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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New Kids fans also wrote lots and lots of Mary Sue fanfiction.“The more and more you write me, the more and more I get jealous,” one friend wrote before stopping our co-creation of series of stories in which we both dated Jordan Knight. We made and answered quizzes, sprawling surveys of every possible way you could meet a New Kid, outlined the scenarios in which you might be forced to choose between a New Kid and a loved one—but without even basic html to tally the results, we posted our answers publicly and let the quiz-maker compile our answers.
Before spam, we shared lists of phone numbers to call radio stations and harass the DJs to play the latest single. We called our online friends, members of the New Kids touring crew, and sometimes the gossip columnists, to talk about the band. Despite being unlisted, we seemed to always have a hold of the New Kid’s home phone numbers, pager numbers, and sometimes Jordan’s treasured “portable phone” number. According to a list of user IDs and names in the scrapbook I still have, there were fewer than a hundred active fans on the message boards. But we were interacting with each other and generating the kind of content that blows up on the Internet today. With our modems hissing softly on the telephone line, New Kids fans did all this with a dial up text based communication system.
* * *
Since Prodigy was censoring curse words in 1992, we used what is now known as leetspeak to bypass the bots scanning for foul language. NKOTB Are Still Kickin A$$ was my favorite way to sign off. I don’t remember a mastermind bringing these techniques from the hacker culture to our fandom, but I like to think the typo trick was an obvious and spontaneous discovery. What was “broken” from the systems point of view was what gave us possibility. We could use the same tools that limited us to build something else.
When Prodigy made the terrible mistake of turning the bulletin boards into a premium service, charging by the minute, we found loopholes. The initial contracts allowed for unlimited time online, with a cap on the number of messages one could send or post to message boards. By 1993, the first few private messages were free, and then went up to twenty-five cents each, similar to the extravagant charges some carriers have implemented for SMS messages versus actual data use. This change meant most of our conversations took place on public bulletin boards; private messaging racked up huge charges that even those of us lucky enough to have computers at home couldn’t afford, but by summer we were charged for bulletin board access as well. No longer free to compose quizzes or fantasy scenarios at our leisure, we started planning for a future without the bulletin board. We did our best to exchange physical addresses for pen pals. One member compiled videotapes fans made onto VHS tapes and redistributed them so we could see video of our Prodigy friends.
A simple trick saved us from being disconnected when the charges went into effect. Our method: Send a message to a nonexistent user ID and the complete text of the message is returned to the inbox. Share a password with a few trusted friends, and you have a private bulletin board system, albeit with messy threads. If you were a young adult whose obsession with Danny, Donnie, Joe, Jon or Jordan could keep on online for hours every day, this saved your connection to the friendships started on the bulletin boards.
The New Kids on the Block fans had gone underground.
Free from the minute-by-minute charges, free from any charges at all, a culture of lengthy fanfic and gossip continued to spread. Most groups were kept small, and you could host several groups on different user IDs on one account. The undergrounds thrived for a few months. We wrote hundreds of fanfics featuring small groups of friends. I enjoyed both the privacy and the elitism in this arrangement. Like belonging to a secret Facebook group, new fans could be introduced by current members, and the isolation allowed us to build elaborate fantasy worlds in which every girl could date her favorite New Kid. The message boards had gone dormant, and we were busy writing. Until the sign in process changed.
Before, if someone else was signed in on your user ID, the system would generate an error message and prevent you from connecting. The person signed in would not be affected. When Prodigy realized there were people camping out in front of their computers sharing login information, they started kicking off the first user, without autosave, allowing the second user to sign in. Dial-up service was already unreliable—you could disconnect someone by accidentally picking up a phone in another room—and the constant and random losses of our replies took the fun out of cheating the system. Some fans turned to the U.S. Postal Service and became pen pals; others just disappeared. I received my first punk mix tapes from the riot grrrls I met in the remains before Prodigy’s place in my life was upended by America Online and zines. I don’t remember saying goodbye. By the end of 1993, the boy bands I liked carried guitars and toured in beat-up minivans.
For the next 15 years, my love of the New Kids was still there, but I had grown apart from most of the fans I knew. I attended Jordan, Joe, and Danny’s solo tours and watched Donnie’s movies, but I stopped my nostalgia blog for them after they reunited in 2008.
That year, the band began promoting a new slogan: “Five brothers and a million sisters.” A few of my Prodigy sisters have popped up on social media sites and said hello, but I’m not as active in the fandom as the first time around. In the teenybopper days, we were a small but determined fan club of (mostly) teen girl hackers with excellent research skills and a worldwide intelligence network. Now teens can post music, photos and videos from their phones and might be there forever.
Who knows if the New Kids ever found out what we were doing there. The online evidence has disappeared. There were thousands of posts debating the most mundane and private details of their lives. There was gossip I’m embarrassed I ever believed. Today it’s impossible for me to imagine a band that doesn’t lurk where people are posting about them or at least have someone checking out their online presence for marketing research. In the age of Twitter, you're likely to hear directly from a musician if you post the right (or wrong) thing online. People who work with the NKOTB now are my second-degree connections on LinkedIn. When Jonathan Knight posts a dirty joke on Twitter, I’m not sure if I’m prepared for this digital closeness with “The Shy One.”
There's a level of intimacy online today that teenage fans in the 1990s would have perhaps relished, but at the expense of something that's now gone: Prodigy never felt permanent. Messages from your mailbox and the bulletin boards were deleted every few weeks, which is maybe what prompted me to archive them. Today, visiting its last known address at Prodigy.net returns an error message on an empty page. And instead of living online, the surviving texts from our digital fan club are stuffed into binders on my bookshelves.