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Life by Satellite

Life by Satellite

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Life by Satellite

424 pagine
7 ore
Feb 25, 2016


When Christine and Linda both joined an online message board to discuss “Women Online” in 1993, neither were expecting a transatlantic “special relationship” to develop — a correspondence which would see them sharing the highs and lows of their personal and professional lives.

Life by Satellite follows the development of their friendship online, from tentative beginnings to deeply personal crises and a secret which one of them doesn’t know how to broach. Their weekly — sometimes daily — exchanges take you behind the veneer that we so often erect for strangers. Soon nothing was beyond limits, as the two women became best friends.

The correspondence unfolds over a 16 month period and presents a unique picture of life in 1993-94, before most people dreamed of owning a personal computer, let alone connecting it to the Internet. Think “84 Charing Cross Road” with modems. The pen friends are unselfconsciously witty, scathing, and (at times) heart breaking. Reading their messages is like opening your daughter’s or wife’s diary, and you won’t want to put it down.

Feb 25, 2016

Informazioni sull'autore

CHRISTINE BURNS LIVES in Manchester, England. For many years she was a professional IT and business consultant, working for a range of companies from global corporations to her own one-woman business. Her clients ranged from blue chip household name corporations to small businesses. She then consciously switched careers and built a second reputation as an equalities expert, in the course of which she was awarded an MBE by the Queen. Her interests range widely. Apart from being a published writer and poet, she has been a prolific blogger and podcast maker, a keen photographer and also likes to cycle for pleasure. Her publications have included the deeply technical and the mischievously trivial.

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Anteprima del libro

Life by Satellite - Christine Burns


Life by Satellite

The Adventures of a Modem Girl

By Christine Burns

Copyright © 2016

Cover design by Sophie Green

To Linda

How could this book be

dedicated to anyone but

my dear pen friend?

About The Author

CHRISTINE BURNS LIVES in Manchester, England. For many years she was a professional IT and business consultant, working for a range of companies from global corporations to her own one-woman business. Her clients ranged from blue chip household name corporations to small businesses. She then consciously switched careers and built a second reputation as an equalities expert, in the course of which she was awarded an MBE by the Queen. Her interests range widely. Apart from being a published writer and poet, she has been a prolific blogger and podcast maker, a keen photographer and also likes to cycle for pleasure. Her publications have included the deeply technical and the mischievously trivial.

Other eBooks by Christine Burns:

Fishing for Birds

Making Equality Work

Pressing Matters Volume 1

Pressing Matters Volume 2

Letters from Australia


THIS IS A BOOK about two professional women who lived 3500 miles apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the early part of the 1990s. One of them was me.

It is a true story about the contacts made when a group of us came together in a digital forum to discuss why so few women frequented online discussion places. Those contacts developed into friendships as some of us began side conversations by email. One of those pen-friendships subsequently became the nucleus of an idea for this book.

The question about women online was posed to us in September 1993 when, as they say, the online world was young. At least that’s how it would have appeared to the majority of the ordinary public…

The Internet had actually been around for many years. It had been designed as a resilient backbone for military communications in the 1970s. Soon, it was enthusiastically adopted by academic researchers to exchange ideas, with basic tools to send files between computers, and then electronic messages that mimicked letter post. Big business too had experimented with simple email from the early 1980s, and computer hobbyists had been setting up so-called Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) during the same period. But it was in the early 1990s that some of those threads began to come together, with commercial services aimed at ordinary users. There were two main services: America Online (AOL) and the CompuServe Information Service (CIS). The two were mutually incompatible. And they were in a race for users. So the question of how the online world might appeal to female users was very germane.

My own experience didn’t augur well. I had used a commercial email service in 1985 to build an unusual business solution for a big British food manufacturer, so I understood the potential. As a technologist, I had also logged in to one or two bulletin boards operated by enthusiasts to learn, first hand, what they did. But these weren’t places I would spend my spare time or expect to form any kinds of relationships. Then the need arose to try out CompuServe because a customer of mine demanded we communicate that way. Exchanging emails and files with them by wire was really useful. But, on the first occasion I ventured into one of the public places that CompuServe provided, my first ever online interaction with a stranger involved an American man demanding to know How big are your tits? I logged off in shock. If it wasn’t for the fact that I knew online tools could be useful, I might not have returned for years.

