Community Service

Alain Pilon

We live in a Dilbertian strip of isolated drones, so the story goes, but online the water never runs dry; you can connect, kibitz, fall in love. It's a ubiquitous mantra: "community." Free home page services like Tripod and GeoCities boast 2 million members each; even portals like Excite and Yahoo! are jumping into the game with DIY online clubhouses where a surfer can, at no cost, build a site with message boards and chat. Ready to join the party? Well, lemme tell ya about a beautiful ISP down in the Everglades. . . .

For many early online settlers, this ceaseless shilling of community elicits a primal cringe. Almost a decade ago, during the preboom years of the Net, community was their domain. Like-minded neuromancers would plug a cryptic black box called a modem between their computer and phone line, then dial up directly to someone else's box. Text-based bulletin board services (BBSs) were places where they'd swap messages about William T. Vollmann or hackers or strap-ons. They kibitzed. They fell in love. But now, say the hypers of the new communities— and even some of the pioneers themselves— the BBSs are dead.

Many BBSers have gotten either burnt out or bored. Famed hacker Phiber Optik, Feed ( editor Stephen Johnson, and Electronic Hollywood ( founder Jaime Levy no longer post. Just a few years ago, it was novel and rather exciting to type with distant strangers in real-time. Online, the popular adage went, no one knew you were a dog. By now, the word is out, Rover.

Daniel Pinchbeck, co-editor of the art and literary journal Open City, grew tired of what he says was often aggressive intellectual discourse on Echo and The Thing. "It was beginning to feel like an insidious form of torture in my life," he says. "You would post something and all these vultures would start screeching at you." Word editor Marisa Bowe credits Echo's salon with helping to launch her career. Lately, though, she doesn't log on to discuss Hegel, but to find out where to buy bathroom tiles and curtain rings. "Once Word got going," she explains, "I didn't have time or energy to participate with the manic fervor of yore."

Still, BBSs— like Monty Python's plague victim in The Holy Grail— are not quite dead yet. Small, local groups of low-fi souls continue to pay nominal monthly fees to converse online in text-heavy environs. Writers M. G. Lord and Douglas Cooper, and P.S. 122 director Mark Russell, are among the early Echoids who remain active. And according to Echo founder Stacy Horn, the BBS loses only one-half of 1 percent of its members each month. (Because BBS fees are often automatically billed, staying connected is a passive decision, which may explain why some members are so conspicuously silent.) Across the world, there are BBSs devoted to everything from Bosnia to holistic medicine. Bay Area­based The Well— the mothership of them all— is midway through its 13th year. ("There is no way to stamp out the BBS subcultures," wrote Well scribe Howard Rheingold in his 1993 book, The Virtual Community, "unless you shut down the telephone system or go back to the 1970's and un-invent the microprocessor.")

Here in New York City, NYC NET and After Hours have also survived the eclipse of AOL and the tremors of Silicon Alley. While some local BBSs such as SonicNet have migrated completely to the Web (with accompanying bells and whistles), almost all are having to deal with the triple-dub in some form or another. They're either hosting promotional sites for the dial-up services or figuring out how to offer the core of their communities— message boards— via the Web. Todd Sowers, founder of the gay and lesbian NYC NET, recently moved his community to the Web after three years as a dial-up BBS. As with most BBSs, the need for someone to dial a 212 area code kept his community city-bound. "We were always about New York," Sowers says, "about walking out your front door and talking to the person you were chatting with online." Moving to the Web, with its accompanying distractions, doesn't sacrifice the sense of community, he says, since surfers must still pay a monthly fee. "Our philosophy hasn't changed," he explains. "Our entranceway has."

The fee (necessitated, in part, by a lack of advertising) is what makes a BBS gated; Web-based communities like GeoCities offer free memberships to anyone who fills out an online form. Understandably, Echo's membership hovers at 3500 while GeoCities' is 2.7 million (with 60,000 estimated to come from New York). And whereas conferencing is the heart of Echo, it's an afterthought of GeoCities, where only 20 percent of members participate; clearly, the free personal Web pages are the draw.

Horn takes exception to GeoCities' marketing. "They're hopping on the bandwagon," she says. "It's not a community, it's just a bunch of Web pages." Those who join seeking a community, she thinks, will likely be disappointed. The problem, Rheingold concurs, is that a virtual community requires nurturing. This takes the form of skilled hosts to help guide the flow of conversation in forums, as well as sophisticated software to integrate features such as instant messaging, forums, and chat. A film forum on Echo, for example, is set up as a minisalon, with a leader to keep conversation flowing; the Godzilla forum on GeoCities, by comparison, is more like a hit and run, where anyone— even nonmembers— can leave their screeds. "When you [grow] a population [from] a few thousand to millions it changes the nature of the population," Rheingold says. "On the Web, it's mostly teenage babblers who have fun wrecking things." A bit of an overstatement, for sure, but then again, Rheingold admits, even on the Well "there were always assholes."

But for the Trumps of new media marketing, like Tripod's wunderkind president and CEO Bo Peabody, community is about more than chatter. "Echo and the Well are just conversations," he says via e-mail. "Tripod is a full blown community. . . . In addition to having conversations, you can build a house (a home page), send your mail (e-mail), read your paper (personalization), buy your goods (commerce partners), and set up your own store (the Tripod affiliate program), among other things."

Defining virtual communities is becoming more complicated online now that they're taking on so many forms: BBSs and Web-based communities, newsgroups, mailing lists, and commercial services. The sheer accessibility of these other groups poses what's probably the biggest threat to a small-town­style BBS. Back in the day, it wasn't easy to navigate a BBS; in fact, Echo still uses wrist-cramping command lines. Because of the technical savvy required to use these services, says Bruce Fancher, cofounder of MindVox, the early-'90s hacker BBS in New York, members were more committed and engaged. (Though MindVox has been unplugged since 1996, Fancher plans to relaunch it soon on the Web.) "Dialogue was better by virtue of the fact that this was the first group of people online," Fancher recalls. "You had to be a little bit of a hacker, since you couldn't just call AOL and pop a disc in to get online. People were going online for a reason: they were motivated."

While many BBSs make the transition to the Web, others are clinging to their roots. After Hours, a 12-year-old BBS in the city, has this message on its Web site: "Are you tired of stupid animated icons? Have you gone bug-eyed viewing page after page of the same crap? Are you fed up with reading endless banner ads? It's all just meaningless eye candy. When you recover, check out some real people, having some real conversations on the last BBS on earth."

Indie posturing, maybe. Ultimately, says Sowers, the charm of a BBS versus a Web community is really a matter of logistics. "We can all dream about this Net that's woven together, where you meet friends in Japan," says Sowers. "But at the end of the day, you can't go to movies with them."

One of five articles in our Cyber feature.

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