I remember communicating with “Shari” online in the early 80s, liking and enjoying her abundant intelligence and enthusiasm. What I did not know then was her real name was Dawn, how old she was, what she looked like, etc. As her story points out, the anonymity and freedom of the online world could be transformational. We were only barely beginning to discover how vast the transformation would be. – Mike
By Dawn Debbe
In high school I worked part-time for a global company with a desire to advance technology. They had a corporate account with an early online service called The Source, and all employees were encouraged to experience and actively use it.
As a receptionist/co-op, I had plenty of spare time. So I dutifully set out, just as Management wanted, to explore the world of online communications and to learn as much as I could. Games held my interest for a while because they were puzzles — but how many times can you figure out how to light an acetylene torch?
Eventually, I discovered an area that seemed complicated but intriguing. It was more intellectually challenging than games, so I surmised that it must have been exactly what my employers wanted us to learn more about. The service was called “Participate” or “Parti On The Source” (POTS).
I have always been an avid reader, and Parti was comfortable for me – as natural as reading books. But … it took me a while to understand the structure … with separate discussion threads that, in turn, launched new threads, which in turn launched even more new threads. Like Alice in Wonderland, once I fell down a rabbit hole, I could get lost in those trails of ideas and adventures – all based on the writings of people sharing their thoughts with each other.
These diverse and stimulating discussions took place among people who were passionate about topics – some of which, I’d never known about or considered. I read silently for days. I did not want to be the stumbling, fumbling new person. Today we’d call that a “noob.” I realized quickly that if I did choose to Participate, I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to select a discussion topic that I, myself, was passionate about. I wanted to have a voice … to relate to others … to belong.
Socially awkward at school and without close friends, I fit in best at the office. Even there, however, my co-workers didn’t seem to take me seriously. To them, I was just “a kid.”
So when I came across a discussion thread called, “Relating – For You,” I knew I had found the place to start speaking up. I would start “relating” online in a way I hadn’t yet been able to master in my everyday, real-world life.
On Participate, for example, no one would know my age. I wouldn’t be dismissed as being too young to matter – not if my thoughts were intelligent enough. Nor would it matter that I wasn’t pretty. Or that I was being bullied at school.
I had found an entirely clean slate for my identity online! I could be anyone I wanted to be. I sure didn’t want to be me. My strategic plan was to get settled into one discussion thread, then to discover others over time.
Because I had selected “Relating – For You” as my home base, I wanted a name that looked friendly. I wanted it to be visually appealing on-screen (we couldn’t post photos online back then, only text.) So I did what I always do. I researched. I skimmed forums for names that I felt “looked friendly.” One name in particular leapt out at me. If I had to pick a friend, I’d pick “Shari.” That seemed to me like a far friendlier name than “Dawn.” Shari it was.
I made my debut. I had been reading for a while so I already knew the people I found most interesting. I had selected the people I wanted to get to know better. I targeted their discussions about relationships. I dared to ask questions and, much to my surprise, I got answers. I was instantly addicted! People were responding to me, accepting me, relating to me: I loved it.
I realized if this new medium was changing my life – was helping me feel more “connected” — it would change other lives, too … including those of kids even younger than I was, from countries around the world. Geographically distant places suddenly felt easily accessible. Participate was a place where your ideas were valued, whether you were a pretty cheerleader or not.
I knew that I was “accepted” when people said they noticed I was never around in the evenings. People actually missed me!
Flattered, I shared that I did not have a computer at home. Within an hour someone reached out to me and said they had an old TRS-80. Would I like it? I cried, overwhelmed at the generosity. This online world really was a “community” and I really did belong. I am embarrassed that I can’t remember who the life-changing donor of my first computer actually was, but I am grateful to this day … both to that person and to the power of this new medium: resulting in a free computer in less than an hour!
My experience online was wide-ranging. I helped to create role-play fantasies: one story written online by multiple authors, each building on the others’ inventions. I broadened my cultural awareness and made new friends, learning from my participation in a gay discussion group – that was a wonderful source of enlightenment for this girl from Bowsher High School in Toledo, Ohio. I was able to mingle with the writers and editors of “Chimo,” an online newsletter.
Eventually I was paid to do what I loved so much: writing to, and reading replies from, people all over the world … all while simply talking about whatever topics mattered to me in life, exchanging ideas with others who related to those same concerns.
Ultimately, I was offered a full time job by Phillips Moore and Sherwin Levinson of NWI, an innovative supplier of online information and communication services. No one at the company had ever met me in person: they offered me employment based only on the “virtual” me that they had met online. What an amazing thing, this new world of online relationships – where you could “know” people without ever having shaken their hand!
I accepted NWI’s offer, moved halfway across the country, and began to live what had now become my dream — helping design and support customized online systems. People back home, after hearing my news, asked when I’d get a “real” job. After all, how could there be a future in online communications?
Back then, we were such bleeding edge technology that most of the world didn’t know our online society existed, and surely did not understand how powerful its potential was. But I understood. I had felt it! And now, some 30 years later, social media is an accepted and respected career choice.
Others in 1982 – futurists, perhaps – may have fully imagined today’s online-centric society. As for myself, I had little idea of where that world was headed, but here is what I did know, even in 1982:
I knew that something extraordinary had begun, and that it filled me with wonderment and excitement.
That this new, online medium would change how people interacted.
And that people could feel less alone now. With only a few keystrokes, they could get insight from brilliant, creative, funny people around the world – sharing interests and passions, even if they had never met in person for a simple cup of coffee.
It was a time of many firsts. In fact, I’ve been told that my own wedding — September, 1984 — was the first publicized marriage between people who had met online.
I am grateful and happy, now to have reconnected to many of the people I “knew” back then, in those early 1980s days of discovery and interaction. (Thank you, Facebook: I didn’t see you coming!)
Without the respect, acceptance and affection – all of it real – that I experienced online, I may never have left my hometown. I surely would not have realized, as early in life as I did, how diverse we all are. And without those online relationships, I never would have had access to the knowledge and support that I experienced in my “community,” as I faced my teenaged challenges.
I will be thrilled to see how communications technology continues to advance, but l will never take progress for granted. I will always remember how isolating life was for me, before I fell through the online looking glass. And I will always be grateful to have been part of that time and place, when the online world of today was only just beginning to emerge.
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