Historically it’s valuable to study those wild early days as the issues of women online have not gone away. In fact they are more pressing now, as the modern online space has become central to many aspects of modern life. Back then it was simpler, but there are some notable themes which came up then and still apply now. We couldn’t anticipate back then how the future would pan out.

This was before many ordinary families even had computers at home. It was certainly before many people had hooked their computers up to a telephone line. It was long before smartphones and mobile internet. It was before people outside of a select few academics knew about something called the World Wide Web. It was a world of command lines and shaky interfaces — of modems and long distance phone charges to connect. It was a place where you had to be pretty determined to take part. And it was a world mainly frequented by men.

This book is mostly not about the medium though, for our conversations soon ranged away from the question put to us by the organisers of the Women Online discussion space. We only really knew why we were online and stayed there — and that was usually because our work demanded it.

This book simply eavesdrops, 23 years later, on how a friendship developed between me and my friend in that space — facilitated at first by my interlocutor’s husband. It takes you into the things that concerned us personally in the first half of the 1990s. It is an intimate fly on the wall snapshot of our lives as we lived them out. The conversation flowered unselfconsciously. We had no idea in mind at the time that we would ever share our thoughts beyond our nearest and dearest. Therein lies the magic.

Christine and Linda in

New York, 1995


This book would not be possible were it not for the kind cooperation of Linda Henry and her husband Robert Phillips, who made it such an amazing conversation in the first place, and who consented to allow me to reproduce their correspondence almost a quarter of a century later. Their enthusiasm for reading the drafts and feeding back suggestions was also really helpful.

Thanks also to Sophie Green, an amazing young artist, who took the commission to design the front cover and captured the essence of the book so well.


First published February 2016 by Christine Burns.

Copyright  ©  Christine Burns, 2016

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, screen shots, recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the author.

The right of Christine Burns to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All photography copyright © Christine Burns except where otherwise indicated.

Cover design produced by Sophie Green

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.  This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people, If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Women Online

IT BEGAN WITH a question, kicking off a new dedicated discussion forum on the CompuServe system. Prior to the forum’s launch, the plan for the discussion had been trailed to users of the service who were identified as women in their account information. News spread more widely, sucking in men as well. Some of the concerns raised echo things that are still said today…

#: 16490 S11/Women Online

06-Sep-93 12:40:35

Sb: #Where are the women?

Fm: Chris Shipley 76000,17

To: all

Welcome to what I'm sure will be an interesting and insightful week of discussion and debate. I'm especially pleased to welcome Lynn Povich of Working Woman, who co-hosts this event with me, and our special guests, Lindsy Van Gelder, Stacy Horn, and the women CEO's of various PC companies, including Susan MacCracken-Jain, Mary Stanley, Linda Weed, and Dawn DeBruyn.

The topic this week: Women Online, or more exactly why more women aren't online, the community of women who are online, how women are treated online, and all the other issues that will no doubt come forth this week.

If you've not yet seen it, check the September. issue of Working Woman for the article by Judith Broadhurst on On-line Gold Mines, subtitled, Why don't more women tap into the latest business data, news and gossip?

That seems like an appropriate question to start us off.

Here's to a great week of women online.

Lots of thoughts followed:

Fm: Theresa W. Carey 72241,237

To: Lori Grunin 72241,103

Lori, I have the impression that some forums have much higher female participation than others and can only make a wild guess as to why. I think that one factor is women on the forum staff. Too often in the realm of math and science and techie stuff, as we grew up, we were told, Girls don't do this sort of thing, and were directed down the hall to sewing class. Those of us who didn't give a hoot about being socially acceptable ignored that advice.

I remember my early days on CompuServe as being remarkably confusing. My first outpost online was a forum sponsored by a trade association I belong to, so some of the messages were from people I knew. I managed to inadvertently spark a major flame war just by asking about programs that would make this place easier (and cheaper) to use, and that experience nearly inspired me to hang up my modem! I was amazed at the sheer nastiness of how some people communicate when they're not face to face.

