Marisa Bowe: So I don’t remember the very first time I logged on? But it was to a social space, a digital social space. But, I was a teenager and it was in the 1970s. I grew up in Minnesota, Minneapolis. My father worked for Control Data Corporation, which does not exist anymore, but one of the things— They mostly did like mainframes, you know, stuff like that. But they had a very visionary CEO, and he bought a company called Plato—P L A T O—that had developed user-friendly—which was the first user-friendly computer stuff ever, maybe—computer programs for teaching. Like teaching prisoners in jail, or teaching people with learning difficulties who couldn’t keep up with a normal class or who were gifted and wanted to speed ahead. This was the first early computer learning; the idea that it would go at your pace was pretty…you know, no one had really been been able to do that so much before, except with just individual tutoring.
And my father was a PR executive not a tech guy, but the CEO wanted all the executives to understand the product. So we had a terminal put in our basement, and a special phone line—it had this thing with a phone cradle and everything like that. And…you know, there was a sense of like computers are the future, it might be useful to be familiar with them somehow. But I discovered I think pretty quickly that you could chat with people. And there was no Internet then, it was just the network that they were on, and there were a bunch of— They were hooked up to a computer center in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. And another one in Boulder, and another one in Venezuela. So it was all these basically young computer guys, and me. And I mean maybe there were a couple of people like my dad’s bosses son was on there, who I’d never met.
And you would chat, and it was amber dots on a black screen. They would appear slowly—not you know, agonizingly slowly, but actually it would appear at the rate that someone was typing across the screen, just one line at a time. So I never ever did any programming, or anything like that. I have a very unusual experience in that my early days’ experiences were a hundred percent social. My brother…you could also play a kind of a Star Trek‑y kind of game all in ASCII. I didn’t—you know, it was a boy thing. My brother played it and I remember watching the spaceships like move really slowly across the screen but he was totally addicted.
And I just become instantly obsessed. And I said once in an article like I literally started dreaming in orange pixels. I’d have dreams that would appear that way because I was sooo into it—and I was pretty shy in real life. And it felt like going out into space and just like these disembodied voices would come in. And I developed a pretty heavy flirty relationship with my dad’s boss’ son. Like all the kind of experiences that everyone has had now? They were the same then, they were just early. Like I met him and I was sort of disappointed, you know. He was more young and geeky-looking than I had…somehow— You know, I hadn’t specifically imagined what he would be like but…you know, you project everything that you want.
I had people ask me what I was wearing. Or no, what did I look like. Of course, I was a slender blonde teenage girl. And I was also you know, not really savvy with boys or anything so I wasn’t thinking I was this big hottie. So I would say you know, five-seven, 125 pounds, long blonde hair and they’d go, “No, what do you really look like?” And I’d be like that is what I really look like! I didn’t know what they were getting at, really.
And at the same time—I was not aware of this—there was actually a pretty active— Like, the guy who invented basically email? was a 17 year-old kid on this community. And it still follows— And also Usenet. They still both follow apparently the same basic formats that he invented—I think he’s still around. And I just remember being incredibly excited about it, you know. I couldn’t wait to go down and chat, and it seemed like this infinite you know—or a big expansion of my world, even though I’m sure the conversations I had were not very interesting and they proceeded at a pretty slow pace.
Also it was just different? from anything anyone I knew was doing. So… I don’t don’t really know how to explain why that was so great. It was almost like context-free? So I guess any roles that I may have unconsciously taken on in other realms of my life I didn’t have there, even though I wasn’t like role-playing or anything like that.
