Technostalgia: The Social Media Of The '80s by Jen Reid

Back when Pickering was still mostly farmland, under 30 000 people, and had the look of a lapsed beach town, I used to hang out at my friend’s house with its sprawling acreage on Kingston Road, also known to the old townies as “Number Two Highway”. We could sometimes be found filing behind a gang leader marching with perched ghetto-blaster, propelled along the banks of Petticoat Creek to the sound of “Shout” or “Beat It”. We painted up an old abandoned shed and used it, fleetingly, as a clubhouse. But once we got access to the massive RV stationed in the long drive, we forgot the wooden clubhouse and made for it. The RV was majestically named “The King’s Highway” and my friend would jazzily scat “trailers for sale or rent” and we’d yell “KING OF THE ROAD!”. The one thing we were forbidden was the CB radio. Oh the CB! Portal to unknown worlds beyond the drive, unity of hurtling vehicles, gatherer of humanity!

Of course we went for the jugular. The CB sputtered on with a fuzz. Suddenly we had handles, Southern accents, and big personalities. Stomachs aswarm with butterflies and slippery, sweaty palms emitted signals to passing truckers on the 401. I was “Dixie”, and it was only when I messed up the location of the nearest motel-and-bar that we were busted in our ridiculous youth, sternly told by a number of fuck-swearing truckies to get the hell off the not-for-kids-for-serious-use-and-emergencies-only-CB, on pain of execution, groundings, spankings, and “D’yuh hear that siren? That’s the cops comin’ to get yez!”.

Defeated, for the next couple of years we were content to pass notes in class and use our lockers like mailboxes. My friends and I went that next level and invented our own alphabetic code, in case an unfortunate interception should befall us. We were never intercepted, but managed to maintain the occult and private code to the point that occasionally, having muddled our own overburdened minds, we wrote back orders for clarification, and had serious and pedandic arguments over unwarranted orthographic variants and accretions.

I once had a serious affair with a guy a year ahead of me in grade 7. When I say serious affair, it was a hell of a lot of work, being that it was conducted entirely through a campaign of locker notes, crank-calls, and nicky-nicky nine-doors. When it was finally discovered that I was his annoying, anonymous admirer, he asked me to slow dance with him at the school dance. I accepted my prize. Afterwards, everyone said they could see a huge boner through his track pants while he was dancing with me. I was red-faced and wore woolly turtlenecks for a year after that. Needless to say, I never reckoned the power of a well-placed note.

After a time, simple notes were augmented by the more communicatively complex, very secret and limited “members only” daily circulation called “The Pink Book”—a pink, lined exercise book dutifully stolen for the cause from the class supply-cupboard. The books were swiped on a rotating basis so as not to arouse suspicions. We also rotated the custodial duties of guarding the Pink Book overnight at home, or in our lockers. All the secrets in the world were in that book: pithy aphorisms, up-to-the-minute feelings and musings, ongoing conversations, quizzes, caricatures, whatever struck our verbi-visual fancy. It was passed from member to member via discreet signals randomly throughout the day.

Having caught the whiff of mystical, mobile communication in these forms we were primed for the next big thing. The Pagers.

It was about 1987, and don’t ask me how, but in that glittering and miraculous time, some hack managed to grab hold of the unused pager lines and numbers of a then well known communications company. The “mainline” number was distributed, and from that number you could create your own message “mailbox”, complete with outgoing greeting or introductory message. The mailbox could be accessed from anywhere by telephone. The mainline served as a menu of greetings and introductions from everyone who had a mailbox. You entered a box number and presto! You were leaving messages for your new friend, and going back on the mainline to troll for new pals. Everyone had a handle, I was “Scandinavia” or sometimes “Annique” or “Kinipela”. Being 13 and newly teened, it was a thrill, full of excitement, sexual tension, and inevitably, sometimes downright creepy. The Pagers crew would routinely meet up at a then-hot roller skating rink in downtown Toronto. It was heady, manic ... I would be up until all hours checking and deleting messages, keeping track of my virally growing web of pals, most of whom I only knew by voice, handle, and the rush of power that anonymous intimacy brought with it. I met three guys in the flesh from The Pagers, all three of them questionable, and, looking back, all three of them probably should have been in lock-up.

At 14 years old I was a craggy, battle-worn veteran of social media. I packed it up, went back to wearing woolly turtlenecks, and swore:

never again.

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Photo: Remember pagers?

Jen Reid is an academic and writer living globally.


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