What if the intro song to Cheers wasn’t about a bar, but instead about an online community where everyone knows your name? That’s what Stacy Horn created when she launched Echo, an online community that sought to connect New Yorkers.
But Echo wasn’t Stacy’s first go at creating a community. While studying at NYU’s ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program), she was working in the telecommunications department at Mobil and had an idea to connect employees and improve processes by way of an internal community. The community failed but throughout this conversation, Stacy’s learnings from this first experience come up over and over again: the importance of actively seeking out a diversity of voices and experiences to be represented in your community, having a clear intention and set of community guidelines, and creating a space for the best in people.
Today, Echo is nearly 30 years old. Its archives are on record with the New York Historical Society and the historians that look back on its conversations will be in for treat. In fact, it’ll be like they stumbled into a neighborhood bar full of people that have been chatting with each other for years.
Stacy also shares:
- Why she failed when it came to starting an internal community for Mobil’s employees
- The costs and infrastructure behind Echo, including an NYC street excavation
- How she made Echo an inclusive space for women
- Echo as an archive to pivotal moments in NYC’s history, including 9/11
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On building an internal community for Mobil employees in the 80s: “The reason my [internal community] failed was that a number of [employees] across the country had just decided they were going torpedo it and just not participate. They were going to make sure it didn’t work. The reason they did that was not because they were bad, evil people trying to destroy my corporate dreams. What I saw as a way of finding problems and fixing them, they saw as exposing their mistakes.” –@stacyhorn
On starting a community based on your passions: “People will sometimes ask me if they should start a community [related to their passion]. My answer is usually that if you start the community, you’ll still talk about that passion but you’ll have a whole new passion that’ll suck up your time. That passion is community management. It takes you away from that hobby, that love, that passion, and puts you into that seat where you have to maintain the environment so that other people can have that same passion that you once had and hopefully still do.” –@patrickokeefe
On where she was hoping to see more progress: “It isn’t the internet or any of our tools that have failed. It is still us. It still comes right back to us and the people that are spreading ugliness. It’s them, not the internet. It’s a shame that they have a platform that they didn’t have before which allows them to grow. Again, the ugliness is in them.” –@stacyhorn
About Stacy Horn
Stacy Horn, who Mary Roach has hailed for “combining awe-fueled curiosity with topflight reporting skills,” is the author of six nonfiction books. Her newest is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York. Her previous books include Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, and The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, which received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.
Over the years Horn has produced pieces for the NPR show, All Things Considered, including the 1945 story of five missing children in West Virginia, the Vatican’s search for a patron saint of the internet, and an overview of cold case investigation in the United States. Horn is also the founder of the New York City-based social network Echo. Echo was home to many online media firsts, including the first interactive tv show, which was co-produced with the then SciFi Channel.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Stacy Horn on Twitter
- Stacy’s website
- The WELL
- Stacy’s interview with the Women’s Internet History Project
- The WELL’s community guidelines
- The SitePoint forums
- IMDb is closing its message boards
- Community Signal episode about the IMDb message boards
- Growing Old in New York’s Snarkiest Early-Internet Community
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello. I am Patrick O’Keefe and this is Community Signal. Our guest this week is Stacy Horn. Inspired by pioneering online community, The Well, Stacy opened Echo, a New York City centered social network in 1990, and it still exists to this day. We talk about the cost of starting a community in 1989, how Echo’s community was 40% women at a time when women represented only 10% to 15% of the internet, and the cultural and historical significance of online communities.
Thank you to our supporters on Patreon, including Catherine Mancuso, Jules Standen, and Carol Benovic-Bradley. For more details on how you can support the show and receive some perks for doing so, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Stacy Horn is the founder of the New York based social network, Echo. Echo was home to many online media firsts, including the first interactive TV show, which was co-produced with the then SciFi channel. She’s the author of six non-fiction books. Her newest is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York. Her previous books include Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeist, Telepathy and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, and The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, which received star views from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
Over the years, Horn has produced pieces for the NPR show, All Things Considered, including the 1945 story of five missing children in West Virginia, the Vatican search for a patron saint of the internet and an overview of cold case investigations in the United States. Her website is stacyhorn.com.
