Brandon Langley and Denise Hewitt met in an online bar.
He was living in Houston at the time, a nervous, six-four, big-boned twenty-year-old who wore a polo shirt and shorts, white tennies, and wire-rimmed glasses that rested on top of his dimpled cheeks as if he were an adult-size Harry Potter. He had learned the basics of computer programming at the age of seven. He was a brainy introvert, a software whiz, and a fanatical game player on the Internet. One of his legs would twitch and bounce when he talked. You would recognize the type: techie, nerd, geek. The guys who populate the tech companies of the so-called New Economy.
Twenty-three-year-old Denise, who lived in Connecticut, was his spiritual twin, a female version of the same type: a bright person who saw the glow of a computer screen as a necessary and important liberation from actual interaction with other human beings. Because of the sort of people they were, they both played a type of text-based Internet game in a domain called a Multi-User Dungeon. That’s MUD for short, although Denise joked that it should stand for “Multi-Undergraduate Destroyer” because it was more responsible for her friends’ failure to graduate from college than anything else she could name. (A gamer’s ethos was something akin to “tune in, turn on, drop right out of the outside world.”) Denise and Brandon played the same game so often they began to recognize each other by name. They sidled up to a MUD chat area called “the bar” and typed back and forth while tossing back virtual alcoholic drinks. They eventually got to know each other well enough to swap outdated photos via snail mail. He saw Denise’s long, red hair, her sweet, round face, and a big smile that showed the tiny space between her front teeth.
One night Brandon was electronically quieter than usual, and Denise made a move that was the equivalent to sitting down next to somebody on a bar stool, typing, “Usually you’re pretty chatty. What’s the deal?” This question led to $500-a-month phone bills and a meeting in the Hartford, Connecticut, airport and love with a capital L. Denise moved to Houston, and in November 1997 they got married. She went to work as an assistant manager for a mortgage company while Brandon worked as a customer-help phone operator for software companies, in technical support at the University of Houston, and as a junior programmer at Schlumberger. Their lives consisted of little more than work. They loved each other, and they loved their computers and their gaming on the Web. But they were bored. They needed something to make it perfect. That was Walden.
Seen from the outside, Walden was a complex of fairly ordinary looking apartment units on the west side of Houston. On the inside it was a techno- commune, a utopian foster home for folks like Brandon and Denise—outsiders, loners, virtual gamers, fanatical users, and other alienated types who were more deeply affected by the personal computer and by the vast new worlds of the Internet than the rest of us. Almost all of them were in their twenties and thirties; all were trying to map a course in an adult world. Walden was the brainchild of a multimillionaire Houston commercial real estate honcho named James Birney, who came up with the idea of creating a New Age community around what he advertised as the world’s fastest residential Internet connection. That connection was the T-3, a fiber-optic data line so powerful that it could handle the telecommunications needs of a small country. Birney’s idea was to sell the technology but also something intangible: a sense of belonging. He wanted to create a sort of Woodstock for the digitally obsessed—a place that would make a bridge for these new, uncomfortable grown-ups between the virtual world and the real world.
So in 1997 he fixed up a run-down two-hundred-unit Houston apartment complex and landscaped it with rustling palm trees and Hawaiian volcanic rocks and bubbling fountains that cascaded into a clear pool. Then he named it after Henry David Thoreau’s essay celebrating the natural world, installed the T-3—the big, fat pipe, as it was called—and moved himself and his wife into one of the apartments. The pipe cost him $6,500 a month, but he figured that with enough rental income from the apartments, the T-3 would pay for itself. Then he advertised with the slogan “Come for the Bandwidth, Stay for the Community.”
The idea worked. Birney had courted Houston’s information-technology workers, the hordes of people like Brandon and Denise who were the underbelly of Texas’ New Economy, and Walden soon filled up with all sorts of computer types—techno-outsiders, hacker anarchists, ponytailed Web designers, and right-wing code analysts—who operated on the bleeding edge of technology. The new residents didn’t sleep; they napped. They used terms like “grep” and “mobo” and proclaimed things like “Today, when I was just north of Freeport Southern Desert, I raised my intelligence by three points.” They had nicknames like KilGrinch and WebGirlie. Most of them had worker-bee jobs in the computer industry, doing things like customer support or motherboard design or software consulting, but in some respects they were not like other people. They were smarter. They were more introverted. They owned awesomely powerful computers, which when hooked up to the T-3 delivered information to them like nerve impulses across a synapse. Click. Tick.
