Annals of community and conversation

On Slate on the 20th, a piece by David Auerbach, on “The First Gay Space on the Internet: It was called soc.motss, and it anticipated how we use social networks today”. Framing the piece:

Since the early 1980s, there have been many LGBTQ spaces on the Net: newsgroups, bulletin board systems, or BBSs, mailing lists, social networks, chat rooms, and websites. But the very first LGBTQ Internet space, as far as I’ve been able to find, was the soc.motss newsgroup. And it hosted conversations that had never been seen before online — and that arguably remain in too short supply even today.

A bit of history:

In the very first motss post on Oct. 7, 1983, [Steve] Dyer set out the newsgroup’s aims: “to foster discussion on a wide variety of topics, such as health problems, parenting, relationships, clearances, job security and many others.” Dyer stressed that the forum would provide “a supportive environment” for gay USENET members: “Net.motss [motss was Steve’s name choice, for Members of the Same Sex — designed to deflect some of the hostility that might have been directed at the group] is emphatically NOT a newsgroup for the discussion of whether homosexuality is good or bad, natural or unnatural. Nor is it a place where conduct unsuitable for the net will be allowed or condoned.”

net.motss became soc.motss; the conversations there attracted people in the “dual minority” of being both queer and a computer nerd, including a significant percentage of women, as well as a number of straight friends — and a great many “lurkers”, who read but did not post, so that

much of the impact of soc.motss was on a silent audience that never identified itself.

… Before the Internet became part of everyone’s life, it often served as a social refuge for people who felt too shy, too unaccepted, too intellectual, or simply too different for everyday culture. Ironically, they would be the pioneers of spaces that allowed for freer, more open self-expression. [Motsser Nelson] Minar feels that soc.motss was something rare, both then and now: “an intelligent place for discussion of gay issues with some sort of filter for thoughtfulness of the members. We were there to discuss opera and culture and Madonna, not to get laid.” [Nelson omitted food and language, among other perennial soc.motss topics that Steve Dyer probably had not contemplated in 1983.]

Well, some of us sometimes got laid — in fact, some of us found lovers and life partners though friendships on the newsgroup — but that wasn’t the point of the newsgroup, which gave birth to a far-flung community of acquaintances.

(Auerbach provides quotes or cites from Amy Goodloe, Brian Reid, Steve Dyer, Nelson Minar, Steven Levine, Max Meredith Vasilatos, Michelle Elliott, Gene Ward Smith, Bob Donahue and Jeff Stoner, Dana Bergen, Jeff Shaumeyer, me, and an anonymous motsser. Steven, Max, Jeff Shaumeyer, and I are still quite visible in the Facebook group soc-motss, as are Ned Deily, Ann Burlingham, Kathryn Burlingham. Melinda Shore, Aric Olnes, Tim Pierce, Greg Havican, Season Taylor, Michael Palmer, Arne Adolfsen, Ellen Evans, Roger Klorese, Mike Reaser, Billy Green, Frank McQuarry, Ken Rudolph, Dennis Lewis, Emily Rizzo, Chris Ambidge, Terry Bartlett, Tim Wilson, and a fair number of others who have been in the motss-sphere since its Usenet days.)

It was far from perfect: we got our share of loons, monomaniacs, trouble-makers, and trolls, and interactions were sometimes pointed, not always civil. But the on-line community quickly developed into a face-to-face community as well, as motssers arranged to meet one another, a custom that was then formalized in motss.cons, annual gatherings of the tribe, beginning in 1988 and continuing to this day.

The roster of cons (thanks to Ken Rudolph and other soc-motss Facebook posters):

1988 San Francisco CA motss.con I; 1989 Boston MA motss.con II; 1990 Denver CO motss.con III; 1991 Toronto ON motss.con IV; 1992 Portland OR motss.con V; 1993 Boston MA motss.con VI; 1994 Las Vegas NV motss.con VII; 1995 Washington DC motss.con VIII; 1996 Chicago IL motss.con IX; 1997 San Francisco CA motss.con X; 1998 Pittsburgh PA motss.con XI; 1999 Memphis TN motss.con XII; 2000 Utrecht, The Netherlands motss.con XIII;  2001 Stockholm, Sweden motss.con XIV; 2002 West Hollywood CA motss.con XV; 2003 Ithaca NY motss.con XVI; 2004 Jacksonville Beach FL motss.con XVII; 2005 Vancouver BC motss.con XVIII; 2006 Minneapolis MN motss.con XIX; 2007 Palo Alto CA motss.con XX; 2008 Providence RI motss.con XXI; 2009 Portland OR motss.con XXII; 2010 Miami FL motss.con XXIII; 2011 Seattle WA motss.con XXIV; 2012 Boone NC motss.con XXV; 2013 Ann Arbor MI motss.con XXVI; 2014 Portland ME motss.con XXVII

In the US, from Seattle to Portland ME on the north, and West Hollywood to Miami on the south. Plus Vancouver and Toronto. And Utrecht and Stockholm. And then there have been many impromptu “mini-cons” and other motss-connected gatherings, like one in memory of motsser Howard Faye in Paso Robles CA in 1995. (Over the years, many motssers have died, including Steve Dyer himself, in 2010.)

One Response to “Annals of community and conversation”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Well, some of us sometimes got laid…

    As Nelson well knew, of course.

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