The Women Pioneers of the Internet Say There Have Always Been Trolls

A new book released this week tells the untold stories of the internet’s early days.
March 8, 2018, 9:07pm
Image: Cali4beach/Flickr

In the formative years of her proto-internet community Echo, Stacy Horn was judge, jury, and executioner when it came to online disputes.

“The same thing that happens now, happened then,” Horn said during a live panel discussion at VICE’s Brooklyn offices on Monday. “Awful people came along. People harassed each other. People bullied each other and here I was expected to do something about it.”

Even before the internet was the internet, there were online trolls.

Horn was one of the earliest female adopters and innovators online. In 1988, she created Echo, a virtual community forum that connects users through telnet, a sort of pre-internet technology. Echo is still active today, but is also significant for the way it set the tone, style, and standards for online communities we know today, from moderating to meetups. It’s one sliver of the internet history that too often gets overlooked, and it’s among a cornucopia of stories featured in a new book, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans, the co-founder of Motherboard’s Terraform section.

On Monday, Horn, Evans, and Marisa Bowe—who helped establish the fundamentals of online publishing as the editor-in-chief of Word e-zine—discussed this often forgotten history of women’s vital role in shaping what the internet is today, and what it means for the internet now.

In the late 80s, only 10 to 15 percent of internet users were women, but on Echo—due to Horn’s focused commitment to getting women online—nearly half the users were women. One of them was Bowe, who went on to launch Word, an online culture and commentary zine which dramatically shifted the public’s idea of what the internet could be for.

“We basically got to invent anything,” Bowe said. “Anything you could do on the internet using multimedia, we could try and I got to fulfill every creative fantasy I’d ever had in my entire life.”

Both Word and Echo’s fingerprints can be found across the internet as we know it. Publications like Motherboard probably wouldn’t exist without the early foundation of pioneering online publications like Word, and Echo’s digital community-building is almost a direct analog for modern social media sites and online communities like Reddit. It was a time of experimentation and innovation and women were at the heart of it, even if they didn’t dominate the space.

But for all the ways the internet has grown since that time, our societal views on women, and their role in STEM, hasn’t kept pace (lest we forget the Google manifesto from just seven months ago). And that’s disappointing for women like Horn, who worked so hard to blaze a trail in the internet’s earliest days.

“I grew up in the 60s and 70s when it was a really terrible, terrible, terrible time for black [people] and women,” Horn said. “I remember thinking ‘I just have to wait for all the old people to die. All the people my age will eventually be the people who are adults and in power and there will be no more racism and sexism.’ So you can see how true that is.”

It’s a common fallacy to feel as though we’re just around the corner from a fully equal society, but all we have to do is cast our eyes backwards to realize we aren’t nearly as close as we thought we’d be.

“Obviously it is better,” Horn said. “But I only bring it up to say, yes, we still have a long way to go.”

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