Within a few months, more than one hundred people had moved into Walden. Birney welcomed them. “We are committed to maintaining a cutting-edge environment for cutting-edge people,” he e-mailed the residents. “So keep on cutting. That’s how the Ganges and Brahmaputra maintained their ancient southerly course and cut through the Himalayas.”
Like the others, newlyweds Brandon and Denise heard the siren song of the T-3. For them, it happened in February 1999, when they saw Birney’s sign boasting “Fastest Internet Connection in the United States.” They toured the landscaped paradise with Walden’s tall, easygoing technology specialist, Alan LeFort. LeFort showed them the ten-ton volcanic rocks and bubbling fountains and clean, if slightly austere apartments. He also told them a remarkable story about Birney’s T-3: The pipe was so much faster and more powerful than anything remotely accessible to ordinary humankind that in 1998, when Lebanese- Palestinian terrorists wanted to knock out Internet service providers in Israel, they hacked Birney’s T-3. This story moved Denise and Brandon: Certainly, if it was good enough for terrorists, they thought, it was good enough for them. They signed the lease.
What amazed all of them was how quickly—with nothing more than vague communal ideals and a wickedly fast Internet hookup—Birney not only created a real community but also facilitated a breathtaking social transformation for his normally withdrawn residents. What he had wrought was in many ways the opposite of Thoreau’s Walden; these were loners who had ventured out of solitude to discover their adult identities among their peers. Still, the residents of Birney’s spontaneous, organic laboratory were fleeing the same things Thoreau was escaping 145 years ago. “Society is commonly too cheap,” wrote Thoreau. “We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that musty old cheese that we are. We have to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable . . . “
For a while, the complex supplied the sense of belonging that its introverted, data-juiced denizens had been seeking. But two and a half years after its creation, the community at Walden imploded in ways that only a society constructed around an ultra-high-speed data pipe could. It would destroy Denise and Brandon’s marriage too. The introverts had blossomed, just as Birney had foreseen. What he had not predicted was that these emerging, intensifying personalities would soon be bickering and separating like the boys in Lord of the Flies.
Walden. The name conjures images of Thoreau’s simple world of meandering streams and forest glades and sunlight diffused through rustling trees. That was nothing like Birney’s Walden. Birney’s Walden, like the tall, perfectly postured, gray-haired Birney himself, was as painstakingly manicured as a bonsai tree. Thoreau’s paradise was centered at Walden Pond; Birney’s had an oval concrete pool (which he called a “lagoon”) with poolside Internet connections. Thoreau made his chair by hand; Brandon bought his main chair, an office model with wheels, from Ikea for around $100. Thoreau’s Walden was a place to get away from social commerce; Brandon and Denise went to Birney’s Walden because they were having trouble socializing in a world filled with people so different from themselves. Brandon explained, “Denise moved here from another state, and we never really created a social structure around us.” Denise agreed. When she first moved to Texas, she says, “I was very introverted.” Introverted? She said the magic word.
Because even though they lived a few feet apart, it was online that the shy Waldenites first got to know each other. And as they peeked out into the courtyard in Houston, they observed that despite their cohabitants’ varying origins, which included Venezuela, India, Australia, Mexico, China, Canada, South Africa, Vietnam, Nigeria, Italy, and Europe, they looked alike. They were 20 to 28 years old. More than 95 percent of them were male. They wore polo shirts or beat-up black T-shirts. Many of them had goatees and either half-inch-long hair or lengthy locks tied back in wavy ponytails. A lot of them had irregular body shapes that they held either in a cowering slouch or in a near-military uprightness, as if to correct previous bad posture.
When making new social contacts, the Waldenites performed what might be best described as a stand-around shuffle: They’d walk up to a group of tenants, hover a short distance away, stare at the ground, and wait to be recognized. When someone from the group nodded in the new guy’s direction and said, “Hey,” the new guy would shuffle in closer and reply, “Hey!” as if to say, “Oh! I didn’t see you over there!”
Then, when they began nodding and talking, they noticed that they all had nicknames—user names, really, from the virtual world. Strolling through the courtyard, they started calling out to each other.
These handles had been an important part of their identities since childhood when they started playing computer games. Brandon was Violent Bob (from a grisly therapeutic toy in Terry Pratchett’s fantasy series, Discworld). Denise was Wrenling (taken from Charles de Lint’s fantasy book Riddle of the Wren). Some of the residents even received junk mail and magazine subscriptions addressed to their fictional selves. (“Violent Bob, You May Have Just Won a Million Dollars!”) Birth names disappeared at Walden.