One of the first things you needed to know to join the online conversation was the abbreviations and the ways in which people communicated emotions. Theresa, above, used to show the spirit in which she was remarking. This was sometimes abbreviated further to just or (a bigger grin) or . Other popular equivalents were LOL (laugh out loud — still used a lot today), ROFL (rolls on floor laughing), PMSL (pissing myself laughing) and, my favourite, (grins, ducks and runs). The next writer introduced another common kind of abbreviation, PMJI (pardon me jumping in).

Fm: Sarah Holland 70620,1425

To: Lori Grunin 72241,103

Dear Lori, PMJI, but I am still upset at my high school which had all the girls in the Home Economics 8, and all the boys in Shop etc. I graduated from high school in 1986, so I think I'm fairly young for around here. That's one of the major things I regret about high school, that I never did take shop.

We Brits also had to learn how much we were divided by our common language. I guess that we would have said Woodwork or Metalwork rather than Shop. In the same vein, you couldn’t assume where people were from…

Fm: Sarah Holland 70620,1425

To: Lori Grunin 72241,103

Lori: >> What area of the country are you from?

Can't make assumptions on CIS, now! I'm not from the country - I'm from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which is about a 5 hour drive north of Seattle. You know, the country with universal medical coverage? I'm always somewhat stunned by the messages in the Computer Consultants forum — the time, effort, and money it seems to take to be insured. Oh, and by the way, I don't think that my school had any regulations about which gender was supposed to take what. It just happened that way.

And there’s another convention: quote backs. These days people are used to email programs that quote the entire message below your reply. We all soon developed our preferred ways of showing where we were quoting parts of someone’s message to reply to. There were lots of variations on the less-than and greater-than symbols — sometimes referred to as pointy brackets.

Fm: Theresa W. Carey 72241,237

To: Sandra Donnelly [Zi 72241,1206

I graduated from high school in 1973 and managed to get out of the home economics and sewing classes by being in the band and the orchestra. I also wanted to take shop and auto mechanics but was told no girls allowed. So I did a somewhat sneaky thing — I convinced the school to give a boy's cooking class and to let some girls into shop class. I heard that the classes stopped having gender restrictions on them by the late '70s (when my kid sister was there) but I haven't followed up since then. Maybe in the '80s backlash, it went back to the class structure of the 50s.

By now you’re getting the idea of the flow, and how conversations could wander away from the topic. Notice also that, whilst there were many dozens of us signed up to read all of these messages, they developed initially with just a few women chipping-in. The term for the rest of us — listening but not speaking up — was lurkers. I was very happy to lurk for quite a long time. This was also not a conversation limited solely to women. Here comes our first man…

Fm: Jeff Bankston[ZiffNet] 72241,1204

To: Theresa W. Carey 72241,237

What state was this in? I thought Miss. was the only state like that — or to that effect. Not many girls did more than Home Economics and Advanced Sewing let alone partake in the technical and scientific classes. Those students who pursued advanced classes were commonly labeled nerds even if a few of us played football and chewed tobacco. I found it quite amusing.

At the end of the first week the initial contributors were still comparing school backgrounds, but these were also handy for understanding the ages of the participants…

Fm: Catherine M. Juon 73044,3056

To: Kathryn Dennis 72241,1472

Wow. Hard to believe how different requirements are! My experience with a 9th grade Algebra teacher finished me for life (o.k. I'm now a senior in college struggling to pass Intermediate Algebra) and everybody in my high school was required to take one semester each of typing, shop and home ec. That was Iowa — and I graduated High School in 1989.

Then, at last, we encountered the sort of woman whom the executives most needed to understand. Someone who wasn’t a geek but who nonetheless enjoyed communicating online with all us strangers…

Fm: connie 71151,731

To: Jeff Bankston[ZiffNet] 72241,1204

Hi! My name is Connie. I have been visiting CompuServe for a couple of years now. I am kind of self taught. I have never worked in a position where computers were used. I graduated from high school in 1966 and these things weren't even thought of as a possibility.

I grew up breaking horses and doing general ranch work. I flew for a major airline for almost 20 years and have since worked as an assistant to a professional horse trainer and other odd jobs. I have my own place where I raise horses and do some training. That is definitely a woman in a man's world.

