What the New Kids on the Block Taught Me About Social Networks

In the early 1990s, New Kids on the Block fans fed their fascination on Prodigy, as Justin Bieber's do today on the Internet. But while the fandom might be the same, the online world has changed.
New Kids on the Block perform on the Today show in 2013. (Reuters)

For a short, chubby 13-year-old girl with a boy band obsession, going online in the early 1990s was a lot less hostile than going to school.

Looking back, I most miss the personal anonymity; an online existence without photography or video, a time when it was normal not to use your real name, when people could interact without demographic data being harvested for advertisers or shuffling people into neat demographic categories in the name of improved user experience.

When I visit the empty pages of hibernating websites today, I find troves of my own static data in the system. Multimedia mementos of my current fandoms like Doctor Who are scattered across dozens of social media platforms. Yet the online world where I first encountered the pleasures of fan culture no longer exists at all.

* * *

The new computer with Prodigy software arrived the month before I turned 13. At a time when the New Kids on the Block had ushered in “tween” fandom, I was happy to be moving onto being an actual teenager. Prodigy was marketed as an “interactive personal service” that provided dial-up access, over your home phone line, to a very basic graphical user interface featuring a pixellated star logo—but was otherwise mostly text in different colored boxes. Occasionally, I read the news for my homework assignments, but the bulletin boards were where most of my time was wasted.

My first experiences with online fandom began with a bulletin board area known as the Arts Club, where discussions about the “five bad brothers from the Beantown land”—as New Kid Donnie Wahlberg once rapped—took place on threaded discussion posts. While the most popular abbreviation for the band is NKOTB, the messages I saved always refer to them as NK. The NK. Our NK.

Me as Donnie Wahlberg for Halloween (Courtney Klossner)

Fans wrote about everything we saw about the band—newspaper and magazine stories, the pursuit of rare merchandise such as Japanese versions of CDs, anything in pop culture that may have been a hidden reference to the New Kids—and swapped strategies for meeting them.

I began collecting and saving dot matrix printouts of fans' stories—pages with the original feed holes still attached on the edges, text crawling across page breaks.

Courtney Klossner

On my thirteenth birthday, I made my first post to the NK thread on Prodigy, telling the story of how I actually got to meet the New Kids (except Donnie). Spread across multiple messages because of character limits, here are some of the tl;dr excerpts from my epic first post:

It should have been a normal Sunday morning. Sleeping until noon, church, breakfast, and maybe more sleep if I could sneak back to bed. So why was I up at six o’clock in the morning? Maybe because today was the day my dreams were gonna come true.

My birthday isn’t until tomorrow, but I ‘m wearing a brand new outfit and fixing my hair into an ultra “Jordified” style as my friends would say. Even my makeup has to be perfect for today. Because after breakfast, we’re driving to New York City for the United Cerebral Palsy telethon.

Gettin this hyped for a charity event? I don’t think so! Nah, it’s because we’re going backstage today. And of course my favorite group - NKOTB - is going to be there. I’ve loved them since 1986, and now that I’m finally going backstage I’m as nervous as ever. Of course my dad didn’t tell me until Thursday night. Just so that I wouldn’t have time to tell everyone at school, or crash diet, or get too nervous. But I was like a gerbil in one of those running balls, running into everything and not really paying attention to what was going on around me anyway.

(Okay. So I didn’t really get into the New Kids in 1986, which was a nod to the year their first album came out. I became a fan in 1989 like everybody else.)

My tale continues as I explain what happened when, after spending six hours in the green room, an official photographer for the show took me and my sister to meet the band:

Jordan was really friendly. “Come over here” (or should I type ovah heah cuz that’s how he said it). His voice was so deep and wonderful I couldn't even believe he was talking to me.

I gave him a glace to ask “me?”

“Yeah, you.” he smiled at me.

Just as the photographer was about to take the picture. The picture that would be circulated to every teen magazine in the country and be in the NKOTB’s photo ‘bank” for future use. The one picture that I would have as proof of this day. The New York Directors took over. They started out shouting, “Get these little girls outta here!” and then they threw out the photographer. How polite eh?

I turned around to get a look a Jordan one last time… I realized how lucky my few seconds with them had been. Crazy how I can make such a big deal out of it, but I haven't changed THAT much you know.

While I was too sad to order anything when we went to the Hard Rock Cafe that night, by Monday morning I realized the potential for envy from the people who posted on the boards. Delivering a first-hand report about what it was like to have been inside the Ed Sullivan Theater, even if I had only met a few New Kids for five seconds, was enough to make me feel like I had contributed to the online community.

I loved the positive, sometimes envious, feedback from the other fans online. Some of the first people I met on Prodigy had been waiting outside in freezing temperatures that day to see the New Kids. The fans who had not been in New York were at home, watching the telethon and dialing in when the New Kids were answering the phones.

We traded bootleg analog content with a new efficiency brought on by the speed of electronic communication. Tim Berners-Lee had not even posted the first photo on the Web when I was using Prodigy to trade 35mm photographs of Danny, Donnie, Joe, Jon and Jordan in my collection. New Kids fans knew every setting on our VCRs and traded tapes of every television appearance we could find. We posted lists of our available shows and bootlegs, copied the tapes by linking up multiple VCRs and arranged our exchanges over private messages. I led a proto-crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of converting a video a European pen pal sent me from PAL to NTSC. 

New Kid Joey McIntyre with a bodyguard, one of many photos swapped by the Prodigy fan community.

We were creating original content for the fandom as well. We reposted videos and articles by transcribing them by hand. We flooded the system with content and comments, begging for our own “topic” so we could have space outside of the Soft Rock/Pop boards where we were wedged with thousands of fans of hundreds of other artists.

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Courtney Klossner is a writer, librarian, and digital-media consultant based in California.

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