A Girl, a 300 Baud Modem, and How She Found Her Tribe

I was in my bedroom when the doorbell rang. I heard my sister talking to someone, then she called out, “Cathy! You have a visitor.”

This was surprising. I was a freshman in high school and didn’t get a lot of friends dropping by. I walked down the hall and when I turned the corner, I saw him: Diamond Dave. And he was holding a gun. He opened the screen door and started chasing me down the hall, peppering me with soft yellow rubber bullets.

Satisfied he’d hit his target, he left without a word, leaving my mother in the kitchen slowly shaking her head.

You see, I was playing Assassin with a group of online friends. But I had neglected to mention that to my family.

When I was 12, I logged on to POPnet for the first time. This was in 1985, before the internet was accessible to the public. Back in those days, you could only call other computers directly, using a phone line and a modem. I had a Commodore 64 and had logged into a few local BBSs (Bulletin Board System) but hadn’t found them very interesting. Then, I discovered POPnet.

POPnet allowed up to 20 people to call in to one central computer at the same time and interact with other users. They had a CB chat channel where anyone could join, as well as private messaging, a crude form of email, and some ASCII (text-only) games like poker and Star Traders.

I was immediately hooked. I spent as much time as possible online (236,602 minutes over 10 years to be exact), chatting with my new friends. However, round-the-clock online socializing was not possible as we had one shared family computer and only one phone line. And then, that summer, right before I turned 13, the owners decided to start charging a fee, which we entitled teenagers thought was outrageous. We vowed to quit, discussing “DOP Day” (Death of POPnet) and swearing we’d never return. But many of us did, paying the monthly $5 fee for unlimited access with a “Lifeline” account. (Those without a subscription could still log in, but they were given the lowly name of “Guest” and were the first to get booted when the lines got full.)

We had to come up with a nickname, or “handle,” and I chose Ford Prefect from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. We had names like Queen of Hearts, Baron Harkonnen, Number Six, The Seeress, Richard Guess, Copycat, Beauregard, Skikitt & Skicat, and Luna. We spent hours typing away at the keyboard.

Original POPnet user manual, circa 1986

I don’t think I can overstate the impact POPnet had on my adolescent life. I was a nerdy kid; I had a few friends at school, but I didn’t really fit in. Oftentimes I felt like I’d missed the class on How to Be a Girl. I didn’t know what clothes to wear or how to manage my hair. I didn’t understand why we were supposed to wear our backpacks on one shoulder instead of two. I couldn’t figure out why programming computers was viewed as something boys did, but not girls.

With POPnet, I found my tribe.

POPnet gave me my first crush, my first kiss, my first boyfriend, my first heartache. It gave me confidence that I was an interesting person, that other people wanted to stay up late and have philosophical conversations, and that I could be my whole self without worrying about following some invisible code.

It was also my first exposure to drugs, though I didn’t partake. I went to a Grateful Dead/Bob Dylan concert with POPnet friends, and a couple of people dropped acid, turning them into very boring people who mostly said “dude” a lot.

One year, my friend Andy (handle Baron Harkonnen) declared it to be the Summer of Mandatory Fun, aka SMF, outlining a whole set of activities and how many fun points each one earned. We played endless poker and board games. We did a photo scavenger hunt (One of my favorites was the search for “air”: We went to the gas station and used the hose that puts air in tires on my hair). We swam. We listened to music. We spent a lot of time at Round Table Pizza, not ordering enough food or drinks and inevitably getting kicked out, adjourning to the parking lot with our plastic soda cups, debating where to go next, and always ending up at Heather Farm Park to sit on the playground equipment.

Our scavenger hunt photo for “air”

It is the opinion of the Summer of Mandatory Fun co-ordinating committee (hereinafter “SMF HQ”) — a group of semi-anonymous and self-appointed individuals — that fun does not happen. Rather, fun must be enforced with ruthless efficiency and unrelenting zeal. Therefore, it is the duty of all involved in SMF to ensure that no individual who takes part will be allowed to not have a good time. SMF HQ has established several guidelines that will be used throughout the next several months to maximize fun and to optimize its actualization wherever possible. With these guidelines we hope can help to correct inefficiencies in the fun-enforcing process.

POPnet expanded my exposure to music, books, and movies. We went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and danced the Time Warp in the aisles. I saw The Wall by Pink Floyd, and I laughed as Paula Poundstone talked about eating “bald” donuts — when driving her convertible Volkswagen Rabbit made the powdered sugar blow off.

When the oldest members went off to college, we wrote lengthy letters. We took road trips to places like Zion National Park. We dated and broke up; some POPnetters even got married. We traveled far and wide to attend weddings. My high-school POPnet boyfriend Jason was even a reader at my wedding.

Over time, we moved away, met new friends, got jobs, and grew up. POPnet disappeared, but many of us stayed in touch. When platforms like Facebook emerged, we found new ways to connect online and share what was going on in our lives.

People are often surprised to find out I was online in the 1980s, trading insults, exchanging heartfelt song lyrics, using acronyms like BRB (Be Right Back), and mastering the nuances between “haha” and “hehe.” We were limited to slow connection speeds, ASCII emoticons :-), and getting booted out of a deep conversation when the Call Waiting signal came down the line — but it didn’t stop us from finding a way to form meaningful relationships at a crucial time in our lives.

I’m not unique for having a tough time in middle school and high school. Lots of people feel awkward and on the outs. But I’m so grateful I found a group of people who liked me for me, and whom I didn’t have to hide my weirdness around. It was over 35 years ago that I first logged in to POPnet, but hearing that sound of the modem connecting still brings back that anticipation, the thrill of chatting as we talked, joked, flirted, cried, laughed, and tried to figure out just who we were.

Cathy Pearl is the author of the book “Designing Voice User Interfaces: Principles of Conversational Experiences” from O’Reilly Media and works at Google on the Google Assistant. She still has emails and chat transcripts from those POPnet days. If they’re not too embarrassing, maybe someday she’ll turn them into a book.

Design manager on Google Assistant @ Google. Author of "Designing Voice User Interfaces" from O'Reilly (More at https://cathypearl.com)