Stacy, welcome to the show.
[00:02:00] Stacy Horn: Thanks for having me.
[00:02:02] Patrick: It’s a pleasure. I want to get into Echo, but before Echo, from 1986 to 1990, you were a telecommunications analyst at Mobil. You tried to establish an online community for them. Tell me about it.
[00:02:42] Stacy: Well, that, I did, and it failed completely. It was actually, a good learning experience for me. I was working in the corporate telecommunications department for Mobil. I was also a graduate student at NYU in the interactive telecommunications program. That’s where I learned about the internet and what we now call social media. We didn’t call it that at the time.
When I was working for Mobil, my job was designing and implementing communications networks for our employees. We had a main computer center in Dallas and one in Princeton. I was hooking people all over the country to these computer centers.
You have to remember, this was in the ’80s. This was prior to AT&T’s divestiture. It was all just one bunk company, AT&T, for the phone lines, different companies for the equipment. I would be setting up people in different cities across the country to these networks. It was very complicated getting all the installers there at the same time and all the phone company people there at the same time. Just every installation, a million things would go wrong.
I had this idea that if we had this online space, where people could just check in as they were going along. ”Okay, I’m here. This is what I did. Okay, I’m here. Here’s what I didn’t do.” At any one time, we always knew where everyone was, what they were doing, what they finish, what they didn’t finish, what worked, what didn’t work, we could address things more quickly. I thought this as a way of spotting problems and fixing them right away.
I brought this idea up at one of our weekly corporate telecommunications meetings, and week after week after week, I would get shot down. Terrible idea, terrible idea, terrible idea. I knew it was a great idea. I just knew it. I finally asked to have a meeting with the head of corporate telecommunications alone. I said, ”Look, I don’t know why everyone is shooting me down about this idea, but I know I’m right. Please, let me just do a pilot. We’ll do some small version of this, so I can just prove it.” He said, ”Okay. Go ahead.” I set up this pilot, got it all ready and tried it out on one of the first installations. It failed miserably. People didn’t use it. People used it sporadically. It never happened at Mobil. I realized I just couldn’t do cool things at Mobil. That’s when I finally left to start Echo. I went back a year later to visit, and the head of corporate telecommunications said, ”You know what? You were right all along.”
I also found out that the reason my project failed was that a number of people across the country had just decided they were going torpedo it and just not participate. They were going to just make sure it didn’t work. The reason they did that was not because they were bad evil people trying to destroy my corporate dreams. What I saw as a way of finding problems and fixing them, they saw as exposing their mistakes. They were just afraid that anything that they did wrong would be focused on them and it would be seen as, “Okay. They are doing something wrong rather than we’re fixing something.”
[00:05:38] Patrick: That sort of thing kills a lot of great ideas. Just to be clear, this Mobil community, it sounds like it would have been an employee community, right?
[00:05:44] Stacy: Yes. It was employees only, employees across the country.
[00:05:49] Patrick: Very cool. It sounds like you had a pretty good job at Mobil, maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, but assuming you did, what was it about sort of Echo that was, “I’m going to quit this job. I’m going to leave this corporate environment, and I’m just going to give this thing a try.” What was it that made you would take that leap of faith?
[00:06:07] Stacy Well, it probably technically wasn’t a bad job, but I was not happy in corporate America. Going to school at night at NYU for me was just like going to play. I loved it there. I loved the things I was working on and the things that I was learning. But I learned about social media when we were given an assignment to call an online service in California, which still exists today, called The WELL. It was just a bunch of very smart interesting funny people in California getting together the way we still do now just to talk about whatever. I just fell in love with this form of communication and the ability to meet people that I never would have met otherwise to find such interesting conversation any time of day or night, I just loved it. It was all very, very new then.
