My First Social Network Was The Best

My first online experiences were on bulletin board systems (BBSes), specifically the South Florida BBS Dragon World.  While I’ve been online since I was 15 (1995), and on the web since I was 16 or 17, I still think that my experiences on Dragon World rank among my best and most formative in the online sphere for one simple reason: the people.

DW was perhaps the greatest socializing element I could have hoped for as an only child with a spotty record in the realm of friendship. It provided immersion in a deep social pool with a diversity of ages, backgrounds and, of course, neuroses. Through our online and offline interactions, we formed crushes, friendships, hatreds, the whole gamut. Many of those people I am still in touch with; it was through one of my DW friends that I met my husband.

While DW was a full-service BBS offering gaming, forums and private messaging, it revolved around the teleconference, or tavern. Some of my favorite memories of DW are from logging on late on a Friday or Saturday night — or attempting to log on, since it was just a 24-line BBS — to a completely full teleconference. (Check out this blast from the past.) The list of users and where on the BBS they were located was one of the first things you saw upon logging in, and seeing a whole long column that read “Teleconference” always made my day. I knew immediately that I was in for a good time. I mean, imagine walking into a room full of 24 people that ranged from close friends to good acquaintances and having infinite conversational possibilities at your fingertips. Wouldn’t you feel pretty damned good?

Over the years, as I became a more avid user of the web, those types of moments would rank among my favorites. Some of my best memories from senior year in college are sitting in AIM Buddy Chat with my friends from the R.E.M. Usenet group, just chattering on and on about music and life. 

The More Things Change…

As a web professional, it amazes me how in many online trends nowadays, I see echoes of the features I took for granted on DW and other “old” online mediums. Live chat? From a UNIX shell, all I needed was the “talk” command to have real-time chat with anyone else online at the time. SuperPoke? Old hat. Heck, I was Actions-Op on DW before the inventors of SuperPoke probably even had an e-mail address. I could “hug nit” to give Nitrogenous Base, the handle my husband used on DW for a short time, a hug. (In IRC chatrooms, you craft actions on the fly by prefacing a sentence with “/me.”) A friend of mine recently observed that AIM away messages are the grandfather of the modern-day Facebook or Twitter update. Perhaps the same is true of the entrance and exit messages we used to have in DW’s tavern. Also, how many people realize that the hashtag (#) you use on Twitter to thread topics and create a backchannel was inspired by IRC? We’re doing the same things we’ve always done, but with slicker GUIs.

But as for that giddy thrill I used to experience upon logging in to a packed tavern on DW, I’ve had glimmers of it pop up every now and again on Twitter and Facebook with particularly active chains of @ replies and comment threads off of status updates. But never to the same degree. As for Buddy Chat, I can’t remember the last time I had one.

Part of what made DW special, I think, is that it was a collective experience, but also a collective journey. We all had to dial-in, jockey for a line and navigate our way to the teleconference. Also, we had a lot of overlap between our online and offline lives; DW was a regional BBS, so we all lived within an hour’s drive of each other. There was not a whole lot of multitasking back then, either; people were focused, engaged and committed to the experience at hand. With Facebook and Twitter, maybe people are multitasking, or maybe they’re on the go and posting from their phone.  It’s harder to get a sense of people being in a room with you, bathed in the glow from the screen, sharing in the moment. I feel like the closest we get to that nowadays are the trending topics on Twitter, which engage people around a common topic and encourage interaction. But that, in my mind, is a poor substitute.

So why is that feeling of community in the moment so hard to recapture? Isn’t the social web supposed to be all about conversation? Am I just too old or too distracted now to feel the same way I did back then? Am I inured to it all?

Maybe it’s not about the medium or the moment. Just like it was back then, it’s about the people. At that time, for who I was back then, being part of the DW community was exactly what I needed, and it brought me more than I could have ever hoped for. Of course tapping into that community would make me feel alive.

So, sure, you can have the slickest, most advanced social web tools out there, but if you can’t find a community that means something to you, what’s the point? I look forward to hopefully, one day, finding another online community that enriches my life the way DW did. I’ll know I’ve found them when I feel that smile creep involuntarily across my face as I am filled with giddy anticipation, and a tiny voice inside me exhales and says, “I’m home.”

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10 responses to “My First Social Network Was The Best

  1. Hooray reminiscent DW post! DW GTs at random county parks, DWC, and movie theaters became the majority of my social life after being stuck at home in a wheelchair and missing the last half of 8th grade. Commenting on someone’s Facebook page just doesn’t have the same personal connection and involvement that hanging out and chatting in the tavern did. DW was the perfect Meetup meets Facebook mashup of SoFla before the web took off. We were just a bunch of nerds hanging out and having fun.

    DW gave me a couple of romances, connections to people smarter/wiser than I who helped shape my career/attitude/outlook on life, the humbling experience of finding that people who don’t like you have no problem pointing out that you’re a dick, and a diverse group of people to learn to get along with.

    I think the medium is a part of it though. Tavern required your full attention to actively participate. It was an active conversation with 20+ different people, not just an evite where you agree to go somewhere or an IM where you talk one-on-one with someone you’ve already established a connection with (or maybe with a few people from your buddy list in a group chat). DW allowed strangers to add unexpected things to the mix and gave the promise of being able to meet them in person since they likely lived in/near Boca.

    I went to a Movies Meetup here in Orlando with Peter (Black Shade) 3 or 4 years ago and it just didn’t feel the same vibe. I didn’t feel a connection with anyone else there. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and not as quick to open up to others, but GTs never felt like “let’s all go meet people and get to know each other while doing (common interest)”. GTs always felt like just hanging out with friends, even when meeting people for the first time.

    And of course, without DW, I wouldn’t have met my wife either. Above all else, that is my fondest remembrance of that entire chapter of my life.

  2. Makes me sad I juuuuust missed the window for DW. This reminds me a lot of my great experiences in SEFLIN local message boards which led to local get-togethers, as well as irc through Alachua Freenet . . . such an arduous process to sign on, yes, and if your connection dropped it was at least 5-10 minutes before you could get back in because of all the steps and lag!

  3. yeah, and before the whole online predator thing became a national fear… in this day and age, my mother would NEVER have let me go to those DW GT’s. Also, where did you get that screen grab? I never logged into such colorful art… just the ascii dragon.

    • Someone uploaded it to the DW group on Facebook. I think it may pre-date us? I’d love to find a screen grab of the login art I’m familiar with.

  4. Did your BBS have Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD), Barren Realms Elite (BRE) or The Pit?

    My friend Dave actually got a version of LORD up and running a year or so ago for a little while…

    • Oh God, I was so addicted to LoRD, it wasn’t funny. Every morning before school, I did my turns. 🙂 We also had BRE and the Pit. There were a ton of games, and while some folks came to DW for the gaming, it was mostly a social BBS.

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