Many moons ago I lived in the unfashionable outer limits of the Sunset District of San Francisco. Now I live in the ever-so-slightly trendier Parkside neighborhood, but my first memories of this city are of the outermost Sunset.
Way down on 43rd and Kirkham, it’s easy to feel as though the city is light years away. In fact, given the architecture, weather, and abandoned-seaside-town atmosphere that pervades the area along the Great Highway with its corroded motels, it was not hard to believe that time itself was somehow slowed down and warped, leaving the whole area behind in some vague mid-20th century fog.
But the days of Playland at the Beach and the Doggie Diners are long gone, and in order to escape this forlorn, salt-corroded gravity well I’d venture towards the bright lights of the then ever-so-slightly cyberpunk early to mid-nineties city by taking the N-Judah up the hill, away from the ocean. The first sign of civilization was 9th & Judah, where I could find the closest cafe that contained a net-table. Now long gone, Jammin Java used to be right on the corner of 9th and Judah in a spot since occupied by a number of other businesses. This was the place where I first got online, onto a local BBS system called SFNet ― now also long defunct, but which managed to be the center of my social existence for the next half decade or so.
Before the idea of free city-wide WiFi came and went, before every cafe was filled with people using laptops and little WiFi network stickers became almost as ubiquitous as the Visa and Mastercard logos, these little coin-operated net-tables allowed a few hundred Bay Area geeks to connect with one another. The system had message boards similar to those on Usenet, but its core was the two live chat rooms which made this simple little local network an immediate social networking success.
A quarter secured your handle, which could be anything you wanted, so although most people quickly honed their online personas, there were always mystery users who might or might not be someone you already knew under another username. Anonymous enough to be slightly chaotic, local enough to be useful and small enough to be cozy. Although the heart of the machine was those cafe tables, eventually people also dialed in from their home computers, or in my case a little dumb terminal that was almost certainly less powerful and intelligent than my current cell phone.
Before I got my first subscription from home I spent many hours putting quarters into these machines and drinking often questionable coffee, mostly up and down Haight Street at the late great Horseshoe Cafe and the now-forgotten Ground Zero and Coffee Zone. A few of the places that had these do still exist, including Java Beach which even had some flat-top video game machines to replace the net-tables last time I was there.
Many of my friends ran their own little BBSs like the Kaos Phactory, out of Lower Haight. While some of the netters where relatively computer naive like myself, many others had what I believe the kids today (well, yesterday probably) would call l33t skillz. Building their own computers, hacking things they really shouldn’t (like SFNet itself) and generally seeming terribly exciting and cutting edge to a then just turned 18 year old who hadn’t bought her first computer yet.
We would have gatherings called Net-gets at various places including Noc Noc’s, which I am glad to say not only still exists at the same address on Lower Haight, but still maintains its most awesome industrial/cyberpunk/tribal decor and most excellent sake menu.
I made most of my first friends in the city from the SFNet circles, got my first date and my first (and second and third) break-up, and met my first proper boyfriend, who was a computer geek, natch, and didn’t just start a BBS but a whole ISP. Which was pretty much the thing to do if you where a computer nerd in the mid-nineties in San Francisco. I met many folks I probably would not have otherwise, one of the genius things of SFNet being the way it could bring folks from relatively disparate circles together, rather like fandom. And as with fandom there was fun and wit in almost equal amounts to the drama and feuding.
Although the whole thing would very quickly be completely outdated and left behind by the web revolution, we knew we were onto something. Not many online experiences have rivaled that community feeling for me. The net is too vast to really work that way, although sometimes LiveJournal comes close with its chat-like immediacy and the ability to form smallish but not exclusive social groups. Other places like Tribe try to offer online community building in a similar fashion, and there is even an SFNet nostalgia tribe on there.
I don’t think it can be recreated, and I doubt that I’d really want to, but it sure was fun while it lasted