Online, they became armed with two modes of communication: ICQ (“I seek you,” an instant-messaging chat software) and an e-mail system for residents known as the mailing list. On the latter, the more personal exchanges took place on something called a misc list. They started out doing simple things like bartering: “I’ll trade you my car for a decent motherboard and processor.” Or about how much they liked Walden:
BOOmDude: I had a great time at the BBQ, great way for the new kid on the block to get acclimated to the hard drinkin’, cpu abusin’ culture that is the Walden.
Ché: Hey, I just moved here and let me say I am dizzy with the raw power of having such an internet connection for personal use.
GrimHippi: I suspect that there will come a time when a need becomes evident [for an even faster connection]. My favorite T-shirt design for [Walden] is “Until then—Walden” with the picture of a port on the back of someone’s neck.
Gradually, as people started to come out of their shells, the messages became more social:
EyeBurn: Howdy, “neighbors”—We’re planning a small get together . . .
Greg: Anyone big on crawfish?
Teresa: Very big on crawfish!
Michael:CRAWWWWWWWWFISSHHHINNNNN . . .
Then they got a little more intimate:
Stoner: Hey folks—I had this really kewl idea, and was gonna share it with ya. But this chick came on TV and I lost my train of thought.
Eric: women, huh. (no offense to you women, we all love you. just that you have strange effects on men such as memory loss.)
Paul K: yeah? try marrying one—if only it was just memory loss . . .
LadyFire: Gotta luv that whole distraction thing. It CAN be fun.
Denny: Distraction? I’m too busy working for a GOOD distraction any more.
The intimacy extended to discussions of the protocols that governed their electronic communications:
Qartman: Please don’t think I am being rude, but I must urge this wild idea upon you—Paul, you should resist temptation more often when considering sending an email or not—or, maybe just save up all of your thoughts until the end of the day and send out one thorough email which addresses every temptation you encountered during the day . . .
Cameron: I personally like seeing give and take of the emails and watch the windings of the conversations. So what if Paul is a bit prolific with what he has to say? I’m glad that we have forums in which we can communicate with each other. It helps the community-feel . . . I know I have gained some useful information from everyone’s ramblings, rants, and raves.
And rant and rave they did. Once, Brandon came back from work, turned on his computer, tapped into the big, fat pipe, and found more than one hundred new posts on the misc list in which a Wiccan, a Muslim, and a Baptist—all Walden residents—were ferociously arguing the nature of God. Other discussions included guns, drugs, evolution, abortion, and politics; the opinions, especially on religion, were often sharp-edged:
Curt: Though a Christian will never say “I, as a Christian, firmly believe in bringing a halt to progress, science, knowledge, and understanding in the name of our lord and savior, Christ the Luddite,” the zealous tenacity with which they cling to their literal interpretation of an ancient collection of parables amounts to pretty much the same thing . . .
It got nasty sometimes (Qartman: “[Y]ou deserve to be flamed dude—not via email, but with gasoline and a lighter”). But as far as the Waldenites were concerned, it could have said, “Hot Sexxx, free! No—wait! I’ll pay YOU!” Brandon loved it. Almost all of them loved it. Brandon found himself spending up to a third of his waking hours poring over the misc list. It was a democratic space with no strictures, no dominant value system.
One of Brandon’s first postings was: “Anyone posting spoilers to [revealing the details of] the Phantom Menace will be shot, beaten, stabbed, emasculated, raped, caned, eviscerated, car bombed, roach bombed, have their doors egged, find their pets are ‘missing’, etc, etc, etc.” It was the way Brandon spoke on the list: imaginative, extreme, and occasionally bombastic.
“There were times I would do twenty-five posts going through the whole thing,” Brandon said. “Horrible! But fun. It would just erupt! And then it was just deserted. Then a couple of days later, a new thread would start up.” For people who had felt isolated or alone, it meant company all the time, a sort of nonstop, free-form conversation.
Brandon joined a team for a game called Tribes that was played at a LAN (local area network) party. At a LAN party, ten to sixty gamers would either hook up to the game from their apartments or haul their computers into a bare room above the front office called the Nexus Café, where they’d all plug into the T-3 and wage virtual war from ten in the evening to eleven the next morning.
“Get the flag!” would be followed with sounds of amplified gunfire.
