I sometimes think I should write a book about online friendship based on my personal experience over the past 23 years. Its title would be They Could Be Ax Murderers, because that’s what my husband said when I first started talking about meeting, face to face, with some of the women I had met through the early online “bulletin board” service called Prodigy.
It turns out that a lot of other husbands made similar comments. But the wives weren’t—aren’t—ax murderers. Some of the women I first encountered online in the winter of 1992 have become my closest friends and confidants, even though most of us have finished the job that first brought us together: childrearing.
Prodigy, for the kiddies, was the Facebook of its time, only it was just a black screen full of white text. I don’t think the first PC onto which I loaded the Prodigy software had a mouse; I know it didn’t have Windows. I remember the horrified look on my husband’s face when he came home from work late one night and found me on the floor surrounded by our disassembled computer—the one that had cost 5 percent of our combined annual income—as I installed (successfully) our first modem. A modem allowed the computer to dial out on our home telephone line and connect with the Prodigy service and its few million subscribers.
The fact that my husband worked from 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday attracted me to Prodigy. Our first son was born in the fall of 1990, a year after we moved from Little Rock to Nashville, and now he was a toddler who went to sleep at 7 p.m. like clockwork. I would pick him up from daycare, make a quick supper, give him a bath, read a story or two, and then spend the rest of the evening essentially in lonely silence.
On Prodigy, I had people to converse with, reading at my convenience the comments that others left at their convenience. First I found a political discussion bulletin board, and since I had been observing that new political phenom Bill Clinton since I was in high school, I thought I could contribute to that conversation.
I quickly discovered an eternal truism: People online want you to know their political opinions, but they don’t want to know yours. The political discussion group quickly devolved into insults and name-calling, so I backed on out and found another corner of Prodigy dedicated to the topic of parenting. Here I found my new community, although the closest one was hundreds of miles from me.
We called ourselves “Working Super Moms.” The name was a joke—we generally felt more overwhelmed than super—but it did have the benefit of discouraging militant SAHMs (“Stay-At-Home Moms”) from trying to join our conversation. Some SAHMs, at least among those who used Prodigy two decades ago, validated their lifestyle choices by calling it selfish and materialistic to go back to jobs after giving birth.
There was, no doubt, a bit of jealousy on both sides—we women do want it all, don’t we? I find it easiest to assume, absent any evidence to the contrary, that every mother was just trying to do the best she could for her particular family. In the Working Super Moms thread, we could comfortably talk about work and family without being asked to justify having both.
We were spread from Washington state to Connecticut, Ohio to Texas. Some of us were just starting our families. My second son, Grant, born in 1994, was the first WSM baby, but there would be others—Cathy and Anna and Ethan—and we would commiserate. Some of the WSMs were older, with kids already in grade school or even middle school. Watching them live through the teenage years gave me hope when I saw my previously adorable boys turn into unbearable aliens.
As technology progressed, we moved to another bulletin board service and then to group emails, which is our preferred method of communication (although we do have a closed group on Facebook). A lot of the early joiners—including the woman who wrote the first “Working Super Moms” post on Prodigy—dropped out pretty quickly. Eventually, the group settled in size to 14: Barb, Carol, Chris, Diane, Heather, Hope, Marcia, Jan, Jean, Kris, Lynna, Melissa, Wendy and me.
We have experienced, electronically (and sometimes in person), all the highs and lows that friends experience IRL—”in real life.” Births, deaths, divorces, arrests, hurt feelings, jobs lost and gained, a truly memorable bar mitzvah. Graduations from high school and then college, weddings. The youngest of our kids are now in high school, and most of the Working Super Moms are now grandmothers. Several have retired.
A funny thing happened along the way. Our bond stopped being the commonality that brought us together, the experience of being working mothers, and started being the same as any longtime friends: time spent together that created mutual memories. In 1992, I was looking for diversion and entertainment. I didn’t know online friendship was a possibility. But nearly a quarter of a century later, I can confirm that online friendship is just friendship.
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