The Web of Christmas Past
When it comes to technology, our Christmas wishes tend to turn to the future, where processors are faster and operating systems don't hang and downloads are speedy and there isn't that weird spot on I-94 where your cell phone suddenly sounds like it's making popcorn. I've come to this year's Bitstream Underground holiday party half-expecting to find nerds who ache for this sweet by and by, that stop-point when technology satisfies you instead of leaving you wanting more. Instead I'm somewhat surprised to find quite a few people who harbor fond memories of the past.
Today Bitstream is a local Internet service provider and Web development company--a serious business--but it started out in 1994 as a hobby, an electronic bulletin board system (BBS) that cofounder Michael Koppelman operated out of his basement with a Mac IIci and two puny modems. Tonight's party at downtown Minneapolis's City Billiards is a thank-you from Bitstream to its clients and dial-up subscribers, but it's also a nod to time when the BBS was everything, when communicating electronically felt like keeping a secret.
Other than the Webcam aimed at the buffet and broadcasting the party's bounty on the Internet at a one-minute refresh rate, there isn't much technology on display, only people. King Kini (a.k.a. DJ Dean Vaccaro) is at the wheels of steel, keeping the heads nodding with loungey Christmas music as the guests file past the free food, loading up their Chinet plates with pizza and chips and salsa. They're a smiley bunch, loud and young, and everyone has great shoes. A lone partygoer is watching the Webcam's monitor, and when a young woman stops in front of the camera to wave hello to anyone who might be watching at home, he shyly waves back at the screen. But otherwise it's a verbal crowd, a Mac crowd, filled with many old-time Bitstream people who are eager to talk about the bygone days, way back in '94.
According to Chuck Hermes, one of Bitstream's four cofounders, by the time people started to drift when the company offered dial-up service to the Internet in 1995, the bulletin board had grown into an all-encompassing community. In the salad days, there were about 2,000 active participants who wrote and responded to posts, sometimes creating 50- or 60-count threads about almost anything. "You could tell the worst jokes you knew," BBS veteran Joseph Pettini reminisces, "or find sympathy for a broken heart." Hermes says there are still about three or four hundred die-hards who prefer posting on the bulletin board to more advanced functions like e-mail or real-time chat.
"I miss the liquid romance," says Brien Grant. He squeezes his shoulders together slightly, giving himself a little hug. "Meeting all those cool people. And you could actually trust their identity and not worry about the person you thought you were talking to turning out to be some 35-year-old jerk sitting on a couch in Detroit." In 1994 Grant was 14, and he looked up to the artists and musicians who gathered on the Bitstream BBS, which he says was a "pure community." Now he does Web development and has spiky two-tone hair and expensive thick-framed glasses and feels the Web is overrun with jackasses. "We're overwhelmed with slobs and sloths," he says. "It's like when a bar is hip and then people find out about it and then masses flock to it and it's not hip anymore. It becomes soluble by society."
King Kini still uses the bulletin board to promote his appearances, though not with the same zest as in the past. "It seems a little bit weird," the DJ says of what he calls his "little corner" of the BBS, where he promoted his Club Velvet appearances at the Front. "But it fed my night. It kept people thinking that they needed to be there. I would post a roster of regular attendees and it was expected that they would come and if they didn't they would get a lashing, and then it got to the point where people would not come on purpose because they wanted people to notice they weren't there."
"It set me afire," says Cindy Klabechek about the early days. "It wasn't like going to a party. On the BBS you could be entertained by anyone. You didn't have to be there." The owner of a screen-printing company called Arthouse, Klabechek says her business has grown along with the Web, incorporating new technologies along the way. Electronic communication has become essential, and she rolls her eyes at the idea of giving up e-mail or the Internet for even a day but admits that the new is not as fun as the old: "It was a social culture, and such a good mix of people, creative types, writers, musicians. I remember the first Bitstream bash at Rogue, and Michael's band Raintribe played. It was my first experience with a company party, and I remember thinking: This is so hip."
"In the past we've had clowns and magicians and shit, but we couldn't get our shit together this year," Koppelman says when I ask about previous Bitstream parties. He's a mellow host, the sort of mellow that generates its own gravity, and he expresses this bit of regret with an almost imperceptible shrug. When it comes to the BBS's heyday, he's similarly self-deprecating. "We didn't perceive ourselves as being much of anything," he says. "We admired First Avenue and Cake and Rev 105. We didn't necessarily feel like we were making much of an impact culturally, but we knew there were a lot of cool people showing up, that there was a cool kind of vibe, and there was the pleasure of doing it without any idea of what it meant."
By now a few Minneapolis demicelebrities have arrived. We're joined by Chank, a local font designer and artist who gives away some of his work on the Web. We're talking about how things used to be, before the Web became integral to both of their careers, before the day when Koppelman saw a piece of software for sale on the Internet and realized the end had come.
"Domain names were free," says Chank, who owns the rights to fucker.com.
"Everything was free," says Koppelman. "Software." He pauses, lost back in the day. "We've grown up with it. Now we're thinking about profit margin. It used to be we were thinking about--"
"Picking up chicks," says Chank.
Chank disappears in search of another beer, leaving us to discuss the Web of Christmas future. Bitstream is starting to offer DSL, a high-speed Internet connection service, and Web-accessible e-mail for subscribers on the road, but Koppelman doesn't seem too eager to expand the company's 4,000-subscriber base. "There's this myth about start-ups being masters of focus. But there are a million opportunities we're not pursuing," he says, breaking into a slight smile. Even so, he's busy enough that he rarely visits the bulletin board anymore. "I still drop by, and I'm still amazed at how much real conversation goes on there, considering the extreme amount of noise on the Web," he says. "We thought about and imagined creating something like it on the Internet, but we haven't done anything about it. It takes some work to use the BBS. Part of what's cool is the barrier."
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