When I first met my husband, I found that to really be a part of his life, I had to join his online social network. Nowadays this is a familiar story. Many people have friends they mainly or exclusively see online. What’s unusual is that my husband was then already in his 50s, and I wasn’t following him to Instagram or Facebook, but to Echo—a bulletin-board-style virtual community founded in 1990.
Echo was a star of the early internet, profiled in the New Yorker, Wired, Fortune, and The New York Times. It was a party-rich, Manhattan-centric community, and the membership was heavy in media types: artists, musicians, and especially writers. The Wikipedia article on “cyber-utopianism” cites three former Echoids: Clay Shirky calling the internet “inherently cooperative”; Douglas Rushkoff saying it “fosters communication, collaboration, sharing, helpfulness, and community”; and Malcolm Gladwell complaining that activism on social media “favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.”
In the intervening decades, Echo has never changed its primitive interface. To navigate within it, you can’t just click on links, but have to type in Echo-specific commands: j cen; l a m; sh 123. You don’t access it in your browser, but through a telnet client, a program that allows you to access the command line interface of another computer. It doesn’t support images or sound, much less video. It doesn’t even have colors. It’s text-only, and even editing text is a time-consuming pain in the ass.
Yet many of its earliest members are still there. They’re now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. They’ve been talking to each other every day for 27 years.
Echo might serve as a kind of Grant and Glueck Study for denizens of virtual communities—a longevity survey that can tell us something about the future of the larger social networks that followed it. How has Echo evolved and changed as its members have moved through life? Does online community mean something different to them, 30 years on?
119:4) joe rosen 11-APR-2017 21:05
This can go either of two ways (but more likely option 2):
1) ECHO ruined my life -- i.e. I spent all my time here developing “remote”
relationships, satisfying some need for “friends” instead of cultivating a
2) Without ECHO I’d have no friends (or life) at all, because really I
was never going to bother hanging out with anyone in “real life” anyway.
* * *
When Echo was created, the internet was just beginning to be touted as cool. It was before MySpace or Friendster, before Amazon, before the World Wide Web. There was still no faith that the internet had any commercial potential, and Echo’s founder, Stacy Horn, a former telecommunications analyst at Mobil, failed to attract investors to her project, and had to start it with her life savings of $20,000. For the first few years, it was run from her fifth-floor walk-up apartment; for a while, it graduated to a swanky Tribeca office, but it’s back in Horn’s living room today.
At its peak, Echo had 2,000 members. Forty percent of them were women, a considerable achievement in an era when somewhere around 90 percent of internet users were men. Twice a month, everyone was invited to a real-life Echo party, and all the people who came could fit into one medium-sized Manhattan bar.
Horn wasn’t just the owner, but a daily participant, talking openly about her personal problems, her favorite TV shows, what she had for lunch. She dated several Echoids, including my husband, who dated at least a dozen others. The atmosphere was incestuous, intimate, intense. At 3 a.m., despairing Echoids would log in to share their existential doubts; at 3 p.m., they’d talk about the conversation they had at 3 a.m.
The keynote was always high snark. One Echo event was a group reading of the screenplay of Jerry Lewis’s suppressed film about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, The Day the Clown Cried. Bills from Echo came stamped with the words TOY SURPRISE INSIDE; toys included miniature tarot cards, plastic flies, and plastic “disaster victims”—little people pointing to the sky and screaming and running.
Like most bulletin board services, Echo is broken up into broad topics, or “conferences” (Health, Culture, Pets, Love), which are further broken down into “items.” Any member can create an item, and they’re often created on the spur of the moment in response to an event. Here’s part of a 1994 Culture item called “That’s Life in the Inferno of Postmodernity!” and subtitled “On my TV right now, OJ Simpson is driving down a highway 3,000 miles from me, holding a gun to his head. I am watching it live on TV.”
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550:80) Ann 17-JUN-1994 22:56
i don’t understand why he hasn’t run out of gas yet. that car looks
like a gas guzzler.
- - - - -
550:84) Jonathan Hayes 17-JUN-1994 22:57
Well, that’s where you’re wrong, Ann! The Bronco gets a very reasonable
23mpg city and 30 mpg highway.
