Memories of the early days of online services

Folks are waxing poetic about CompuServe,now that news has broken that the classic service is shutting down for good (like anyone really noticed until they announced it).

Brings back so many memories of my old Prodigy, CompuServe, GEnie and Delphi accounts. Eric and I didn’t meet online, but those online services were a big part of our courtship. Remember when there was no spam? When the only online predators we had to worry about were the services themselves that charged us by the second? The so-called “connected web” we live in today isn’t a new concept. Some of the most meaningful friendships of my life came out of GEnie or CompuServe at a time when Facebook’s most active users didn’t know how to write yet.

I just spent 30 minutes looking for screen shots to go with what I’m describing in this post. I might as well be looking for examples of written language before ink.

For me, it started with my first Prodigy account in 1987. At the time, Prodigy and its flat monthly fee was a gateway drug for the casual user to move to GEnie, CompuServe and Delphi. CompuServe was too expensive and intimidating so I settled on GEnie pretty quickly. It was a bear to get around in the command line at first, but the conversations were much richer. Just complicated enough to keep out the casual consumer, but easy enough that you could figure it out if you kept at it.

GEnie was a mix of flat rate and pay-per-minute use. A lot of the site’s forums (roundtables) were free within the monthly charge, but anything gaming or chat was billed at a rate that only got as low as $6/hour during off-peak hours. I somehow managed to avoid the expensive areas of the site for years.

I don’t remember how or why, but early in 1992 when I started earning a respectable-for-the-time salary, I wandered in to NTN Trivia on GEnie (now the company is called Buzztime). For $6/hour on evenings/weekends, you could play a text-based multi-player trivia game. The same game was played in bars across the country. The top scorers of each game would get points. You accumulated points that you could trade in for prizes.

I wasn’t very good at the trivia on my own because I sucked at any question that required use of the left side of my brain. With careful budgeting, I only spent an average of $200-300 month. I never told my parents about that month I racked up a $750 bill. Took me a few months to quietly pay it off. Thank goodness I was working.

Shortly thereafter in mid 1992, I met Eric at a party. When we started dating, we quickly made a great team on NTN. He got all the geography, science and math questions. I got all the pop culture, lifestyle and art questions. We both had to WAG (wild ass guess) on the poetry. Playing together using the screen name JUDERI, the winning points started to add up.

We could trade in points for free time on the system, which we used to play in marathon sessions on some weekends (were living together in Queens, NY by this point). We’d start early and play until late evening, taking shifts, watching movies in the background and ordering in dinner. Some of the prizes we won over the next year or so included color televisions, printers, hard drives, $100 Amex gift certificates, and hats/t-shirts. It’s amazing we found time to work and plan a wedding.

GEnie had a primitive GUI for PCs called Aladdin that I couldn’t use from my Mac. Eventually, they introduced a Mac version of Aladdin, which was beyond awful but I accepted a position as moderator of the support forums for the product simply because with it came free access to all of GEnie. That disqualified us from winning any more prizes on NTN, which took most of the fun out of it.

Eric and I also played competitive backgammon on GEnie, but we were never as successful at that as we were at the trivia games.