I first heard the word ‘meme’ way back in the 80s when I was a Wellpern. A Wellpern was (and possibly still is) a person who interacts on The Well . In those days you had to dial directly into the Well’s modem bank (at about 300 baud) and use their crazy, proprietary system called picospan. It was this primitive but effective ASCII text based BBS system.
The Well was young and hip and was the home of the hard core cyberati having been founded by Stuart Brandt and Larry Brilliant of Whole Earth Catalog fame. Howard Rheingold posted frequently. Jon Carroll, one of my two favorite columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle was also a frequent participant. There was a futurist from SRI named Tom Mandel who was the focus of a running joke about his genitals, his penis allegedly being just about the right size for a termite or something like that. . There was a collective running joke about plutonium butt plugs – who had one, how it was being used, who got it next – that sort of thing. I could have participated in forums about the environment or gardening or parenting but I went for the off-beat ones like ‘Weird’ and ‘UnClear’.
The thing about The Well was that the people who ‘hung out’ there were intellectuals – they were smart and funny and hip and cultured. I was married to a knee-jerk, conservative, red neck, anti-intellectual and my relationship with The Well was my version of having an affair to relieve the ennui of my marriage. Like all affairs this one was doomed for discovery and was destined to destroy the relationship it violated.
When we moved from Oakland to the Suburbs, access to The Well got really expensive. I had to use metered minutes of phone time as well as paying the monthly fee and I had to keep it all secret from my husband. We had 3 or 4 phone lines at the time so I guess I used one of the business lines to pull off this virtual slight of hand. My office was this little hidey hole, illegal add-on off the back of our garage (accessible from within the house) and I would go down there to ‘work’ and to log into The Well and trade witty repartee with the cool kids. I will never forget my first post. I broke out into a sweat as soon as I submitted it and when I next logged in and saw that there was a response I blushed and I panted and my fingers trembled as I started reading it. Of course I had said something totally dorky and was thoroughly rebuked for it and so I retreated for a while, wrapped in the comfortable mantle of my low self esteem.
I kept at it, though. I got smarter and regained some confidence and I posted more frequently Occasionally I got a cyber-laugh in response. I was enraptured with my new found paradise and had an epiphany that the world really was still populated with smart fun people who cared about books and politics and social issues and who used their brains and that I didn’t have to live in the low oxygen cocoon I had somehow spun for myself. The phone bills mounted up and up, frequently exceeding $50 a month which was a fair chunk of change to hide at the time. Still, this was my secret love, the strong comfortable hands that gently touched my body and soul and I had no intentions of giving it up. If I heard my husband approaching the office I would quickly hit some arcane sequence of keys that would swap the green screen from one application to the next (this was a pre-Windows situation).
One of the things I bumped into on The Well was someone who studied and followed memes. At that time a meme was not a funny internet game that you used to pass around personal aspects of your life that you give up to the collective conscience. It was a concept so deeply intellectual and so laden with cultural gravitas that it was discussed only by the most intellectual, most cyber literate people in the world (note The Well’s intro to see what I mean). So what if it was really just the crap Faith Popcorn made a living ‘predicting’ . Memes are also just common expressions that get passed around and how that happens is pretty interesting but not that interesting. I decided I didn’t really like the meme people and wandered back to the more comfortable stomping grounds where people joshed around about termite sized genitals and plutonium butt plugs.
One evening I was so deep in the thick of the Secret Life of a Suburban Wife that I almost didn’t hear the husband approach. As he opened the door I finally managed to hit the magic affair hiding key sequence. He stood there in the doorway looking concerned and asked me, ‘What are you doing?”. “Oh nothing”, I replied. “Just answering some messages from US Leasing”. “Oh really?”, he asked crossing his arms and frowning, “And what do plutonium butt plugs have to do with the leasing business?”
I don’t even remember what happened after that. I vaguely recall having a moderate out of body experience as I realized it was all over – I was busted. I stammered out some explanation of how that butt plug thing wasn’t part of the work messages, that I had this sort of funny on-line community thing, etc. etc…. but after that it was never the same.
I didn’t give it up right away. I kept participating albeit less frequently. In the early 90s The Well was sold to an Entrepreneur named Bruce Katz who had the audacity to provide Internet access to the sacred grounds upon which the original Wellperns trod. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over this. How could he let the common folk in to sully up the white sand beaches of their collective intellect?
Tom Mandel, sadly enough, died of lung cancer and as far as I could tell Howard Reingold got too busy globe trotting and evangelizing technology to hang out in the halls anymore . I got an Internet account but not with The Well. Alas, my affair was over and it was time to move on to the rest of the World Wide Web.
The Well did me good, though. It reminded me that it was okay to be a thinking person and to care about things beyond cleaning the kitchen and putting the diapers out on the porch so the service could pick them up. Ultimately I started asking for more from my marriage and like me, my husband found an outlet to escape a marriage burdened wtih features not to his liking. Of course that comes as no surprise because as the old meme goes – what goes around comes around.