When I was in my last semester of graduate school, I was logged in to The WELL and somebody said, “We heard you’re going to start an east coast version of The WELL”, which I had actually never contemplated, never said, but the minute they said it, I realized, “Oh my god. That’s a great idea.” I was still at the beginning of the last semester. I dropped some course that I was taking and took a course about writing a business plan and wrote a business plan to start an online service in New York. That’s what launched Echo.
[00:07:38] Patrick: Now, I want to give people some context because when someone thinks about launching something, akin to this now, it’s relatively easy and relatively cheap. What did that actually mean starting Echo, starting an east coast version of The WELL? What was the cost like in 1989, 1990?
[00:07:54] Stacy: Well, the first thing I want to bring up is the fact that when I took my business plan centered around and tried to raise capital to start Echo, I was pretty much laughed out of every office I went into. Again, this is the 1980s. The idea that people would want to talk to each other through their computer was just considered not only laughable but pathetic. They looked at me like, “Oh, you sad, sad human being.” It wasn’t that I was a visionary at all. These things already existed. If you just tried them, the minute you logged on, you could see the potential there. I was unable to get any money, so because I was leaving Mobil, just the timing was just so perfect for me.
Mobil was moving to Virginia. Since I was not moving, I was eligible for the severance package. I used the money that I got from my severance package to start Echo. In terms of expense, yes, everything was more expensive then. The computers were more expensive then, the phone lines were more expensive. I rain it out of my apartment. Now, people just go on the internet, but you had to hook your phone to a modem and dial-up the same way you would place a phone call to another modem here at Echo. For every person online, I had to have a modem and a phone line sitting in my apartment. I still have this pile of shelves where I would stack all these modems. I eventually had T-1 line run into my apartment.
The funny story that I like to tell about that. Since this was the 1980s and people weren’t online yet and weren’t using data communications the way they are now, I maxed out those phone lines in my neighborhood. People could not get a phone because of me. They have to dig up the street from the nearest central office for the phone company to my apartment. I just remember going downstairs and just being so proud that the streets were being ripped up for me.
[00:10:01] Patrick: Wow, that’s pretty cool. It’s funny I was reading recently about sort of New York’s area codes and how they’ve run out of numbers on I think one of them and how that’s like a highly sought after area code, or something like that. It might just be due to people like you. I was thinking of phone lines.
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I want to go back to something you said earlier about discovering The WELL. I read an interview that you did with Women’s Internet History Project, and you called the experience of connecting to The WELL, nothing short of mind-blowing adding that there was simply no place like The WELL. Now, Wire did a piece on Echo in March of ’93 and they quoted a member of the community, Dr. Jonathan Hayes, and he said this. He said, my introduction to socializing in cyberspace came via The WELL, I hated it, touchy-feely earthy crunchy San Francisco hippies celebrating their noxious new age sensibilities. The first item I read when I tried Echo a week later was junkie tipping an urban answer to cow tipping. I knew that I had found my niche in cyberspace.”
In building Echo, was there a conscious effort to kind of differentiate yourself from The WELL? Or was it simply a result of having a different audience of New Yorkers kind of being New Yorkers?
[00:11:41] Stacy: Well, I did want to differentiate myself from The WELL, but not in a negative way. There was something that I did that at the time no one else that I know was going in this direction. And I also don’t mean this in a negative way but people were talking about oh, we’re going to connect everybody to everyone else and we’ll all be this one big happy family online. Which I’m not against that, but one of the pleasures for me for calling The WELL was feeling like I was going somewhere. The culture was different. I was just seeing a part of the world and experiencing part of the world on a regular basis that I wouldn’t otherwise, and I’d like that it seemed different. I thought what fun is it to travel and go to other places if you feel like it’s just like going home?
When I started Echo, I thought I wanted to reflect New York. I wanted to be like New York and to emphasize the things that we are into here. Which is not to say for instance like we are very art-oriented, that people aren’t arts oriented elsewhere. I wanted people to feel like when they came to Echo, they were coming to New York. From the beginning, I only marketed it to New Yorkers. I marketed it as a local service. Everyone around the world and in the country were welcome to visit, but I wanted to be sure that it was mostly New Yorkers so they would have that same experience that I had when I called The WELL.
