a couple of hours chatting with strangers, before packing it up around five AM and going back to bed.
So that lasted for probably…you know, I’m thinking about months. And of course because I was 12 years old and it was five in the morning every once in a while I would forget to unplug the phone. Which meant that when my parents came down and they went to use the phone that day, it didn’t work and they eventually figured out why. And not really all that surprisingly, after this happened a couple of times my father confiscated the modem so that I didn’t have a connection to the outside world.
The thing that I sort of remember about it now that I think back on it is, first of all, my username was Eowyn. This was back in the day where you could actually have the username of Eowyn—it didn’t get taken in the first five minutes. And it never occurred to me not to have a female username, right. ‘Cause there was no preexisting knowledge of what it was to be a woman on the Internet. So, of course I took— I mean of course I was gon— If I had to pick an alias, of course the alias that I would pick as a precocious geeky 12 year-old was gonna be Eowyn.
But the other thing I remember is I don’t actually remember being harassed. And I don’t know whether it was because I was too young or clueless to recognize what it was? But I really just suspect it didn’t happen. I don’t think there was anything there that made me uncomfortable. I’m sure…I know it was obvious that I was female. I’m sure at no point would I have mentioned how young I was. And I was pretty precocious so I doubt anyone realized how young I was.
So…yeah. So really I just— And I’m sure most of people I talked to were were male. I have no memory of talking to anyone else who was a woman or a girl, or even pretending to be a woman or a girl on these BBSes at the time. But mostly I just had the sort of sense of reaching out and connecting and talking to people that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk to.
So I don’t think there’s a lot that I miss about the early Internet. When I was at college I spent a lot of time on the Usenet groups, particularly in like the rec.arts hierarchies, and in the alt hierarchies. And they were of course these sort of weird little corners of the Internet where people who really cared passionately about something talked about it. But all of those things still exist. You just sort of need know where to look for them, right. They’re not on Facebook. They certainly are on Twitter. And they certainly are in like forums. So there’s definitely places you can have those weird little conversations.
I guess probably the only thing that I miss—and I didn’t realize that I missed it until I started thinking about it a little a few minutes go, was…it never occurred to me when I was the sort of 12 year-old girl getting on BBSes that there was any reason to hide my gender. That it would make a difference in how people treated me. And it didn’t occur to me when I was in college using the Usenet groups that I should do anything other than to use my real name, right, that was sort of associated with my student account. I think there was really this sort of sense that those were sort of private spaces and they didn’t reach out and touch your real life. Whereas now that’s absolutely not true, right. If I follow someone on Twitter, even though I haven’t met them there’s this expectation that they are a real person in a real place, and there’s a possibility that we might cross paths. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I would ever meet people, anyone, that I knew on Usenet. I don’t think it crossed my mind that that would be ever a real possibility.