So that was obviously like… Really like, there was no AOL, there was no CompuServe or anything like that. And that…I did it for like a couple years when I was home. I think I started going to college. And I spent a lot of time doing it in my like senior—no no, in my college freshman break, we had like a month—we had a 4−1−4 kind of program. And basically all I was doing was chatting. And I just thought this is going to somehow be more relevant to the future to me than studying like a Shakespeare play. Which probably wasn’t true, given what I now understand about the depth of Shakespeare, but still. It made me so comfortable with the medium, which I don’t think… I don’t know how many women of my age ever had an experience like that. There were very few women. I know now there were some because there was page devoted to that community. Anyway, so there was this whole community but I wasn’t in the community, I was just chatting with random people. It wasn’t like, sex chat or anything like that.
And then I went off to college, and then I just kind of lost interest in it. And then… I had been involved with a kind of an underground TV network? called Paper Ti— Well Paper Tiger Television was the name of the video group. And Deep Dish TV was the name of the network, and they actually—we—created a TV network of our own, basically rented satellite time and commissioned shows from independent producers on certain topics and then beamed them down to public access stations? So it was kind of like a TV version of underground TV. So I was interested in this kind of technology. I had been an early teenage reader of the Whole Earth Catalog. So I just kind of loved that kind of gadgety, user-friendly stuff for communication.
So I remember I picked up— I wasn’t like a…you know, outright hippie or I would’ve moved to San Francisco; definitely not that type. But I remember I picked up a copy of… What was the magazine that came out after the Whole Earth Catalog? It had a name, I can’t remember it. It was sort of from the same people—anyway I picked it up because they had something about—I think they had something about our network on there. And they had a whole section. I think was by Howard Rheingold about BBSes and tape cassette networks. And I think The WELL might have started by then. I think there might have been something about the WELL but I’m not sure. I think there was, and I think I remember… Well I tried to log on to the WELL because I thought oh this would be awesome. Like people who actually you know, read books and stuff like that, not just computer geeks. But then you have to make a long-distance phone call to do that.
And then when I actually did somehow figure out how to get through and do it…it was just all this talk about The Grateful Dead, stuff that was a deal-killer [laugns] for me, and it was a little hard for me to figure out the interface but I wasn’t that motivated because I didn’t really care. And I learned later like The Grateful Dead freaks were what saved the WELL in the early days because its fanatical people like that that keep something like that going and you know, there weren’t very many people on the WELL then, so that’s actually what kept them going, is those people would pay to be on the WELL.
Anyway, not too long after that there was an article in The New York Times about the fact that there was a new version of the WELL by different people started in New York City. So, I was finishing up college then, I just said soon as I’m done I’m gonna do this. And Stacy Horn was the founder of it. It was called Echo. And I always tell people that it was almost literally true that I… Like, I logged in, and four years later I looked up you know, just to find piles of bills lying around and stuff like that. Like I became totally totally obsessed. And you know, it was the same appeal. It was really almost context-free. There we no ads. It was just ASCII text.
And even though we had really slow modems then… Like it started out I think…like maybe, is there an 1800 baud? Something like that. Really low. I mean there were people on Echo who had started out at 300 baud on CompuServe or things like that. It was mostly programmers still, but Stacy made a huge effort. Like she’d let women go in for free in order to get more women to join. And she explicitly wanted people to talk about books and movies and things like that, although she was very laissez-faire in terms of what people said.
It was just…so great. But most of my friends—all my friends really thought I was just a total loser for being involved with it? But you know, I’d already thought about democracy in media and things like that, and so— And I was aware that a lot of my favorite magazines…well I also really liked zines in general. And I was aware that The New Yorker and Harper’s and things like that. I felt almost like it was the same fifteen people from Harvard that kind of ran everything. And so I really liked the fact that just anybody who could type and who could get access to a computer could have their point of view and be published, something that we take completely for granted now. But to me it was just…fantastic to be able to read— You know, I’ve always liked that kind of thing anyway. I love Studs Terkel’s Working, and I have done a book like Working after that myself, and I’m just very interested in everybody—you know, normal people’s experiences.