- - - - -
550:85) Snoop Trouty Trout 17-JUN-1994 22:57
- - - - -
550:87) doktor dorje 17-JUN-1994 22:57
Some other guy did this a year or two ago and offed himself.
- - - - -
550:89) Jonathan Hayes 17-JUN-1994 22:57
I wonder what the camouflaged snipers wear in Brentwood.
- - - - -
550:95) Twang 17-JUN-1994 22:58
Ford’s getting some great publicity here.
- - - - -
550:96) Ann 17-JUN-1994 22:58
if they don’t let him see his mother i’m going to cry.
- - - - -
550:99) Jonathan Hayes 17-JUN-1994 22:59
Will you cry if they let him see his mother and then waste him?
The juvenile and jaded tone already feels like 21st-century internet culture. One can find similar threads on Twitter or Reddit about virtually any public event. In her 1998 book about Echo, Cyberville, Stacy Horn writes, “Cyberspace is one great big Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Still true—and if that’s all social media ever was, it would probably be a mistake to spend much of one’s life there. But then we have this, from Echo’s Central conference, in the item “Breaking News”:
245:166) Stacy Horn 11-SEP-01 8:47
A PLANE JUST CRASHED INTO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER.
- - - - -
245:167) Stacy Horn 11-SEP-01 8:49
Oh god. I’m shaking. A plane just went by my window, it was flying WAY
too low, and I was thinking, “How ironic, I wrote about this in my book,”
and it crashed.
Oh God, people are dead now. Oh god.
The conversation that follows this is packed with unmediated feeling and forgotten history. There are rumors of eight hijacked planes, of a bomb in Stuyvesant High School, of a Palestinian group claiming responsibility. There are unmediated expressions of horror and grief. “What will the world be like now?” “I don’t even know if my job exists anymore.” “Many of the people I’ve worked with are dead.” The overwhelming impression is of a group of good friends in a room together, glued to the TV set, talking through their feelings as the world changes outside the windows. It goes on uninterrupted for days.
* * *
Over the years, the flirtations and flings and drunken nights turned into a dozen Echo marriages and a dozen Echo babies. The networking turned into magazine jobs. The parties dwindled and died out. The Love conference became a ghost town; the Parenting conference burgeoned and declined in its turn. Echo went on in one corner of the computer screen, through day jobs and deadlines, through nursing babies and taking out the trash.
At the same time, Echo’s culture continued to evolve, developing a little to one side of mainstream internet culture, like an online Galapagos. When I joined in 2008, some conversations were borderline incomprehensible, full of references to former Echoids (Phiber, Jane Doe, The Jew) and Echo slang like huffer (a person who has left Echo), YPOT (Young People of Today), and SBYLF (Scroll Back, You Lazy Fuck). The interface was a living fossil that took hours of study to master. People self-deprecatingly compared Echo to a NORC—a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.
“Echo is the dive bar that’s hung in there even though the neighborhood all around it has changed,” Horn tells me. “We’re just like the old people still getting drunk at the counter while all the young people are out dancing … or whatever they do.”
Clearly, there are plenty of older people on other social media. But the continuity and longevity of Echo have forged something other platforms haven’t had time to create; the taken-for-granted quality of family. Echoids drive each other home from the hospital, check on each other when a hurricane hits the city, listen to each other’s mundane problems and keep each other’s embarrassing secrets. In short, they share what Malcolm Gladwell criticized social-media activists for lacking: “the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.”
Recently a single, childless, 70-something Echo member died. At her deathbed, there were Echoids reading to her and holding her hand as she slipped in and out of consciousness. But what’s more remarkable is that she wasn’t an especially popular Echo member, and those people weren’t exactly her friends. They were there because her membership in Echo made them feel responsible for her, just as you might feel obliged to sit by the hospital bed of an aunt you’d never particularly liked.
Put another way: Wasting a lot of time online may save you from dying alone. As Echoids retire, are widowed, find it harder to leave the house, and enter the demographic that is most plagued by loneliness, they have a layer of insulation. Echo will never reject them. Echo will never put off returning their calls. It offers not just company, but history and intimacy. It’s a place where you can be self-pitying, angry, unpleasant, boring—in other words, a home.
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