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.
I wasn't there to see its numbers of dials-ins dwindle, its board
messages go unreplied to, and its community wither away. Keith, the old ham radio operator, must have sat in his basement, trying to decide
when he'd pull the plug. Was one single user a day enough to keep the
BBS alive? Two? Ten? When did he take the dog out back
and put it out of its misery? I'm reminded of Clive Thompson piece from a
few years ago detailing the end of massively multiplayer online game, Asheron's Call 2. "At one point, a non-player character assigned me a quest of
killing all the burrowing beasts in a nearby canyon, to save her town," Thompson wrote.
"I'm like, save the town? Lady, the whole damn world is about to end!"
While people from AC2 saved screenshots and probably posted them to
Flickr along with tributes and memorials, the ruins from my first
virtual town have been washed away, lost like all the other electronic
communities from the pre-Internet era.
Unindexed, they must wander the phone lines like ghosts, knocking
packets astray, crashing your browser just when your post was finished,
shutting down Tumblr. They are caught between the old,
tangible world of books and things, where legacy systems kept on keeping
records in that Dewey-Decimal, county-records way and the new Internet
indexed world where anything that is typed into a box can be found. They flowered
for a brief moment in the space between in real life and on the
Internet, offering hope they'd be united. Now, only
this tiny community of people know they existed. They are kept alive by
the weak force of casual remembrance, flickering into and out of
existence like Marty's parents in the Polaroid from Back to the Future.