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February 26, 2024

Back When People Used the Internet To Converse

By Dan Mulhollen

Note: While actual names have been changed to protect the actual people (the innocent, the guilty, and the out-and-out weird; but alas, not the author of the piece), company names have been changed for comedic effect alone.

Sometime late in the last century there was EUNUCH Talk, a way for people to chat by their computers. Usually these were inter-office communications between co-workers, discussing such vital business matters as the previous night's baseball scores, a child's upcoming first day of school, and where to eat lunch. Management frowned on Talk as being a "time waster." True to its operating system's name, Talk was missing some vital features -- the ability backspace to fix typos the most vexing among them.

A few years later CompuSlave, a pricey dial-up service included what they called Virtual Short Wave. They had chat room where people could converse and could change "teh" to "the." But at ten dollars for one hour online, long chats were unlikely for most people -- even those able to afford a $2000 state of the art 286 machine.

I was not able to use these services. But when upgrading from my beloved BananaWorks program to the less warm-and-fuzzy MiniSoft Works, a conversion program allowed me to chat with a friend across the room, perhaps the most civil conversation ever using two computers.

An upstart competitor, Americans Online, unleashed their monthly flat rate which sent CompuSlave, JEnie, and a few others flying into the dustbin of history. This service offered two types of chat rooms. One was like CompuSlave's and tightly controlled by "Moderators" hired to keep conversations civil and the language child-friendly. But anyone could start their own, unmoderated room where anything went -- including one's dignity (the abbreviation TMI was still a few years off).

There I met Dora, a pharmacy student from Mississippi. Dora initiated a private message which became very intense. Typing led to telephone conversations (at old long-distance rates) and they got even more intense -- tissue intense, if you must know.

It was only weeks later that I learned the truth. Dora was terrified at her growing attraction to a female classmate, and I was simply used to prove to her that she wasn't a lesbian. Having said that, I must admit she had a very sexy southern accent that could well turn on people of either sex. As I saw it, she underestimated her potential, but that is speaking as a Northerner; Southerners seem to still have different sensibilities on LGBTQ issues (among others).

Finland is an interesting country, a nation seemingly terrified of actual face-to-face conversation (ahead of their time?) In the 1990s, the Okay-ya Company popularized the cell phone -- years before Banana Computers came up with their tribute to disposable income, the Yphone. A Swiss Army knife (or possibly Rube Goldberg device) of miniaturized electronics and became a major biannual expense for many people. (Who'd need a phone that works for decades anyway?)

The Finns also invented Internet Chat. This was similar to chat rooms but giving the creator more power. The ability to kick out or ban abusive people. To allow only certain people to talk. To pass these powers onto others. This text-based environment, reminiscent of the wild west would become my home for the next fifteen years.

So chat rooms became channels, moderators become ops, and newbies were faced with the greater learning curve of a system designed by and for college IT students (the reason no Pikers senior editor was ever involved with Internet Chat). I chose a channel for writers (the literary kind -- not the CD burner/music pirate or graffiti vandal (or artists, as they claimed) kind who visited becoming abusive to learn we dealt with actual writing. ("Who reads nowadays? Lame!")

Most of the channel regulars were closer to my age. There were women questioning their spousal choice, men frustrated by unfulfilled fantasies, and teens who thought one raw draft of a short story made them a literary genius; all of them wrote, some were even published. All saw chat as something that could fulfill what was missing.

Kimmy was the most flirtatious and perhaps the most damaged. Married to a man who often spent weekends fishing with a co-worker and became abusive if the "co-worker" came to pick him up and there were dishes in the sink. (Clue!)

She was starved for male attention -- which Chat gave to her in droves. There was me and (at very conservative count), Anthony, a greyhound breeder, Rick, a published author who lived in the same county as me -- which had consequences pleasing to none of us, and Bobby, a painfully shy college student. Now I realize all of these were probably nice guys but I could only view them as rivals, how silly of me!

Due to my perceived online temper (typing speed, actually) Kimmy is the one Chat friend who won't friend me on FacePage, something I do regret.

College sophomore Crissy was way too young -- a fact she realized early on but I failed to. (Hint to any guy who hits 40, 19 is a dangerous age). Bethany was also 19 and "had issues." Unfortunately I neglected the more serious ones, possible borderline personality disorder, while finding the others intriguing (her desire to be painted silver and photographed frolicking naked through the countryside among them).

It ended very badly almost getting me banned from the channel. Fawn was actually younger than Bethany, but she understood where I was coming from and defended me when the ops considered banning me. We were reunited on FacePage. She's successful, happily (re)married and has kids. I'm happy for her.

