First married couple

by Thecla

When I went to graduate school 3000 miles from the school my boyfriend was attending, he found a chat site that we could both connect to in order to spend time together without running up enormous phone bills. It was 1995, and the site was Lambda MOO. We connected via telnet or a MOO client.

It was just text, but the environment described by the text was that of a big house with different rooms and objects. In the Living Room a fire burned...where you could roast the Cockatoo, a bot that would randomly repeat fragments of the day’s conversation. You could reupholster the couch in whatever you chose. People with programming expertise would create their own spaces and objects and “verbs,” which would return specific text when you used them, or which would do things like scan the database to see whether your friends were logged on, or what room the most people were in. You could have multiple names, and describe yourself however you pleased.

My boyfriend actually didn’t like Lambda that much, but I am a very social person and I started spending my free time there. I was far from home and I had always had trouble being around cigarette smoke, so the bar where the other students from my department hung out was not an option for me.

Besides the “physical” spaces on Lambda, there were "talk" via text. People would converse, debate and make jokes on multiple topics. And some of the people would get together in real life for parties in different parts of the country. The parties were Bashes, and the partiers were Bashers. Word spread about upcoming parties through the Bash mail list.

I started chatting more and more with one particular fellow, a guy who lived in Chicago. I’m hazy on the details now, but I took a trip to New York City and he was able to go there, too, and we met. We had talked on the phone and, well, I really liked him. When we met in New York, we had a little romance. Later in the year, he visited me in Ithaca, where I was studying. I broke up with my boyfriend and made plans to spend a week in Chicago at the beginning of the summer, which would coincide with an annual Bash in Evanston.

Things didn’t work out with my Chicago buddy in the end, but at the party, I briefly met another Basher who went by the name of Condor. He was awfully cute. He was wearing leather pants, and I thought, hmm, definitely gay. We didn’t talk much.

At the end of the summer, completely unattached, I decided that as a free woman, I could attend any Bash I wanted to. I rented a car and spent the weekend at a party in a little New Hampshire town. A few of the folks from the Chicago party were there, too, including Condor.

We spent a good deal of time together in New Hampshire. In fact, we spent a whole day wandering around town and chatting. Toward the end of the day, he asked me what my fatal flaw was. A little later, he was moving in for a kiss and I thought, hmm, guess he’s not gay.

I had one more year in Ithaca, and then I moved down to the Washington, DC, area, where he was in school. That was the summer of 1997. We married in 2000 and have been together now almost 14 years.

Quite a few couples came out of the social world of Lambda MOO, particularly the Bashers. We were the first couple married, and the first to have a child (in 2001).

I had always wanted to write a book about relationships that grow out of the primarily text interactions people have on the Internet. I still remember the heady, immersive experience of my very first text chat, with some random computer science class teaching assistant at Berkeley. It was frighteningly easy to get emotionally involved when I first started spending time on Lambda MOO. Hundreds of people are having their first experiences with online interaction every day, and I know it’s easy for hearts to get taken by surprise.

Lambda MOO still exists, but it’s a much quieter place now that there are so many other online places with more robust databases and, of course, pretty pictures as well as text. A Lambda friend pointed me toward Second Life, where some of the old crowd had migrated. I’ve found one or two of that crowd and made new friends on Second Life, and I finally wrote something about relationships: an essay called “Love, Virtually.”

Text chatting is like speaking mind to mind. The anonymity of the Internet can make it feel safe. And the lack of body language cues can mean we don’t get some red flags that we might otherwise. I’ve talked to quite a few people whose hearts were broken by people they had never met---at least not in person. My essay warns people to be cautious.

Internet interactions are also expanding our definition of relationships. Plenty of the people online are married or partnered, but they may be having text sex with strangers or invisible friends. They may get emotionally involved with those people sitting at the other computer, somewhere else in the world. They may explore roles and experiences that they have never had in real life, and that they might not feel comfortable doing except when it’s just pixels on the screen. The emotions are real. The invisible strangers are real people. The long term changes to our culture remain to be seen.

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