How Early Online Gay Culture Anticipated Today’s Social Networks

Decoding the tech world.
Aug. 20 2014 1:50 PM

The First Gay Space on the Internet

It was called soc.motss, and it anticipated how we use social networks today.

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There were in-jokes, wryness, and sarcasm, as with motss member Steven Levine’s description of growing too old and bitter to go to bars:

Each day I grow older, and this brings age and experience to the gay community. ... Where once I was whory, I now am hoary. I, the gay community, pass from new to used to collectible to vintage to antique. ... Each day I grow fatter. This increases the size of the gay community, and makes us more of a force to be reckoned with. Within the soft folds of my expanding flesh I contain the history of all gay men.

Network engineer and motss contributor Max Meredith Vasilatos slammed attacks on homosexuality as “unnatural” by describing the human body as “a hack, a gigantic complex construction with outdated features (e.g., appendixes) left over, and new bugs perpetually cropping up as the synergy of the system changes.” Somewhat more highbrow was member Michelle Elliott’s pastiche of Greek comedy writer Aristophanes, “The Clods.” And fulfilling the obligatory quotient of Internet nerdiness, Gene Ward Smith applied Ramsey combinatorics to gay love: “In any group of six gay men, there must exist three all of whom would like to sleep with each other, or a group of three none of whom would like to sleep with each other (or both).” Smith suggested a party game with six people, and that the group of three be declared either a “love triangle” if they want to sleep with each other or a “moral minority” if not.

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Some of that nerdiness spread beyond motss. The geeky urge to classify resulted in the Bear Code (officially, the Natural Bears Classification System), invented by Bob Donahue and Jeff Stoner in 1989 as an “incredibly-scientific system to describe bears and bear-like men.” Santa Claus’ classification, for instance, was “B8 d++ f? w++ k--?,” describing him as a big round (w++) daddy bear (d++) with a very bushy beard (B8) whom people guess to be averagely furry (f?) and not kinky at all (k--?). This format inspired the later Geek Code, which was ubiquitous in Unix profiles and email sigs in the 1990s—except instead of codes for weight and beard, the Geek Code offered opinions of Linux (l+++++ if you were Linux author Linus Torvalds) and Star Trek (t--- if you hated Star Trek). The origins of the Geek Code in the Bear Code were quickly forgotten.

Some of the motss conversation brought acute and varied social criticism into the mix, as with Dana Bergen’s nuanced 1991 plea for understanding of—not agreement with—anti-porn and anti-BDSM feminists: “I think it’s almost impossible for men to understand, on a gut level, the extent to which sexual violence and the fear of it affects women’s lives. ... I would like men to have a bit more respect for these feelings.” In 1992 Jeff Shaumeyer wrote about being “barraged by heterocentrism,” about the pain of being stigmatized and shoved aside: “Why is it that one man calling another a faggot is the worst insult he can make? I shouldn’t take this personally?”

And some of it is just incredibly raw and heart-wrenching, like linguist Arnold Zwicky’s advice to a young man on breakups: “you’re poking your tongue in the sore in your mouth and savoring the pain. think very carefully about why you're hanging on to the idea that x, who you can’t have, is the only thing that can fulfill you. you know that’s not so, but you twist your body around on the sword anyway. why? do you think you’re such a shit that this is what you deserve?” Zwicky was 45 when he discovered soc.motss, and he said that it changed his life: “i found a gay community and also found friends, and their friends, and so on, so that my social world has been transformed.” Many members met up once a year for an event called motss.con, which still goes on today.

Because Net access was limited in the 1980s, Steve Dyer also provided accounts on his own machine, spdcc, to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Dyer moderated the group in attempts to prevent it from becoming, in his words, “a space for the ignoramuses’ perennial harangue about the evils of homosexuality, or for that matter, responses to the contrary.” His geeky bonhomie is on display in his Chaucer pastiche “The Dyer’s Tale,” where he tells of the anti-gay trolls that had set upon soc.motss:

[W]e want some succor now that hell is done.
Perhaps a poem of epic length in rhyme
will undo prose of hurt and spite. It’s time
we took our newsgroup back; seize what we’ve won.
...
Now every word of bigotry and hate
shall be drowned out as rhymes accumulate.

Many of the members of soc.motss were not typical of the larger LGBTQ culture of the time. One of them, writing in 1992 about his own coming-out experience, wrote, “I am generally not a gregarious person, and [coming out] was the culmination of introspection with the emotional support of a few close friends. … I panic at the thought of meeting strangers, and am met with disbelief. I claim to feel bereft of social skills, and they scoff. Will any of these people ever see what I think is the *real* me? With whom do I share enough trust to reveal part of the *real* me?”

Before the Internet became part of everyone’s life, it often served as a social refuge for people who felt too shy, too unaccepted, too intellectual, or simply too different for everyday culture. Ironically, they would be the pioneers of spaces that allowed for freer, more open self-expression. Minar feels that soc.motss was something rare, both then and now: “an intelligent place for discussion of gay issues with some sort of filter for thoughtfulness of the members. We were there to discuss opera and culture and Madonna, not to get laid.”

Many newsgroups were purely informational, useful for technical discussions or sharing of news or jokes or porn. But soc.motss was genuinely a new kind of community, a diverse set of people who felt at home and most like themselves on the Net, and who had discussions there that they couldn’t have anywhere else. Before Facebook preferred status updates to long posts and Twitter reduced the size of a rebuttal to 140 characters, soc.motss proved that online discourse was indeed compatible with open-mindedness, subtlety, and civility.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

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