Echoing Forth

"My father smashed my mother's brains in with a hammer when I was 14 years old," recounts Simon Egleton, a musician and longtime member of the New York online bulletin board Echo (echonyc.com). "He hit her 17 times--snuck up behind her in the bathroom... Part of me still loves him. Mind you, I got love to burn."

It's a rare, harrowing moment in Echo founder Stacy Horn's new book Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town. Mixed in with the irreverent wit and bountiful eccentricities of other Echo members' stories, Egleton's account feels like a somber throwaway. But in the framework of Horn's raunchy, heartfelt memoir, his testimonial makes her point perfectly: as she says later, "Because language is all we have, language is what we use to cope."

For Horn, that evidently includes using "fuck you" twice on the first page, broaching the spit-or-swallow blowjob debate a page later, and confessing that she likes "dogstyle" as an ID. If anything, Cyberville is about making Echo--the 3500-member BBS she created in 1989 with $20,000 of her own money--a place for all kinds of honesties. Uninhibited and very loosely structured, Horn's book makes a radical break with other work on the same subject, like the more thoughtful The Virtual Community by Bay Area BBS mensch Howard Rheingold and/or the human calculus of Net Gain. In fact, Horn admits she hasn't even read them. Instead, she probes the personal lives of her employees, her own online romances, the politics of "banishing" a proto-Nazi, even the giddy rush of helping John John choose an online ID (he picked "flash").

But Cyberville is most successful when Horn lets Echo speak for itself--which it does astonishingly well. The chapters are interspersed with uproarious postings of Echo members from the "I Hate Myself" conference, where users vent with self-pitying brilliance (e.g., "I hate myself because I can't think of anything else to do at the moment, except laundry, and I already did that," wrote one). Horn treats Echo's biggest controversies by simply running their transcripts, like the one that erupted when a male, pre-op transsexual asked to be allowed into the women-only conference WIT.

As a one-woman crusade, how did Horn manage to fill the ports with eager callers? According to Marisa Bowe, once the conference manager on Echo and now editor in chief of the webzine Word (word.com), Horn recognized early on the key collateral for revenue: women. When she started the service, "the net was an all male environment--a world of UNIX users that didn't have very good social skills," says Bowe. "Women were intimidated by the technology, so Stacy gave them free accounts at the beginning [for the entire 1990 year] and made it approachable." The service is now 40 per cent female, with an even XX/XY split among the conference hosts, much higher than the WELL stats.

With women as the selling point and the book as the catalyst, Horn is now looking to burnish the Echo profile and drive up membership to 10,000 (about 1000 members log on monthly). To do it effectively, Horn will first have to solve Echo's most persistent problem--the interface. I joined Echo last spring, and I still get disoriented from the dizzying sprawl and obscure codes of her "Caucus" software. Horn replies, "I know, the software sucks." But as Echoid Brett Leveridge points out, "If it were a simple interface, one that anyone could use... I think we'd have more people here who feel no real connection to this place."

The bigger challenge is to convince the Alley that Echo is still relevant. Many Alley Web developers view the text-based Echo--any BBS for that matter--as completely outdated, rendered obsolete by the Graphical User Interface of the Web. In 1995, indie-music hub SonicNet (sonicnet.com) made the leap to the Web, remaking itself from a BBS to an online music news and entertainment site, because they wanted to keep growing.

Horn is sitting it out until she's satisfied with the software to migrate, but she admits, "I'm in a terrible holding position." Meanwhile, she's transformed Echo into one of the most lively social circuits in the city, with the "Read Only" series at KGB bar and the "Alt.film" program. As her book makes clear, Horn is far more interested in the face-to-face interactions than data-mining and 2-D pillow talk. "Yes, it's very worthwhile to get all this info online--but ultimately it's about relationships," she says. And in the raucous, familial intimacy she has created online, there's just one rule: "I don't want to be the mom."


Don't Ask, Don't E-mail

As the major news media outlets report on the outrageous discharge of sailor Timothy McVeigh (no relation) because he listed "gay" as his marital status in his AOL user profile, the best coverage was happening online--behind AOL's own walls. PlanetOut (planetout.com), an AOL and Web-based news and entertainment site for gays and lesbians, featured a GLORadio interview with McVeigh, political insight, and court testimony from McVeigh's own Web site. Most of their reporting focuses on just how the Navy may have duped AOL into violating its own terms of service by giving out a name.

McVeigh, a 17-year veteran, is slotted to be discharged, pending review, Wednesday for violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule, but has been trying to build an appeal. AOL allegedly dropped McVeigh's account because he was sending a "chain letter" (read: a petition in his defense), but AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose would not confirm it because "we don't comment on the status of our members' accounts." Prodigy immediately offered McVeigh an account free for life.

Many gay AOL users were unaware of the situation. In a circuit of six full gay chat rooms, this reporter did not encounter a single user who was familiar with McVeigh's case; on the other hand, I was welcomed with a barrage of Instant Message solicitations ("Click here for the Best Porn"), later followed by this: "I think half this room has AIDS."


Signal and Noise

What Was That About "Bundling"?: As rumors surfaced about Microsoft's withering support of Sidewalk, its 10-city guide (sidewalk.com), staffers were called into a meeting last week and told that press leaks "hurt all of us" and that the official word on scaling back will be coming soon. With dozens of different properties online, Microsoft finally added a pull-down menu to their sites to link from one to the other. A larger consolidation might be in the works...

Facelift: Meanwhile, Wired is undergoing its own reorg. Hotwired (hotwired.com) underwent a massive redesign last week, while Wired magazine and Wired Digital prepare to move back in together in SF. Word is ex-editor Louis Rossetto will move from the magazine to overseeing Wired Digital properties (like Wired News) this spring...

DIY: IndieWIRE, which runs a 6000-subscriber-strong newsletter for the independent film community, just launched its first autonomous Web site (www.indiewire.com), featuring personal accounts about getting distribution, and a lively discussion area. The debut article? "Independent Film Is Dead."... EShuffle Play: Streamlined music site cductive.com, launched this month, lets fans of techno, house, drum'n'bass, and acid jazz compile their own CD mixes for $7.99 for the first song and 99 cents for each additional one. Though a burgeoning business online (see N2K's own "e--mod" service or customdisc.com), the pickings can be slim: major labels are still very shy about contributing.

E-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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