"Sherman?" "Yes, Mr. Peabody?" "Set the WABAC to 1991"
Back in the days before the World Wide Web, proprietary online services were the way to go.
Back in the '80s, it was the BBS, or Bulletin Boards that I roamed, searching for Apple ][ software to share/exchange - I remember being in 10th grade and having a classmate named Wilfredo bringing a whole shoebox full of pirated Apple ][ games to share. When IBM PCs became easily available by other manufacturers, it became affordable to buy one. So playing one afternoon and looking for patches from the Sierra On-Line BBS, I noticed a note for something called "The Sierra Network", offering gaming with other people and the ability to chat and hang out. Of course, back then CompuServe was available and so was America online, in one version or another. But this was a graphical version and allowed you to create an online persona. Sounded good to me.
And so I signed up, had the starter package sent to me and installed the software.
Thus began my online journey.
TSN was great. Back then, you had the ability to create a cartoon bust of yourself, hang out in a chatroom, play a simplified flight sim called "Red Baron" against others, play card games, and pass mail to each other in a proprietary email system that stayed only within the TSN system.
Text only, of course. passing along pics of things, people, etc required a real-world address and a diskette or Polaroid via snail-mail.
Upgrades to TSN included a more adult-ish version based on Sierra On-line's "Leisure Suit Larry" world, with a casino where you could play things like blackjack, roulette, and slots.
Time marched on. America Online was the 800lb gorilla in online services, CompuServe was rapidly becoming something that while comprehensive, only something really serious users were on. AOL grew and grew. Eventually, the market share of TSN, which was never big to begin with forced it to be sold off, first to AT&T who changed the name from "The Sierra Network" to "The ImagiNation Network" or INN, and eventually it was sold off to...you guessed it, AOL.
AOL took the gaming technologies that TSN used, gutted it for it's intellectual property and then shut it down. Most of TSN/INN's users migrated to AOL, as there was really no other choice.
At first, I didn't like AOL. It was huge. There was a lot you could do, certainly but where was everyone I knew? I started looking in chatrooms. And eventually settled on a few I visited on a regular basis. And began to recognize some of the usual users. Soon that led to becoming a fixture in some of the chatrooms. But those were usually in the evenings, after college and work.
In 1996, I had back surgery for a ruptured disc. This put me at home, recuperating from surgery and having a lot of time on my hands. So I spent a lot of time on AOL in chat when I wasn't walking or getting rehab for my back.
That time I spent while recuperating from surgery on AOL changed how I looked at online services. Soon I was fit enough to go back to work and school, but I kept logging on to AOL each night.
AOL became something of a social outlet as well; most of us would meet IRL, or In Real Life at restaurants or clubs, hanging out and having fun seeing what we're like in person. Of course, this led to some awkward meetings when people with names like "SexyBunny321" end up being someone squat, shapeless and anything but sexy. But that added to the entertainment value. "Say, did you see what 'BuffGuy75' looked like? He looked like he couldn't lift a folding chair, much less all those weights he kept bragging about..." By the way, the previous names were pseudonyms - While I met many people who were exactly what they said they were, there were those who weren't...and I'm not going to use their names here.
So I kept my "AOL friends" separate from my other friends and led what you would call a double life.
And then back in 2000, I was minding my own business, hanging out online with people I'd come to know for several years...and along comes S.