I was asked by Adam Kalsey to participate in his project Newly Digital, a distributed anthology of stories about early experiences with technology. The following story describes my first truly virtual communication.
Back before the Internet, geeks sought out communication with other geeks through Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s). These were naive times, when phone calls were free to those with red boxes and having a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook meant you thought information was powerful, not explosives. Back in those days I was a dorky high school student who ran his very own BBS, a local spot for the younger, marginal geek crowd in Monterey, California.
Striving for a sense of identity, me and my dorky crew decided to reach outside our immediate locale for others like ourselves. After pimping out the BBS with the latest and greatest ANSI artwork, we applied for a position as a node in an underground FIDO Network, an international message system that would connect our system to those like it across the globe. Ok, maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it seemed like it. Our meager voices would be heard in places like Chicago, IL and Montreal, Canada, and not by any dorky modem-toting BBSer, by outsider kids like ourselves.
After being recognized for a few posts on the various subjects of phreaking, my BBS received a few calls from various telco pundits around the country. One such group that called a few times were some individuals from Lousiana. I wasn’t quite sure at the time why they were so interested in our little BBS, but they logged in from time to time and left a few messages.
On a few occasions I had the opportunity to chat with one while he was online, and learned the exuberance of their activities. These were no ordinary kids, they were hardened telco criminals. If the Southern Bell company had a top ten most wanted list, these guys would fill the top 5 slots. At least that’s the way this fellow introduced himself.
*cameron* it’s cool to finally talk to you guys
*mark* yeah, likewise. we were just about to get drunk and go steal some laptops from telco stations. it’s too bad you’re not here.
*cameron* wow, jeez, that would be fun. yeah too bad.
*mark* cool, well i gotta jet. later.
This national awareness came at an inopportune time; just when my BBS was starting to become popular, the first ISP opened up access in the Monterey area. Without a thought for my users or the community surrounding my BBS, I took things down in a second and turned my machine into a dedicated internet box. After a few months, I had completely forgotten about my experience as a SysOp, exposing myself and users to the rest of the country, or the band of theives I had come to befriend.
Two years later, the phone rings.
“Hi there, is Cameron around?”
“Hey Cameron, this is Mark.”
“From New Orleans. We used to chat on your BBS.”
“Oh.. umm.. hey Mark.”
“So anyway, we stole a telco van and drove out to the west coast. We’re in Monterey right now, so I thought I’d give you a call. Where do you live? We’ll stop by.”
“I’m not sure we can hang out at my house right now…”
“Well how about grabbing a drink?”
“Mark, I’m 16 years old and I live with my parents.”
I hung up the phone and didn’t think twice about Mark. I learned an important lesson that day. Quite a few assumptions are made about the identities of others when we lack the visual cues of face-to-face interaction. Of course I would forget and relearn this lesson just a year later when I had my first online experience with a member of the opposite sex.