Recently I’ve been hit by a big wave of nostalgia. The source of that nostalgia is Twitter and Tweetups, and in particular the WichiTweeps group. It reminds me a lot of days I thought were gone – the old BBS era.
I got into BBS’s back in the day when online communication wasn’t pervasive yet. Internet access to the home wasn’t even a thought yet – there were only 10,000 hosts on the Internet back in 1987, and not a single one of them hosted a website. Tim Berners Lee hadn’t developed “The World Wide Web” yet. And being connected to another computer via a modem was a novelty at best for most people. And yes – at the tender age of 15 I was starting to get connected to BBS’es via my Amiga. I’ve always been a geek. Now I’m just an old geek with stories like “back in my day, we connected to ONE other computer at 1200 baud! And we liked it! Now you damned kids get off my lawn!”
In fact, if I tried to explain BBS’es to people back then, you just got odd stares. Why talk with people online when you could just pick up the phone and talk in person? At first the reason had little to do with social interaction so much as convincing sysops of some local wares BBS to increase my download limits – piracy was a good use for a modem back then.
But slowly I started to check out sites with a more social focus, like The Precipice. Instead of only one person talking to a sysop, a whopping SIX people could talk at the same time. Slowly I began to worry less and less about pirating, and me and a buddy of mine, Rich, would stay up way too late on a school night chatting online.
A lot of it was novelty, but the people we found online were similar to us: geeks. It wasn’t just a male thing either – there were both sexes on there. Most of them intelligent people, a little more open minded than the general guy on the street, and almost always valued a good conversation. And when people think 1980’s geeks, they think the stereotypes from movies like Revenge of the Nerds – taped glasses, socially awkward, and basement dwellers. The people on Precipice were rarely like that. For that matter – neither was I. I had some geeky tendencies, but I definitely didn’t fit any of that stereotype.
Eventually The Precipice died – this always happened with BBS’es. No matter how good they were, they eventually succumbed to the economic realities of keeping such an expensive hobby or business alive. For a while, there was a lull in my online communication – all of the multi-line BBS’es like Precipice had died in Wichita.
Probably around 1991, a friend turned me on to something – there were multi-line BBS back in Wichita, Kansas again! Elysian Fields became, for me anyway, the hight of the BBS era. Games, chat rooms, and all sorts of good stuff. I spent a TON of time on there.
The important part of Elysian Fields was that, again, it was mostly like minded geeks of all sexes and ages, but this time we didn’t restrict ourselves to just chatting online. There were parties were people met up and dealt with each other face to face. Almost everyone who logged into EF was a local in Wichita or the surrounding area, so there was no long travel for a party – we were all right there.
A lot of real world friendships were created there. I even dated a couple of the girls that I had met at Elysian Fields inspired parties – one I dated off and on for two years. Ok, another one I dated for a whopping two weeks, though we hung out quite a bit after that.
Don’t get me wrong – not everyone was cool and awesome. But with the BBS’es, you could pick and choose – anyone you didn’t like to deal with you just typed /ignore and forgot about ’em. You social scene on the BBS was just as selective, or maybe even more so, than you social scene in real life.
Elysian Fields wasn’t alone in Wichita – there were a number of others like Lightwave, Sherer’n Place, and a couple of others. Where one could exist for long enough, others were sure to try.
Now, I’m describing my experience with Elysian Fields. The truth is that the environment was flexible enough you could make the experience what you wanted it to be. You could in theory opt to filter out everyone but the people you wanted to talk to. You didn’t have to be a social person and go to the EF gatherings and parties. You could just spend you time on there playing games like Tradewars or Red Dragon Inn. It was up to you.
Slowly, the Internet began to spread. At first it was a tool that enabled the BBS’es a bit – you could now telnet between BBS’es, seeing all the text based glory that is a BBS in another town, but still chat with the people in your own town at the same time. Then the Web started gaining hold, and BBS’es began a slow transformation into a strange hybrid Internet Service Provider and BBS system.
