One afternoon in our high school library, I noticed my friend studying a glossy, colorful postcard of sorts, folded into a few sections. She opened it horizontally to reveal a triptych of thick paper. A jumble of text was plastered all over, on the front and back.
She handed it to me.
There were lists of people’s names in scattered boxes; each column was labeled. The left column was titled Feel It: Where old school heritage meets the new school vibe. The typography reminded me of the Sega Genesis games I played when I was little.
I scanned the backside. All are welcome. Doors open at 9:00 pm. Fully permitted, friendly, and safe centralized Bay Area location. Addresses and phone numbers of record stores and other shops were listed beneath—Wicked, the skate store in Redwood City, and Magic Theatre, the smoke shop in San Mateo. Three phone numbers were listed at the bottom: 415-263-0483. 510-888-2368. 408-881-0785. San Francisco, East Bay, and San Jose numbers, respectively.
It looked like a festival, but I wasn’t sure. It was tomorrow night. I wanted to go.
“So, where is it?” I asked.
“You have to call one of those numbers,” she said.
* * *
In 1997, it went like that.
* * * * *
In the early nineties, you got even less:
A single phone number. A lineup of San Francisco house DJs. A simple “save the date” of what was coming—a teaser suggesting you had been there before. Yet there wasn’t a concrete, physical there. A party flyer provided logistic details, but ultimately was not a resource for information. It was a piece of paper that represented something. Something bigger.
What you had experienced before.
What you looked forward to.
The past and the future at once. That long moment in between—the anticipation—for the next party.
Inch forward to 1995.
You hold up an Area 51 flyer in your hands. A UFO graphic. A few lines of text. And the date. That’s it. But that elusive yet enveloping element of the party—the vibe—lingers: a tangled sensory bundle filling up in your fingertips as you turn the flyer over. You see sound in the nimble movements of dancing silhouettes; you feel it, throbbing against your chest like a second hearbeat. You feel darkness that’s warm and sweaty and suffocating but still welcoming—it feels like a womb.
This flimsy flyer offers no details. But there is a subtext that floats.
Those days when information was scarce. When we had to ask around for it, hunt for it. A time when underground seemed to really mean something—when it was something I felt, descended into, climbed out of. A scene in which we experimented and shared and learned from one another—how to dance, how to spin records, how to look after ourselves over a long night.
A boundaryless world where I participated and created, lost in moments mostly undocumented.
* * * * *
Discovery. Secrecy. Inaccessibility.
I miss these things. But it’s not that they have disappeared. Everything is just different now.
In the mid-to-late nineties, I had an AOL account but didn’t spend much time online. My friends and I learned about underground parties in abandoned flats in downtown San Francisco and makeshift outdoor locations in Oakland through word-of-mouth: from friends, their friends, or the crews that threw them. In pre-cell phone years, when just a few high school friends had pagers, we had less ways to get in touch. We’d head out for the night, and sometimes we couldn’t reach each other, couldn’t coordinate a ride, missed one another at a meeting spot, or had no idea where someone was. A night happened if it happened.
And then there was SFRaves. Black-and-white and link-heavy, SFRaves was a beacon of this neon-tinged darkness: a digital bible for the community, and a master rave calendar for gatherings big and small, for trance or breaks or house or jungle or happy hardcore parties. It was a helpful online forum, but nothing like the fancy party promotion and club websites and Facebook event invitations of today. I liked learning about upcoming parties other ways: from a flyer created with a pen, stuck on my windshield at 6 am; or a friendly girl wearing Kikwears and candy bracelets up her forearms, waiting at a bustop.
* * * * *
A few weeks ago, I came upon “Facebook is destroying fragile subcultures,” an article in The Kernel about how the Internet can both nurture and kill a subculture. The piece talks about how The Eye Scene, a forum for enthusiasts of myopia, has given people with a particular, peculiar fetish a place to express themselves. But because of the knowledge that Facebook tracks our every move, and the increasing ability to tie one’s virtual persona to their real-life identity, quality engagement among members has dropped.
Where the internet once offered a safe harbour for the most outré behaviours and interests, the social revolution is killing off much of the vibrancy and diversity of the web.
I don’t fully agree; the web is vibrant and diverse. But the use of killing off seems on point—things are disappearing.
I think about how my entire rave experience would have been different had the technology been there. Losing my friends and wandering through a crowd to hunt for them—and serendipitously befriending strangers along the way—would not have happened if I had a cell phone. Or perhaps it would, but not in the same organic, oddly beautiful way. And if I had a smart phone with a camera, with social networks accessible with just a click? I could have captured, and shared, any moment. The fleetingness of a night, which lasted hours, would have been documented. The slippery sensation I’ve tried to capture in my writing over the past fifteen years could have been encoded into a tweet.
But those moments were not meant to be recorded: Some were supposed to be forgotten. Others work better, and are sweeter, as blurry memories.
I love social media: the ability to connect, share, and be informed. But I miss those moments of raw discovery: Not knowing the location of a party. Not figuring out what exactly that was in the dark. I miss those moments of getting lost trying to find a party in the industrial part of Oakland, finding it, and somehow being inside a secret. I miss those moments of inaccessibility: dancing for hours with a stranger whose name I’d forgotten by the time the sun rose—and not having a tool like Facebook to search for him or her when I got home.
I miss the randomness of those days. It’s interesting how today’s online experience strives to be natural—apps and social networks offering recommendations based on your preferences and connections. Even the site name “StumbleUpon” implies that something wondrous is at work as you browse. Amusing, that.
I love Twitter: seeing what’s trending, what’s going viral, the memes-du-jour. But there is something empty, sterile, and rigid about it all. I actually don’t like being told what to read; I rely on recommended links from my stream, but would rather discover new stuff on my own. And to be honest, I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea behind retweeting: sharing information fed to me from elsewhere. Creating an illusion of knowledge. Liking and reposting and favoriting and curating. It all means something; it all means nothing.
And so, what we have access to in 2012? It’s amazing.
But it’s different. Oddly, I sometimes wish getting information, and learning about things without physically experiencing them, wasn’t so easy.
* * * * *
My years in the rave scene? An unrecorded experience, digitally speaking. I have old photos and flyers in shoeboxes. I may have a pair of 42-inch-bottomed Jncos in a box somewhere. But I have nothing to post, nothing to tweet. And even if I did, anything shared or retweeted or churned through the Internet would be stripped of that extra dimension—that something bigger.
That sensation you feel if you had been there.
- The End of an Era, the Beginning of the Future (and the Long Moment in Between)
- We Danced to Become Machines
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Blogger at Writing Through the Fog. Story Wrangler at Automattic.