rediscovering the internets.
In the late 1980s, when I was in college, Frank gave me a 300-baud modem. My mom had given me a cheap IBM clone for Christmas – this was my sophomore year in college, so that would put us at Christmas of 1988.
Frank showed me how to use the modem to dial into local BBS systems and download pirated games onto those big, 5 1/4″ floppy disks. He showed me how to use a hole puncher to double the memory in the disk, to accommodate more games. Pretty soon, I was dropping ten bucks a pop at Radio Shack on boxes of floppies, and downloading tons of stupid, monochrome games.
At 300 baud, when you accessed one of these BBS systems, you could actually read the text, scrolling across your computer screen, as it came across your phone lines.
About this time, one of my professors told me about CompuServe, an online service that provided access to what he termed “unlimited information.” So one day I went to the mall and bought the CompuServe Starter Kit, brought it home, and hooked myself up.
Initially, I had hoped to just be able to use it to get the news every day. Having grown up in the New York Metro area, I was finding a huge difference between the local newscasts at home – which were delivered by professional newscasters, and written by people at the pinnacles of their careers – and the crap in Hartford, which seemed to be written and delivered by interns.
Eventually, though, I discovered a forum called RockNet, which was an online forum – similar to today’s message boards – devoted to music. There were discussion groups where users wrote record reviews, discussed trends in music, arranged meetups at different shows, talked about news in music. There were a few people on RockNet who, in 1988 or 89, would have been considered music industry insiders, and they always seemed to have information a few weeks before it became public knowledge.
I became addicted to RockNet – not just to the information but to the people; I felt like I had friends there, and it was fun to catch up with them online each day.
At $12 an hour for connect fees.
Eventually I was running up American Express bills of $200 a month. My college job was not paying me enough money to cover the AmEx bill and pay my living expenses, so I began to fall behind in my credit card payments.
Eventually the folks who ran RockNet gave me a “free flag” – which basically made me an employee. My job was to “encourage activity on the message base,” which basically meant that I needed to post a lot of content, upload as many record reviews as possible, and get involved with discussions – even provoking arguments – all to get people to spend more money by being connected longer.
They also told me about a program called TapCIS, which you could use to log into CompuServe, go into RockNet, and download all the most recent threads and posts. Then, you could respond to them offline, log back in, and it would upload your responses. Instead of spending 45 minutes online, you were on and off in just a minute or two.
But I didn’t like TapCIS, and my free flag on RockNet did not absolve me of the CompuServe connect charges. By the time I upgraded to a 1200-baud modem, I had run up a huge balance on American Express, and the summer after my junior year in college, the kind folks at AmEx decided that they needed their card back, and that they could no longer patiently wait for me to pay them the $2,000 that I owed them.
I had to beg my father for the money.
As a senior, I was finished with national online services (America Online and Prodigy were beginning to become popular, and seemed cooler than CompuServe, but I knew I’d just fall into the same trap with both of them). I still used the modem to snag pirated games and access the message boards at the University of Hartford’s VAX, but that was it.
I still had the modem, but was in no position to begin incurring any sort of extra expenses. Even with the whopping $4,000 raise I got for starting my new job, it’s not like we had any extra money. Any spare dollars went right to Dromedary, and I didn’t trust my addictive personality enough to sign up for any online services.
So I tried to explain this to Keith while visiting him in San Diego.
“It’s a shame, man,” he explained. “There’s lots of resources on the internet for you. There are lots of cool places that a guy with an indie label could go.”
He told me about the “Velvet Rope” forum at America Online, which was sort of a private message board for music industry insiders. He told me about a private mailing list (a concept I couldn’t fathom at the time) for indie rock fans, musicians, and record label owners. He explained to me that the mailing list was invitation only, and that the group had lots of rules about your behavior, and about maintaining privacy and about self-promotion (I won’t name the list because it still exists and I’m still on it, although it’s been ten years since I’ve posted anything to it).
“You really need to get on the internet,” he said.
“The internet” wasn’t even a term I was familiar with at this point. I had a lot of experience using online services, local BBSs and the University VAX, but “The Internet” was something that I thought of when I thought of cyberpunk novels. And, having experienced the folks at American Express revoking my credit card due to nonpayment, I wasn’t very hip to the idea of getting started with another online service – and another bill for Dromedary.
At the same time, the idea did have a certain appeal, because I knew how much I still had to learn, and I had a deep understanding of how quickly you could build an online relationship with someone.
In the real, physical world, you might get introduced to someone at a club or something – you’d have a brief period of time to interact with them, maybe strike up a conversation bound by all the rules of normal social interaction, and then you go home. It’s a while before you can actually pick up the phone and call that person, or invite them to lunch or whatever.
Online, as everyone has come to understand, it’s a whole different animal. Although you lack that face-to-face interaction that’s so important, it’s also much easier to have a one-on-one discussion. And its way easier to initiate one. Fire off an email with a friendly introduction, and it’s actually impolite not to respond. Walk up to a stranger in a bar and start a conversation, though, and you’re a weirdo.
So I broke out the modem again, and started accessing some local BBS systems.
At the time, America Online was distributing startup diskettes everywhere. Ev. Ry. Where. Every magazine had one stuck inside it. Every couple of days, another one would come in the mail, shrinkwrapped to a postcard.
Rich actually had begun collecting them; he used them as coasters. He must have had fifty of them.
I took one, popped it into my computer, and took advantage of their introductory offer – which was something like 300 free minutes.
I was back online.
It was right about this time that I overheard one of the funniest conversations I’d ever heard in my life. I was waiting on line at the bank, and there were two men behind me – maybe 65 years old.
The first guy says, “So, what do you think about this new superhighway they’re going to build?”
The second guy says, “What superhighway?”
The first guy says, “You know – the one for all the information.”
Second guy responds, “I think it’s going to cost too much money.”
First guy says, “Yeah. That’s what I think.”