05 Dec 2013
December 5, 2013

Early Online Memories: Stefanie Kott

December 5, 2013 0 Comment

For many reasons, I will always be grateful to Stefanie Kott.  Among them is the way she demonstrated the power of “networking” … by bringing me to the attention of TIME magazine, which covered the work I was doing as an early online journalist. (Some day, I hope to publish a remembrance from the article’s writer, himself.)  Stefanie’s passion for online communications was evident to me, from our first correspondences as “strangers” online. – Mike

By Stefanie Kott

Stefanie Kott 1961 - Before becoming a cheerleader for communicating online

Stefanie Kott 1961 – Before becoming a cheerleader for communicating online

It was an alluring black world with a flash of green in the upper-left corner. The green was the cursor on a black PC screen. I had entered EIES (pronounced “eyes”), the Electronic Information Exchange Service, created in the 1970s by Murray Turoff, author of Network Nation and “father of computer conferencing” http://web.njit.edu/~turoff/ .

Behind the black screen was a fascinating world of conferences, or discussions, some of which we could enter, others not, because they were private. I can only liken the phenomenon of EIES to being in rooms without light among people without faces. In those rooms people tossed around ideas, or solutions to problems, or thoughts about things they had in common. There were active people who drew us in, who kept challenging us to keep the conversation going. There were others who responded from time to time, others who just read without writing. 

People from the government, social sciences, and computer sciences, among others, had been meeting on EIES since the ’70s. The draw was the ability to collaborate, or work together, without regard to where you were located, or your time zone, or the hours you kept, because you could sign on and respond at will. I’d venture to say that participants signed on at least once a day.

The blackness of EIES took on physical characteristics for me. The blackness seemed to extend from the PC screen to my shoulders and hug me. It became a tunnel that enticed me to go further in, even though I had to confront computer commands and use them generously; I had to go past my non-techie self to get to the root of computer communication.

Here’s a very small example of what users faced, straight from the original user’s manual:

EIES manual

Click the image to enlarge

I was able to use EIES, which was a subscription member service, because my company was a member. In my workaday world, one day there hadn’t been such a thing as a personal computer, and then one day I was in charge of introducing PCs to the editorial staffs of the Time Inc. magazines. I was exploring everything the PC could do, which by today’s standards was not that much. Even word processors at that time were cryptic–tools laden with computer commands and concepts. It was because I didn’t initially understand those commands or concepts that I was chosen to reduce the unfathomable to the fathomable for people whose natural bents, like mine, were not techie.

Moving through EIES was like skating on coal. I relied on the manual to help me skate. The manual told me what to do to edit text, for example. To get an idea, see the following print screen.

EIES manual - so "easy" to edit text

EIES manual – so “easy” to edit text – Click the image to enlarge

Looking at it today, I am amazed that I proceeded, but EIES and the people using it pulled me in. I was so moved by a discussion I was following that I wrote a comment, and people responded! I felt part of it all–and no one had even glanced at my breasts.

What was clear then, as it is today, is that the spoils go to the most articulate writers and personalities. People with clear, inviting styles could make you laugh, or convince you of the rectitude of their opinions, or provoke you to find them wrong. It was dynamic.

One day in an email a person popped out of the blue to encourage me to become part of what was known as the Electronic Networking Association (ENA). Flattery can take you to many places, and that invitation took me to a loft in Soho and meeting rooms in Washington, DC, where over weekends people from around the world met to discuss the potential of computer conferencing for present and future communications.

We talked about moderators and facilitators (people who run discussions). We talked about how to introduce the concept of computer conferencing to “the world” as well as subjects like how the writing skills of lowly workers might threaten their bosses.  People created visuals and presentations. We collaborated our heads off, both online and FTF (face-to-face), but “the world” just didn’t get it. It took a believer to create and donate the friendly, pretty mask that connects and covers existing computer systems like EIES (now closed) and to make room for more, resulting in the Internet we use today. Thank you Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, “father of the web.” Berners-Lee did that in the ’90s.

In  the ’80s, as time went on, developers created systems that used easier conferencing software than EIES, and people clamored to them. One thing became obvious: A favorite topic of enthusiasts always was the medium of computer conferencing itself–and so conversations about it continued from system to system.

Since there was no actual communication between one system and another, we neophytes created a way to move discussions around the various networks, and we called it “porting.” What most fascinated me personally was the idea of using the medium to create a newsletter that would help us work out technology-related problems and themes such as “online ethics” and video conferencing.

I was the founding editor of a publication named “Netweaver” that won two Computer Press Association (1983-2000) awards during the time I worked on it: the first year for 3rd best online newsletter, then finally Best Online Computer Publication. “Netweaver” headquarters were on a computer communications system called Unison, created in his basement by a dearly loved techie named Fred Dudden, using software named Participate that we fondly called Parti.

