From today’s Washington Post: Middle schoolers increasingly using IMs instead of the telephone.

I remember when I first discovered the telephone as a way to keep in touch with my friends. I was in a Magnet-style school of some kind from fourth grade through high school, so I never really had the advantage of living near my friends. Social interaction prior to becoming mobile (hello driver’s license!) was limited to time at school and time on the phone. Sure, we’d all go over to each others’ homes, but it was never as simple as just walking down the street and being back before dinner. To this day, I wonder if the social costs were justified by the higher-quality education. I always wanted to be more social, but I wonder if my introverted personality was the cause or the effect — nature or nurture?

Anyway, back to IMs. I was somewhat atypical of the normal kid in school…okay, I was a nerd. I got my first modem in 9th grade and it didn’t take very long for me to discover BBSs. Back then, realtime online conversations were difficult to find; there was no realtime connection between any of these silo bulletin boards. Hell, email was typically limited in scope to users of the BBS, unless your sysop was a subscriber to FIDOnet. Once you found a BBS with multiple modem lines, starting a conversation was relatively easy because the medium was relatively novel and people were very willing just to start up a conversation. Ah, the good old days…

In 10th grade I received my first “real” computer account on our high school’s MicroVAX. It had eight incoming 2400 bps lines, and it had an honest-to-goodness connection to the internet. At a blazing 9600 bps, it was pretty pokey if more than one person was trying to telnet out, but it worked. That’s when we all discovered the VMS PHONE utility, and it very quickly tied of all of the modem lines at night to the extent that our admins (teachers) had to limit or altogether eliminate PHONE access. One particularly driven friend of mine then created a mini-utility to mimic online conversations by sending emails with the text of the message in the subject; the VAX (running some archaic version of VMS) would alert any online user who received an email during his or her session with the sender’s username and the subject line of the email. I don’t know if that particular activity was ever discovered, and it was clunky at best, but it kept us online and communicating anyway. How interesting; when it was just as easy (and often simpler) just to pick up the phone and call someone, why were we all competing for space on eight slow phone lines to type to each other online and risk getting caught in the process?

Well, for one, it was much easier to communicate that way for me. I’ve never been able to communicate as well in person as I have through written means, and PHONE allowed me to show people more than just my “quiet antisocial” side. Being online also maintained a sort of permanent presence; it was a lot like living next door to someone who was actually miles away. There was no phone set to pick up and no number to dial; if we were both online, PHONEing was as natural as walking up and talking to someone. And one very important feature of online communication was the privacy. I assume that parents today are well versed with Instant Messenger and email, but mine certainly weren’t. I was the only use to use the home computer. I was able to type things that I couldn’t dream of saying out loud on the phone, and by just being on the computer my parents usually thought that I was working.

Then I discovered MUDs/MUSHes/MUSEs/MOOs/etc. That dinky internet connection allowed me to connect realtime to other servers, where hundreds of people were gathered…at the same time, in realtime! Think of Ultima Online, Everquest, or The Sims Online, only text-based, free, and not always fantasy-based. It didn’t take long for me to get sucked into those worlds. I spent very little time on the “D&D” servers, although those seemed to be pervasive at the time. I was more interested in social interaction, and less in going on conquests to kill dragons. I was suddenly and finally able to talk to anyone there without trying to figure out the social cues and body language that were required to start a relationship in the real world. It was rather addictive, I must admit, but I somehow managed not to lose myself. And I think they played a pivotal role in my emotional growth. In fact, I believe internet/BBS access had a very significant and important role in my social development through high school.

Superficially, I believe I was very much the nerd’s nerd until abouth 10th grade. No sense of pop culture, little initiative to go out and meet people, not easy to speak to…the list goes on and on. Even in the Magnet program’s culture of nerdiness, I was one of the quiet ones in the corner. Anyone in that situation understands the difficulty in breaking out. And while I did end up on the phone for hours through the rest of high school, I don’t think I would have gotten to where I was by my senior year if I hadn’t been able to go online and chat with my school friends “under the radar.” I had no peers who lived near me, I had no siblings, and my parents were so out of touch with American culture that it hurt. Had I used the telephone for every online conversation, I would probably have gone deaf in my left ear a long time ago. And had I not been able to go online and “talk” to my friends, I would probably be as withdrawn from society as ever. Considering my current social situation, that is a truly sobering thought. I would have never screwed up the courage to talk to my future wife, I would have slogged through college without friends (a truly sad prospect…and I know it happens), and life would probably mean a lot less to me than it does now. I can’t say that going online had EVERYTHING to do with my relative success, but it was certainly a keystone in my social development. Ironically, doing all of these things — which were considered nerdy and not mainstream at the time — helped me to become a less withdrawn, less “nerdy” person.

When I read that middle schoolers are increasingly going online rather than using the phone, then, I can’t say that I’m surprised. It makes a lot of sense to me.

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