Once upon a time, in a tiny hidden kingdom called cyberspace, there was a wonderful and magical place called the WELL. From all around the world, wise and witty people gathered around their computers and joined together in this special and unique world. Together they built a close-knit cyber-community where people with shared interests could gather to converse, discuss, and otherwise share. It was an altogether new creation and a beautiful thing.
Not only did the WELL establish a Camelot-like standard for online communities—a standard that was by definition impossible for any large-scale online community to meet, thus ensuring that much of the early history of the mainstream Net was littered with wasted effort that could've been put toward preventing the Portal Purgatory we now see before us—but they gave me false hope for having an Internet service provider (ISP) that doesn't suck.
My ISP, you see, just got eaten by the Scientologists. Only it wasn't really my ISP, as far as I'm concerned; they were just the sons of bitches who ate my previous ISP. That's the ISP I'd chosen so as to get away from my previous previous ISP, which had been eaten by, yes, the same ISP which has just been eaten by the Scientologists. My life is a maze of dial-up numbers, all of which lead to a group of incompetent assholes who just slid down the maw of people who subscribe to an organization that actively attacks uppity Net users.
I'm not one of those people who changes ISPs (or long-distance providers or apartments or publishing-company owners or anything else beyond my socks and my hair color) with blithe indifference. I was subscriber number 57 at my first ISP, and I stayed with it through the good times (groundbreaking new software . . .) and bad (. . . that doesn't support HTTP), through mysterious disconnects and even more mysterious billing mishaps. I got to know its staff. I forgave them their trespasses, and they provided me with a happy little community of like-minded users.
Having an account on that service was a kind of secret handshake in an era when most ISPs were mom-and-pop shops with identifiable personalities. In New York, ECHO was a cool, artsy crowd, consciously patterned after the WELL out West; MindVox was for hackerz and phreaks; a Dorsai account meant you were looking for cheap access and might be affiliated with a school or nonprofit; and Net23 meant that you were either the 15-year-old kid who owned the service or one of his Max Headroom -loving friends.
But that was in another country. The very nice man who founded my ISP sold it to the aforementioned sons o' bitches for a whole lot of well-deserved money. So I switched to an ISP that promised nationwide service and hosted my Web site without too many mishaps. This ISP was notorious for flaky customer service, but I never saw a bit of that; its tech staff was sweet as pie and didn't hang up on me when I called with embarrassingly stupid questions about, say, why my CGI scripts weren't running right. (Answer: My scripts read like my columns—long, rambling, and often with no discernible point.)
But that service was gobbled too, back in February. And all the bad things I remembered from the first trip through the hellmouth were still true—unbelievably long hold times, impossibly stupid (and rude) tech-support staff, inexplicable outages. Worse, since my domain was still technically hosted on the servers of my old ISP, I'd occasionally have to call those guys. And they sounded plumb miserable.
After getting messages day after day about my "excessive usage" (how can you use an unlimited-hours account excessively?), I finally made the jump last week. For one last time I'll try to wiggle free of the soulless corporate ISPs with their voicemail jail and their tech support that couldn't spell "modem" if you spotted them two Ms and a vowel. One last time I'll give my custom to a Net business I can walk into and start bitch-slapping folks if that's what it takes. One last time I'll hook up with an ISP with a commitment to community.
False optimism, irrational loyalty, an unreasonable commitment to community: Damn you, well.sf.ca.us—this is your legacy, and I'm not liking it.