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 414 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.

Further Reference

Episode archive page