Promoted by editor Lisa Carlson, articles came in from many places in the world, were edited, and then were packaged in the “Netweaver” format. When the monthly issue was ready, “porters” from systems all over the world came to Unison to pick it up and take it to their systems. In this way we became a legion of faceless, articulate players in the new world of computer conferencing.

In May 1987 “Netweaver” put out the following story when it received the CPA award. It shows how we set up the online space and created “Netweaver.” I wrote the story over 26 years ago.

 * * * * * * * * * *

NETWEAVER, the online newsletter of the
Electronic Networking Association,
won the award for Best Online Computer Publication
from the Computer Press Association on April 7.

Want to know why NETWEAVER is unique?

 * * * * * * * * * *

 NETWEAVER is a volunteer newsletter, more on the order of a magazine, that has endured with high standards for nearly two years. Not only is no one paid for working on or contributing to  NETWEAVER, but the production and distribution of the newsletter is unique to the medium, also reflecting the uniqueness of the Electronic Networking Association (ENA), from which it comes.

The ENA has only one central office, and that is an online office set up on Unison, a computer network based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Last year, when NETWEAVER won the third place award in the same category, there were no walls to hang it on, and there are no shelves on which to put our trophy for this year’s award.

 Members and interested parties from around the world “meet” in topical conversation areas on Unison or ENA branches on networks such as The Source, GEnie, and TWICS (located in Japan). Matters of interest to the organization are discussed in these topical areas in an “asynchronous” way, which allows individuals to “sign on” to the network at any time convenient to the person to read what has been added to each topic since the last time he or she was online.

 Among those topics on Unison are “Netweaver” and related topics.  In “Netweaver Newsroom”, articles are discussed as they would be in any conventional newsroom. When a story comes in, it goes to an area called “Netweaver Copy”. When it is edited, it is sent to one called “Netweaver Hold”. When all the articles for an issue are ready and the articles are positioned, a masthead id updated and an index containing brief descriptions of each article as well as the articles’ lengths are brought together.

Articles are solicited from people throughout the networks. In addition, since NETWEAVER has a highly defined readership, many authors approach the NETWEAVER staff to offer their work fot publication. The readership consists of people on the networks who are interested in the potential of the medium of computer conferencing for communications, and who are either professionals in online communications or serious users of the medium.

 As Lisa Kimball Carlson, editor of NETWEAVER, said, “One of our original notions was that the industry needed more ‘shared stories’ about applications, theories, issues, and developments in the technology. Before NETWEAVER, people on different systems tendef to have a much narrower view of what was going on in the medium because they only knew about how it was being used on their home network. Now, people all over the world have a much broader understanding of the different things people are doing and the extent to which we share many common interests.”

 Distribution of NETWEAVER is another unusual element. Since there was little or no ability to move information from one network to another technologically at the time NETWEAVER was founded, people who are now dubbed “porters” move the issues from one network to the other. A porter “downloads” an issue– that is, records it on a computer diskette–and then “uploads”– or sends–the issue into another network’s central computer for storage there, where it can be read by anyone on that system.

Since NETWEAVER is free and since its distribution is not limited, anyone is welcome to “port,” or send, the issue in its entirety to any network. As a result, NETWEAVER goes around the world through more people than the ENA can count, and goes to more places than the organization even knows.

The way NETWEAVER is distributed has since become a standard way for projects to be conducted across multiple networks, and it has spawned innovative entrepreneurial efforts to support multi-network group projects.

 “I think we have a treasure trove of stories in our archives, which illustrate that there is something else going on online besides Aryan Nation.net and Teen-age Sex Talk, which is often all that gets covered in the print medium,” Lisa Carlson states.

“We’ve also provided an outlet for people with theories and ideas about computer conferencing who didn’t have any channel to express them before.”

What the Computer Press Association did when it awarded NETWEAVER the Best Online Computer Publication award was reward an experiment in the use of the medium of computer conferencing.

Perhaps the CPA itself did not know or understand the many uniquenesses of this publication. But it did recognize in NETWEAVER its excellence, and it cited NETWEAVER for:

* good, imaginative writing
* creativity
* minimal use of jargon
* interesting subject matter
* well-defined topics
* clearly defined audience

The award was accepted by Stefanie Kott, editor of the founding edition of NETWEAVER, on behalf of Lisa Carlson and Al Martin, both of whose continuing presence on NETWEAVER have made its continuity and longevity possible. She also accepted the award on behalf of the Electronic Networking Association and all the editors, writers, and porters.

Also present at the ceremony, were Susanna Opper, President of the Electronic Networking Association, and Stan Pokras, Vice President.

* * * * * *

I will always look back fondly on the work I did at “Netweaver” and on the opportunities it gave me to “meet” people online who were very different from myself … but with whom I shared the fascination and excitement of being part of an emerging new way of communicating.

Stefanie Kott is a retired desktop publishing consultant and writer. She is currently a Luddite and doesn’t even have a cell phone, though she still uses a PC.

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