Thought Catalog

Communicating in the ‘90s

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In the “wired” country America has become, it’s almost impossible to go off the grid completely. Even if you shutter your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, email, Gchat, Foursquare, AIM (LOL, just kidding), and Formspring.me, there’s still texting, voicemails, Xbox Live, calling, and – imagine – writing an actual letter to someone and sending it. USPS. Requiring an envelope and a stamp and a short jaunt through your neighborhood to the closest mailbox. This endless parade of networking tools makes disappearing nearly unachievable.

Point is, 20 years ago, more than half of those options didn’t exist. People would be killed, would just disappear off the face of the earth; and no one was concerned because “disappearing” was normal back then. “I’m getting nervous… Michelle hasn’t answered her telephone in three weeks!” and it’s like, “You know Michelle’s been a total flake lately! Maybe she couldn’t pay her phone bill again or whatever.” And that was totally cool. Now it’s less cool and more like, “OMG MICHELLE HASN’T TWEETED IN 43 HOURS SOMETHING IS WRONG. SOMETHING. IS. WRONG.” Someone will tell you you’re overreacting, and next thing you know Michelle is tweeting, “@overwhelmingfriend: hey girl just got home from hospital long story xx.”

So… if your friend’s body is rotting in their apartment for a few weeks because of scarcity of communication and also the reasonable expectation that “everything is okay,” i.e., “I can’t tell if they have been active online or not, that isn’t really a “thing” yet, but I’m assuming they’re okay,” then maybe the ‘90s weren’t super awesome for communication. But by any other measure, the ‘90s were a standout time for tech. There is technology that solely existed as the status quo during that decade. It’s like these things were hatched in ’88 or ’89, had the lifespan of a Scottish Terrier, and then died of the debilitating disease known as consumerism. And if those communication tools truly are dead, let this be their funeral.

Beepers/ Pagers

Most everyone knows that initially, beepers were popular among doctors and drug dealers. The trend trickled down from the rich to the poor, as is wont to happen. Beepers were almost $150 when they were the “new shit,” but by the time I was 14, you could get a free pager with like, a Big Mac meal. The solid thing about beepers was that the excuses for not getting back to someone were ENDLESS. “I was on the subway,” or “I wasn’t by a phone,” were totally legit. “I didn’t have 25 cents” was a believable, valid excuse. Today it’s like, you could be in lock up for the night, sans contact with the outside world, and fucking LIFE ends. “Where are you, fucking asshole?! You made me leave my apartment at 11 PM and now you’re not picking up the phone? Piece of shit. FUCK YOU.” You have septuplets of that message.  That is the price you pay for owning a cell phone.

Of Note: Eventually, the prototype of texting became popular via beepers. While the possibilities were somewhat limited, dialing a series of numbers would sometimes produce words. “8008135” was “BOOBIES,” for example. “17-31707-1” was “I love you,” if you look at it upside down.

Telephones

Telephones are obviously still around (sort of), but they really evolved during the ‘90s. We had the Clarissa Explains It All type-phone, which was not much different than the beige “wall phone” of the ‘80s except that these particular phones were very much pandering to quirky, phone crazy, boy-crazy teenagers. They were pastel block colors or just clear so that all of the wires were proudly displayed (OMG, CRAZY!). These phones had a crazy-long curly cord so that you could tangle your fingers in it, as you’d engage in idle gossip while gazing at your ceiling fan.

Then, we had the cordless phone. If you lived in the suburbs with a cordless, maybe you’d take a stroll around your “property” until the signal went fuzzy and you had to go back inside, closer to the “phone base.” If you lived in the city, you would take the big ass cordless phone outside to your stoop and talk on that shit, even if you were just pretending and actually talking to yourself, because you now had a “cell phone.”

Cell phones did exist, but were scarce and used for “emergencies” in most cases. The car phone was a popular option in the early ‘90s, but once cell phones became mainstream and affordable, car phones were left in the proverbial dust. HANDS FREE, Y’ALL!

Call waiting, caller ID, and three-way dialing became popular. Before call waiting, if you called someone and got a busy tone, you could call back. You could call back a thousand times, and they’d have no idea. It was like Russian Roulette. Pick up the phone. Dial the number. Busy. Hang up. Pick up. Redial. Busy. Hang up. Pick up. Redial. Ring. “RING! RING MOTHER—hello? Hi, may I please speak with Jonathan? It’s Stephanie.”

Caller ID was sweet for screening calls, especially when your parents were expecting a call while you were doing something extremely important on the phone. Like three-way calling every boy in your class. “Hold on, I gotta beep. Oh, it’s my grandma. No, she’ll call back. Now, let’s call Mark. You talk, I’ll listen.”

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    • Anne Frank

      I can relate to this article.

      • azi

        i laughed at this, so shame on both of us.

      • PERFECTCIRCLES

        This is the most tasteless gimmick account on TC.

    • azi

      omg, i remember dictating a message to someone in a call center, to be sent to my mother's pager. so crazy.

    • http://twitter.com/srslydrew Andrew F.

      “The ‘__'s were the last decade of genuine emotion;”

      I feel like people have been mourning the death of authenticity forever. Also, it's still meaningful, time-consuming, and expensive to create a REAL relationship (even > 20's like myself make the distinction between web-relationships and those IRL), and we're all still poor and unemployed.

      But really, you're right. Great article.