For Lauren, Dianne, and Sherry read my Piker's story "A Bodysuit of Lies" for a plausible (if unlikely) theory regarding Sherry's arrival and departure from Chat.

Patty was a 40-something version of Bethany with a New Jersey accent (and attitude). For her, another heart broken was just another notch on her desk top.

Dianne suddenly reappears to this narrative (having warned me about Patty), and for years seemed to be "the one." But an obsessed real-life ex-bf and a medical emergency, from which she's only partially recovered, I realized it was not to be. I may regret the "what ifs" that never happened -- to either of us -- but I am fine with that, happy we're still friends (whether we will still be after she reads this remains to be seen.)I think I'm joking there, but hell, half or my Pikers stories and poems written between 2006 and 2010 were inspired by her.)

I did return, off and on, to Americans Online. First to a member room dealing with anxiety disorders. There, I met some very interesting people. George, the chat room's rounder, may have been related to the founder of a championship pro sports team -- he never claimed as much, but the name and hometown matched. Janey was interesting, but way too young and a bit too inked for my tastes. So it was back to the old Flirt's Nook (yes, that is actually what it was called).

There I met several women who inspired a subplot in my story "Expiration Date." Rae I particularly worry about. She was divorced from a man who nearly killed her when she joked about his tiny penis. She found happiness with another woman. Sadly her Latina/Apache heritage dictated that an abusive heterosexual relationship was superior to a healthy lesbian one.

There are other Chat platforms which have come and gone. The Castle was like Internet Chat but with 2D Avatars. Mandy was interesting but by then even I realized 19 was too young. Sadly, Mockingbird, the founder, made the rules and decided that the pentagram was a satanic symbol and could not be worn on an avatar. This is, of course, incorrect as a simple Google search could reveal -- but the founder was too firm in his ignorance. Always being fascinated by occult matter and increasingly drawn to Paganism, I left in protest and have kept in touch with a couple former members of Mockingbird's Mansion.

AnotherLife was like The Castle or Internet Chat in 3D. I learned about it from a computer podcast I listened to. I viewed it as an extension of Internet Chat and the Castle -- with a few fascinating, if prurient, unintended features -- or so the company Lime Laboratories claims. Sadly most people viewed AL as a role playing game like BattleCraft or Foreverquest, which took away from its potential to form lasting communities. But for four or so years, I did Internet Chat early evenings, and AnotherLife late into the night (seeing the sun come up is a clue you've been online too long).

I joined a Pagan group on Belaine (May Eve) and after numerous lengthy discussion, was ordained High Priest on Litha (Summer Solstice). No role-play, we took our rituals seriously, using actual Pagan texts and concepts and blending them with our own sensibilities. Daffodil Papadapolis was our Priestess. An intelligent woman, ambitious, talented, with a truly fucked-up real life. Her husband had a fishing buddy ... enough said there. So she went from one abusive partner to another. Her at-home drama badly affected her Other Life. She began missing rituals, failing to repair our "world"-- one sixth of a server, and was unable to pay the unrealistically high "tiers" for leasing server space.

An recent article re-posted on DUGG, a news-aggregate site founded by a former associate of the aforementioned podcast host, suggested the venue had failed. It is still there, but a shadow of its former self. As for Daffodil (Daffy?), we are still friends, I do hope she gets her life together and can resume her AnotherLife duties.

I still keep AnotherLife on my computer and occasionally visit -- usually walking aimlessly through the digital countryside. The Castle is still around but no longer easy to get on. Visits to Internet Chat have been depressing. One or two old-timers, several owner-owned but mute bots but a lot of silence.

So now we have FacePage and InstantGraham. They may have made Mike Sugarburg a billionaire, but they lack the immediacy and intimacy of any of the old venues. The confused, overlapping conversations. The seeing past the avatar into people's real lives -- sharing their joy and feeling their tragedies. Perhaps we are beyond the age of Internet intimacy and the world is a much sadder place for it.

Update: Since writing the first draft of this report, I've contacted an old Another Life friend, Aphrodite, a very attractive female avatar whose real life name is Federico. We've decided to bring back the group, but on a less ambitious slate and leaving the door open should Daffodil return. Keeping doors open is a good thing -- even on the Internet.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-07-22
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
Dan Mulhollen
05:18:38 PM
I should just state the people mentioned are real, the names have been whimsically altered to protect me from lawsuits.
03:54:16 PM
Too true. The evenings of chatting for fun and writing were healthy even if slightly impaired at times....who knew gin could be so dangerous?
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