[00:13:14] Patrick: It’s interesting. It seems like something that is maybe much less possible now, I think, just because of the way the internet sort of propagated to sort of maintain this environment where maybe it’s like a 80%, 90% New Yorkers and then you really get a true tourist experience sort of internet tourism. Playing in another space or visiting another city where if you can’t afford to come to New York, if you’re someone who wherever around the world and that cost is thousands of dollars to come to New York City, you can at least log in to Echo and get a sense of kind of the vibe and the culture of New York City at that time.
[00:13:47] Stacy: Yes. The internet, I mean, this is not 100% true, but it’s not really geographically based the way I was thinking.
[00:13:55] Patrick: In researching Echo, one consistent theme that was widely reported was the high percentage of women members at the time. The Wired piece mentioned 37% while adding that women on the internet then were between 10% and 15% of the total users. Why do you think that Echo was able to attract women members at such a high rate?
[00:14:15] Stacy: I was the only one trying.
[00:14:18] Patrick: It makes sense.
[00:14:19] Stacy: It’s such a simple dumb answer, but it’s absolutely true. I was the only one trying. First of all, there were very few commercial online services at the time, so it wasn’t like there was a lot of us out there doing this. But like I was born in 1956 and every job I had was always mostly male. When I was working at Mobil trying to promote the internet to the corporate telecommunications, I will never forget how that felt because it was this one long conference table full of men, this long oval of men and me. That was my experience everywhere I went, including online. I was always the only one of few women. That’s fine, but I just knew that the internet would be better if there were as many women as men.
[00:15:10] Patrick: I think that’s something that’s funny because it’s even true today in the sense that how do I do this thing, how do I attract this different audience. You have to ask. You have to try. You have to try to create something that’s interesting or inclusive or at least make the effort to invite people and reach out to people. I read that at one point you applied a similar strategy that bars apply to hosting ladies night, which is sort of women could sign up on Echo and receive free access for the first year and get a big discount on the second year.
[00:15:39] Stacy: I don’t know about the second year but I did everything I could think of. They got the first year free. Well, I actually called every single person who tried Echo to ask what they liked, what they didn’t like. I was also calling every single woman that called Echo to ask what they liked and they didn’t like. I would get more in-depth with them like, “What makes you uncomfortable? What can I do to make this more inviting?” It was all just straightforward.
Echo is made up of these different areas called conferences, or just ways of organizing topics like there’d be a movies’ conference and a books’ conference. The books’ conference would be filled with different topics having to do with books. Each conference had two people that we called the hosts. They were like moderators. They would welcome new users, go around sparking conversations, trying to keep the place interesting and lively. Plenty of online services have these now. They would settle disputes as they arose.
I always made sure that every single conference had one female host, one male host so that when women would come to Echo, they would see women as much in charge as men.
[00:16:51] Patrick: Speaking of moderation, I think it’s always interesting to me and something I try to push people to do that, our community managers in 2018, is to look back at community guidelines and moderation standards for say The WELL or say any number of communities that existed before, I don’t know, 2000, before 1995. I’m not surprised. It’s always funny to see how similar the things that we do now were to what you and what others before did back then.
I have to imagine that seeing these sorts of moderation issues with any platform, I don’t necessarily think of Facebook, Twitter etcetera as communities, there are communities on them, certainly, but to see these sort of things play out over and over again. There is this sense that I read whatever, think pieces, long-form articles about the moderation problem on Twitter, Facebook etcetera that we haven’t yet figured that out. I have to imagine that having dealt with moderation for so long, it’s a little frustrating to see that play out over and over again.
[00:17:53] Stacy: Yes. I actually wrote a book about Echo and running Echo and all the ways that I tried to deal with the problems that arose online. Oh god, I don’t even know where to begin. I really don’t know where to begin with this discussion.