    • http://www.smashcakemagazine.com Tracy Lucas

      What about those answering machine messages from like, '96-98 wherein you could make your computer record the greeting in its creepy, Speak-n-Spell robot voice?

      Or better, the message that leads simply with, “Hello?” and a long pause, “Uh-huh,” and a long pause.. etc. Which was hilarious. The first nine hundred and seventy-eleven thousand times.

    • Pdrew

      zomg! your writing style and tone makes me want to gouge my eyes out. omg! seriously find a real job

      • http://www.theuglynewyorker.com Stephanie Georgopulos

        dad? is that you?

    • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey

      Nice.

    • Justin D.

      Thank you for casually dismissing every bit of heartbreak, sadness, and joy anyone's felt over the past decade because you're annoyed by people checking their Facebook on iPhones.

      • PERFECTCIRCLES

        She didn't do that!

      • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

        Hi Justin,

        I'm sorry I made you feel that I was casually dismissing emotions. That wasn't my intention. My point is e-mail vs. love letter. Text message vs. phone call. Conducting a relationship/friendship mostly through wires vs. being present and showing your face. I'm guilty as hell. We all settle for less when we mistake a “digital connection” for spending time with people and making efforts to show people they are worth our time.

        Also, I am not mad at people who check Facebook on their iPhones. In 10-20 years, I will wish people were only checking their Facebook on their iPhones. Who knows what we'll be doing by then? Probably not writing love letters, making phone calls, or showing face.

        • Justin D.

          Ah, jeez, taking my flippant attempt at a smart-assed comment and giving a thoughtful reply. Dammit.

          The part that got me was your last paragraph, or namely the idea that “The ‘90s were the last decade of genuine emotion; the last time harvesting relationships took time, money, and effort. ” If the heartbreak and loss and happiness I've personally felt in the past isn't real, then what is? Plus, I'm of the mind that nostalgia is regressive and maybe even dangerous in a certain way culturally because we need to — have to — keep moving forward for our own stupid good. And that we can't go back to the “good ol' days” because they gone and never were really that good to begin with. So instead of genuine emotion disappearing, we're simply adapting our emotions, the same way we have since technological advance in communication has allowed us. In my mind we're no worse off or better than we've been throughout history. I mean, I had a bowl cut through most of the '90s, so good riddance.

          I personally can't buy into the idea that anyone finds Facebook or any other social networking site as real human interaction. I think — or at least hope — that we all just see it as a way to waste time because we're just here to fart around. Or a way to feel better about oneself, by being able to cultivate and control their online persona, in a way that's not possible for them to control in real life. That may or may not be a good thing. In a way, you could make the argument that it takes more effort to make a real, lasting, quality relationship, because you have to fight through all the static of technology to have a real human connection. I guess the most important aspect of that, though, is that we make sure these are values we still hold. We physically and mentally need to touch another person, to hold their hand or watch a movie together, to be all gross and cuddly. It's our onus, our whole purpose as big, dumb animals, and no amount of technology will ever kill that off.

          I may or may not have ignored your points and just ranted for a moment. Apologies for that.

        • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

          <3

    • http://twitter.com/and_susan Susie Anderson

      seems legit

    • PERFECTCIRCLES

      I wish we could all stop communicating and live simpler lives like Ted Kaczynski.

    • lauren

      this was both insightful and interesting. something I certainly don't miss about the 90s, however, is the dial-up sound. it will haunt my nightmares forever

      • erin

        my friend totally has that as her ringtone now

    • omelet_queen

      “It’s because someone could destroy you emotionally and you’d never hear from them again, and you’d know what it really felt like to have a broken heart and what it’s like to not be able to do anything about it.”
      And that can't happen now, because of technology? I really beg to differ.
      Aside from that, I relate to this article. All of the communication technology has really kind of made us more isolated than ever. Twitter and Facebook and instant messages are so impersonal compared to a good old-fashioned phone call.

      • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

        You can still get your heart broken, and feel helpless (as I have lived these things with all of the modern technologies I've referenced), but in that line I'm speaking to how easy it was to disappear to the point where someone else could never even attempt to get closure. It is possible to “disappear” now, but only theoretically through avoidance measures/death.

        Say someone sends me a “sorry, please forgive me/don't leave” text/e-mail/Facebook message. I'll still read that message, although maybe I won't respond, but the likelihood that I haven't read the message is tiny. So while I may be actively ignoring/avoiding someone, it's not the same as “I'm moving to Arizona/Dubai/Iowa and you tried to stop me by showing up to the airport, but you were late, so now I'm gone forever unless you find me in the phone book” [thus exerting much more effort than sending e-messages until you get the hint that someone is ignoring you; also leaving the possibility that you'll never get to tell someone how you feel simply because you can't find them].

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

      fuck

    • jess

      lovely article

    • too rude magazine

      “The ‘90s were the last decade of genuine emotion”

      Crazyyyyyyyyy, this one made me think. I like it, I like it a lot.

    • Alex P.

      I’m so sick of internet writing that pretends it’s written by a 12 year old. Grow the fuck up.

    • http://twitter.com/soul_jacker Mugen

      Glad I’m not the only one missing that time.  Thanks for this article, I was moved by your last few paragraphs.  

    • http://themadprincess.com/2017/01/17/land-lines/ Land lines | the mad princess

      […] Chilitos, hacky sack, teenage girls in the 90s. […]

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