Once upon a time — let’s say 1993 — there was an Internet,
but no one knew about it. If you wanted to go online you probably asked your
computer to telephone an electronic
bulletin board system (or BBS) using a little box
called a modem.
A BBS was something like a Web site; it usually contained information and
connected you to other people. But because you had to make a telephone call
to access it, a BBS was also clearly situated geographically somewhere,
and only a few people could use it at the same time. At that time the connection
of one smart thing to another was not automatic, but mysterious and wonderful
and a little scary.
In 1993 I was reading Clifford
Stoll’s Cuckoo’s Egg and thought, This is interesting, so
I spent way too much money on long distance data calls to hacker BBSes
all over North America. It was amazing fun. This was not my first time
exploring BBSes; I had been using them since 1985 in Halifax, pioneering
flame wars and useless discussions. I was cyber, let me tell you.
In those days one BBS could link to another, sometimes through some sort
network, but also by listing the phone numbers of other BBSes, most in
the local area, a few far away. One could sort of hop from one BBS to another
that way, connecting to different people in different cities.
It was a novel feeling of moving through virtual space, and very much like
the feeling I had moving through the Internet before there was a Web.
I don’t remember how I found MAGIC, but it was different
from the other BBSes I had visited. It had a graphical interface through
special client software called FirstClass,
of all, MAGIC
had community. You could chat with dozens of people in real time, there were moderated discussion
forums, and the place seemed filled with smart and interesting people. I can still remember the feeling
of logging on and connecting to MAGIC; I was back to being the small town boy reaching out to my idealized city full of interesting people and things.
I was only on MAGIC for a few weeks when I proposed the creation of the
Electronic Frontier forums to Mark Windram, Apple employee and BBS visionary. Mark said yes, and I pumped
the forums full of good stuff. After MAGIC “crashed” and we lost
everything (I think Mark wanted to do a reset, actually)
we had new forums: the
Internet Café and the CyberForum. That tells you
how quickly the ideas around this stuff were changing back then: we went
from the frontier to a cafe in a little over four months.
I got to know some remarkable people — Cory, Shauna, Mark, the Doctors — but they were
relationships that for all their intensity I had trouble translating offline.
Those connections, friendly and disagreeable both, flamed dazzlingly
bright. Online communication seems to create the illusion of intimacy: words
are what sparks it, and your brain fills in the rest, like a radio drama
or some favourite book. MAGIC threw us all into this world of immediate text, something beyond text that we are now living with everyday.
My education in these things was awkward. I didn’t know I was talking different,
that the closeness had to be renegotiated offline, or that what she said
across the restaurant table could sound so different spoken instead of written. It
all seemed so important at the time, even the flame wars.
For all its impact on me and others, there isn’t anything of MAGIC left
anymore. It lasted for months, not even years. Mark
took it commercial in 1994 and it didn’t work. Part of it was that
the BBS, as a way to share information and connect to the world, was getting
swept away by the Internet. And online community was changing from something
geographic to something that didn’t have to be, so the
twine that kept the thing together came apart.
Now we have the Web and Metafilter and so on, but once, out on that frontier, we had MAGIC.
John Harris Stevenson, 2003