Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Times They Are A Changing

Sharon Wildwind

I think it was about 1984 when I ended up on a bulletin board for the first time. No, no one thumb-tacked me to a large piece of cork. I joined what was then called a BBS or bulletin board system.

I still know the system operator from that BBS and, recently he told me, “The BBS was a group of geeks, mostly males in their teens or twenties, who were hanging out together, and all of a sudden this thirty-something woman shows up on-line, and asks if she can join. We had no idea what to do with you. We figured we’d be polite and after a little while you would get tired and drift away. Only you didn’t. You stuck with it.”

Keep in mind we were communicating by text only. For my terminal, green letters on a black background. No photos, no graphic, the best we could do was one of Scott E. Fahlman’s mail markers. Professor Fahlman, who still works at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, had proposed that e-mail writers use a sets of cleverly-arranged of punctuation marks to show the feelings accompanying a message.
:-) for what I just wrote was a joke
:-( for I’m unhappy about what’s being said
:-o for I’m startled and my favorite
<|;-)8 for a winking clown, wearing a bow tie, which usually had nothing whatsoever to do with the message, but it was fun to turn your head side-ways like a seal and figure out what the little figure was supposed to be.

If a person was really, really creative and had lots of time on their hands, they could make simple graphic art, and hope like heck that the computer of the person receiving the message didn’t make the spacing go all colly-wobbly because then the graphic wouldn’t make any sense.

(It’s a heart in case you can’t guess)

I think one of the reasons I continued to hang around the BBS was not only that I found it fascinating to exchange ideas with people I couldn’t see and equally fascinating to have a window on what guys half my age thought, but that on Sunday afternoons we played softball and maybe went out for pizza afterwards. We might be in the middle of a hot discussion on-line, but once we were at the diamond, animosities disappeared for the afternoon.

Twenty-five years later, I’d have trouble spending an hour or so each night e-mailing green letters on black backgrounds back and forth.

I’m also having trouble with what’s happening to a good many of the on-lines lists to which I subscribe. Back about 2001, I fondly remember some great discussion lists. I think I was on about three of them at that time. Yes, some people never figured out how to summarize previous messages, so occasionally there would be the mile-long message. And yes, familiar topics would surface with the same regularity that the Nile once flooded surrounding farm land, and I’d feeling like smacking my forehead and saying, “Oh, no, here we go again.”

But weaving in and out of those inevitable problems was great discussion. People exchanged ideas and opinions, rather like we were doing back in ‘84 on the BBS. Today I find that the content on many lists is 80 to 90% come-ons to visit blogs. I say that knowing that a lot of people I respect, including my siblings here at Poe-Central, write great blog blurbs. They’re short, they don’t get in the way, and unfortunately for me, I go right past them. I’m developing the fastest delete key in town.

It’s the same with newsletters. Even more so than print newspapers, print newsletters are already dead. Every newsletter, except one, to which I still subscribe comes to me electronically. Currently I have 23 writing-related issues and 33 nursing-related ones unread in my e-mail and that’s only since January, since I clear out my newsletter files—most of them still unread—at the start of each year.

My pet peeve this week is the electronic newsletter that still uses a three-column format. Scroll down to read the rest of the first column, scroll up to read the beginning of the second column, scroll down to read the end of the second column, then up and down one more time and I’ve done one page. Only 17 more of the 18-page newsletter to go. Likely I won’t make it past page one.

I’m not really as grumpy as all of this sounds. Mostly, I’m lost. I simply don’t have time to keep up with the old formats like lists and newsletters and the new formats like [insert your favorite new thing here], so I'm going to have to pick and choose. Maybe what we all need, instead of an avalanche of new electronic formats to join, learn and manage is a few more Sunday afternoon softball games, followed by pizza, if anyone is interested. Make mine black olive and mushroom.

Quote for the week:
If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects. They reflect one's mind and psyche of yesterday. I throw away what has no dynamic, living use. I keep nothing to remind me of the passage of time, deterioration, loss, shriveling.
~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 - 1977)
From those of us living north of the 49th parallel to those of you living on both sides of the border, Happy Canada Day, which will be tomorrow, July 1. Here’s one of my favorite bits of Canada, Banff National Park.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, thanks for contributing to my store of general knowledge with the name of the guy who invented the smiley. I teach experienced psychotherapists to work with clients in text-based counseling and therapy, and nuanced use of emoticons -- especially the smiley :) and the winkie ;) -- is an important element of online clinical work. Who'd'a thunk it?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm with you on the lists. Like you, I've tried to participate in listservs, but the repetition of threads and the lack of cutting and pasting (plus the general difficulty of use....why not a forum-style set up, instead?) keeps me from logging in very often.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lonnie Cruse said...

Happy Canada Day to you, Sharon! Loved the picture.

Elise M. Stone said...

Sharon, I am so with you on this! I, too, am a dinosaur who was online on a Commodore 64 before most people had seen a computer. I remember when chat rooms were actual live discussions of topics of interest before they turned into dating services for cybersex.
I've noticed how discussion lists have recently turned into not much more than promotional vehicles. The most annoying posts are those which appear to be responses to one of the few actual discussions - but then put a link to a blog posting where the person puts the actual response.
Yeah, the delete key has become my best friend. There are certain people whose posts I never read because they're always a promotion for their blog. If they ever post actual content, I'll miss it. But that's the way it goes. I haven't got time for the nonsense.

Sandra Parshall said...

Someday all of this will come crashing down and writers will be freed from the burden of constant online promotion. I already do as little as possible. I am not on Facebook or MySpace, and I don't tweet on Twitter. I don't send out an electronic newsletter.

My main complaint about e-newsletters is that some of them don't fit in the window -- I have to scroll right to read the ends of lines, then left again to start the next line. It's a variation of the three-column nuisance, and there are precious few newsletters I want to read so much that I'll go to so much trouble.

I have no firm idea whether having a blog helps to sell books, but I suspect it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

My apologies for not responding sooner. I was away yesterday.

Liz, until several months ago I had no idea that the smiley could be traced to one person. It's an interesting idea that the emoticons can contribute to clarity in on-line therapy.

Elise, my first computer was a tape-fed Radio Shack. Since my virgin BBS was almost exclusively male, I don't think it turned into a cyber-dating service, but oh did I learn about flame wars at an early [computer] age.

Everyone else, you're put your fingers on the same frustrations I feel. The bottom line is that most of the reliable consumer research has been done on the high-ticket ways of advertising: radio and TV campaigns, bill boards and bus signs, etc. On any given day, any electronic effort can make a sale. Or not. And there is no way to know in advance which will be which.

If that's true, then I'd love a system where the process is enjoyable. I'd love to come away from cyberspace each day feeling as though I'd connected with people, learned something, been made to think, and had some fun instead of reading page after page of go to this other link.

There are some wonderful web sites, blogs, and [fill in the electronic connection of your choice] out there. But they have become so isolated and scattered that trying to keep up is like eating each ingredient in a recipe separately instead of mixing and cooking them and the end product being something delicious.