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Brooke Binkowski @brooklynmarie
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When I was a kid, nine or ten, I was smart, wiggly, and precocious, raised by a single working mom. She found all kinds of interesting things for me to read, because I love to read. One day she picked up a free magazine for me called ComputorEdge.…
She had just bought a new "computor" because she was young, recently widowed, and going to law school; she needed it for classes. We had an Apple II in my classroom at that time, but other than that, I hadn't been exposed to anything like this before. I was in 5th grade I think.
No, maybe 6th. Either way, it was the late 1980s. Anyway, this wasn't a cutting edge computer or even a new one. I think it was a 286. So I set about learning this new technology with zeal, being the kid I was. Then that article in ComputorEdge I read changed everything.
This is the site. I'm sure the article is in there all these years later; I'll have to find it another time.
Anyway, I found out something amazing from this article. You could hook up your phone to your computer and use it to call places and leave messages for other people on your computer! I found out it was called an electronic bulletin board system, or BBS. I was intrigued by this
So as soon as we got home from running errands, I asked if I could play on her new computer, and she said yes, but don't break anything. I immediately took it apart and figured out how to hook it up to the phone lines and happily dialed in to my very first BBS, the name of which
I remember to this day - that's why I decided to call it to begin with. It was called "Schrödinger's Cat Box." (I was the kind of kid, and am the kind of adult, who found that sort of thing very funny.) I was immediately hooked. To explain its particular allure for me - I was a
very nerdy kid who read all the time. I was very, very small and scrawny, and worse yet I had bifocals and a bowl cut. Worst of all - I was a girl. So I had all these big ideas that of course no one is going to take seriously from a precocious little girl with huge bifocals haha
Also my grandma, who I lived with on and off, dressed me like a little old woman I mean why would you do this to a child it's basically guaranteeing my path to the world of BBSing
Anyway, I loved it. People engaged with me based on the strength of my ideas, not their preconceptions of me or what I looked like. We could argue on a purely intellectual level. It was ideal, and that world, it was like magic. It was like a secret society. We all felt that way
Then real-time chat boards appeared, and I was really in my element. I didn't really meet anyone yet (I had met one online friend who came over when I was home sick from school and he turned out to be in his thirties and was visibly shocked to discover I was only 11. We sat
outside and he smoked and kept saying "wow, I didn't realize you were so young." Then my mom, who was about his age, came home and flipped her lid. I can see why now, of course, and I also realize now that I inadvertently catfished him a bit, I think (sorry Loren!) because I
was so young and he probably thought he was going to come over and meet some babe. Anyway, he was really nice to me and not a creep, thank goodness, because that could have been terrible. I told my mom I met him "on the computer" and she grounded me from it for a while, obviously
Then I hit puberty and that distracted me for a bit. I got back on the BBSes when I was 14 or 15 and remembered why I loved them so much. It was even better at that point because I was becoming conscious of myself as a burgeoning woman in the world and all that baggage with it
(I have to add this part because it feels dishonest if I don't, but on my return I also enjoyed being one of a very few women on those boards and in this world - looking back, I was quite pretty although I didn't think so at the time, so the attention was heady.)
It was a lot livelier than I remembered but we were still so far out of the mainstream that it still felt like this secret society. By now this was the early 90s and I was part of that zeitgeist but my heart was always with BBSes. I became a regular on a board called Oasis, then
Anarchy-X, A-X for short. It became a huge part of my social life, because we were all the freaks and the geeks and the outcasts and the nerds and we were all in it together, at least that's what it felt like at the time.…
I made wonderful friends on there (and a few enemies.) We had our stupid teenage and twentysomething dramas played out on the screen. We met online, then in real life. We also partied together a lot, but that's another story.
While I was always smart enough to put together technical stuff, it never really interested me as much as the social. Most of the BBS people I met were tech people. I was still figuring myself out but I was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer or an anthropologist - the reason I'd
wanted to meet that guy when I was 11 was because his name was Loren and I had been reading a lot of Loren Eiseley at the time, whose writing I still love, and wanted to talk to him about his namesake. Again, that's the kind of kid I was.
So I was an enthusiastic part of this scene but at the same time I sort of privately considered myself a chronicler of it and how the various factions and subcultures within that very sub-subculture formed, rather than being invested in programming or physically building systems.
In case you're wondering: Espresso was my longest-used handle, or nick, or whatever kids call it these days. Also Pegasus (what can I say? I was an 11 year old girl) and, hilariously, Spam. It was an inside joke that became shorthand for unwanted email. I think some SysOp
hated everything about Spam - considered it creepy and gross - and so people trolled him by sending him unwanted electronic mail (e-mail!) about it. But that story is old and hoary and I have no idea how true it is. Anyway that was pre-spam emails.
But I was just as invested in building this new society and being part of this new thing as the next person was. As I grew up amidst this, the child of a hippie artist raised between two countries, feeling like I was an outsider everywhere I went except right there, I saw its
amazing possibilities. I saw how it could mitigate cultural and socioeconomic differences and how it could help people bridge misunderstandings. I saw how people could create misunderstandings. I even, and I am sorry to everyone, spent about a year trolling people and saying, to
my great shame, that it was "a social experiment." I am super sorry, everyone. But my trolling was never meanspirited so much as just a way to fuck with people, push boundaries, see what people would do. It wasn't nice, but it wasn't intentionally mean either. Mostly I would
talk shit until some unsuspecting dude, thinking I was a guy, would threaten to kick my ass and I would say no man I'm gonna kick YOUR ass at the next meet! (We would meet up regularly by then and called them, well, "meets." We would "meet" at Fuddrucker's in La Mesa lol.)
And then I would roll up and introduce myself and say "shall we step outside for the ass-whupping?" and watch them try to back out of it and laugh my head off at them. Anyway, I'm sorry, really, I was a teenager, there's no excuse really but that's why trolls don't faze me - I
was one of the worst for a while.

