Communicating in the ‘90s

Also of great importance was the pay phone. There was always drama with the pay phone, though. Did someone leave money behind in that pay phone?! Is there a heroin needle in the ‘returned change’ slot of that pay phone?! Does that pay phone have anthrax on the buttons?! The pay phone was like, the phone equivalent of a middle child. Did you ever see the episode of Saved by the Bell (Winter Break) when the gang works at the mall and Zack leaves his homeless girlfriend’s homeless dad a fat wad of cash in the pay phone ‘returned change’ slot? The pay phone was a serious ass deal back then.

But really, the phone was nothing without the answering machine. Answering machines really brought out the worst in people, didn’t they? Families were forced, usually by mom, to record Stepford messages all in the name of impressing the neighbors or the extended family or whoever mom felt belittled by that month. Worse were the messages that starred Scruffy, family dog, who’d contribute a few barks to the answering machine message. Then mom would chime in. “That means ‘leave a message’ in human! Hehe!” When you were young, you hoped that none of your friends would call and hear that message. Answering machines were created to make you feel inadequate and socially awkward, whether you were the message receiver or the message leaver.


AOL was amazing for a number of reasons, but in this instance I’d like to remember it as one of the first iterations of internet dating. When you logon to a dating site now, you can shop for a “ten.” It’s like a Farmer’s Market of Fuck on those sites. You can also weed out any undesirables based on religion, height, income, smoking habits, you name it. But back in the day, there wasn’t any of this “answer 1,000 nitpicky questions” and “linking to real-life-stuff in my dating profile, thus opening myself up to be Google’d at maximum” business. Online dating was like, get in chat and type “24/f/nyc.” Done. Most people didn’t have photos online in the ‘90s. Scanners were equivalent to NASA technology back then. Internet users didn’t even mind not knowing what you looked like, though. You were on the internet and therefore, you were accepted. There was true anonymity.

The cool thing about AOL was that, in addition to tying up your phone line for hours, AOL billed its users hourly. So if you stayed online for four hours chatting with a love interest, that meant you were really, really, into them. Your bill would come to something like 257 dollars, and you’d go online and IM your love interest and go, “Babe. I <3 you so much that my AOL bill is $257. G2G tho. Page me. @–>->” And honestly, that is the most validating IM a ‘90s love interest could hope for.

If you wonder why Generation X looks at you and says, “What the fuck are you doing on the internet all day long? Why do you have six blogs? Why do you have 9,448 photos on Facebook?,” it’s because they don’t take communication for granted. Communication used to be something you had to actively pursue, something that was never “unlimited.” If a guy called you, you can bet he wanted to see you again. He spent at least 25 cents on that call. Now, you text a dude and get a text back because it has been ingrained in him that “no one is ever too busy to ignore a text” and texting is free, forever, for most people. You get a response to an IM because the person you’re initiating chat with is bored, stoned, drunk, or any combination of those things.

When people romanticize the ‘90s, it’s not because it was particularly “better” than it is now. It’s because it took more than ‘liking’ a status on Facebook to cement a friendship. It’s because courting someone took more effort than a text every other day or so. 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. It’s because you’d go to your neighborhood bar, and your drinking buddies would show up, and it wasn’t because you’d checked in on FourSquare. The ‘90s were the last decade of genuine emotion; the last time harvesting relationships took time, money, and effort. As technology simplifies communication, our lame-in-comparison attempts to build virtual relationships cease to have meaning. TC mark

image – vitachao

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  • Anne Frank

    I can relate to this article.

    • azi

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


      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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    • Stephanie Georgopulos

      dad? is that you?

  • christopher lynsey


  • 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.


      She didn't do that!

    • 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.

      • Stephanie Georgopulos


  • Susie Anderson

    seems legit


    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.

    • 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].

  • Alex Thayer


  • 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.

  • Mugen

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

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