Fandom 1994-2000-ish/Part One

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In March 2012, Arduinna posted an article on her Dreamwidth journal about the period from about 1994-2000 with a focus on mailing-list-based Western media fandom.

It is reposted here with permission.

Introduction

For the Meta Month of March thing (month_of_meta), someone asked for "Tales of fandom past. Anyone who was around in the mailing-list era or before...I want to hear How Things Were Different Back In The Day." [1]

Which made me feel both really old and like a raw newbie again (there were so many days before The Day! so many people have been around so very much longer than me!). But I also thought to myself, well, this is something I can do. I was there, I really enjoyed it very much, and it won't be that hard. It'll be a little bit long maybe, but not too bad.

Then I started writing. I wasn't entirely sure where to start it, or what angle to approach it from, so I had five or six different starts written out. And then I just started writing, and writing, and writing.

Disclaimer

First the disclaimers and caveats: This is what my experience of mailing-list-based fandom 10-18 years ago (oh dear god) was like, to the best of my recollection. Other people had different experiences, sometimes hugely different, depending on when they came into fandom, what fandom was their gateway, whether they were monofannish or not, whether they were into slash or not, whether they lurked or were active, etc. The only thing that would be mostly the same for everyone is that posts were made, distributed, and read via email.

I had written up a giant step-by-step explanation of my fannish background for context, but it boils down to this: I started out in SF fandom in 1980, found a few slash zines in a dealer's room around 1985, and then totally failed to connect further with media and especially slash fandom until around 1994, when I got on the internet through work and discovered Forever Knight mailing lists. I knew about newsgroups but for some reason they intimidated me, and I stuck to lists; looking back, I regret that, as the newsgroups were hugely active and I probably would have had a lot of fun if I could have adapted to the way they worked.

My personal experience is with Western, tv-based fandoms that revolved around discussion of the source, producing fanworks (which wasn't a word yet - we wrote fanfic, drew art, made vids, tribbed to or edited or published or agented zines), consuming fanworks (likewise), and to some degree attending (or putting on) cons. If you came in through SF fandom, you might say all of that, including the participation in lists/newsgroups/cons/APAs/zines, was your fanac, a term that I wish had gained as much traction as fanworks, because it doesn't narrow down the field of "people who actively create fandom" to people with creative urges.

As time went on I slid more and more toward slash-based fandom, but with the same emphasis as before on discussion, fanworks, and interaction.

Okay, so, with all of that out of the way, here's my take on what mailing-list fandom was like, from about 1994 to the early/mid-2000s.

The Medium Defined the Message

Which is always true, of course. The technology defined how fandom interacted. Pre-net, things moved at the speed of physical mail and phone calls and annual conventions.

In the mid-90s, when I got online, the internet was blazing fast by comparison. You could post a message to a mailing list and dozens or even hundreds of people could read it almost immediately, and respond. Netscape Navigator had just come out, following on from Mosaic, so there was even a graphical web where people could post text and images that just stayed there for anyone to see; people were learning HTML to have pretty text and pages. It was amazing.

But.

Most people were on dialup, unless they were lucky enough to be students at universities that provided free ethernet, or using office computers that were connected to a T1 line (many workplaces were also on dialup). For everyone else, the mid-90s meant phone lines, at anything from 9,600 baud to 56.6Kbps.

When I got online, 33.6kbps modems were recently available, and 28.8k was pretty common. But people were still tailoring their stuff for 14.4k, for people on older systems (hell, there were still people on 9600 baud, although not many).

What do those numbers mean? To download a 5 MB file -- the size of an average mp3 -- would take you about:

9600 -- 90 minutes 14.4K -- 60 minutes 28.8k -- 30 minutes 33.6k -- 25 minutes 56.6k -- 15 minutes (this didn't exist yet when I got online)

Those speeds are rough estimates, if you weren't using your connection for anything else, if there was no line noise, if your connection was at its peak, and if whatever you were downloading from was reasonably fast. (And if no one picked up your phone to make a call, and borked your download so you had to start over again.) They could be a lot slower than that, too.

Most people weren't downloading files that were that huge, but even smaller files took a long time.

Most people paid by the minute for their connection; even as monthly data plans gained traction in North America in the mid-to-late '90s, Europe generally remained on a by-minute scheme until broadband came into effect (which also meant that Europeans in general switched to broadband faster, since that was cheaper for them, whereast the monthly broadband costs were higher than the monthly phone costs for North Americans, and early broadband wasn't that much faster.)

Even if they had a monthly plan, pre-broadband they were still tying up their only phone line to be online. Very few people had cell phones, and if they had them, it was for work or emergencies. A few people would install a second phone line just for Internet, but that was expensive and not very common. The general idea for most people was to log on, download your mail, and log off to read it. People would compose answers offline and queue them up, then log on and send them in a batch.

Napster was the first file-sharing system; it appeared around 1999. It was possible to trade files around before then (email, IRC, Usenet, ftp sites, etc.), but not easy, and free space (for putting thing up so people could download them) was limited.