And eventually, they died. But a lot of the friendships that build up there continued well after the BBS days were long over. I remained friends with Dragon’s Bane, Gambit, Amazon, Wolfie, Dragon’s Lady, and a whole host of people from that era for years. Some of them I still either talk to on a frequent basis, or run into from time to time.
Internet based chat rooms became the new thing – but I could never quite get into them. After having experienced the BBS’es, they were poor imitations, and they lacked that “local component” – everything became about the novelty of globalization of the world. Why talk to 12 people in your city when you could talk to 100 from around the world?
Instant messaging systems came and went, but for me they became about remaining connected with my existing pool of friends, not extending my social circle. And tools like ICQ were just as bad about the globalization factors as the online chat rooms were.
And of course, things like MySpace and Facebook popped up. This time the focus wasn’t quite as global – while MySpace tries to connect you with the world, Facebook seems to put a little more emphasis on finding people you might already know in the local area. But for me it just ended boring, and didn’t draw me out socially.
Quite a while back I created a Twitter account just to see what all the hype was about. And initially I couldn’t find a single reason to like it. I treated it like a blogging platform for a while, but restricted to 140 words, I really didn’t get it.
When I started my first book, I used it was a possible way for people to keep track of my work on the book. Every time I posted in WordPress, it mirrored the headline and a link to my Twitter account. Which resulted in… well, nothing interesting at first.
Eventually @WichitaCindy found me on there. She acts as a sort of… connection point for people who are Tweeters in Wichita. I chatted with her off and on for a week, until one day she says “Hey everybody – follow @MidnightRyder!” Within a couple days I went from 10 people in my list to 25.
Then she asked if I had a Facebook account – which I do, though it was almost completely blank for quite a while. She added me as a friend on there, and that’s when I discovered Tweet Ups in Wichita.
Tweetups among the WichiTweeps come in two flavors – scheduled, and unscheduled. Sometimes people just say “Hey, I’m going out for tea at @Zoomdweebies – I’ll be there at five. Anyone want to go?”, that’s obviously an unscheduled. For scheduled Tweet Ups, they combined some of the abilities of Facebook for scheduling events – who’s attending, who isn’t, where it’s at, etc.
Something I haven’t mentioned was that at one time I was an incredibly outgoing person. If I walked into a party, by the end of the night everyone knew who I was, and that wasn’t because I took off my pants or something ridiculous like that (though odd events like that have been known to happen.) I just ended up talking to everyone.
After the end of the Gamer Zone saga (detailed in The Story of Gamer Zone), I was burned out. I quit being social, and became damned near completely anti-social. Towards the end of two years, it wasn’t just anti-social anymore, I was actually having social anxiety problems. NOT a good sign for someone who was once social.
I got invited to one of the scheduled Tweet Ups – the WichiTweets 2008 Christmas party @victortarm & @julietarm’s house. Hrm. I really wanted to break out of my anti-social shell, but good god – this was a bunch of people I didn’t know. Once upon a time I could have walked into a room with no one I knew, spent 10 minutes getting the “vibe” of the people there, and start partying down. Now… ug. I wasn’t sure how in the hell I could do it.
As luck would have it, an unoffical Tweet Up happened the day before – I got to meet @WichitaCindy, so I knew at least ONE person at the party. Unfortunately, when I showed up for the party, well, frick… she wasn’t there yet.
I had explained my social situation to @WichitaCindy ahead of time, and she explained that most of the people at the Tweetups were intelligent, open minded, outgoing people. And if someone is new, well, usually someone tries to draw them into the action.
Immediately this began reminding me of the old BBS days. If someone was a new face at a party, half the people would end up introducing themselves and finding out what the person’s screen name is. New people were accepted quite readily, as long as they weren’t jerks in the BBS.
It ended up being a great party, and started my on my way out of my shell quickly, more than any other situation I’ve thrown myself into in the last year to try and break this funk. And yep, before the party was over, I had even ended up taking off my pants (thanks to a loosing bet in a strip poker game.)
