Saturday, November 28, 2009

The nature of the beast

We take the connectivity the internet provides us for granted nowadays, but I can still remember my first foray online. Like many other pharmacy students at the University of Iowa, it was at the green-screen CRT in the Learning Resource Center of the pharmacy building. A classmate of mine told me about something called ISCABBS that she used. An electronic bulletin board? What would I want with that? But I let her talk me into it.

As you might expect, I was hooked from the get go. For those that don't know, ISCABBS was one of the largest bulletin board systems in the world at that time. It still is, for that matter, but that's not really saying much. During the 90s, it was THE go-to bulletin board, especially for those of us on the U of I campus (because it was affiliated with the University of Iowa), but also for users throughout the country. You could log on and instantly be amongst hundreds upon hundreds of other users. It was so popular that very frequently, users would have to wait in a queue for an open slot, although U of I users were given priority and I never once waited in a queue. Once inside, there were about a hundred different forums covering a wide array of topics.

In addition to this, it allowed you to eXpress message (or simply "x") other users. It was a rather primitive version of instant messaging, limited to 5 lines of text (a fact I would not have remembered without the help of the Wikipedia article on ISCABBS.) Using this functionality, users could interact in real time. And it was in this environment that I made my first online acquaintance.

We met through the much-dreaded "random x" but I was a newbie so I didn't mind it so much. He was from northern California and a computer science major. He contacted me because of some long-forgotten detail in my profile that he liked. He was also, incidentally, the first gay guy that I ever met - or at least the first one that who was out about his sexuality. Looking back on my life, there were MANY gay people in my life, they just weren't out of the closet. Despite that, his orientation was a non-issue even then and I think, in a small way, meeting him and becoming friends with him helped cement my interest in LGBT issues and my eventual transformation into a straight ally.

Anyway, we struck up quite a good online friendship. It survived many years of me changing handles on ISCABBS, my undergraduate graduation and the gradual decline of ISCABBS as the web became more and more prominent. After that we lost touch and I never really knew what became of him although I always kind of wondered. While I figured losing touch was the nature of the beast - people change and move on - it never set all that well with me and I always felt a little bit bad about it.

Over the years, I've made sporadic attempts to find him on the internet, using my best Googling abilities. This proved less than successful as his name is a very common one and he also shares it with a celebrity, so trying to pin him down just never seemed to work out. But the other day I decided to try Facebook, which can limit a name search to a school (I remembered where he went to school) and lo and behold, I got a match. I figured what the hell and I sent him a message. Time will tell if he actually IS that person and even if he is, if he'd even remember me.

In the 15 or so years since the internet and the World Wide Web have come to be a part of everyday life, I've had the great fortune of meeting a lot of really cool people whose paths I would have not otherwise crossed. For this I am very grateful. As I so frequently say, this is not our parents' generation and the places we find friends is not going to be as simple as the Elks club or the progressive supper at church. Online friendships can be very ephemeral, disappearing as quickly as they appear, but sometimes that is half the draw. Heidi and I always liken a new e-mail friend to a crush - all the rush of emotions are there - but it's what happens after the glitter fades (as Stevie Nicks says) that determines where it goes. I've had my share of flame outs and false starts, but I've also managed to cultivate a fair number of what I would consider close friends across not just the country but around the world. In so many ways, online friends are a mirror of all our relationships, especially as more and more real life relationships are being maintained across the series of tubes thanks to Facebook.

All the green screen CRTs are but a memory at the U of I and ISCABBS, now no longer associated with the university, is a shadow of its former self (I logged in today as a guest and there were 16 users online). But I will always have a soft spot for it. And Steve, if you're out there, this post was for you.

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