The first online community I belonged to was in 1983, when my family got a Hayes Micromodem II for our Apple II computer and I hunted around for a few bulletin board systems (BBSs) to join. I've made and kept in touch with many of my friends via computers ever since—about two-thirds of my life so far.
The vibe of those online communities has changed a lot. BBSs were, by their nature, local. The typical ones I visited consisted of a dedicated Apple II or Commodore 64 or IBM PC in a teenage boy's closet or bedroom, hooked up to an extra dedicated phone line rented as an indulgence by parents or paid for from the sysop's (system operator's) part-time job. (A few even only ran late-night hours on the family phone line.) Because of long-distance charges, pretty much everyone who signed in to a BBS would be from the local Vancouver calling area, and those of us who were members got pretty good at knowing where a system was by the prefix—92x was the North Shore, 22x was the West Side, 43x was Burnaby, etc. Everyone used pseudonyms (mine was The Grodd), not really for any particular anonymity, but just because that was the tradition.
Only one person could be on the board at a time, so interactions were serial: I would set my modem to dial, and if the line was busy (or if the sysop was on the system or performing maintenance), it would retry until it got through. Then I'd check my email and the public message boards, post any replies, and log off. While I was doing that no one else could post anything, since I was using up the only phone line, and that was, in its way, liberating. I knew that while I was on, no one else could barge into a discussion thread.
That limitation even let bunches of us write long, relatively incoherent collaborative novel-length fiction pieces, because when one person was writing, no one else could take the plot off track. Some of us have tried to do the same in the Internet era, with artificial restrictions on whose "turn" it was to write, but it never worked as well.
What anyone raised on broadband Internet would find hard to believe is that our modems worked at 300 bits per second (which was also 300 baud, but let's not go there). When reading email or messages, words would therefore spill out in glowing green or amber on the monitor of my Apple II at a little less than 40 characters per second, which was a decent reading speed. At the time I saw little need for anything faster. Why, after all, would I need a modem that could send text faster than I could read it?
Later most of us upgraded to 1200 bps modems, and that was a major benefit when it came time to swap pirated software. (Yes, youthful indiscretions. I apologize to Brøderbund Software once again for never purchasing a copy of Choplifter.) At 300 bps, using a program like ASCII Express, two Apple II users could connect directly to each other over a phone line and swap software programs, while chatting at the same time. That was worthwhile because a program of only a few hundred kilobytes (like Choplifter) could take hours to exchange.
There were dozens of BBSs in the Vancouver area through the 1980s and into the early '90s, and even as the Internet and took hold, many of us continued to use them until the Web and widespread Internet email made BBSs superfluous. Since we were all local, some of us would meet up on occasion—one of the biggest such get-togethers was at Expo 86, where I met many of the people I'd been conversing with for two or three years in person for the first time.
By 1987 a particular group of us were hanging out together all the time (often at Denny's, late at night), so that the BBS and in-person sides of our relationships complemented each other. We went on camping trips, and often roamed about the city on strange excursions, so we called ourselves the Excursionists. Four of us became roommates, and I still play in a band with one.
When I first thought about writing this post, it came as a bit of a lament: that kind of local BBS-driven geek network couldn't really arise today, I thought. And then I considered groups like those who organize Northern Voice and the agglomerations I'm finding on Facebook, and I realize that they are not so different. Our online communications are less serialized—dozens of people can be on a single IM chat at once, for instance—but there is a very similar feel to the community overall, a sense of shared geekiness than can now encompass the local area, yes, but also people from all over the world of a similar bent.
Maybe I've changed more than the Vancouver online geek communities have. I'm not a teenager now, I'm 38 and a husband and father and cancer patient. But I still have that Ikea desk downstairs, and it still has the stubborn double-sided tape on the underside that used to hold my modem in 1983. Now the desk is part of a podcasting studio.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I guess.