The other night I was clicking around geminispace, a process that for me is EXTREMELY low-tech - I'm just finding instances from different people's blogrolls - and found a chatroom. Or, at least, the page where a chat protocol had been located and later disused - there was an explanatory note and an embarrassed face emoji.
But for a moment I thought there was a chat room and I wondered if anyone else would be there. And I thought about the SCHWA Corporation.
Reading the Wikipedia entry now - SCHWA was a long-running art project started by a guy named Bill Barker; I first heard of it in the HAPPY MUTANT HANDBOOK, the book put out by the BoingBoing people in 1995. I got a copy in maybe 1998, when I was 12 or so, and even at that point the tech stuff in the book - focusing on BBSes and mailing lists - seemed like ancient history. All of it was well on the way to getting eaten by the Pets.com dog.
But SCHWA - an art project based around stick figures in a dystopia of surveillance and branding was around, and by the time I had a 56.6k semiprivate connection to the Internet there was theschwacorporation.com, an absolutely vast HTML maze of strange images and random links and everything art web 1.0 could throw at me. It was amazing, I remember checking back once a week or so and there'd be new stuff - a carnival midway, a maze. And I remember one day stumbling into a chat room - an incredibly simple chat interface hidden, unlabeled, twenty or more pages deep on the site.
Boy, it would be a cool story if I could tell you that I found a bustling community of like Bay Area art freaks in there and that shaped my entire life. But nobody was in there, I don't think anyone else was ever in there, no matter how often I checked. And that made it almost better, in some ways? It felt like I was completely alone on some desolate digital frontier.
The strangest thing about the amount of time I spent on the SCHWA website or like superbad.com or any of the web 1.0 art sites is - I don't think I told anyone. I had some friends and even some friends who were a little nerdy, I think, but I don't think I ever shared the like Church of the Subgenius West Coast early Burning Man shit that I was into with anyone. I found a copy of the AMOK 5TH DISPATCH and spent months just flipping through and reading book descriptions but I never ordered any. It felt like a private fantasy I got to have. Maybe then - as now - what I was enjoying was being one of only a few people to ever see something. A completely empty chatroom.