And also some of these people were just incredibly funny. And it was a new medium. So people just made up stuff to do. Like it wasn’t just conversation, they made up stuff to do. Like some of the programmers could make like animated ASCII art. And people invented all sorts of games, like spontaneous games that were just incredibly fun and interesting, and I would just like, laugh my head off reading this stuff, these people.
Like there were things like for example someone invented the boring item. And you were supposed to say the most boring thing you could possibly imagine. And this one guy was like the champion. He was the champion because his stuff was so funny. Stuff like you know, “I was looking at the chicken patties at Applebaum’s, and I thought maybe I’d get the wings but they were $2.47 a pound so then I Just stuck with the legs ’cause they were 39 cents a pound.” Like that kinda stuff. And it was just…like, that kind of thing you’d never—when you would you ever—there’s no space for doing that, really. So it was just fantastic.
And there were things like a conference, a subject matter— You know, it was called a conferencing system. It was like a big huge BBS. And there were culture conference, the books conference, the music conference. And within that there were just jillions of— You know, much like threaded conversations now. Except it was all in a column. And sometimes conferences would get abandoned, like through lack of interest. And then what people started doing is someone would just like discover this was empty and they would basically like…a digital form of graffiti. Like they would go in and just say all this hilarious weird stuff and maybe someone else would then come in and find out. And like any social group there would be boring people, and you’d kind of hope the boring people wouldn’t find out about it and all the funniest people would come in and just…I don’t know tease each other? There’s no way to describe it, really, without it sounding less than it was. And it was a really a purely social space—and because it was based in New York we actually met each other, too, which made a difference. And we had to have our real names. And Stacy had designed it that way on purpose.
And I mean, I certainly never thought “Oh, this is gonna be a job” or anything like that. I just was so drawn to it and I couldn’t help myself. I never thought this was gonna be anything. And then starting in…like he said probably ’94, people started posting these HTTP addresses which I didn’t really get what they were. And I didn’t have a graphical user interface computer. Even though obviously I became the manager of Echo. I became what you now I suppose would call the conference manager. Stacy was running the business part still. And I was running it from my 20-megabyte hard drive, ASCII computer. And it was perfectly…you know, it was totally enough. I didn’t need any more than that.
And then someone who was on Echo said, “You know, you should look into the Web. Like, there’s probably work for someone like you.” Anyway I remember…I don’t know if you wanted to hear the first times logging into the Web. So I logged in through Lynx, L Y N X, and was looking at Pathfinder because the guy that I knew was working at Pathfinder. Of course it was like image, image, image, and not much text. I didn’t see much.
Anyway, I eventually borrowed someone else’s like Mac or something like that and saw…you know, of course it was really primitive, the Web then. And I realized all these people were just doing consulting even though they they didn’t know anything about the Web because no one knew anything about the Web stuff—and I’m gonna do it too! So I actually consulted for Hearst on their web site, just this little like slacker girl. But I just though “I know as much as anyone else. And I have common sense.”
So I guess that’s probably it for the first question? The second question would be later like what do I miss? You know, I remember remember when ads started to appear. Like Usenet obviously had not had ads, and I remember… I guess because I not only had studied a little bit of media history. Like I kind of knew like the history of objective journalism, even, because I had done a project for Paper Tiger about early newswires. And they were all completely partisan at the beginning. And then, only because they wanted to be able to sell their commodity, which was news—financial news mostly—to all sorts of different people did they start stripping it of political intent so they could have a bigger audience. So I understood, you know, it was business. And I had studied economics. I understood how these things work. Not finance, but economics.
And I had also studied the history of the novel as a medium, and how the audience had expanded only after… Because most people were illiterate. This is in England that I studied it. And it was actually the Christians trying to get working class people to learn how to read so they could read the Bible that in effect increased the audience enough for the novel to become a mass medium. So I kind of brought all this knowledge with me to the Internet.
And people would be like Oh my god, there’s ads! You know, they’re ruining the purity of it. And I just thought…what’re you…how are these things supposed to support themselves without ads? There’s just no way that they can possibly exist without ads.