“Taking fire—oh, no—they got me!” was accompanied by the clicking racket of 120 typing hands.
The scene in the morning looked like a slumber party: Those who had stuck it out through the night lay slumped under the card tables, in deep sleep.
The more they got to know each other, the more oddities they found in common. They all lived like Trappist monks, for one thing. Their residences were, in the words of a baby-faced, ponytailed graphics designer named Christian, little more than “containers.” Walking into an apartment, all you’d see were bare white walls, a sleeping bag, and an alarm clock on a plastic crate. A prisoner has as much. But smack in the center of these barren quarters, an average of four computers would dominate each Waldenite’s den—the altar to the big, fat pipe. Some residents even boasted up to $600,000 of tech equipment—floor-to-ceiling towers requiring additional fans to cool the motors—to take advantage of the T-3’s speed for role-playing and shoot-’em-up games.
The T-3 attracted some real oddballs too. One, a young man who had heard about the pipe from a resident named Nathan, flew from Arizona, parked himself on Nathan’s floor, and started playing a game called EverQuest. It was so much cleaner, so much faster at Walden with the enormous pipe. The man is known around Walden to this day as Dude on the Floor because for two months, from the day he walked though Nathan’s door, he didn’t talk, he didn’t move, he didn’t work, he didn’t bathe, he only played the game. At least that’s the way it seemed to the others. Nathan’s cat started using Dude on the Floor as a scratching post. But Dude was unmoved; he became werewolflike, growing out his toenails and his fingernails and his hair. One day the Waldenites were hanging out in the hot tub when the repellent creature ventured out to bathe in the pool. “Who is that?” one of them asked. “It’s Dude on the Floor!” another exclaimed. “Scatter!” After Nathan finally sent the Dude back to Arizona on a bus, he had to bleach the area where the Dude had sat, but the stain wouldn’t come out. “We like games,” the Waldenites thought, “but at least we’re not as bad as the Dude.”
Little by little, through these bonding experiences, the community began to gel. They started to understand that they needed to be brought together, proving that Birney’s vision had large-scale possibilities. Maybe this—Walden—was the way the new American techie was going to live in the adult world. “In American society, the way it’s made up right now, there is no tendency for people to seek out friendships,” said Alan LeFort, the young man who had shown Brandon and Denise around. “How many neighbors do you know where you live? There’s no common reference. Potential residents don’t even know that they want community. They’re suspicious. ‘Why are people intruding in my space?’ they think. And once they live here, it makes perfect sense. You can have all the components necessary to create life, yet you put it in a petri dish and nothing happens. Then one day—it happens!”
This is how it worked for Brandon. One day a guy’s doing the stand-around shuffle (“Hey,” he says as his leg twitches) and the next thing he knows, the magnetic impulse takes hold of him and he’s hanging out with the Waldenites in the pool, in the courtyard, across the street at Whataburger, and in their apartments. Around the spring of 1999, after Brandon and Denise had settled in, Brandon had a daily schedule that was typical of a Waldenite. He got up at seven-fifty in the morning, drove down Westheimer, on the west side of Houston, stopped at Starbucks, got to work by eight-fifteen, and spent most of his day fixing problems for, as he puts it, either “intelligent people who [were] just having problems” or “the criminally obtuse.” The monotony of work was broken up by ICQing upward of sixty Walden residents. Brandon would get home around eight, game with his Tribes team, and go to bed around midnight. Others with more important business stayed awake and chatted with each other through ICQ and the misc list all night long.
Johnnybravo: Anybody up this late?
LadyFire: hell—i am STILL up!
Paul K: ok—it’s 6:35am and I am still up, surely everyone else is sleeping by now?
Little B: Hope you all get sleep.
EyeBurn: Note to ppl that don’t know—quite a few of us gather by the hot tub . . . pretty much every evening (anywhere from 9pm to 3am on weeknights, 5pm to 8am on weekends). For myself and fellow gamers—it’s where we take breaks from Tribes. Come out and meet your neighbors, most are nocturnal like you . . .
Bosch: here here—even gamers find the time to move away from their puters to “hang” out so should everyone else. So come out you T3 addicted people and enjoy life!!