Getting back to computing, you can see that I did not grow up around this stuff. I still find it confusing to get around these information systems and Bulletin Boards. I'm starting to understand more how they work. Right now typing this I don't know if any of this will come out or be in the right place. I forget to remember who is writing a message and have no idea of how to find that message again without reading everything I just read in the last hour. I find this to be a maze and sometimes I actually find my way around. I am fortunate that we have a local access number for CompuServe so I opt for the basic monthly charge and then so far I stay away from those areas that I know charge —until I learn to get around more efficiently.

You are right though when you say that knowing who to ask where to ask and when to ask.... that is the timing to be mastered. I think a lot of women (men too) don’t' know what's available here. I'm not even sure if I really do. And when you log on if you don't know how to get around you could be here for hours and still not know what's here. I think that time is also a great factor. I seem to use up an awful lot of time on line and then wonder where the time has gone.

I have really enjoyed reading from all the ladies that have written in. A lot of you sound like you have the technical knowledge to really get the use from this. Maybe classes aren't such a bad idea —in fact it's probably a great idea. Keep up the good work. I'll tune in when I can.

A little while later, another new contributor brought the discussion back on topic…

Fm: Judith Broadhurst 70421,2063

To: Lori Grunin 72241,103

I'm 48, Lori, and I find more women my age are intimidated by going online, whereas women under 30 grew up with this stuff. I never even used a computer until I was (counting on fingers) about 42. I was sure I'd go to my grave a techno Neanderthal. I was also ready to give up by my second week online, and loudly proclaimed my intention which, of course, got people to come to my rescue immediately. Within a few days, I was doing fine. Bear in mind that I was trying to learn all of this entirely by myself, because I knew no one who was online. I even installed my own modem, before I knew what damage one could do with static electricity. Last week I fried a brand new VGA video board on installation. Knew just enough to do the wrong thing.

I think the main problem with women's technophobia is learned helplessness, however. Perhaps that's overstating it a bit, but we're standing in our own way as much as anyone else is. Several women have asked me to go to their homes and tutor them, step-by-step and check out their computers while I was there. Sure, no problem. Right. They assume if you know anything about computers you know everything. I turn that around and use cars as an example. You don't need to know how to build one, fix one or much else about the innards to drive one, and that's the point. My favourite was the woman I talked through getting a modem, by phone, plugging it in (it was a portable, for Pete's sake). She knew enough to load CIM [the CompuServe Information Manager] and get to a DOS prompt. But, hard as I tried, I could not get her to overcome her fear and type TUTORIAL!

So, one emergent opinion was that computers in 1993 were hard to use…

Fm: Lori Grunin 72241,103

To: Judith Broadhurst 70421,2063

I find, in my experience, that the problems you mention apply pretty much equally to beginners of both sexes. And, unfortunately, it's entirely justified. Computers are still simply to hard to use. When you step on a car's brake, it slows. Step on it harder, it stops. When the door open indicator lights up, it's because the door is open, not because the trunk is open. The brake doesn't work differently if you're making a left turn than if you're making a right turn, and you don't have companies issuing new steering wheels because the original one turns the car right when you turn the wheel left.

Sorry about the tirade. I spent the afternoon trying to get a driver to recognise a SCSI adapter. I won, though.

Some agreed…

Fm: Wendy Grossman

(skeptic) 70007,5537

To: Judith Broadhurst 70421,2063

I've been getting this you are a wizard routine from a woman in London who is PROUD of knowing no science (I'm an artist she says — actually she writes agony aunt columns for a living). I try to to tell her I don't know anything, I just write about the stuff, but i've gotten nowhere.

Some thought it was more of a specific gender difference…

Fm: pgering 72241,473

To: Judith Broadhurst 70421,2063

I don't think fear of technology is the issue — I think it's more like on-line communication isn't satisfying / meaningful to women. I know that when I have a few minutes I'd rather talk to someone I know, where I get immediate response, appropriate to me. Mostly what I encounter on-line, like lots of anonymous conversation, just isn't worth the time it takes to get involved.