Well one odd thing is that I miss the immediacy. Because there is something about ASCII versus graphical user interfaces where you at least have the illusion of being more directly connected to people, and it’s against a blank space. So it’s just you and them and their words. And it just felt more electric. And I remember feeling it the first time that I saw a web page or even tried to talk with people over a web page, just…you know, I really felt this kind of relative numbness…or dampening of that feeling. And I don’t know it’s because of the design or because it was always slower? You know, IM now is much faster. But IM didn’t exist, it was more like ITC or— Is that what it was called? ITC… The Internet chat…IRC, that people used, which I didn’t really use, was more instantaneous. But there was something about having it against a blank space maybe we could project and feel like you’re alone in space with this person that felt very different to me and the Web has never replicated that.
And it was also just faster. Because there wasn’t all this crap that you’re downloading. It was just ASCII text, which is an electronic… First, it’s not even like an actual visual; there’s nothing graphic in it. So even at slow baud rates, it was just so fast. And it wasn’t distracting, too, like you weren’t distracted by all this other stuff on the page. And I don’t say that as someone— I’m still a complete Internet addict. And I love the Internet. I love all sorts of—you know, I spend almost all my life still online. And I’m a huge…you know, Facebook user. And I appreciate all the things it has added. But I really do miss that.
I don’t mind the fact that it’s commercial. Like I said, I think that’s necessary for people to be able to do things, is for them to be able to make money with it. There’s no other way to support. Unless the government supports it or a nonprofit or something like that. Also I use adblock. [laughs] I don’t see that many ads
I guess I miss the… I mean I can’t say I miss it, it’s more like a contrast. I really treasure that feeling of what was just like a small group of people that…knew about it—not because we were like, cool or ahead or something like that, but because…um… I don’t know, I’d have to think about what it was.
Because it was like a little tribe. It was more like that kind of feeling. Like it sort of reminded me of in the late 70s in Minneapolis when I was part of the sort of punk/New Wave scene there? And like, you know, twenty years later like everyone wore those clothes. Everyone was dressing in ironic t‑shirts and thrift store—
But then… And again, it’s not about having been first, it was that if you saw someone on the street in Minneapolis and they were dressed that way, you knew they were in your tribe, your very small tribe, and that you would know people in common, or you probably did already know them or something like, and it was a really nice community feeling.
But I also know that that feeling has been…that the bigger Internet has made that possible for many many many many many more groups of people who have really benefited from it. So I don’t really long for the old days? But it was just such a great and unusual feeling in the world of today, especially in big cities.
And again I guess…I don’t miss it because I had so much of it that I was just burnt out by the time that the 90s were over, but in the 90s when the Web was new, you were making everything up as you went along. There are no official words for anything. There were no official protocol—you know, like ways of doing anything or ways of setting up web pages even, let alone like handling clients and marketing and all that kind of stuff.
And you know, it was also really fun and interesting to be in an environment where people you knew were becoming incredibly rich almost overnight. Like…you know, there was some stress involved with it too if you felt like you were getting in on it. But, it was just so fascinating. For someone like me who was like an arty slacker Boho to suddenly be around these business environments and watch this happening. And all these parties and stuff and just money floating around and everyone I knew having good jobs. That was more of the economy but it was like intertwined in. But again, I got so burned out on it that I don’t…miss that. It was just different, different from now.
Or some of the people that were on Echo were kind of socially handicapped. They were either really shy or little bit Aspergers‑y or something like that. And that was a medium through which their wit and charm could be displayed, and you might not even know what they look like, or…maybe when you met them you’d realize they were really weird but it didn’t matter because you knew what was going on in their heads. And I remember thinking that was really important because the real world is…especially in New York, you’re really handicapped. It’s the kind of thing that people don’t really think about that much, but you’re really handicapped if you don’t have that.