Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends.

Today I found out that an online forum I've been a part of since 1998 is shutting down. To be honest, it's not a huge surprise -- activity there has dwindled significantly over the last few years, as people have migrated from places like that over to platforms like Facebook. Heck, I barely remember to stop by more than about once a month anymore, as my own interwebbing habits have changed over time (and I spend more time reading, and less time arguing with other people).

Still, it's bittersweet. I went into college right as e-mail and the internet came into bloom -- when I left for UMD in 1997, we had a computer at home but we didn't have the internet. Access to computers on campus was limited to a dingy room full of Apple IIe equivalents in the basement of my dorm, or slightly more modernized computer labs sprinkled sparingly throughout the busier parts of campus (unless you were lucky enough to be one of the rare people who brought one with you to college, and even then, almost no one had laptops). The people who had computers in their rooms got really sick of everyone always asking if they could come in and type up their papers on them, I'll bet ("I don't waaaaaanna walk all the way to the lab!").

Even by the time I graduated four years later, I still didn't own a computer, nor did most of my friends. We had the option of hooking up the internet in our on-campus apartment the two years I lived in there, but decided it wasn't worth the hassle. The last year, when I lived off-campus in a house, we just kept sucking it up and walking to the computer labs on campus if we needed to do something.

That's not to say I didn't spend a lot of time on the internet, though. I'm pretty sure the only reason I made it through my first year of college was e-mail. I was miserable that year, isolated and incredibly lonely and feeling like a total fish out of water -- I never really felt like I fit in at UMD -- but every day, I knew there'd be an e-mail in my inbox from Emily down at Gustavus Adolphus, and I knew she'd be waiting for me to write her back. And as my younger friends who were still in high school back in Ashland slowly got wired-up, I had more and more people to talk to. The loneliness got more bearable.

And somewhere in the midst of that, I found To make a long story short, I became an R.E.M. fanatic early in my second year of college -- I'd always liked the band, but that's really when I went off the deep end. Murmurs was an online community that talked about the band, their music, their tours...but the people there talked about so much more, too. As time went by, we talked about politics, relationships, families, books, movies, sports, everything. Nothing was off-limits, really. As time passed, you really got to know people -- having that cloak of anonymity (or as much anonymity as you wanted to maintain, anyway) helped people let down their guards and talk about things freely, things that maybe they weren't comfortable talking about in-person with others but which, having time to compose something in writing, they were able to articulate it the way they wanted to. I know that's how it was for me sometimes, anyway.

One of the days I remember most distinctly in relation to Murmurs was 9/11. When I showed up for work at my almost-brand-new VISTA position in Helena, Murmurs was where I found out what was happening in New York and D.C. The news websites in the U.S. were completely overloaded and couldn't keep up with the hits they were getting, pages were crashing left & right -- but Murmurs members from overseas were able to keep funneling us information on the boards, keeping us more up-to-date than our own online media sources could. In the midst of a horrible, unthinkable day, people from thousands of miles away were rallying around us and offering real, tangible comfort and support. When I think of that day and all the awfulness, I remind myself of that kindness and generosity and can convince myself that the world really is a good place.

There were inside jokes and memes, huge HUGE fights and disagreements (and flounces), voices of reason and voices of craziness, newbies and moderators and this huge cacophony of voices. Any time of the day or night, you could log on there and find something worth reading (or arguing about). I can think of at least three marriages that resulted directly from people "meeting" on Murmurs; I can also think of at least one person I became friends with who passed away. We followed along as we graduated from high school or college, got married, had babies, sent kids off to college, got divorced, changed careers...we all got older and we all kept evolving.

A few years ago, as activity on the forums started to die down, most of the people I talked with the most on Murmurs started migrating over to Facebook. And it was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when it goes from black & white to Technicolor -- suddenly, there we all were, not just words on a messageboard, but people! Full, vibrant, multifaceted people! With pictures of kids and weddings and trips and pets and houses and jobs all splashed out for each other to see in real-time. I remember feeling a little awkward at first -- "will the 'me' they got to know on there seem phony now by comparison?" -- but in the blink of an eye, it was like I'd known these people forever. By sacrificing that anonymity, the last of the guards went down and people really, truly became friends. Now, I talk with some of these people more than I talk to people I know in "real life."

Murmurs taught me a lot. It taught me to be a better writer, and to choose my words carefully when I'm trying to make a point. It taught me to be more patient, and to "assume goodwill" when a disagreement sprouts up (something that the average Facebook user could use a lesson in). It taught me to be confident in what I had to say, and to not take myself so seriously sometimes, too. Most of all, it taught me to broaden my horizons -- to try new music, new movies, new books, new food, new places, and perhaps most importantly, new people. It's a great big world out there, but people are people, and we all just want the same thing -- a connection.

1 comment:

Ranger Bob said...

Well-said! Touching and very familiar.

I've been active in a series of online communities since 1994 or so-- Usenet newsgroups at first, then a couple of websites of my own, then forums and blogs and LiveJournal, now FB and Second Life. It seems they have a life cycle of blooming, then finally fading away, but nonetheless the memories and many of the friendships survive. I still hear occasionally from some of the folks I got to know through Usenet in the mid-90s. (Like you, I've seen marriages and divorces and babies come along, but in my set we see grandkids as well.)

Now that fading hearing is making meatlife socializing difficult, I expect these online venues to assume even greater significance in my life. And if anyone ever asks me how that can possibly work out, I'm going to show them this post.