As part of my assistantship at FSU, I work 5 hours a week in the Digital Studio, a tutoring center housed in the English department where students can come get help on the digital projects. Why is this housed in the English department? you might ask. If you did, we might answer, Visual Rhetoric.

On most days in the studio the tutors lounge on couches or in cushy chairs with their faces to the computer screens, absorbed in their coursework, their lesson plans and paper grading, or surfing Facebook and the internet. It's like study hall. We come to work and organize our lives, read and write. Sometimes we think of funny or interesting things to talk about and the conversation evolves as tutors come and go for their scheduled shifts. Sometimes grad students use the space for their own digital projects, and get to talking. Sometimes we put on Pandora.com and dance the jitterbug. It's the most happening place in the Williams building.

That's not to say we don't help students, too. We do. They come in with their remediation projects and ask for primers on InDesign or PhotoShop. Some tutors are more adept than others. In these times, I tend to get nervous and stammer, feeling inadequate. Somehow I survive.

Yesterday, amid the productivity of students click-clacking away on their keyboards, A--- stopped to ask the room, "Do you remember how you learned to type?" She said she used to close her eyes and type the alphabet for practice. C---- said he took a class in high school. I said I distinctly remembered a time, at 13 years old, when I made a huge improvement in my typing speed.

It was 1998. Our family had just gotten its first computer, a Macintosh. While my brother was distracted with being 16, and my father was more into cooking shows on television, my mother and I jockeyed for control of the machine. She'd get on early in the morning and I'd stay up late at night stalking through AOL chat rooms, talking to various strangers throughout the country--people my age; people who maybe weren't. The novelty of real-time, written communication and the intrigue of never knowing who you'd meet sucked me in. I quickly had a friend list dozens long with random chatters and would have chat boxes layered on each other and bell noises going off like a one-note carillon for each new message. I had to type fast to keep up.

Then I found the Grateful Dead forum, including message boards for trading tapes, sharing lyrics, and exchanging trippy pictures. The forum had a skull and roses banner with lightning bolts coming down the sides. 13-year-old Paul, tye-dyed and greasy-haired, yearning to have been 18 at Monterey Pop, 21 at Woodstock, was stoked. I wandered into the chat room, 710 Ashbury, and found a constant dialogue going on between people who claimed to have toured with the Dead, to have sold grilled cheeses and t-shirts in parking lots to fund their tours, to have traveled in VW vans.

The conversations went something like this:

SugarMag420: I just made the tastiest kynd cookies evah!!

StStephen69: Nice SugarMag mama! Can I have one?

SugarMag420: Sure. Here you go.  ::passes cookie::

WharfRatSam: I can really feel the love in this room right now.

I imagined that was exactly how people acted in the parking lots before the shows. It felt like an authentic interaction with the Dead Head community, which I so wanted to belong to. I had to jump in, but first I needed a screenname, one that showed my devotion to the band and status as a "newbie."


'Cuz I loved Grateful Dead bears and I was 13 years old.

Deadbear13 had a long run in 710 Ashbury. I learned the jargon of the community ("I need a miracle"; "stealie"; "irie"), started collecting tapes (though my mother wisely prohibited me from having them sent to our address, so I used the Shurtz's), and camped out in that chatroom professing my love for the band and its devotees. "No way you're only 13," they would say. "You're an old soul." When the Grateful Dead Forum community started inviting me to real, live gatherings, I got nervous. When a couple of the girls said they were coming through Orlando and wanted to meet me in person, I got scared. Bit by bit, Deadbear13 withdrew. Soon enough I went to high school and Deadbear13's online persona fizzled away.

I was left with lightning in my typing fingers.

That was over half my life ago. Chat rooms do nothing for me now. I don't even like being available to Facebook chat unless I need to ask somebody a quick question. Besides, with the Digital Studio open all week, I know where to find my constant-streaming banter.

Deadbear13 must've looked something like this.


  1. There's a great radio story I heard on Wiretap this weekend about how chat rooms changed this girl's life. While it has nil to do with typing, I thought you might appreciate the narrative of it. "All Lies Great and Small, Part 1." (There's a link to the iTunes page.) http://www.pri.org/wiretap.html

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, mouthface. I'll check it out.

  3. I was just thinking about all this the other day. Your house was the first place I ever had access to the internet without a teacher or parent looking over my shoulder. It's just sorta weird to remember how we couldn't use it at certain times because your family needed to either use the phone or wait for someone to call. Or those times I'd sleep over and we'd try to muffle the incredibly loud sound of a 56k modem starting up in the middle of the night so your mom wouldn't know what we were up to. In regards to the IM's and chats, I think it's laughably silly the sort of things we used to take so seriously.

    1. Yep. And those tapes I had sent to your house sounded mostly like crap and besides who needs 80 different versions of Grateful Dead's Drums-->Space-->Jam? Remember Sim Farm and Paul's Opulent Oranges? Chuck Yeager's Air Combat? That Heaven/Hell sim game? Formative years, man. Formative years.