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.”