Most of the time when you meet people at a party, there’s a good chance you won’t talk to them again until the next party unless there’s a particularly strong connection there. Not with Tweet Ups. Instead, everyone you met exchanges Twitter account names, and you add them.
One other thing worth mentioning here is that I’m single. No, that’s not an attempt to say “And ladies…? He’s single!” as a pickup line. It’s one of my secondary motives for getting out and about – rarely does someone really want to spend their life single. But I’ve already hit the dating sites and… holy smokes that’s a disaster. I’m pretty specific – I like beautiful, intelligent, funny women. And geeky or gamer? That’s like icing on the cake. And it’s something I don’t really compromise on – my definition of beautiful isn’t a super model or actress, but it’s still a narrow focus. But that constellation of attributes is important to me. Why would I be in a relationship with someone I didn’t find sexually attractive, have wonderful intelligent conversations with, and go out and have as much fun in life as I like to? It struck me rather quickly that running around in a group like this increases the chances of finding that sort of mate again.
I’ve been to a grand total of four Tweet Ups now, and it really does remind my a lot of the old BBS days with Elysian Fields. While Twitter is a perfectly acceptable global tool for communication, when focused on a local scene along with a tool like FaceBook, it mirrors A LOT of the social interactivity of the BBS’s that acted on a local scope.
In some ways, it’s even better – the signal to noise ratio is very adjustable. In the BBS world, you started out talking to everyone, then whittled it down a bit to remove the people you absolutely didn’t want to talk to. There were a lot of people that fell into a sort of “grey area” were you didn’t dislike them enough to remove them, but didn’t really care that much what they said.
With Twitter, you start with nothing, and build you way up. Add people that you met at the last party, see what sort of things they talk about on Twitter, then decide if you want to keep them in your list. Some people are quite, and only tweet one or two things a day (or even per week.) Some people talk non-stop. My comfort zone is somewhere in between.
@SheaSylvia is the person I lost the bet to that resulted in me being pants less. I didn’t think she had the balls to take the bet. My bad. Anyway, she had an interesting post that highlights one of the points I made about the BBS, and highlights an important point about Twitter too. Her blog post pointed out the things she hates about people’s behavior on Twitter. Very few of those points did I agree with really. But that’s because I can use Twitter my way, with my rules that determine who stays and who goes in my list, and she can use a completely different ruleset.
Even cooler than the BBS is it’s interaction without limits. At my desk at the office, I use Twitteriffic with Growl notification turned on – throughout the day, about once every five minutes, it does that chime-bird twitter thing, and I get another drip of social interaction in the upper left hand corner of my screen. A quick glance tells me if it’s something I’m interested in. It doesn’t matter if I’m working – I don’t have to break my stride to get that quick social fix. But I’m not restricted to my desk – I’ve got an iPhone, so I’ll be setting having lunch with The Plumber (from The Story of Gamer Zone) and check to see what new Tweets there are while I’m chatting with him, maybe even post a quick one line item. In theory, I could Twitter from the shower – though I think I’ll pass on that one. There’s nothing I could say in the shower on Twitter that couldn’t wait 10 minutes until I was done.
In instant messaging systems, or even playing World of Warcraft, random people that you don’t already know are almost like a figment of your imagination. You could just as easily be hallucinating these people – they have no substance, they aren’t real. But when you combine something like Twitter with real world interactions, suddenly you’ve changed it. People on there you chat with suddenly have substance. It’s no longer random electrons that suddenly assembled themselves into semi-intelligible sentences, they are real people that you’ll see in two weeks at a Tweet Up at the bar. Twitter becomes a constant I. V. drip of social interaction with people who’s voice and face you know.
@WichitaCindy had mentioned to me that you have to decide what you want out of Twitter before you’ll get something useful out of it.
For me, apparently what I wanted most was the old social life I had in the BBS days.
Next time I’ll be rambling for way too long about the unique place we are in history now. Anthropologists and historians spend a huge amount of time trying to piece together our social past from little snippets. Future historians have a very different task they will be dealing with.
I’m outta here!