But I'm getting distracted. There was a lot! Again, it was a major part of my life and I don't talk about this enough. So I remained friends with many of the people I met. Some of them are probably reading this right now (hi guys! you rule!)
and we talked all the time. We would hang out at Denny's at night and smoke and talk about the future, or we would hang out at cafes and smoke and talk about the future. By then I was getting more invested in being popular in school, which didn't last long because I dropped out
to go to community college at 16. (Long story; I didn't finish until I was in my thirties, but that's another story for another day.) So I had this weird life where I would talk to my friends online all day and night and then hang out with my real-world friends. I got really
into trying to introduce people, to transgress those social borders. I ended up getting a lot of "normie" friends into the online social world as well. The ones who stayed in the world shared our values, which were a fundamental part of all of our discussions. It was why we did
what we did. Those values were as follows: We believed very strongly that information should not be restricted; we believed that this was a brand-new form of what could be mass communication that should be available to everyone; and we believed that free and fair communication
would overcome cultural boundaries and be a net positive for the world. We had the egalitarian, libertarian ethos of the Gen-Xers we were - we didn't want communication to be restricted. We wanted it to be moderated so that everyone had a chance to talk. We were idealists.
I don't often reveal my age on here because, old troll that I am, I prefer people to make assumptions about me so I can tell them how wrong they are. But I'm young Gen-X or Generation Oregon Trail, so I really was part of the idealism segment of my generation. That's why I talk
so much shit about Gen X. I remember what we were like. I was there. The people who represent us now are not who we were then and I hope that some of my fellow idealists start pushing back more. It was such an exciting time because we were shaping so much to come, and we knew it.
Anyway, our huge thing was the free flow of information and free exchange of ideas. Not marketplace of ideas, mind you, but a free exchange. We would never have wanted to call it a marketplace. I grew up steeped in this ethos, and only became more invested in it as I became a
journalist and began learning about that world as well. I started as a cub reporter at 18 and joyfully started learning how to bring my worlds together.
By the time social media became a known phrase, I had lived it. It's why I'm so Extremely Online. I love being out in the real world, but my people live online, and so do I. This is who I am and who I have always been. And so I became a free speech nut. I met all these other
people who went on to become fabulously rich and important in the tech world. I met people who went on to become notorious trolls in the 2018 sense of the world. I met gurus and kind people and lunatics. But my people were always the nerds. (Oh, I was also way into AD&D.)
Throughout it all, what was important to me was the free exchange of ideas on the Infobahn, which was what we called it at the time. We were using this old DoD structure to build societies, on our own, for no reason other than because we loved it, because it was fun, and because
we were the kids of hippies and thought it would bring about a more peaceable, equitable world. So then the Web came along with its new GUI interface and we all freaked out, it was amazing, and we all were of course early adopters of all those communications sites. I got into
the radio world via IRC. I got my first network job, at CNN, because I used email, which few people did even in 2001, to send audio files of my work to the guy who eventually hired me there, forever altering the course of my career. And now I'm entirely online.
But I never forgot those ideals and always have tried to hold to them. I truly believed it what it, what we, could build, and as problematic as that world was (there was just as much misogyny eventually as the "real" world; it was almost entirely white and upper-middle-class)
but we saw then, as now, the possibilities and tried to fix them then. Obviously we didn't, but we tried.

So the ethos that guides me was forged in this brand-new world that I had a stake in helping create, albeit a small one. Free exchange of ideas; free flow of information;
cross-cultural communication, available to everyone in the world if they wanted it, to build bridges across seemingly insurmountable cultural divides.
So to see this gift, this world that we made ourselves for the sheer love of doing so and for the love of communication out of old Dept. of Defense infrastructure - turning something built by The Man into a net positive for the world, we thought at the time - turned to the
service of spreading disinformation and propaganda and fake news and stripping down democracies around the world via algorithms built for the stated purpose of manipulating emotions and national and international narratives is more than corrupt in my view. It is obscene.
We all knew even back then that there were bad actors. We knew how this could be manipulated. In fact, later, as the self-styled social scientist of this world (more came later) I studied the spread of disinformation using new methods of mass communication, so I could fight it.
Little did I know what I was in for, hahahahaha - or as we used to say, ROTFLMAO. I thought that I might need to know it sometime, in case things went to shit.
Later, when I started doing postconflict, border, and refugee rights journalism that knowledge also came in handy, because I could see how information was being manipulated.
So you can now perhaps see what motivates me now. I have a very strong sense of ethics. I have a lot of outrage about the state of the world. And I keep thinking how these younger people came along and think they invented this shit and have ownership of it, and I'm here to say -
We were here first. We made this. Just because we gave it to everyone as freely as we could doesn't mean you get to use it to make personal fortunes and "hack people" - "hack" democracies - without consequence.
It's time for adults to step in and put the power of instantaneous, free, equitable communication where it belongs -- in the hands of the people.

And now you know where I'm coming from when I talk about moderation and free speech on social media. This is my world.
A better world is possible and within reach, but we have to demand it together.

That's all.
@Aeion I want to make sure you see this because you were definitely one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote it. Thank you for staying awesome all these years!
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