Signal-to-Noise: Bandwidth and Storage

The slow connections and minute-based charges meant that the key to everything in the early days was "relevance": people wanted wheat with no chaff. The polite thing to do was assume that people were connecting at a lower bit rate than was possible, and tailor your online activity accordingly.

You were entirely welcome to write long posts -- people were far more willing to read long posts then, in fact -- but you pissed people off if you quoted too much of the material you were responding to, posted something off-topic, posted spam, posted "me too" (especially if quoting the entire original), had giant ASCII art at the end of your post, or otherwise took up space to no purpose.

People paid attention to signal-to-noise ratios, and if you generated more noise than signal, you heard about it.

(For me, that training still holds; it makes the modern culture of "likes" and "+1" and "IAWTC" very alien, even though it grew up around me, because to me all of that is noise that just gets in the way of the signal. It's a complete cultural 180.)[2]

Storage was also crucial. You had to know how much room things took up on your computer as well as in your email messages, and you were at pains to keep sizes down to keep things running smoothly. (As an example, a family member got a home computer in 1995 that had a whopping 750 MB of space on it; we'd never imagined such a gigantic computer. It probably had 4 MB of RAM. My current phone, in my pocket, has almost 50 times as much storage and 125 times as much memory.)

Early email clients went a little wiggy if you had too much mail in the inbox; moving it into folders helped, but email was a storage hog in general, usually using up more space than anything else on your system, and the only way to keep things functioning properly was to regularly clean your mail out, only keeping crucial things.

When you backed things up, you did it onto floppies -- which weren't really floppy at that point, but hey. They held 1.4 MB of data; huge in comparison to the 5 1/4" floppies I'd used in the 80s. I had stacks of the smaller ones, and in fact just threw out a pile of unused labels for them a few weeks ago.

ISPs limited most incoming mail spools to about 1 MB, IIRC, and once you went over that, your mail started bouncing (you cleared it by downloading your mail; if you forgot to set your mail client to delete the mail off the server once it downloaded, you were eventually screwed). Back in the day, it could take days or even weeks to hit 1 MB of mail; most emails took up about 5k of space. Today, I regularly have a meg or more in a daily mail spool, between HTML-filled email and the occasional picture people send me.

If your ISP offered free web space as part of its package, it was probably 1-2 MB as well; plenty big enough to put up hundreds of text-based pages, even with a few images here and there. Way, way too small for music or video files. You had to pay to get enough space for those.

Size Limits: Text, Images, Video, Music

Basic netiquette said "use the smallest files possible". This included websites as well as email.

Sizes for everything, including stories, were in kilobytes or in rare cases megabytes; no one did word counts.

Email had to be text-only (still the best way to send to a mailing list, as different clients generate and read html in different ways, and what looks pretty and fun on the sender's end could look barren or like gibberish on the receiver's end). No html, no embedded images, no formatted text, no weird fonts.

You had to make sure your client was set to wrap your line length at 72 characters or fewer, to make sure everyone could read and respond to your posts without them doing anything weird.

Most mailing lists wound up with size limits for posts specifically because of AOL, which had a top limit of something like 25k in the mid-90s, which worked out to... I think 400 lines of plain text? It's been a long time, but I think that's about right. That meant people couldn't post stories over 4,000-5,000 words as one long story, they had to break them up into parts. (But again, no one did word counts; you wrote in a text editor like Notepad and checked the file size, or emailed the story to yourself and looked at the size in your inbox when it arrived.) After a while you just developed a feel for how long a section could be before you had to break it into another post.

A 40k image took 30 seconds to load on a 14.4Kbps modem; 12 seconds on a 28.8Kbps modem; 6 seconds on a 56.6Kbps modem.

Website guidelines generally suggested keeping a page to under 60k total, including all images; if your page took longer than a minute to load, people would get bored and wander off. (Some sites worked around this, like the Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5, which handled it by putting a link on the front page that said "link here to preload your image cache" -- the link went to a single page that included every image -- mostly nav buttons -- used on the site[3], so you could let that page load, then browse more easily across all the other pages. The "image heavy" page was about 50k total.)

So pictures were small and low-resolution; videos were compressed to the point that they were barely watchable. Embedded music on sites was rare and when it existed, was often in midi format.

Counterbalancing some of the size issues were monitor resolutions; most people were on 14-15" monitors that had 600x480 resolution or, if you had a really modern monitor, 800x600. So a 216x144 video (yes, they got posted that size -- my vidding partner and I put up a vid that size in 2002) would take up a third of your screen, if you were on 600x480. Not that tiny, at that low a resolution, and 360x240 was considered a very decent video size.

The compression was still pretty crappy, though.

By 1999, when Napster came along, 56.6k modems were pretty widespread, and felt pretty fast. Even with that, though, the people I know who downloaded music off Napster (not I, of course!) would wait till they were going to bed to queue up 2-3 songs to download overnight. Otherwise you'd wind up tying up your phone line all day, with no chance to do anything else. By that point, hard drives had grown to multiple gigs; I had 10 gigs in 1999, and graduated to I think 40 gigs a year later. (By way of comparison, my current phone, in my pocket, has 32 gigs of space.)

