Email, MOO, and the Lost Protocols
I am not particularly fond of email. From the very beginning I didn’t like it. I got my first email account in 1993 and promptly abandoned it. No one else I knew had one, except for my roommate and the girls across the hall, so what could I do with it? And on top of that, it was so slow. Not that sending a message was slow, but it was exactly like sending a letter. I write something out, send it, and wait and wait for a reply. It could take days.
Instead I opted for the various synchronous chat environments I had at my disposal in those days. At the top of my list was MOO. (See also the lost library of MOO, which is not only an interesting slice of what’s been lost on the internet in the last 10 years, but also happens to credit my dear friend Jason). MOO is an old telnet protocol. Man, I don’t even know how to describe MOO anymore. I used to access it with raw terminal telnet, which means command line input, no backspace, and no local echo until you turned it on. (Local echo is when you can see what you type.)
MOOs were so much cooler than email. First, there were hundreds of people on them. There weren’t many people using the internet at the time, but lots of the students who were were logging into MUDs, MUSHes, MUSEs, and MOOs. These systems allowed for hundreds of independent users at once who could create spaces and interact with each other and code stuff. It was real time, there was lots going on, and you could meet people from all over the world. Of course this was before Netscape and even Mosaic, and www was competing with gopher and telnet. I used to work with a black screen and orange type.
But MOOs used to be so busy and so fast that you would log into one and people were talking up your screen before you could blink. I failed typing in high school. I learned how to type by wanting to get in on the conversation.
For the record, it’s because of my MOO experience that I understand SQL and PHP. In case you’re curious.
After MOOs on my list of best communication methods was a little program called Talk. It was connected to the email system, but it was better than email. It worked via Pine (and Elm) and would let you ping someone who was online at another university and talk to them real time. Like, you could see what the other person was typing as they typed it. That was just mind-blowing to me. I loved the talk option, but I really only knew a couple of people outside of my own university who had it by the time I found it, so I didn’t get to use it much.
Today I only email people when I absolutely have to, or it’s clear that that’s their preferred method of communication. The vast majority of my friends close by and abroad communicate with me via instant messaging systems. These are more like the old pine talk and less like MOO, but it works. I’m talking to people real time and if they don’t really want to talk with me I know that right away. Email always feels like you’re taking a chance. Sure, they don’t need to respond right away, but that means they don’t respond right away. I’m used to synchonicity. I have no patience. I want to hear back from you NOW, not next week. Not next month. This is a conversation, not something you can hit the pause button on.
See, I’m a demanding soul.
So this is why I don’t use email as much as some people do. I tend to imagine that it’s more of a conversation, when really what it is is a memo slipped under someone’s door. It’s easy for them to step on it, ignore it or just not answer it. Email doesn’t demand an answer.
Email is a post it note on your mirror that reminds you to do something, or tells you something nice. “You look beautiful today.” “Buy milk.” Email is nice, but it’s not the most efficient means of communication.
Though it’s a dead/dying medium, MOO is the best form of online communication I’ve ever encountered.
In MOO, everything is an object. It’s make believe; when you log on, you are animating a character that you have defined. When you log in, you are seen to “wake up”. Your offline life happens like a dream for this character. In MOO, you walk around from place to place, you can touch people, you can hug them and give them things. You can pick up objects and put them in your pocket, and then when you look down at your “body” you will see what you’re carrying. People can pin things to your shirt.
In MOO you can express a world of emotion without expressing a statement, without actually moving your virtual lips. MOO provided the online self with body language, something IM (instant messaging) systems lack. IM is talk. MOO is heart, body, and soul.
MOO is a present-tense narrative, with dialogue, description, and punctuation that encapulates your speeh and movement. MOO is the sense of place in a sea of ones and zeroes.
The richness of that environment, though increasingly lost, makes me feel the deadness of email.
I don’t write email. I write blog posts to an audience of one.