I just remember for so long just feeling so out of my depth. When I started Echo, I had experienced The WELL as a user and mostly saw the fun side. I just didn’t get into a lot of disputes with people, although it did happen. When I started Echo, I just thought it was going to be fun. I did not foresee all the problems that would arise and I certainly didn’t think about the fact that I was going to be the one who had to solve them and figure them out. I had no background in this. I had no degrees or experience moderating disputes, dealing with terrible people when they show up, and trying to do all this while at the same time promoting as much free and open and uncensored communication as possible. My work became a series of compromises for my ideals. I didn’t want to ever tell people what they couldn’t say or couldn’t do. I found that I started to have to come up with guidelines for behavior or it was going to be too uncivilized and a miserable place. That was eye-opening.
A lot of things that I did worked and wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to do them, but it worked out.
[00:19:32] Patrick: It’s a great thought, the idea that as a user, you’re a part of the fun part. As a manager, you’re a part of the dirty whatever, behind the scenes. People will sometimes ask me if they should start a community about X. Usually, this will be tied to say their passion. They want to start a community about whatever they’re passionate about. It could be video games or knitting or a small business or whatever. My answer is usually that, well, if you start a community, you’ll still talk about that passion but you’ll have a whole new passion, that’ll suck up for your time, and that passion is now community management because it takes you away from sort of that hobby, that love, that passion, whatever it was before, and puts you into that seat where you have to sort of maintain the environment so that other people can have that same passion that you once had and hopefully still do.
[00:20:21] Stacy: Right. I could not enjoy Echo the way my users could. I had to keep a certain distance because now I was like not the boss, more like a mayor. There’s no equivalent really that fits perfectly. But I had to make decisions about their online lives, and so I couldn’t be their friend at the same time.
[00:20:40] Patrick: Sticking with this a little bit of the state of the internet. A topic that you had brought up prior to the show was sort of the divide in the US and whether or not it has been worsened by the internet or simply brought to the surface by the internet. Which way do you lean?
[00:20:54] Stacy: I go back and forth. One of the things that I’ve said many times for many years is that people are people, the internet is not really going to change you. You’re not going to get online to become a better person. I don’t believe that you’re necessarily going to be a worse person. I just think it exposes us for who we are. You can try to behave differently, but it’s hard to maintain something that isn’t real and ultimately you’re just going to fall back on whoever you are. The only thing I can say knowing that, is that the internet has exposed something that has always been there. I’m not sure if we talked about this before, but I remember going up and protesting the Vietnam war and civil rights issues, feminist issues and just seeing such an ugly side to humanity. It’s bad. The things that I saw at the time.
I would try to calm myself about that with the idea that by the time I grew up, most of these people would be dead and only be better people more enlightened people would be left. Unfortunately, as we now know, that’s not true. There is always people being born and raised and picking up that ugly standard and continuing into every new century. Now they have a place to find each other easily online, and that’s a downside. But the plus side is we have the same tools at our disposal to try to combat them. The internet is not going to fix the problems, it’s not going to make them worse, that is going to happen or not happen as slowly as it always has been through history.
[00:22:55] Patrick: I think the internet’s made great things greater and bad things worse, much worse. I think about just from growing up, I remember a time without the internet. First and foremost, I’m old enough where I grew up at a time without the internet. But had it from a pretty young age. Frankly, a lot of my greatest friendships come from the internet, from online communities. From one online community and specific that I’ve talked about on the show before the SitePoint forums where it’s a web development community, it’s a fairly dry topic, but I met a bunch of people as a teenager who were on a similar path in a similar place. We formed very strong bonds and I know their families, I know their children, I visit them at their homes, they visit me. We meet up at conferences, whatever.
That’s the great side, and of course, the bad side is sort of how you pointed out. The people who want to do certain things can get together much more easily.
