BY CLAIRE L. EVANS
Not everybody is a 30-year-old white guy, and not everybody loves the Grateful Dead. Stacy Horn least of all.
When the New York City graduate student dialed The WELL** for the first time in the early 1980s, she kept a wide berth from the Deadheads. There were enough other conversations to interest her: with all its journalists, ex-hippies, and computer hobbyists, dialing The WELL was like visiting California for the cost of a long-distance phone call. But once she got over the thrill, and balked at her first month’s phone bill, Stacy began to feel out of place. Like any New Yorker vacationing in California, the sunshine did her good, but her heart was elsewhere.
Stacy was enrolled in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, so whiling away a few afternoons on a BBS—short for Bulletin Board System, the type of computer server on which The WELL ran on—passed for homework. But while she was studying computers, she didn’t want to talk about them online. Stacy wanted to talk about literature, film, culture, and sex. She wanted a place to flirt, gossip, and argue. She wanted some women around, and friends she stood a reasonable chance of meeting in real life. Above all, she wanted something that felt like New York City—more techno-hipster than techno-hippie. “I can’t send beams to someone,” she complained in her 1998 book, Cyberville. “It’s not my style. I can communicate with self-loathing, however.”
In 1988, a friend on The WELL asked Stacy when she was going to start her own BBS for the East Coast. The thought hadn’t occurred to her, but in the time it took for her to type a response, she’d decided. She even made up a name on the spot, the East Coast Hang-Out, or Echo. Stacy wasn’t really a techie. Nor was she a businessperson. But she was good with people, and her time on The WELL had taught her online communities emerge spontaneously whenever two or more individuals discover they like the same thing. Stacy figured In 1988, a friend on The WELL asked Stacy when she was going to start her own BBS for the East Coast. The thought hadn’t occurred to her, but in the time it took for her to type a response, she’d decided. She even made up a name on the spot, the East Coast Hang-Out, or Echo. Stacy wasn’t really a techie. Nor was she a businessperson. But she was good with people, and her time on The WELL had taught her online communities emerge spontaneously whenever two or more individuals discover they like the same thing. Stacy figured that if she could get New Yorkers on a BBS and get them talking, they’d stay. They might even pay for the privilege.
She dropped an elective course and wrote a business plan. “It wasn’t like I was a visionary,” she says. “All you had to do was sit down and do it. It was instantly fun. Right away, you just could see it.” She took every penny of her savings and hit the pavement, determined to build Echo from the ground up. Every night, she went out into the city, heading to parties, art openings, museums, concerts, and bars. One by one, she approached strangers to pitch them on joining her fledgling online community. Some already had computer access, but few had modems, which cost more than $100 at the time. Stacy had to convince them to do something that seemed “insane.”Request a copy
As the site grew, friends helped out. A hacker calling himself Phiber Optik debugged Echo’s server pro bono; when he later went to prison for cybercrime, Echo users wearing Phree Phiber Optik buttons visited him once a week. Sometimes Echo would crash, and things would get so bad that when the phone rang, Stacy and her handful of part-time employees would jump. Go away, they’d scream at the phone, we suck. But it was always fun. Stacy tucked toy surprises into customers’ bills, “like Cracker Jacks,” until a representative from the U.S. Postal Service buzzed her intercom and begged her to stop. She was jamming the letter machines.
Echo eventually outgrew its residential digs and moved into proper office space in Tribeca, a neighborhood Stacy had often roamed back when it was a “deserted, empty, time-tripping forgotten patch of Manhattan.” By 1994, Echo had two employees and thirty-five phone lines, and her user base had jumped from a few hundred interesting people she’d picked up in bars to a few thousand who’d read about Echo in the Village Voice and the New York Times.
The press came not a moment too soon—Stacy had nearly burned through her savings. She credits then-Vice President Al Gore for pulling Echo from the brink. “Clinton and Gore were just going around everywhere talking about the information superhighway,” she remembers. “People started having this sense that there was a thing out there that was important. And if they didn’t get in on the bandwagon, they were going to be left behind.” The national FOMO made Echo an easier sell. “You know that information superhighway you’ve been hearing all about?” she’d say. “Well, Echo is a stop along the way.”
The first users were playwrights, actors, and writers. “And when computer people came online and saw we were talking about opera and not games,” Stacy explains, “they left.” Marisa Bowe, a longtime Echo user, remembers people on Echo as funny, snarky, and smart. They were artists, liberals, programmers—the New York intelligentsia. When Echo reached peak trendiness, it even saw its share of celebrities, like the Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan, and even John F. Kennedy Jr., who posted as “flash.” Stacy helped him set up his account in her apartment as a thousand incredulous messages pinged her screen.
Affectionately, Stacy called her users Echoids. The campy name was perfect for a group of East Coast wiseasses who thought of their online community as a virtual salon but weren’t above gabbing about TV. While The WELL’s founders, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, were both accomplished figures in the West Coast’s tech and cultural scenes, Stacy Horn was a “punk rock suburbanite-city girl who didn’t do a heck of a lot” until she started Echo. The difference between the two communities only started there. “West Coast/East Coast, boy/girl, night and fucking day,” she wrote in 1998.
And none of them will give you the time of day.
Stacy Horn had a catchphrase for Echo. She put it on the front page of the website: “Echo has the highest percentage of women in cyberspace—and none of them will give you the time of day.”
Today, women dominate social networking platforms like Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram, but almost no online services in the 1980s had a significant female population. At the time Stacy founded Echo, the entire internet was only about 10 to 15 percent female. But women made up nearly half of Echo’s user base. “My success was due in part to the fact that I was the only one trying,” she explains. She went up to women everywhere and conducted informal interviews about their online experiences. If they hadn’t had any, she asked why—and when they answered, she listened. She made diplomatic entreaties to local women’s groups and gave the editors of Ms. Magazine their own Echo conference, which exploded with frank conversations about menstruation and body hair that Echo’s men read in awed silence. She started a mentoring program—and even made membership on Echo completely free for women in 1990.
Her advocacy was personal. While still in grad school at NYU, she’d worked as a telecommunications analyst for Mobil. Once she woke to the possibilities of online networks, she became convinced that employees working on national data network installations would make fewer mistakes if everyone could discuss what they were doing in real time. “We would have these meetings, where it would just be this long conference table with everybody in corporate telecommunications,” she says, “and it was just me and a bunch of men. I would get up, and I would try to promote the idea of social networking…and they would basically just try to shut me up.”
Hillary Clinton was lobbying to push health-care reform through Congress at the time, and Stacy watched her on the news, ducking and bobbing as rooms full of men tried to undermine her project. “She was a master at it, even then, just deflecting and not getting angry,” Stacy remembers. The image affected her deeply. Stacy had been the only woman in the boardroom, and she was going to make sure she wasn’t the only woman in the chatroom.
She didn’t always win. When Aliza Sherman, a developer who created some of the earliest websites for women, signed up for Echo, she couldn’t wrap her head around the culture of the place. Like Stacy surrounded by Deadheads on The WELL, it just wasn’t a fit, so she canceled her account. Stacy called her personally. “This is Stacy Horn,” Aliza remembers her saying, “I saw that you were leaving, we need more women here, don’t leave, what can I do to make it easier for you?” Later, Stacy sent her a letter. Aliza left Echo anyway, but she kept the letter. It’s a reminder of a time when every woman online made a difference.Request a copy