It was about 20 years ago that I first discovered what a telephone line and a computer could do when they came together. They made a virtual world. While stumbling through the manual for our old Zenith, I'd found a telephone number for a local bulletin board system and figured out how to dial into it. I found a world much more interesting than anything I could generate by typing commands at the C:/ prompt.
Bulletin board systems were one forerunner to today's social networks. You could post messages and photos, play games, and download all kinds of apps. On the small ones I knew, one or two of us could dial in at a time, and most were from the same area code and prefix as you were because otherwise you had to pay long distance charges. (This now sounds as strange as a description of handcranking a car to start it.) So, the BBS was actually a hyperlocal social network.
I messed around with Los Angeles BBSs, but I had other things to attend to like catching lizards and playing street hockey with the neighborhood homies. But then in '92, my family moved to rural Washington state. Suddenly I was stranded way out at the end of a gravel road in a drizzly little city. I had friends, but they were miles away, so at home, it was just me and Wired Magazine and our new 14.4 modem.
I began to religiously dial in to Keith Buckbee's
Country Computing, where I posted messages, played Legend of the Red
Dragon, and generally whiled away valuable time I could have spent
reading Wittgenstein or something.
The network was local, but I rarely tried to meet up with the denizens of Country Computing. Once, my mom drove me in our Mercury Sable station wagon to a barbecue for the users of the BBS. Everyone was shocked that out
in the physical world, I was 11 and had nothing in common with any of them. Online, we were friends.
Another time, my dad drove me out to Keith Buckbee's house outside of La Center, Washington. He let me look at the banks of modems. I don't remember much of what Keith looked like, but I remember his house had a big antenna and a whole bank of modems. I was mesmerized by all those blinking lights. My parents were aware that I was out tromping around the wilds of cyberspace, but I liked to talk about growing up to run a technology company in those days, so they must have thought it was productive. I was learning! And even though I was far from Seattle, the whiff of Microsoft money had floated all the way down the I-5 corridor to us. (My big idea was to create a secure link between doctors and pharmacies, so you didn't have to wait for prescriptions.)
A year or two after the star-crossed BBQ, the local ISP, Pacifier Online, came along and my early-adopter dad purchased access to the Real Internet. The same hisses-and-pops that once connected me to a computer in La Center, Washington suddenly connected me to the world. I forgot all about Country Computing.