Now, I want to ask you kind of an open-ended question, and there may not be an answer to it. We’ve kind of talked about sort of civility– or maybe not. Maybe more hate speech and sort of how these bad things come out of people. But you’ve been looking at community platforms for so long and obviously with Echi were there at a very early point in the development of sort of hosting online communities.
In 2018, is there anything else that stands out to you as disappointing? Is there something that when you were doing this, you were like, well, that is something that we’ll figure out one day, or this is a feature we’ll have, or this is something the online community will one day empower, and we’re not there yet, is there anything like that that comes to mind for you?
[00:24:23] Stacy: Aside from the things that we’ve already discussed, I am thrilled with what we have now. I love Twitter, even Facebook. I see a lot of positive to Facebook. I’m not even sure how to answer this question.
[00:24:37] Patrick: That’s an answer. There’s nothing here that we’ve sort of delivered on, I guess, the promise that you saw when you went all in on Echo. That’s a perfectly legitimate answer. I just like to ask people with a longterm perspective of, what have we fallen short on? And I think we talked about that, was sort of this propagation of maybe hate speech or kind of negativity online. I use Twitter, I love Twitter too. It’s not a trick question. I was just curious.
[00:25:04] Stacy: We’ve already talked about it and I think I’ll probably just repeating myself that it isn’t the internet or any of our tools that have failed. It is still us. It still comes right back to us and the people that are spreading ugliness. It’s them, not the internet. It’s a shame that they have a platform that they didn’t have before which allows them to grow. Again, the ugliness is in them.
[00:25:37] Patrick: I visited The WELL site, well.com, as I was thinking about this episode and realized that it had a new design since the last time that I checked. The site mentions that you can view and participate in The WELL through your browser, which I thought was interesting. According to Internet Archive: Wayback Machine in 1999 you added a line to the Echo about page the conversations on Echo are not on the web yet. And so it remains to this day. Do you think there will be a time when they are?
[00:26:03] Stacy: Echo’s conversations?
[00:26:04] Patrick: Yes.
[00:26:05] Stacy: Not unless somebody designs a web interface for me for free because I have no money to do it.
[00:26:11] Patrick: Because Echo is still a thing. It’s still running. You still have to dial in and call in to access it. Do you view your role at this point as sort of caretaker of the legacy and the existing member base that continues to come back to the community for as long as they continue to participate?
[00:26:30] Stacy: That’s exactly how I see myself. We haven’t grown in years. I stopped trying to grow us a long time ago. The only people still around, they’re just like a bunch of us who are now old friends. We still like to talk to each other. I say over and over, we’re like the dive bar in the neighborhood that just keeps going on while everything around us has changed. I’ll keep it going as long as we’re still alive. We’re all growing old together, and it’s very, very nice.
[00:27:02] Patrick: Do you have any new people pop in once in a while? Is that weird? I don’t know, I assume maybe one person pops in from time to time. Is that sort of an odd thing for the people who are there?
[00:27:12] Stacy: No, it’s fun. But they almost never stay because it’s like walking into, again, a bar where people have been talking to each other for years. It might be amusing to drop in on, but very few people are going to engage the level that they want to keep coming back. Along those lines, I still use the same software that I selected for Echo in the 1980s. We’re using really, really old software. I saved everything that anybody has ever said since 1989. That’s when I first brought Echo live. As someone who writes books about history, I recognize that it’s really very important historical source for historians of the future.
Right now, for instance, a book just came out about the 19th century. It was very frustrating trying to bring certain aspects of what I was writing about to life because there’s just no written record and no written record from everyday people about what it was like. I just know the people from the future to come back and read these conversations from a real like, assortment of people who are experiencing it at the time. They’re not filtering their words with the idea that someone’s going to read these. They’re just talking about what’s going on.
I’ve got when Anita Hill…I don’t know if you know who Anita Hill was. It was testifying. We were watching that and posting about that and that’s all still there. When the World Trade Center was first bombed, our reactions to that are there. When the planes went into the World Trade Center years later and all that, all our reactions are still there. If people want to study this time period in this place, it’s just a treasure trove of information. We’ve donated, and it’s been accepted, all our archives by the New York Historical Society.