It never occurred to Denise that the T-3 could upset her whole grown-up world. She was making up the rules as she went along—like the other Waldenites—trying to adjust to social expectations, and she thought that maybe she would find some friends there, like Brandon had. But when she first got to Walden, the opposite occurred: She withdrew from everybody, including Brandon. She stayed home and nuzzled one-on-one with the T-3. In the first few months after she and Brandon had moved in, Denise was unemployed, and she knew exactly what to do with all that free time. Like Dude on the Floor, she played EverQuest twelve hours a day, every day. After Brandon left the apartment in the morning, she would roll out of bed, go online, and become her EverQuest character, “a little 31 enchanter.” (The enchanter, she bragged, was the hardest class on EverQuest.)
“I’d use it as a chat function just to talk to people,” she recalled, giggling. “So I’d start EverQuest, shower, get dressed, play EverQuest, go out and run errands, play EverQuest.” She would chatter on about her EverQuest character to the few Waldenites she bumped into. She even tried to drag them back to her apartment to see for themselves just how great her “enchanter” was. She lived EverQuest. She breathed it. It was better than the real world. She met more people, for one thing. There were chat rooms in the game that allowed people to get to know each other—in the same way Brandon and Denise had first met years before. Her obsession became infamous at Walden; residents told stories of the girl who was so obsessed with the game that it destroyed her marriage. See, before long, Denise met a special friend while playing the game.
Like the last time, her meeting in cyberspace led to a series of long-distance phone calls. Brandon noticed unfamiliar phone numbers on their phone bill and he thought, “She’s playing one game all the time . . . this rings a bell. . . . ” Their marriage, by this time, had already started to fall apart. They agreed that they would see other people. One weekend, when Brandon went out of town, Denise’s new friend flew from California to visit her.
And, in short, it was O-V-E-R. Slam door, press hands over face, end of sentence. The virtual and the real worlds were colliding and turning against them. Click, tick.
But that’s not the strangest part of their story. The strangest part is that neither one of them could bear to abandon Walden. Rather than leave their beloved T-3, they shook hands and went back to their respective corners. Denise moved into a two-bedroom Walden apartment with a male friend who played EverQuest (only friends, she insisted) and Brandon moved into a single poolside apartment.
News of the breakup was quickly disseminated both online and around the pool, which functioned like a giant barbershop. Brandon started dating his next-door neighbor, Melba, a Walden rarity: a quiet woman who was more interested in art movies than computers. Some of the tenants sat in the pool and watched them go into her apartment and close the door, then into his apartment and close the door. People talked. People wondered what was going on with Brandon. Rumors flew.
“The stories were just incredible,” he said. “I was always going, ‘They said what?!'” Walden was becoming a small town in the middle of America’s fourth-largest city.
After Brandon and Denise broke up, they swapped roles. As Brandon got closer to Melba and withdrew from the group, Denise plunged headfirst into the social life at Walden. She began dating Ché, a programmer who was in the core group, and she started going out with crowds of up to twenty to dance clubs. They would stuff themselves into a few cars, then they’d speed down Houston’s highways, accompanied by the deafeningly loud thump-thump-thump of dance music. Denise and a couple of others bought walkie-talkies so they could talk from their cars: “Hey there, Little B—whoo! Hold on. [Sound of car accelerating.] Heyyy you there?”[Laughing] “What are you doing?”
“Passing—would you get a load of this guy over here?”
“Hold on, Pata wants to talk.”
“Hey there, Little B!”
Then they’d race back home and slip into the hot tub. Sometimes they’d stay in the fizzy water until sunrise. Even when they were stinking drunk and hunched over in the illuminated blue tub, the talk was computers and gadgets and gaming.
Walden was changing. Wallflowers like Denise were blossoming. Partying accelerated. “Someone brings a minilaser,” Denise said, waving her hands as she talked, “then somebody brings in black lights, then somebody brings better speakers and a better mixer, and all of a sudden you’ve got this insane party.” Parties at the complex became no-holds-barred events where beer and Ecstasy were consumed in large quantities. Thump-thump-thump.
By the fall of 1999, Walden had achieved its potential to become a mini-civilization, just as Birney had hoped. Birney, who still lived at the complex and had observed the results of his handiwork, was pleased. “In many cases,” he said, “our residents feel like in the past they’ve been isolated pioneers running around doing their own thing, but even those who were seriously isolated—even positively rejected—come here and find a peer group that is stimulating and challenging.” Ask any of the residents and they’d agree. “These people are rejects,” said WebGirlie, with tears in her eyes. “We were the ones made fun of at the back of the class in high school, and this is a triumph: We are our own clique now.” Another tenant, a bony Louisianan who went by the name Pitre, laughed eagerly when he recalled his life before Walden: “I had two friends, but they were mentally disturbed.”
