The 1st Social Network

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“A cultural icon of the online community.”
The New York Times

Okay, not quite the first, but founded in 1990, Echo was the first virtual community to take hold in New York City. Before there was a “Silicon Alley,” before the World Wide Web, before Facebook, Echo was home to a small but vibrant collective of people who shared common passions for reading, writing, movies, art and conversation.

We got really big and now we’re small again, but we’re still here and we’re still great. (We also have the same text-based interface we started with. So very retro.) If you’d like to try Echo go here and click join. The first month is still free.

This picture to the left is from WIRED, 1993, their first year. I always loved this picture. (Thank you, Neil Selkirk.) It was taken when I was still running Echo out of my apartment. “Anchored on Horn’s Greenwich Village hard drive,” they wrote, “Echo’s sensibility is New York to the bone.”

The Guardian agreed. “Echo’s Manhattan sensibility is clear from the first login.”
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For a while we had a barter arrangement with Bomb Magazine and in exchange for providing online services we got to run ads like the one pictured on the right. Another favorite went:

When your own dysfunctional family is far, far away, why not try ours?

Or something like that. We had a lot of fun doing everything we could think of to get people online. You have to remember, back then most people had never heard of the internet, and we had to talk them into buying something they’d also never heard of—a modem—it was insane.

But we found that if people met in person they were more likely to stay online so we produced a reading series, a film series, we had an author chat series and dragged people like David Sedaris and Fran Lebowitz online. Since it was all text based at the time I thought I should first focus on people who were comfortable reading and writing so I worked hard getting authors and magazines online, we got the Village Voice, Ms., Mademoiselle, High Times, Bust and others online. We got the Whitney Museum online. We really had a blast.

“A lasting municipality that is flawed, mistake-ridden and sin-filled …”
The New York Times (They were conflicted.)

In 1995 we even did an interactive chat on television with the SciFi Channel (as it was called then). Sharleen Smith, a friend and fellow ITP grad (NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program) was running their new technology department and together we produced the first interactive tv experiment!

It was all so exciting and 24 years later we’re still here. We’re like the dive bar that has hung in there even though the neighborhood all around it has changed. xkcd gets it.

This is an interview I did with the Women’s Internet History Project.

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