The Internet is a wide-open playground, with all sorts of ways to communicate with other people anywhere else in the world. But not all that long ago, it was very different. For many of you (tech geeks with BBS, Usenet and IRC experience are exempt), your first chance to communicate with other people using a computer was via America Online.
Do you remember when AOL used to spam everybody’s mailbox (back when you got more in your postal mailbox than in your emailbox) with those CDs? Or for those of you who go back further, with those diskettes? I have a stack of AOL CDs somewhere that I was going to use as coasters, and may some day use for some kind of strange decoration or target practice. I never needed to buy diskettes because I would just reuse the ones that AOL so helpfully provided.
But I want to go back even a little further than that. I’m going back to a service that only worked for those of us who had Commodore computers. A service called Quantum Link. The system had all sorts of new, cool features back in the late 80s and early 90s. We had chat rooms that you could create on the fly. We had forums that you could post on. Before it disappeared, it even had a graphical environment called Club Caribe where you could use an avatar to interact with other people.
Yes, I know that BBSes (bulletin board systems) and Usenet preceded Q-Link, and I participated there a bit, but the user-friendly interface of Q-Link allowed many less-geeky people to join in, making the interaction much more broad-based, which fit my mindset at the time.
Now, what was really amazing about this service was that it ran on computers that had just 64K of RAM. Think about it. Many computers today come with 4 GB of RAM. That’s roughly 64,000 times as much memory as the old Commodore 64. And processor speed? Current machines operate at multi-GHz speeds, while the C-64 ran at 1.023 MHz. If you figure in the fact that current processors are usually multithreaded and perform much more complex operations each cycle, it’s many multiple thousands of times faster again. So the fact that we had all of these things that ran at a reasonable speed is pretty impressive.
There were no hard drives on the Commodore machines, so after booting the computer from the on-board chipset, we had to load any application we wanted into memory from a 5-1/4″ floppy drive (usually one-sided disks).
I had a really cool, souped-up machine. I had a Commodore 128 (it came with twice as much memory as those puny C-64s, and operated at a speedy 2 MHz), but then I added a 512K RAM expander, giving me a massive 640K to play with. I could load a graphical computing environment on it, and even do some rudimentary desktop publishing! After starting with a 300 baud modem, I even upgraded it to a screaming 1200 baud connection. Yeah, my dial-up connection was a massive 1200 bits per second! (Again, for comparison’s sake, my cable provider offers a premium 15Mb/s bandwidth that is over 13,000 times as fast, and Wi-Fi runs at 54 Mb/s which is over 47,000 times faster).
Back on Q-Link, I was known as Fortytude. I had decided not to use “Mark” in my screen name, so I tried to come up with a cool-sounding name that had some significance. Fortytude had the cool double-feature of conveying fortitude, or strength, while also invoking forty-two, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, according to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
On Q-Link, I was a member of the Trivia Club, and we held multiple games nightly at set times, with set hosts. I had a weekly game that varied in topic, but one each month would be Star Trek trivia that always concluded with the same question (a “gimme” for all regulars): What is Spock’s blood type? (That had also been the nickname we had back in college for a non-geek who worked at the computer room dispatch window, whom we had stumped with that trivia question.) Every game that I hosted consisted of 42 questions, just to reinforce that number in my screen name.
We had a pretty close-knit core of regulars in the club, from all walks of life. We had our resident romance novelist, a judge, a marketing specialist, librarians, computer geeks and many more. We even arranged some real-life meetups, a novel idea back in the late 80s. My wife and I organized a TriviaBash in Albany one year, and we had about 25 people or so come to the event at a local hotel. We played live trivia games, ordered in pizza for lunch, hung out and chatted, had a nice group dinner, and even had a snack display featuring Spam (which at that time was just a reference to the Monty Python routine that was a running gag in the club, without the junk-mail connotations of today). We had people who drove in, and even a few who flew halfway across the country to attend.
We also teamed up with a couple of other locals to set up AlbanyBash, a larger event at a bigger hotel, for Q-Linkers in general. That event drew well over 100 people, and was a smashing success. We had attendees from many different states, and people brought their spouses and kids. It’s amazing to think back and realize that we did stuff that is now kind of common (especially in the online Disney fan community), but we did it a decade or two before the general populace even heard of such a thing.
Quantum Link eventually disappeared, as Commodore computers gradually lost favor to those new-fangled PCs. It merged its service with PeopleLink, a PC-only service run by the same company, and together they changed their name to America Online. (How’s that for an unexpected twist?)
I hung around on AOL for a while, but the vibe was very different from Quantum Link. Also, by then (the mid-90s), the World Wide Web was just starting to take root as a communications media. The Mosaic browser was out, letting us click from information source to information source. We still didn’t have any really new social apps beyond the AOL chat rooms at the time, but we were having so much fun checking out all of the interesting and strange information out there that we really didn’t notice for a while.
In some ways, I still miss Q-Link and the Trivia Club. Those early days of social computing were so novel and so fun, without the commercialization and the relentless miss-a-day-or-two-and-you’re-hopelessly-behind pace of today’s Twitter and Facebook world.
So here’s to you, Quantum Link. Long may your chat rooms live in memory (because we didn’t have hard drives), and may all of your past denizens continue to carry fond memories of you.
Oh, and for you non-Trekkers who don’t know, Spock’s blood type is T-negative.
What are your earliest social computing memories? How far back do you go?