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CYBERIA | SO SoCal

It Takes a Village

April 21, 1996|Michael Walker

Armageddon visited cyberspace on April Fools' day, when beleaguered Apple Computer vaporized its doughty little online service, eWorld. Doomed almost from its launch in June 1994, eWorld was designed for users of Apple's MacIntosh computers. It offered the usual online stew of news, chat rooms and stock quotes but never signed up more than 150,000 subscribers and was quickly eclipsed by established services like America Online, with 5 million subscribers, and by the public's sudden passion for tapping directly into the Internet.

Like the MacIntosh, eWorld was easy to use, elegantly designed and possessed a winsome-bordering-on-precious personality: Users navigated by clicking on buildings in a "Town Square"; e-mail was "delivered" by a plucky red truck. But the service's pathetically small subscriber base made possible an intimacy rarely glimpsed on the sprawl of the Internet. Here, at last, was an electronic village that really was a village. And, like a small town, it seemed that everyone was, cyberwise, known to everyone else. Easygoing politesse ruled the chat rooms and message boards; women adored eWorld because they could converse without online mashers demanding, "Hey, are you NEKKID??"

So after Apple announced it would burn down the village at the stroke of midnight PST on Sunday, March 31, hardcore eWorldians began gathering in the Town Square chat rooms Friday for a weekend-long death watch and bon voyage bash. Apple, for its part, turn off the meter Saturday morning, and by Sunday night the combination of free access and last-chance nostalgia resulted in an avalanche of log-ons that nearly crashed the system.

Saturday, Women On-Line Worldwide hosted a marathon "eWorld Farewell Formal" that featured unlimited, if virtual, Dom Perignon, lots of gold lame and unabashed girl talk ("the point offudge is fat..."). Elsewhere, there was denial ("Surely all these people on eWorld are enough to show Apple we care and not to shut down!!!"), anger ("I say, let's all cuss and get thrown off eWorld right about now") and, near the end, acceptance and heartfelt elegies. "Goodbye to all eWorld residents," read one, "this has been a living community." The message closed, as so many did that weekend, with the cyber dingbat ;-( --a frowning sideways face shedding a tear.

Eworld's last half hour was surreal and possibly unprecedented--a condemned community stretching from Taipei to London to L.A. annotating its demise as the clock ticked down to midnight. "I feel like I'm waiting for my execution," marveled one message.

Then came the final minute.

"Oh my gosh, it's really happening."

"Someone hold me."

"Tears on my keyboard."

"My God, it's full of stars!"

"Keep your face away from the screen in case it blows."

"I see a bright white light!"

"Is that the governor; is there a reprieve?"

"I love you Wayne."

"30 secs..."

"It's almost over, it's about to end."

"My heart is beating really, really fast."

"Am I dead yet?"

"THERE'S A TUNNEL!"

"This is breaking my heart!"

"LOVE YOU ALL!!!"

"Good night."

Then the Town Square and its fat cartoon buildings belligerently disappeared, replaced by a MacIntosh "alert" that blandly advised: "Bye...eWorld no longer available."

Around the world, thousands immediately tried logging back on--the cyber equivalent of clapping to keep Tinkerbell alive--then sheepishly switched off their Macs, feeling foolish, perhaps, for sentimentalizing what was, in the end, a failed computer service. But if we are to take seriously the notion that computers can truly create communities from the ether, eWorld's jammed Town Square the night of its death was evidence that they can. As one eWorldian put it: "It's not the downloads, it's the people."

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