[00:29:12] Patrick: That’s awesome, and I love that because it kills me when people decide, and usually it’s not the founder. It’s usually someone who took it later. Whether a corporate interest or just a person decides to shut down a long-running community and then it just disappears. Easy example is IMDb’s forums, it was a year two years ago. They were owned by Amazon, and have been for a long time. But they have this really long-running movie community, movie criticism, movie comments since the 90s. They were closed because of their reasoning was toxicity in the forums and harassment and nastiness and whatever.
I’m not saying that didn’t occur and that wasn’t a problem and they let it get there. IMDb is an influential website and in kind of the history of at least the recent history of film and the commentary that exist on there from the 90s through today is as relevant as any kind of reaction to film in the 40s, 50s or 60s from the general population.
Just to wipe it off the face of the internet would nothing, there are no archive, nothing at all is sort of to erase what is a really influential platform in the last, let’s say, a few decades of the film industry. I think that happens too often and we don’t really fully respect the cultural and historical significance of influential online communities. I’d love to see more efforts like this with online communities.
[00:30:35] Stacy: Well, there was one interesting example that will be part of this archive, is one of the things that I did to make women more comfortable is I started a private conference for women only. Also, there was a private conference for men only.
Early on, we had our first transgender woman on Echo asked to be led into the women’s conference. There was a discussion in the conference, so should we or shouldn’t we. All the pros and cons were waived, and I made a decision, ultimately the wrong one, that she could join the women’s conference. I made a timeframe, six months, so we could get to know her and there could be trust developed between us. I also said, and I’m so embarrassed about this, but I might as well own my mistakes. I said, also it was open to women who had– I forget what it’s called, the operation, whatever the operation is from male to female. Then shortly after making that decision, I had someone pointed out to me no, no, no. Then the medical community gets to decide who’s male or female? They shouldn’t have to have the operation. What if they can’t afford the operation and she’s not there. Oh my God, that’s right. Terrible decision and why am I having the wait?
The fact that I wanted to wait was a reflection of my upbringing and my age. I’m from the 50s and 60s and my concern wasn’t about having a transgender woman in the female only conference, my concern was that men were going to start saying oh, I’m transgender just to get in and have a peek. I wanted to prevent that. I thought if they had to be there for a few months, then we could have a better sense of who’s telling the truth. Who really was transgender and who was faking it. But I decided well, that’s unfair to the genuinely transgender person, to make them wait because of the possible sins of others. I said okay, no more waiting no waiting, no more nothing. They get in immediately. We’re going to take their word for it, and if were proven wrong later then too bad and they’ll get kicked out but we’ll have to err on the side of inclusion rather than trying to avoid that mistake.
The only reason I bring that up is the discussion about how we weighed this. Again, this is the early 1990s and it was very, very new to a lot of us. I think it’ll be interesting to cultural historians of the future, to see what we were like and what we were thinking.
[00:33:08] Patrick: Definitely. I think online communities are the reflection of culture. I mean even if you take an issue like that and let’s talk about politicians and maybe bring up the issue of gay marriage. Obviously positions change. If you look at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton numerous others who are now supportive or eventually became supportive maybe they weren’t at first, and so their words changed over time. I think online communities are just that cultural touchstones. Yes, more efforts to archive them. I don’t know. I think I guess it’s important to still archive the president’s tweets in the Library of Congress. But for my money, I would just as much like to have influential online communities archived as well.
Stacy, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. It’s been really great to get to know Echo, and I think it’s really amazing that you built a community that has existed for so long and will exist really until the last person leaves and turns the lights out, so to speak. I think that’s really beautiful.
[00:34:05] Stacy: Yes. It actually sound a little bittersweet the way you raised it, but yes, thank you for having me. I had a good time.
[00:34:12] Patrick: We have been talking with Stacy Horn, founder of New York-based social network, Echo, and the author of Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York. Visit stacyhorn.com for more information.
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