To get an idea of what video looked like on the web back then, try this copy of "David Duchovny, Why Won't You Love Me?" (right click to download, I seriously doubt this will stream). The song is by Bree Sharp; the video is by X-Files production staff who put it together for the cast Christmas party. The datestamp on my copy of this is June 1999; it was either on a website that I downloaded it from, or it got sent to me during an IRC or AIM chat (a chat thing seems more likely - a website would have faced a takedown, so it probably passed from hand to hand). I got another copy later, higher quality though not by much, as part of a miscellaneous-XF-stuff tape.

This is why online video was called "squintyvision" for so long, and why vidders didn't start putting their work up until much later.

(Huh, looks like someone put a cleaned-up version on Youtube last year: http://youtu.be/Wijp4-3giNw. It's worth watching, it's a lot of fun.)

Things were Pricy

I started out in fandom on a work computer in 1994. I bought my first home PC in late 1996, specifically to participate more easily in fandom (I'd been staying at work late and going in on the weekends to have email convos with other fans). It was a Packard Bell that had a 4-gig hard drive and I believe 8MB RAM. It had a Pentium processor, which was very exciting -- first generation, very spiffy, very speedy! -- at 166 MHz. I bought a 15-inch color monitor to go with it that had a top resolution of 800x600 pixels, and splurged on an inkjet printer.

The whole shebang cost me about $3,000.

A year or two later, I added a second, 6-gig hard drive and upped my RAM to the max 16 MB the computer could handle. The total upgrade cost me about $500.

On top of that, I was paying $25/month for my ISP, plus another $20/month for AOL, because I wanted to be able to take part in fannish AOL chats, and also wanted an AIM handle.

A couple of years after that, my creaky ancient 4-year-old system was frustrating me too much, so I bought another computer for about $2,000 -- it would have been a bit less, but I went for the very tempty 17-inch monitor that could handle 1024x768 resolution. Then I bought a laser printer for easier fanfic printing.

After that, I couldn't cope with shelling out thousands every few years for a new computer -- I mean, seriously, I'd spent over $6,000 in four years flat (there were more upgrades I didn't bother listing here, as well) just on hardware. So I babied that second computer along for ten years, upgrading it in bits and pieces as I could.

The difference between my first computer and my second computer is that there's no way my first computer could have been upgraded enough to make it functional in the mid-2000s, not enough to make me comfortable, anyway. Computer tech had advanced that fast in those first few years. (Although it's a good thing I shelled out for the pricey ethernet connector when I bought the second one, even though it seemed silly, because really who could afford ethernet? Pft. Hah.)

There were ways around it; if you were in school, you could use school computers; you could use library computers. But if you wanted to connect from home, there really wasn't much of an under-$1,000 option for a good many years.

Looking back on it, it all looks sort of wretched, no? Slow, creaky, limited, expensive.

But at the time, it was amazing. $3,000 for a 4 G system sounds like a lot of money 15 years later -- but 10 years earlier, I'd've paid $3k just for a 15 MB hard drive and installation kit, plus another $2k if I wanted a second unit. [4] My computer had a graphical user interface! It had a web browser! (I didn't have one at work; we didn't need them. We had email, and if you knew enough to ask, you could get a newsreader, too. What else could you possibly need?) It had an internal modem!

We were living the good life.

Ascii art, taken from http://www.chris.com/ascii/ -- this guy has a ton of ascii art uploaded, and keeps adding more. I was going to go for a simpler/clearer picture, but then realized I have this same image as an icon, for comparison

(I can't believe I had to put ascii art in as a picture. wtf are we supposed to be using now that pre is deprecated?)

Next part: Fandom 1994-2000-ish/Part Two

Comments

Arduinna's essay stirred up many memories and generated much interest which is reflected in the multiple comments on her DW post. A selection of the longer discussion threads have been broken out below into rough thematic categories. Note that there may be overlap in some of these threads/discussions. Click on the links below to read further. Go to the original post to read all comments.[5]

References

  1. sailorptah in month_of_meta. Meta Month of March: Meta Prompts & Brainstorming, 11 February 2012. (Accessed 17 April 2012)
  2. This is not unlike the many arguments about the amount of white space, the constant attention to text size, reduced print (and how far to reduce it), the editing of Letters of Comment and all the things the zine editors of print zines had to worry about as they fended off the constant demon at the gate: constantly rising postal rates.
  3. The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5 cache loader, accessed 17 April 2012
  4. spuzzlightyear in vintage_ads, 18 March 2012. (Accessed 17 April 2012)
  5. WebCite for all comments to Part 1.
  6. WebCite for On early collections of fanfiction available via FTP.
  7. WebCite for "ASCII art in signatures!...I sometimes go through intense periods of missing Usenet so fucking hard..."
  8. WebCite for On measuring stories by word count vs. kilobyte.