I was wandering down memory lane earlier this week when I remembered something that I wanted to share with y’all.
One of the things Mark and I do is to build directories and communities – Queer Sci Fi, QueeRomance Ink, and a number of others that bring together various parts of the LGBTIQA community.
For today’s column, I thought I’d take you back a couple decades, to the beginning of the world wide web, when America Online ruled the Earth.
Yes, there was actually a time when the web didn’t exist. It was a strange era, when you couldn’t reserve a hotel online or check your Facebook Feed or even *gasp* send a text message to your partner. And it was long before we even considered the possibility of marriage equality.
In the early days of the public internet in the 1990s, three “community”services ruled the world. Two of them, Compuserve and Prodidy, have mostly been forgotten in the intervening years. But the third, AOL, still exists today, albeit mostly in the form of email addresses that only old fogies still use.
In its heyday though, AOL was the Facebook of its time. Nearly everyone was on it, and it offered chat topics and other services for just about everyone. Its siren call – “You’ve Got Mail” – even appeared as the title of a popular romantic comedy. I can still hear that vaguely robotic male voice beckoning me to check my email, and the bong bong bong hisssssss of the 2400 baud modem slowly connecting me to the ‘net.
OMG I am old. 😛
I also remember when the web started, and how quickly it became popular. Within a couple months, web addresses suddenly started appearing on magazine ads and billboards, and soon they were everywhere.
In those early days, there were very few websites, and I remember a gag page someone put up:
You have reached the end of the internet.
Please turn around and go back.
Fir a brief period, it was actually possible to visit every site on the web, so that wasn’t as far-fetched as it seemed, but then it grew exponentially.
AOL was a closed ecosystem – you paid a membership fee, and had access to the various features, including the chat rooms. AOL’s floppy disks (and later CD’s) emblazoned with the company’s blue logo, were ubiquitous – every week, a new one would arrive in your mailbox, enticing you to try the service. Some people would even use these AOL discs to make shinny mobiles hanging from their front porches. Apparently they are collectibles now.
AOL eventually did open a portal to the fast-growing world wide web, and in the end, it was undone by the new free websites that sprouted like weeds across the empty virtual plain.
It was in the midst of all this change that I first found an online group of queer writers. Actually, they found me. A guy named Aldo Alvarez searched me out and invited me to join this weekly chat group that met every Sunday night. I joined, and was suddenly part of a global queer community, connected to writers just like me who were struggling to figure out how to get their writing out into the world.
It was like magic.
It’s hard to imagine the impact this had on me and people like me now. Prior to AOL, everything was done by paper. You used phone books and friends and went to conventions or conferences, and it was very easy to feel like you were the only queer writer in the whole world. AOL, and then the web, changed all that forever.
AOL, like FB, had both public chats and private messaging. Unlike FB, you were in one chat at a time, and the chats would careen between various queer and writing related topics. It was not uncommon to be carrying on a general chat with fifteen or twenty folks while privately chatting with five or six others who were in the public chat. And I’m sure there were a fair amount of online hook-ups too.
It was a giddy time, to suddenly have a way to be with others like me – queer writers – and to have our own little safe space.
Not that there weren’t trolls, but the chat admin could dispatch them pretty quickly.
Here are a few of the weekly chat topics we covered from one month in 2000:
- “John Slept Here (with Jim)”: LBGT Erotica’s ins and outs.
- “Tripping The Light Fantastic”: Sci Fi, Fantasy, and the LBGT Writer.
- “All The World’s A Stage”: LBGT Theater.
- “It Came From the Swamp (in a really cute pair of pink pumps)”: LBGT Horror writers speak out.
- “Poetic License”: Verse writers ply their trade in the room. Interactive poetry outbreaks encouraged.
You get the idea. Now you know where the idea for QSF’s chat topics originated.
In 1997, Aldo left to start an online zine, and custodianship of the group fell to me. We chose an official name for the group – Q*ink! – or Queer Ink (See? I told you this has all happened before) – and I built my first website.
It is a bit scary to look back at it after all these years, but for 1997 it was pretty cutting edge. LOL…
I found the graphic (pictured up top) in a black and white version, and colored in the bricks and windows and curtains by hand in Microsoft Paint, pixel by pixel. It took HOURS and HOURS, and at the end, I proudly showed the result to Mark.
“You should make the bricks pink.”
I could have killed him – I had just worked for hours to make them red. But back I went to make the changes anyhow.
At its height, Q*ink! had more than a hundred active members, and had become a nexus for queer fiction writers for discussions, calls for submission, and much more.
When Mark and I decided we wanted to move to Hawaii, we needed a job that wouldn’t be dependent on Kauai’s fickle job market. Mark pointed to the Q*ink! website and said “you could do web design.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. Nevertheless, we jumped in feet first, and we’re still doing it today.
That one little basic website was what ultimately made everything else possible.
I left the Q*ink group in 2000, just after we moved to Hawaii and started ramping up our web design business to a full-time endeavor. I don’t know how long it went on after that, but I hope it met a good and timely end.
I look back on it with great fondness. Q*ink! was my first website, and my first writing community.
For fun, I’ve uploaded the final version of the Q*ink! website to the QSF server. For those of you who were around those heady days, it will be a quirky reminder of the web that was. For those of you who were *ahem* not so fortunate, it’s a look back at how primitive things were back then:
This has all happened before. And we are all richer now because of it.