Waldenites internalized Birney’s old ad slogan, “Come for the Bandwidth, Stay for the Community.” To outsiders, they gushed about how utterly fan-tas-tic, how totally bliss-ful they were. “The level and the ability to communicate is unlike anywhere else,” said Walter, one of the older Waldenites. “It’s like a giant co-op at times.”
Like Brandon and Denise, many found it hard, even impossible to leave. Bosch, a lean, constantly smiling resident, left Walden after he bought a house. But he moved back, he says with a shrug, because he got too lonely and wanted to “hang out with the guys.”
Says WebGirlie, dryly: “This is a cult. You’ve heard of Jonestown? This is Jimstown, except . . . without the poisonous drinks. People go in and out, but when a guest comes you can smell ’em.”
With the cult came a sense of belonging, of togetherness. One night, EyeBurn and eight other residents saw a burglar on the grounds. They hauled after the thief, tackled him, and sat on him until the police arrived. “If something happened to your neighbor, you’d help out because you knew them,” Little B earnestly explained. If a tenant couldn’t pay rent, others would pitch in to cover it. When somebody lost a job, the group would pay for his meals. Waldenites received birthday cards with at least fifty signatures. Frequently they’d ICQ each other in the middle of the night to say “I have beer; will be in hot tub” or “Anybody want to grab a bite at House of Pies?” and eleven people would meet out in the parking lot. They were making up for a whole lot of sheltered years; they were as excited as prison escapees reunited on a Hawaiian cruise ship.
Maybe they were enthusiastic too soon. While Walden’s denizens were busy melding into the techno-commune of Birney’s dreams, the man himself had been busy thinking of his next move. Though he was basically a real estate man who owned and managed commercial complexes like Walden, he still had a pocketful of big ideas, most of which started with real estate and then spun up into something more spiritual. He believed that Walden itself, for example, “might develop into multiuse communities incorporating office structures and retail and residential and the whole works, built around the premise that it was the lifestyle of the future.” But, ultimately, he was still a real estate man. He and his wife had been running properties in Houston and New Jersey for years. He knew his way around the Internet, sure, but—he wasn’t one of the Waldenites. He waved and made small talk with them, but for the most part, he watched Walden develop from the other side of the office glass.Birney had decided that if Walden “is a bold step forward, it must look like a bold step forward.” It had been his idea, after all; it had worked splendidly. Now he had an idea for how to spruce the place up, make it even cozier and more inviting. In September 1999 he hired a crew who proceeded to paint Walden’s eleven apartment buildings in a variety of blindingly bright colors that included Aztec blood red, marigold yellow, jade green, and Majorelle blue. The idea sounds harmless enough. But in the tiny, cloistered, intensely communal world Birney had created, the new paint was taken as nothing less than an invasion of privacy.
“There was no announcement,” Denise said. “There was no saying, ‘We’re going to paint the building.’ All that happened one day was the front building turned—I kid you not—coral pink. And we’re talking about ninety-five percent guys in their twenties. They don’t want to live in a pink apartment complex.” Birney, waxing spiritual, explained to the tenants that it was “derived from primary color states, archetypal origins, primal states of nature, and cycles of life.” But, of course, that made it worse. So, as dutiful members of their community, Waldenites made their opinions known on the misc list. Tap, tap, tap, double exclamation point. Tappity-tap, triple exclamation point. Many demanded that it be painted back to “a nice gray.” Brandon wrote, sarcastically, “Dammit, when I own my own apt. complex with an OC-3 internet connection, I’m going to paint the buildings a nice camouflage color!” They felt cheated. This was their place. Why were they not consulted? Birney ruled that it was his building complex and he was keeping the colors. Period.
For reasons no one can quite explain, Birney’s paint job coincided with a subtle but noticeable attitudinal shift at Walden. A handful of residents, like a Waldenite we’ll call Kane, became increasingly notorious for their abusive comments on the misc list. In the real world Kane was cautious with strangers and didn’t talk much. Many Waldenites had seen the stocky, Wrangler-jeans-wearing man sitting at the Nexus Café reading fantasy books, but figured that the Kane they knew online had to be somebody else, somebody with huge claws and sharp teeth, because when he got on the misc list he spouted off. Besides calling WebGirlie “fatso,” “hag,” and “Miss Piggy,” he’d write things like “[R]elax, Miss Pompous, Holier-Than-Thou—nobody takes this too seriously, why should you?” Which she responded to with, “Well if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.”