But others thought online androgyny worked to their advantage…

Fm: Lindsy Van Gelder 70007,1416

To: Theresa W. Carey 72241,237

Yep, when I was first on here, I realised that part of what I liked about it came from the fact that I have an androgynous name. One of my first online female friends was deliberately using handles just to avoid the electronic equivalents of sexual harassment and condescension. I honestly think that stuff is much less of a problem these days. I think the current problem is getting women online, not keeping us here.

Fm: Chris Shipley 76000,17

To: Lindsy Van Gelder 70007,1416

Androgyny (at least in naming) has its benefits, I suppose, but the interesting thing is how many people assume that I am male, rather than female — unless, of course, they had a sister named Lucas.

When I first came to ZiffNet, I was managing a service on another online service and dealing with customer messages. 8 out of 10 messages assumed I was male, and the other 2 avoided the issue. Only occasionally would anyone ask.

On one occasion, a customer was upset over something and wanted to pick an online fist fight with me. He was saying things like, That Chris Shipley, he's a jerk or some such. Someone else stepped in and informed the guy I was a woman and you could almost feel him blushing in his next message. Clearly, he was taught not to hit girls.

We heard some familiar kinds of stories about working with men…

Fm: Hillary Rettig 71023,1013

To: Brenda Christensen 73053,2571

I've had the experience of being in a room with a couple of men, neither of whom know anything about computers. (As in, never touched the keyboard.) The subject came up and the two guys started talking about computers, never letting me get a word in edgewise, despite the fact that I was the only one present who knew anything at all about the topic. I'm not a reticent person by the way — I can usually hold my own in conversation. And these guys aren't horrible people, they're friends, actually. But I think they were so deeply conditioned that only guys knew tech that they were incapable, at that moment, of breaking past the stereotype.

Some thought the media was to blame…

Fm: Judith Broadhurst 70421,2063

To: Theresa W. Carey 72241,237

The mainstream media have done as much to deter women from coming online as any other single factor, I'm convinced. If I see one more story that talks about Online Orgies (headline for a recent TIME story) or CompuSex or stalking or porno graphics, I think I'm going to become a terrorist. Often you can tell that the reporters have never been online except a peek here and a peek there for their assignment. Do all these people hang out in CB Simulator and HSX (sex) Forums, or what? Really, I never understand how that's all they could see, and why they put so much emphasis on something most of us never experience. Sex and sensationalism sell, I guess.

Hanging out in CB Simulator is the online equivalent of hanging out in a singles bar. So what would one expect to happen? Bet you can't tell that this riles me, huh?

Over and over again, I hear women say, But aren't people online really sexist? Studies, to the contrary, show that sexism diminishes when nobody's staring at your legs or boobs or, as you and Lindsy point out, even knows whether you're male or female. Or they say, I'd be afraid. People who spend their time communicating through computers must be weird or can't get along with people in Real Life. Many are afraid of someone tracking them down offline and stalking them. They don't get these ideas out of nowhere.

The CB simulator was an early forerunner of the kind of Instant Message (IM) apps we have today. As the name suggests, it was modelled on how CB Radio worked. And it’s where, as an online virgin myself, I had got asked about my bra size. And HSX was CompuServe’s Human Sexuality Forum, which I never ventured near.

By now the conversation was warming up and more people were joining in. There was discussion about how to get mothers, wives, sisters and aunts involved — what kind of content did there need to be and shouldn’t someone be offering classes? There was serious thought about what online services like this were for. Men, perhaps, were more inclined to explore just because it was there. Did women need a practical purpose to justify their time and the learning involved? Could we each get someone else involved? I was there because of my work, but I immediately started talking to my friends about joining the conversation — an uphill struggle if ever there was. One other lurking reader — a Classics Professor who was also a confirmed geek — encouraged his wife to join the conversation, using his account. She came in after this contribution from another woman, talking about whether it helped to have truly women-only spaces in a place online like this…

Fm: Sally Neuman [ZiffNet] 72241,66

To: Chris Shipley 76000,17

A women only theme doesn't give women the opportunity to educate men, which defies the purpose. We all need to be educated about one another, but not in the sense of the I am me and you are you syndromes so prevalent today. Really, I wish this gender thing would just go away. It's insane. It's ridiculous. It doesn't matter which of the genders you are, any more than what your preferences in life are. It only matters that you are.

