A lot of time for reflection these days of driving. As I have thought about this election, my memories have drifted back to 1991 and the listserv Clinton-L@marist.edu. In fact, I talked with @GoogleGuacomole about this experience recently in relation to her mapping of digital visitors and residents.
Way back in 1991, Marist College set up three listservs, one for each of the presidential candidates – Bush, Clinton, and Perot. I joined all three. I was in my first year of working at Saint Louis University and relishing the day-long internet access. I had been online a couple of years at this point through Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL, but I had not yet acquired a dedicated phone line for dial-up (which I did in late 1991 because I learned I could dial-in into SLU). The lists defaulted to reply-all and since this was before spam and the wide use of email, conversations took place every day.
The Bush and Perot lists were essentially flamewarzones. You trod carefully there.Lots of infighting with relatively few reasoned discussions as I recall. Clinton-L (or C@M as it became known) was different. We had our fights and flamewars, generally from people that hadn’t gelled into the community that developed. Later, that community then spun-off as a community to a new listserv at Penn State, QC-L (Quiet Communication) as a pet of our list mentor, Gerry M. Phillips, a retired professor of Rhetoric. Phillips was in poor health and generally homebound, spending much his days and nights online. Some of that history is documented here in the book Electronic Tribes: The Virtual Worlds of Geeks, Gamers, Shamans, and Scammers by Tyrone L. Adams, Stephen A. Smith. (I had forgotten, or simply did not know, that this chapter referred to me as one of the resident storytellers a term I don’t associate with myself.)
Members were predominantly academics. One member was a DMV employee in Keizer, OR who was also mayor, and lost his job for spending too much time online – the town we later moved to from St Louis. Another member was one of the two sons of the Rosenbergs. He once called me a Nazi during the great debates of Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident, a mere four years into Godwin’s Law. SFC Kiss was an active duty soldier who was definitely one of the resident conservatives. He and I once debated gun control for two weeks, demonstrating to the group that such things could be done with respect and good-nature. Flamewars were not necessary. But members did complain about the volume of the topic. There’s always someone whining somewhere, about something.
Meetups became common between members. Dan worked across town at Washington University and we became fast friends once we met. We also each made efforts to meet others as we or they traveled across country. At one point, in the summer of 1994, we decided to have a party. Since Gerry was placebound, we all went to Happy Valley, PA. Dan and I road-tripped from St. Louis, picking up Lena in Greencastle IN, and Dr. Bubbles (Melanie) and her 12-string guitar in Columbus. We also stopped in Johnstown to pick up another member and her daughter.
Hugs, fun, lots of conversation, and hours spent sitting around a Mac while Dr. Bubbles (she was a Phd Chemist from New Orleans) and Gerry S. played guitar while sang along to the lyrics on the screen.
The debriefing after the gathering had to be curtailed a bit. It was clear that some of the stories made the non-attendees jealous. Especially each of the accounts for those of us in Dan’s custom van. WE had stories. Most of which got told.
Ultimately I left the group after moving to Oregon. I don’t really recall why. I think the tenor of the group had changed too much. More though, I had too many others going on. New job. Wife in the hospital near death for a couple of weeks. Far too many problems raising special needs children. Whatever it was, the need for that community disappeared.
The listserv was just a replacement for Usenet and BBS. Just as various discussion forum platforms, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and others have all evolved to replace things or just add add dimensions. We still use listservs, we just generally discourage reply-all. (Despite the fact that accidental reply-alls can be delightful to read when they aren’t your mistakes.) I still participate in a number of discussion forums. Nothing really useful goes away. And despite the bells and whistles it all feels the same. Just the people are different, but that is not really true at all. It’s just a matter of who self-selects where they hang out and what roles they play.