Kane: Guess I can’t stand religion so much that I can’t even mention the word. These postings sure make you want to spew out your thoughts faster then you can type them in. Oh, yeah, and I can’t stand that mythical “god” creature either. It didn’t create me and I stick my middle finger at it. And I don’t believe in Santa Claus either . . . Anyone offended by my beliefs? Too bad. Well I’m offended by yours that “God” is “watching over me” and that I should worship your “god.” That really offends me.
Walter: SHUT UP Already—I’m personally tired of reading your spew of SHIT! And more than a little embarrassed to find out just how F—ED UP one of my neighbors is!
Kane: Mr. Walter Fascist Meyer. So one of your neighbors is “F—ED UP” because they don’t believe in God or don’t like religion. You want me to “SHUT UP” don’t you? Just because I don’t believe the same way you do. Censor. Fascist. Here’s a little secret, My Meyer: You sounded pretty “F—ED UP” with that last E-Mail. And I wonder how tough you talk in person instead of hiding behind your computer screen. You talk about this in person? Name the place.
[Another] Walter: Somebody PLEASE tell me this is a bad joke I am awaking to, PLEASE?
Obviously they were messing with the karma. When the conflict got intense at Walden, it became increasingly difficult to keep a distance between neighbors. Once, Kane and Walter got into a fight on the misc list and ended the exchange with, “Meet me in the mailroom!” Residents who had been watching the post raced down to the mailroom to watch the fight, which was immediately halted when they snapped out of the virtual landscape back into the real world. Click, tick. Brandon got drawn in too. “Once, I was in a hotel room in Chicago on business with nothing better to do than take out my frustrations on people who were being silly on the misc list,” he says. “I always go for people who are being a little silly or off. Don’t beat on the innocents. They don’t deserve it.” But it was so easy to go too far when you didn’t see the readers’ faces twist up with frustration or humiliation. He and Kane threw insults back and forth with all the style and tact of World Wrestling Federation wrestlers.
Brandon: Funny—I didn’t see a tiny little mustache on you when I saw you in the Nexus the other night— Sieg Heil!
Kane: Funny, I don’t know who you are at the Nexus—why don’t you introduce yourself to me?
Brandon: If I had thought you were worth introducing myself to . . .
Kane: If you have a comment to say to me, then E-Mail at my personal address . . . so other people don’t have to read your vicious garbage.
Brandon: “sticks and stones might break my bones, but blah blah blah . . . ” LAF! Oh my GOD that was SO funny! I’m dyin . . . “My problem with him,” said Brandon, “is he doesn’t know when to shut up when he’s mailing. In person he’s not that type of guy. E-mail does change you. When you don’t have to look someone in the eye and say, ‘You’re a fat whore!’ where’s the restriction from it?” It came to them impulsively, like adolescent competition. A few tenants, like Brandon’s new girlfriend, Melba, grew weary of the gossip and online sparring wars and moved out.
More and more of the formerly blissful Waldenites began behaving like Kane. By March 2000 the bickering got out of control. Paul K posted a message on the misc list saying that the connection wasn’t actually as fast or powerful as promised, to which Birney himself took offense. Birney was unhappy in part because he had been taking some financial hits with his techno- commune. The deal he had struck for his T-3 allowed full use of the pipe at night but only partial use during the day. He had never anticipated that Waldenites would be using the same huge amounts of bandwidth at two in the afternoon as they did at two in the morning. So it was costing him extra. Fed up, he cast Paul K out of the garden. A bitter Paul K wrote a farewell letter to the misc list: “By now the rumours I am sure are flying thick and furious. If you heard that my family and I are leaving Walden, then you have heard a half-truth, for we are being forced out against our will.”
Neubauer: I’m sorry to see you go—It’s always been my opinion that this community shit has not, and will not, ever work out the way the planners envisioned. It’s just a bit too much to ask of the peanut gallery. It’s been fun.
Melodie: huh? I’m very new here, what is going on?!
Kernel Crash: Nothing much. Now take your “ignorance is bliss” pill and be a good lil AOL user.
