On Digital Relationships: Once Upon A Time, I Was A Voxer

Manu is hosting this month’s IndieWeb Carnival on digital relationships, and I wasn’t going to try contributing to this until reading his own entry and realizing that it might be worth talking about how my first digital relationships also were analogue ones. Here’s just a little bit about my time on the infamous NYC-based internet BBS called MindVox.

I’m not sure how true it is today, but two decades ago most people knew of the Bay Area’s The WELL, and many people knew of New York City’s Echo (which ridiculously doesn’t rate its own Wikipedia page and is relegated to being an item on its founder’s). MindVox was the swaggery, posturing upstart that arose from the heyday of the Legion of Doom hackers group. It managed to land itself in the first monthly issue of Wired right around the time I’d first gotten online through a dialup gopher server run by a public library in upstate New York.

Needing to create a handle for the system, the presence of Belly’s “Slow Dog” in my musical rotation and the fact that I’d felt like I was five or so years behind where I should’ve been in life saw my entrance into my first virtual community as slowdog.

A significant portion of the system’s user base being in and around New York City, people didn’t only get to know each other on the forums. Per its Wikipedia entry:

While users were drawn from all over the world, the majority lived in the New York City area, and members who met through the conferences often became acquainted in person, either on their own, or through what were termed “VoxMeats” (a formal gathering of members whose double entendre name was rumored to be well-earned.)

This, while swaggery, is not posturing. Some stuck to the prosaic VoxMeet, but the double entrendre indeed was well-earned beyond the more staid reading of merely being a reference to what as a counterpart to cyberspace was termed at the time “meatspace”. Possibly still somewhere out there online is an incestuous map of online handles, mostly from hacker communities, one island of which is a cluster of Voxers—although to my knowledge not all the Vox nodes made their way to this online version. Yet another way in which I saw myself in Netflix’s Heartbreak High.

This is not all Voxers did, of course. At least for the ones to which I went, mostly these meets were bar crawls of one sort or another. The late Mullen’s Pub, which was near the Vox office. The also late 7A. The infamous, and very late, Mars Bar, although I swear everyone I knew spelled it with a Z. That last is where a spurious story surfaced that I’d been blown in the men’s room when in fact I was busy vomiting into the toilet while the Voxer I technically was seeing held my head out of the bowl.

Possibly the only regular VoxMeet venue still in existence is the Chelsea Square Restaurant, known more colloquially and even in their online presence as the Chelsea Square Diner. You’ve seen this place on many television shows filmed in the city, including Person of Interest, and if the place means anything to you at all you can spot it as soon as it appears on-screen.

What it means it me is that is was the site of my own very first VoxMeet, where someone decided it would be funny to introduce me as one of the system’s founders.

There’s no way for me to write up my time as a Voxer both online and off in any way that’s comprehensive or even likely especially coherent. Between the memory deficiencies and the flood of alcohol with occasional marijuana digressions, there’s just not enough to form a full picture. While I appear on the incest map, there are versions that link me to people with whom I did not have a saliva or semen connection. The community was a jumbled mess but there’s also a lot of myth wrapped up in it all. I won’t deny I at least had more than my fair share of crushes, including a photographer who I didn’t actually know very well, although we got along fine, and whose later and far too soon funeral to this day I regret missing. (People still remember you, K.)

It was because of Voxers that I ever had drinks at the famed Algonquin Hotel and even spent the night, although not in a way that would have qualified it for the map.

A bunch of us once went to the Hackers On Planet Earth conference, which wasn’t really amounting to much until Charles Platt, the author of the very Wired piece that brought me and others to MindVox, while horizontally reclined across several folding chairs, suddenly shouted, “Where’s the fucking crime?! This is a nerd convention!” A bunch of us once went to see Johnny Mnemonic and when Keanu stood atop a trash heap proclaiming in his stilted manner, “I want room service!” someone yelled “I want to act!” and someone else remarked “the William Shatner of our generation”. To this day, I’m pretty sure the latter was me.

It was because of Voxers that I came to Soul Coughing, which is how I ended up at the band’s post-tour homecoming gig at Tramp’s, probably the best way to have seen the band. Around this time, Voxers around the country and even in the U.K. started to request “True Dreams of Wichita” in my name when they saw the band in concert. To my recollection, they got a response just the once: “We’re playing it all for Slowdog!”

It was because of Voxers that I had my closest-ever brush with a potentially bad situation with the law. (I discount that time in high school I was arrested with two others for playing with fireworks and was sentenced to community service.) Three of us having gone to the Vox office at night, the alarm code apparently had been input incorrectly and the police showed up at the door. The bad potential came from the fact that I had someone else’s pot in my pocket at the time, which easily would have been found had they patted us down. I might be misremembering, but I swear I remember one cop repeatedly telling us to put up or show him our hands and, all of us having already raised our hands, someone responded, “I only have two.” I do not think it was me, but since we all were high I’d never swear to it.

