A World, Transformed: Love In The Early Internet

Twenty-four years ago, I dialed up to CompuServe via a modem to talk about Star Wars. I had no idea my future wife was posting there.

Even if I’d been looking for love – which I wasn’t – the Internet back then was small and furtive. There were no selfies, because that was a technological accomplishment: you had to have a physical camera, then get your snapshots developed at the PhotoHut, and then a scanner to scan it in, and an FTP program to upload it to a site you owned. There were no videos. There were only crude, blocky emojis cobbled together from stray bits of punctuation.

There was only text.

Sane people didn’t fall in love through text.

So love never occurred to us.

My future wife, however, was (and remains) both a phenomenal debater and writer, so instead we argued ferociously (and platonically) for four years about every topic that came our way. She smacked me down whenever I made a terrible point, I took her to task for her weak opinions, we went toe-to-toe with each other in enthusiastic polemics and then engaged in one-upmanship pun wars that went on for weeks.

You couldn’t do better as a staging ground for unrecognized sapiosexual attractions, really.

But what strikes me as amazing is how inconvenient and lonely our discussions were back then… and it wasn’t so long ago.

We had to dial up via phone, and back then that meant landlines, and I was not so rich that I could afford two lines. So I’d clog up the phone in our apartment, and pay hourly connection fees to Compuserve, downloading threads and hoarding replies to save money, all for this bizarre textual connection.

A connection that literally nobody I talked to valued.

The Internet was viewed as a place made for weirdos those days. People barely understood computers, as this was in a day when “Word Processing” was a skill that genuinely added value to a resume. Telling strangers you had a social life online led to people asking what “online” meant.

And those who did know thought you did it only if you had no real-life friends – which was accurate for me, as I was in a lonely place after a move because I had taken a new job in a new city and was too socially anxious to ask anyone to hang out with me. I had my girlfriend, who’d moved out with me, but we weren’t the kind of couple who did well just hanging out with each other 24/7 for literally years at a time.

Having friends on the Internet was a dirty secret. If I talked about them like they were real people, folks would ask if I’d met them, what I really knew about these people, why were they so sad and lifeless that they’d have to talk to losers like me online.

The strands that connected the real world to the Internet were so tenuous in those days. People did cool things on the Internet, but there was no YouTube or easy way to pass around photos, so a big “viral” post maybe got to about 500 people before it guttered out. The idea of meeting someone you knew online was such a big deal that we held entire threads devoted to each crossing, encouraging both people to post their (usually positive) opinions of each other so the rest of us could imagine what our online buddies might be like if we ever shared a beer.

There were no cheap laptops, no cell phones that could connect, no workable wi-fi. Every time I talked to them I had to return home, to my place with the wired connection and the desktop computer, and boot up my specialty program.

And when my wife and I realized that, in fact, we were now both single and in love with each other, it was a forbidden love. Only losers used electronic dating services. (Watch “Harold and Maude” for an example of how it was viewed back in the 70s, and it was no better come the 90s.) The only time online love was discussed was on Geraldo’s show about how they were all secret murderers.

Telling people “We met online” back then usually caused a frozen, polite smile and a step backwards as they fumbled for something nice to say. It just… wasn’t done. Not by normal people, anyway.

But I loved my wife long before I ever saw her face.

(Though we did exchange photos, snapshots sent through the mail, before I flew to Alaska to meet with her. We weren’t crazy crazy.)

And the reason I bring all this up today is because the final CompuServe forums are closing down this December. I didn’t even know they were still running. I thought about finding the first post where I ever contradicted Gini (or she lambasted me), but those archives are gone.

But for us, it’s the end of an era.

And I think about how the world I knew only twenty-someodd years ago has been obliterated. If you’re twenty-three now, you probably have no real emotional concept of how playing videogames legitimately used to be something you could be mocked for doing in high school – and now they outsell movies. Electronic dating is now rapidly outstripping “We met at work” as a connection. Hashtags cause politicians to tremble.

The Internet has melded with the real world in ways that I never would have predicted back when I listened to my modem make that scratchy electronic throat-clearing noise so I could download the latest text-threads about the Death Star Trench Run.

And the Internet is, of course, full of horrors and revelations. It can’t not be; it’s full of humans, and we’re all mixed bags of kindness and cruelty. There’s unexpected ramifications – I didn’t think that a deep love of videogames would lead to Gamergate would lead to revitalized right-wing movements, but, well, here we are.

But never forget: there’s also love.

There’s also connection.

There’s also hope, and answers to loneliness.

I think of me, accidentally finding my wife in text. I think of friends (and lovers) who I’ve met in emails or texts or what-have-you, genuine friends who’ve supported me through some pretty dark places even though we may never have physically met.

And I think of all those people who didn’t understand why they felt so out of place until they stumbled across someone else who was trans, or asexual, or kinky, or gay – connections they might have never made were they restricted to physical meetups in a smaller town. I think of the endless generosity of people on the net, all those GoFundMes promoted by friends forged on the Internet and often donated to by strangers with compassion in their hearts.

The Internet is about kinships, and making those connections are easier than ever.

I met my wife online, back before Twitter or Facebook or even ICQ was a thing. And I think of how someone right now is meeting the love of their life online. Maybe they don’t know it. We didn’t.

I wish them a future as weird and wonderful as what we got.

Goodnight, CompuServe.

Good morning, new kinships. In whatever grand and glorious form you choose to take.

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