And suddenly the rules changed. Birney, who had kept a sort of paternalistic distance and did not participate in hot tub parties or any of the usual socializing and rarely spoke online, suddenly came alive. He dispatched an e-mail to the group:
A Policy of Civility & Etiquette—A Rebirth of an Inspirational Community Discussion Forum: . . . our efforts to provide a *totally* unfettered and unrestrained environment have run into (severe and chronic) problems and now must be “shaped.” This is not an option, it is a requirement, if the positive experience at [email protected] is to continue to develop, grow and attract broader and more diverse groups of residents. . . . on an increasing basis, the lists have become a non-stop forum for flame-wars, rants, bitches, moans, and vicious attacks against fellow residents, ourselves, and, sometime, simply “anything that moves.” Increasingly, we have found that persons who have much to contribute to our community are being (utterly) turned off by the present experience. This direction is *diametrically* opposed to the original intent and goal of the lists—to foster inspiration, pleasure, challenge, creativity and broaden the horizons and viewpoints of our residents . . . Consequently, henceforth, all lists will have basic policies of etiquette and civility that will be rigorously enforced.
The ultimatum was put forth: Be nice or get out. Order is being imposed. Leases will not necessarily be renewed. The landlord giveth, and the landlord can taketh away.
Brandon and some others who had used the pipe as their main way to vent felt this was censorship, pure and simple. The misc list had become a testament to their independence, and by this time they were used to acting abrasively. Adding the regulations now, Denise remembered thinking at the time, would be “like herding cats.” She was right. Many of the residents had a juvenile stubbornness and naiveté; they got paranoid and started murmuring that there was an Armageddon for Walden, a “hit list” of people who were going to be forced out. In fact, Birney began to realize that in addition to behavior problems, drugs were being used more openly and more frequently, and the time had come to clean house. A resident who wished to remain anonymous whispered, “I’ll tell you something if you don’t use my name . . . no, no. I’d better not. I have a nice office here, and I don’t want to have to move.”
For a resident who went by the name Dr. J, the imminent banishment was more than he could handle. He thought he was going to be fired from his job. He was so broke that he even sold his main computer, though his girlfriend screamed at him not to because she knew how important it was to him. He had plenty of reasons to be depressed. Then his eviction notice came. That night, when he got back from work, his girlfriend was sitting on the living room futon, dozing off. He went into the kitchen and she heard him say, “Oh, you made some tea.” As she fell asleep, he went into his closet, loosened his multicolored tie, unbuttoned the top of his blue long-sleeved shirt, put a brown leather belt around his neck, and hanged himself from a clothes rod. His girlfriend found him the next day.
After more residents were expelled, the gang grew still more resentful of the rules. One weekend in May Denise joined the others in the core Walden group who had decided to move. “Walden is a state of mind—it is!” said one Waldenite named Joel. “We’re not leaving Walden behind. We’re taking it with us.” So they unplugged themselves from the big, fat pipe. In a matter of three months, the entire core group was gone. Most of them moved to Milano Apartments and City West Luxury Apartments, where they planned to stay in touch with each other, searching for the next step.
Brandon, too, found that he could not live with Birney’s new rules. In June he found an apartment in City West Luxury Apartments and quietly moved a month before his lease was up. Birney, meanwhile, had taken the opposite lesson from Walden. By the time Brandon had moved out, Birney had already opened new Walden complexes—now called Walden Internet Villages—including one near the medical center and one near the Galleria, all equipped with the T-3, though the residents who moved into those complexes were generally clean-cut young professionals, harmless users who liked to surf the ‘Net but didn’t write code or get too heavily into the pipe’s technical aspects. Birney explained that “the Internet technology field is changing and broadening substantially. We’re getting family people in now. They’ve got a mother club going.”
“I think they’re trying to discourage elements that are disruptive,” Brandon contended, “but they’re also going after the intelligent thinkers and independent people. They’re happy with the people who are quiet and don’t want to talk to anybody, and I think that’s unfortunate for Walden because that will turn them into any other complex. As an apartment complex, Walden will be there for a long time, but I don’t think it’s going to be the same as it was for me.”
Brandon doesn’t ICQ anywhere near as often as he used to. His divorce from Denise is about to be finalized. They still get along and chat but—like Walden—it’s not like it once was. On moving weekend he turned his back on the rustling palm trees and Hawaiian volcanic rocks and bubbling fountains that cascade into a clear pool with the poolside Internet connection and chirping mockingbirds that search for grubs in the thick, green turf and the Aztec blood red, marigold yellow, jade green, and Majorelle blue buildings and the pipe and the Waldenites. Back to reality—or, as Thoreau wrote of his return from the woods, “At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”