The Ruins of Dead Social Networks

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.

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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.

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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.

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