And this was Linda’s cue…

Fm: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

To: Sally Neuman [ZiffNet] 72241,66

Sally, (Actually not Robert, but his wife Linda Henry, mooching off the account…)

As a first time ever correspondent (isn't that the point of this forum?), I'm afraid I must disagree. Although I've always heard tales of electronic communication from my spouse, I have never felt comfortable participating myself. An idea like a women's issue forum, or even women only, is far more encouraging to me as a neophyte, and it has nothing to do with seeing the world in gender terms; rather it supplies a level of comfort that otherwise might not be there. A general women's issues or women only forum also might have more appeal for lurkers and newcomers than a genderless forum for specific issues. After all, people familiar with computers and the fora don't need encouragement, IMHO [in my humble opinion]

A newbie! Sally was on the case immediately, wanting to draw Linda in…

Fm: Sally Neuman [ZiffNet] 72241,66

To: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

Robert and I go back a year or two online, having shared (if it's the same wonderful Robert I think it is) a love of Maine Coones. Same Robert?

As I said in my reply to Rebecca, I think there's still lots of room for a forum that can provide a LOT of services and supports for women and computing, and I think it's a necessary part of the whole equation.

What things would make computing online less uncomfortable for you? Having a place, if you will, to call your own, where you can share ideas and thoughts, give and get support, learn, and even perhaps overcome what you and I both have — a distaste for gender gaps of any kind?

Someone with your thoughts and ideas can bring a breath of fresh air into what might easily become a stuffy, trite, male-fashioned forum (pardon me, fellas, I mean a forum that looks like it was created by male computists like the physical equipment gynaecologists use were). We need folks like you more than any other type because without you, we have no way to come back down to earth. Does that make sense?

Believe me, people who know and use computers need encouragement all the time. It's like my dad taught me about being competent, being promoted and becoming incompetent, and then becoming competent again, playing dominoes with your career all your life.

So, if the forum could satisfy needs like yours AND needs like mine, would you be interested in it? Enough to participate?

Robert was what was called a Sysop — a kind of privileged CompuServe user who volunteered online to keep discussion forums orderly. In real life he was a Classics Professor, but also really interested in geeky stuff like computer fonts (in the days before we came to take them for granted). Robert and Linda had not long got married and he was keen to involve his new spouse in the things that he enjoyed as well. They were a one computer household until this moment, so he was about to make the ultimate sacrifice online…

Fm: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

To: Sally Neuman [ZiffNet] 72241,66

Sally, this is Robert for himself (to steal a line from a wonderful Larry Niven scifi novel).

Men tend to take over discussions, so I'll leave everything non-personal to Linda, since it's her message. So a brief thread-drift…

Yes, it's the same Robert. Thanks for the compliment. We got a red boy Maine Coon shortly after our last exchange — did your search end productively? When I started doing this sysop-ing and was looking for role models, several ZiffNetters were mentioned — including both you and Orville. Take a bow! Orville too, if she/he is lurking!

I'd just add that in a reply to Christine I detailed what Linda thought through before she replied. As I (additionally) put it For your first online experience, you couldn't do better. Sympathetic audience, congenial topic, and Sally is one of the best online friends you can have. The choice, ultimately, was entirely hers and I think she's glad she did, and will be even gladder when she hears she got such a good reply.

She'll be back tonite!

Robert and I had indeed discussed how to bring Linda into the fold — in a private as opposed to public message like all these. I’m glad, for the sake of this book, that we did. And Maine Coons, a rather fine breed of cats with unusually round irises, were to form a recurrent theme in our writings…

Fm: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

To: Sally Neuman [ZiffNet] 72241,66

Sally, glad to be back, and the cats are wonderful — although Marcellus, our red boy, raises such hell that he can't be allowed in the computer room with the modem. Did you ever get a Maine Coon? Robert speaks very highly of you and your correspondence!

