Yesterday, while running down some items in the family budget, my wife paused for a moment. "Hey--why don't you cancel the CompuServe account?" It's a touchy subject--a subject she has brought up before. Month after month after month we pay an automatic $9.95 to CompuServe to continue keeping account #71507,1212 alive....
I joined CompuServe back in the late 1980s. In those days practically any piece of PC software came with a free CompuServe membership signup certificate--I signed up with a certificate I found in an Aldus PageMaker box. (That was in my "bi-" days--I programmed on a PC, but did graphic design and layout on a Macintosh.)
CompuServe was so cool--once you figured out how to actually connect. In those days you used a terminal emulator--and you emulated a terminal. You dialed a local phone number, you got a terminal prompt, and you started typing. I still have the CompuServe membership kit I got when I signed up (the heavy fiberboard slipcase, with a set of manuals inside). It's right on the shelf next to "How to Get the Most Out of CompuServe"--a book known as "HTGTMOOC" by NEWMEMBER forum members.
CompuServe used to cost $12 per hour of connect time (and it was only that cheap if you could connect directly to CompuServe's network; if you connected across Tymnet, InfoNet, or another network service it typically cost $22 per hour). The typical new-user experience included a $200 bill for the first month. You quickly learned to sharply ration your online time, or you found an "offline reader" like TAPCIS to automate your activity.
The best thing about CompuServe were the forums--bulletin boards where you could find files on a particular subject, and participate in threaded discussions. CompuServe's forum threading is world's better than anything you'll find on the Web--each forum member had an HMN (High Message Number) stored when he last left the forum. When the member returned he (or she) only saw messages with a higher number--so you didn't have to wade through thousands of messages that you'd already seen.
Everybody who was anybody was on CompuServe. Want to participate in a Microsoft beta test? You joined a private beta forum. Want to get tech support on practically any commercial software product? Just "GO [Product name]" on CompuServe and you found that company's forum. Tech support was just where the forum started--most vendor forums developed communities of hard-core users who provided a secondary (and sometimes primary) support team. When Microsoft shipped Word for Windows 1.0, support for the new WordBASIC macro language was sparse, to say the least. The WINWORD forum on CompuServe, though, was the place to go for help--there were dozens of shareware, jokeware, and freeware macros you could use to properly format a number 10 envelope on an HP LaserJet IIP.
I was most active on two forums: XEROX (later VENTURA)--the vendor forum for Xerox Ventura Publisher; and MSLANG/MSBASIC, the vendor forum for Microsoft Visual Basic. I ended up being named a "sysop" on both forums--which meant that I didn't pay any connect charges at all. (This was a big deal--my sysop account saved me roughly $100 per month.) I was also very active on the DTPFORUM (Desktop Publishing) and sometimes was active on HORSES and IBMSPEC (PC Users with Special Needs [i.e. disabilities]--routinely mistaken as the forum for IBM users who needed something special).
These weren't just places to find the latest macro or get the buzz on the newest version. These places really were virtual communities. Any decent forum had a "hangout" section--a place for offtopic messages of all sorts. In the "hangout" section and across the other sections of a forum a real community developed--you quickly grasped who the really helpful people were, who the blustering clods were, and who the forum jesters were. I developed real friendships on CompuServe--including friendships and professional relationships that continue today. I even participated in an online wedding--when two sysops on the DTPFORUM fell in love and married (he was from Saskatchewan, she from New Jersey), the sysops from the VENTURA forum arrived at the virtual wedding reception with ASCII artwork of champagne bottles and martini glasses.
These weren't just geeks talking about geeky stuff. When my youngest daughter was born with Down syndrome, I found myself in agony and no one to talk to--an anguished cry to the MSBASIC forum led to weeks of messages, phone calls, and real community support.
"Dragons live forever," wrote Noel Paul Stookey, "but not so little boys...." When the Internet happened, CompuServe collapsed. In the space of two years practically every commercial software vendor moved their support off of CompuServe onto the Web. Everybody with a CompuServe account suddenly was using SMTP email. Forums tried to create matching websites--CompuServe scrambled to remain relevant. After sneering at AOL ("CompuServe: the information service you won't outgrow") for years, CompuServe succumbed to the inevitable and was bought out.
But many of us have kept our CompuServe accounts for years. I've been 71507,1212 for fourteen years--I've used that account to maintain a place in different online communities whether I was connecting from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Montreal, or Tokyo. 71507,1212 is me.
Or it was, until today. I have kept track of my email on my old CompuServe account--I haven't received anything other than spam in more than a year. And today I called CompuServe Customer Support--and got an AOL operator. "Do you have CompuServe 2000? Or 4.0?" she demanded. "How about if I give you my CompuServe ID number?" "Oh--that's 4.0." She tried to sell me on the benefits of CompuServe 2000--and then suggested that I "move up" to AOL membership. "Gosh!" I gushed, "how about not?" I cancelled the account, and hung up the phone.
And I've been bummed ever since. CompuServe was so cool....