ECHO *

BY CLAIRE L. EVANS

Echo Portrait
* Adapted from BROAD BAND: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans, to be published in March 2018 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Claire L. Evans.
Jacket with 'Bitch' patch

Not everybody is a 30-year-old white guy, and not everybody loves the Grateful Dead. Stacy Horn least of all.

Echo Portrait
* Adapted from BROAD BAND: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans, to be published in March 2018 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Claire L. Evans.

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.”

Jacket with 'Bitch' patch

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.

Computer Illustration

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

Embraceable Ewe

Radio Stack

Echo’s biggest conferences were like Greek agorae in cyberspace: open public assemblies where anyone could be heard, provided they spoke loudly enough. But Stacy knew that even the most democratic public spaces have limitations. “I talk differently when I’m with my choir friends than when I’m with my drummer friends,” she explains, “and if I’m in a group of all women there are things that I’m going to say that I won’t say in a mixed-gender group.” If Echo was going to be an extension of the real world, it had to have both common areas and private spaces.

Stacy built the possibility for private conferencing into Echo from the outset, and Echoids ran with the idea. There was a private AA group for recovering addicts, and one for users under thirty. The sex conference was twenty-one and over. The Biosphere, named after the hermetically sealed biological experiment in Arizona, was private for the sake of being private. Another, Women in Telecommunications (WIT), was the female-only corner of Echo. That was Stacy’s baby, and she policed it strictly, granting Echoids access to WIT only once she’d spoken to them on the phone to ensure, as best she could, that they were women—a layer of real-world scrutiny hard to imagine today.

WIT was Echo’s powder room, the place where female Echoids sneaked off and talked among themselves. In a thread called “Is Someone Bothering You on Echo?” they’d report instances of abuse and harassment and compare notes about online creeps. Not everyone liked WIT; some female Echoids found it cheesy, antithetical to the dark humor that had drawn them to Echo in the first place. With Stacy’s blessing, they started BITCH, an invitation-only hangout for girls with attitude. Marisa Bowe compared BITCH to a “sleazy dark dive in the very lower very east side.” If Echo was a digital overlay of New York, then every corner of the city had to have its analog, and sometimes a girl just needs to get a drink, talk trash, and blow off some steam. Stacy set up a similar conference, MOE—Men on Echo—for those guys excluded from conversations on WIT and BITCH. This quieted cries of preferential treatment for women, but it left transgender Echoids in the lurch.

The problem didn’t become apparent until 1993. That’s the year Embraceable Ewe, a trans woman, requested access to WIT. Nobody quite knew what to make of it. Some female Echoids said let her in. One agreed, on the condition that she avoid the conversations about PMS; another questioned why the same condition wouldn’t apply to a postmenopausal woman. Still others argued that WIT was a space for women who were brought up female and a trans woman, having benefited from the systemic advantages of the patriarchy for at least some of her life, wouldn’t share that history. The conversation became a sprawling consideration of gender in cyberspace.

Jacket with 'WIT' patch on back

Another issue at play was the ongoing context of female impersonation. The text-based internet’s social spaces were rife with gender crossing. Men posed as women with regularity. The media theorist Allucquére Rosanne Stone called this “computer crossdressing.” In a 1991 paper, she cites the example of Julie, a beloved message board personality who turned out to be a middle-aged man. The false Julie had been mistaken for a woman the very first time he went online, and he was so fascinated by the way that women speak to one another in the perceived absence of men that he kept up the charade for several years, building an entire fictional persona for his feminine alter ego.

This was a regular occurrence on BBSs, Listservs, Multi-User Domains, and other chat platforms throughout the 1990s. “On the nets,” Stone wrote, where “grounding a persona in a physical body is meaningless, men routinely use female personae whenever they choose.” This cut both ways, of course. Women could choose male aliases in order to avoid undue attention or harassment, and trans people were able to express their gender identities safely and freely. But one practical effect of all this computer crossdressing was that the few women on the early internet had a much harder time finding one another.

For many Echoids, the subtext of the Embraceable Ewe debate was that if a trans woman joined WIT, she’d be followed by men “pretending” to be women. It wouldn’t matter who Embraceable Ewe was or whether she deserved a safe space herself, because the floodgates would be open. “I didn’t know what to do,” Stacy tells me. “My fear was that if I let her in, all these men would start saying ‘I’m a woman, let me in,’ and how would I know who was a woman and who was not?” Stacy wanted to allow for as many forms of communication on Echo as possible. Within WIT, that meant a place without male voyeurs.

Unsure how to resolve the problem, Stacy told Embraceable Ewe she could have access to WIT once she’d had her gender reassignment surgery. She retracted the mandate a few months later—and regrets it to this day—but Embraceable Ewe left Echo anyway. In the following years, several other trans women joined. The community grew more familiar with their identities. Echoids who had been clueless about the trans experience began to understand. Trans Echoids shared their stories, pushing back: Why should an expensive surgery be required to prove who you are? What authorizes the medical establishment to determine gender? Echo adapted its policies as it always did. As Stacy said, “Echoids were able to reach a tentative understanding and agreement . . . through a lot of words, volumes and volumes, over years of time.”

Jacket with 'WIT' patch on back
Art by Madisen Hunt

Thank you!