I am a civilian in a civilian agency — DOL/SOL, to dole out an acronym. When I first started at DOL [the Department of Labor] we had memory typewriters, and, for really big projects, magnetic cards. This was less than ten years ago.

Technophobia among the women lies not in the technicals, but in their pride of profession. We are lawyers, and as I mentioned in another message, women lawyers do not type. Since computing equals typing for these women, their machines remain doorstops — although I guess most people would say our no-name 286s are doorstops by definition.

We were all interested in what Linda had to say. After all, she was exactly the kind of potential user we geeks wanted to understand better. What was the way to make them feel more welcome or engaged?

Fm: Becky Campbell [ZIFFNET] 72241,433

To: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

Linda, your message interests me. You say you have never (your emphasis) felt comfortable participating yourself. I would very much like to hear specifics.

I clearly remember the first time I logged onto CIS [the CompuServe Information Service]. I read a whole lot of messages and saw some of the banter and I said to myself , Hey! Those people are having fun! I want to have fun too! I jumped in.

But I often find myself needing to explain about CIS and what it's about and maybe you could help me understand just what issues I need to address to help allay those fears that others might have. It's not a matter of having fun, really, it's a matter of utilising resources, for the audience I have in mind.

Fm: robert phillips [Adobe] 76711,1337

To: Becky Campbell [ZIFFNET] 72241,433

Becky —

Actually, I wasn't going to jump in, but Robert (spousal unit) encouraged me. I was afraid that messages should be answered like phones — as soon as possible. I thought it was too late to talk! I also had, perhaps, more female (let's generalise...) fears: that I would look stupid; that no one would be interested in my comments, or questions; and (since I didn't know what I was doing) I'd make a horrible mistake.

Just so this doesn't sound like I'm timid by nature, I am a trial attorney who spends most of my time arguing in court— but in court I know what I'm arguing about, I know the facts, I know the lingo (at least for the fed govt’s sake I hope I do) I don't know that in this world. So, rather than risk, one lurks — because you don't look stupid if you lurk.

BTW (see I'm learning the lingo), I have not seen one very obvious reason for women's reluctance to use computers — fear of being labeled a secretary. When the govt finally broke down and bought computers for our office, we didn't have enough for everyone. Half the women attorneys volunteered to forgo the computers — because they didn't go to law school to be secretaries and they wanted nothing to do with typing. Typing and computing need to be differentiated for the general public — it's not that obvious

And so the conversations continued, not always on topic. The Maine Coons became a conversation in themselves. Seeing Linda talk about her work as a federal lawyer brought other women lawyers into the conversation. We talked about ways to tutor women in the ways of online discussion when starting out. We talked (and yes, we bitched) about sharing the online world with men — the word Cyberspace had yet to be coined and the World Wide Web wasn’t in our vocabulary either.

All-in-all we wrote 150,000 words between us that month — September 1993 — and the company were persuaded to make our Women Online forum permanent. It had only been intended to be a temporary thing. Some of what we discussed might seem arcane now. Women these days have a very different relationship with computers and communications. What we perhaps didn’t see too well was just how crude the software was back then, and how limited the range of things to interest people. But some themes still have resonances today, especially in terms of how men and women relate online. Above all, we were doing that very human thing — sharing thoughts and making friends.



CHAPTER ONE SET the scene on the public conversation. It felt like Freshers Week at University, with lots of people making introductions and being on their best behaviour to impress. We covered a lot; however we also inevitably drew the attention of one or two men whom we would nowadays instantly label as trolls — people who make a conscious attempt to provoke controversy or disagreement, or try to offend or abuse.

The effect of our trolls was particularly felt by the newcomers to our little online club. The top talent of a good troll is to have plausible deniability — to upset people whilst being able to throw up their hands and claim they were just debating or playing devil’s advocate or whatever alibi they chose. Newcomers would get sucked into things where more seasoned forum users would wisely hold back. The troll would play with their prey until frustration either forced them away or they lost their temper. The second outcome was always the worst, as the troll would play at being the injured party and pile on more passive aggression.

During September and October of 1993 I would sometimes contact forum users privately by email to seek advice, vent frustration or just pick up interesting points that didn’t warrant a public post. Private messages seemed, to me, a good way to avoid the

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