Forgotten until just now despite having just written two posts about my travels, I visited Voxers in the dead of the Minneapolis winter, almost setting my hair on fire standing under a heat lamp at an airport bus stop, and then getting lost in the Skyway. There was a multi-Voxer trip from New York to Baltimore about which I remember basically absolutely nothing except that I was there.

On my homepage, there’s a random quotations script that runs at the bottom. Every now and then you might spot one that reads, “Ask your white person about your breakfast cakes.” This came from a mishear as four of us sat at the L Cafe in Williamsburg. For a short time, I lived in Williamsburg, although not with a Voxer, in part because one of our other regular haunts was the late, great Oznot’s Dish. The bulk of this meandering autofiction technically takes place at Oznot’s Dish, and at least two Voxers make an appearance along the way.

When I eventually moved to San Francisco, it was a Voxer who preliminarily took me in and another who offered up a room at his flat in Hayes Valley. When I eventually moved to Portland, it was two more Voxers who came down to pick me up in a U-Haul. Around that time, official MindVox effectively was dead. Hilariously, in the time since two more Voxers also ended up in Portland. In the early/mid-2000s, I nannied the infant of a Voxer part-time for an entire year. It’s probably the greatest amount of trust anyone’s ever put in me.

Over the years, I had that one longish “involvement” referenced earlier, for which I was derided by other Voxers (mostly privately but once out in the open) as a cuckold, as if I was supposed to have had any idea. I had a couple of Voxer or Voxer-adjacent flings. I had a couple of casual foolings-around. I had friends, I know this. I also know that I was privately not well-liked, although not necessarily by the same people. Amongst the Easter eggs at the forums’ main menu: if you typed slowdog and hit return, you’d get a banner.

Bitch Moan Complain
Call 1-800 slowdog

By the time I’d moved to Portland, grown weary of the baggage that was being slowdog, I’d transformed on MindVox to baby-x, typically shortened on IRC to bx, which in turn in person found a pronunciation as “Bix”. Two decades later, it would became my legal name, as the intermixing of my lives in spaces both cyber and meat reached its own kind of final form.

In the early days of the pandemic, I revisited the channel on IRC that had outlasted the existence of the MindVox forums as we knew them. So did many other Voxers. It very much was old home week. For me, it didn’t last all that long, because someone let loose a casual N-word and it appeared to make not a ripple or wave in-channel. For all of how much when I’d started out on MindVox and chosen a handle because I felt so far behind, now I felt like I’d moved well beyond the swaggery posturing and maybe not all of the rest of them had. I didn’t any longer feel enough of an attachment to try to find out.

(Not long after, a sort of Voxer-adjacent from another NYC-based ISP back in the day dropped into the comments of my Instagram feed to bully me over my disabilities. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which eventually will find it’s way back here as part of the restoration project.)

My later communities tended to have more in common than somehow finding out about this semi-obscure, hacker-originated, internet-connected bulletin board system that threw together a lot of different personalities, and all still early enough not just to allow but encourage some of the less terrific ways to treat each other or talk about each other. MindVox most definitely had its cliques, with all the insinuation of meanness that entails. Fandom, in comparison, can be a tricky place, but I found more sincere and consistent connections in my later online and offline fandom days than I feel I had, with exceptions, when I look back at MindVox.

Which is not to say I didn’t have friends. As I said above, I did. Maybe some people hung out with me just for arms-length shits and giggles but I know also that many did because they wanted to do so.

After high school, I didn’t remain in touch with anyone. After college, I didn’t remain in touch with anyone. I’m still casually in touch with three of four people from my MindVox days. This is roughly similar to those with whom I’m still in touch from my later fandom days.

MindVox was the crucible in which I learned how to be online, and the ways in which the online and the off are not so far apart as they seem even if you don’t also see each other in meatspace. It was great and it was terrible, and much of how I learned to be and not to be a person online has its foundations in those years. As with most things, it’s hard not to wonder retrospectively how and who I would have been had I known in 1993 that I was autistic. Would it have made a difference in how I interacted? Would it have made a difference with how people interacted with me? These are uncatchable ghosts.

I’ve come to terms with MindVox, at least as it was back then, both good and bad. I might now be Bix, and slowdog might be long dead, but he lives on as the domain for my homepage. Maybe not in perpetuity, but for at least as long as I continue to exist both online and off, as both cyber and meat.

Referring posts