Reading last week in The Slacktivist about a proto-blog on paper in a college library reminded me of another oddity at the Reader: the free classifieds.
We had the usual personals and ads, but anyone could send in a card with a few sentences on it and it would be put in the free classifieds section. Nothing in the real classifieds categories could go there, and nothing commercial, but it was free and almost totally uncensored.
The result was a tiny, paper-based social network. Anonymous confessions a la Postsecret were common. "Missed connections" as seen in Craigslist also showed up.
And, inevitably, a running cast of characters turned the free classifieds into a forum. They all had nicknames. Some of them disliked each other. There were running gags and pranks. Occasionally someone would depart in a huff and return. Flame wars went on for weeks. And periodically we had to drop one of the ads because of some violation of policy, and the residents of the free zone would call us tyrants and rage for weeks.
Some members of the group met in person sometimes. I don't think it went very well.
Working at the paper added another dimension to the experience. We could see by the postcards which people had multiple characters, for example. The same was true for personals. There was one sixtysomething couple who were regulars (as one person) on the boards, and had two other recurring ads: an appeal for a cute young woman to form a threesome with them, and an ad offering 24-hour prayer and spiritual counseling for free. Only we knew that these were all the same people.
These weirdos prepared me perfectly for my later adventures on BBS's and the Internet. Perceived anonymity, role-playing, multiple false personae, flame wars, socially inept people forming dysfunctional communities, and outsized complaints about censorship? Nothing new! I already knew about the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, the perils of sexual encounters in a virtual world, trolls and flamewars, and the dissociative and fraudulent nature of virtual personalities.
As I was writing this I thought: hey! I wonder if our parent the Chicago Reader still has these? Our classifieds were an exact copy of their much more successful section.
It appears that they do. They're called Bulletin Messages there, and there are definitely some similarities, and this one in particular looks very much like one of our old regulars. There are obvious differences, but something of the same character is present.
I miss the original, though. There were only 20 or so characters that recurred, and it was a little porthole into a very weird tank of fish.