Long before romance seekers started swiping right, a CNET writer met her spouse on a long-extinct online service that came in a box.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
This is part of CNET's "It's Complicated" series about the role technology plays in our relationships.
When I met my husband Rob online, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were still married. To each other. Gas cost about a dollar a gallon and Facebook's wunderkind CEO Mark Zuckerberg was 5.
It was 1991. I was just out of college in Minnesota, and my parents bought our first home computer. My mom was so pleased it was an authentic IBM, "not one of those clones," and that it had a color display. She didn't know or care, but the machine also could support a new online service called Prodigy, served up on a floppy disk that came in a little yellow box.
Prodigy, founded as Trintex back in 1984, was one of the first internet service providers, and by 1990, it swelled to around 465,000 subscribers. Online services, including AOL, CompuServe and GEnie, were like the kiddie pool of what would later become the deep ocean that's the internet.
Membership was limited to those who loaded the service and paid $10 a month, so Prodigy members only interacted with other Prodigy members, and only read Prodigy news and content. It was like we'd all been transported to a weird auditorium where we could flit about and chat with strangers, but our room was sealed off from the one with AOL users.
I certainly wasn't looking for love. Computer dating to me was just a cheesy punchline from an Archie comic book, and I already had a boyfriend. But I explored the nooks and crannies of the clunky service, reading out-of-town news stories, playing games, reading movie reviews and getting sports scores.
Like most every other Prodigy member, I loved two things about the service: the bulletin boards and a newfangled thing called e-mail. I spent the most time on a board called The Arts Club, reading and posting about TV, movies, books and music. You could mostly find me on the "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Young and the Restless" threads, and for a retro fix, the one that focused on "The Brady Bunch."
Today's internet users would recognize the meaningless but fun banter that took place on Prodigy: joking about Tori Spelling's acting ability, inventing episodes of "The Brady Bunch" that never aired. If we'd been able to upload funny cat photos, we probably would have.
The same people wouldn't, however, recognize the innocence of those online times. Hideous graphics looked like a blindfolded kid drew them with a crayon and took forever to load over a 28.8 modem. Socially, the community was mostly self-policing, and rude losers didn't last long. We couldn't imagine nuisances like Twitter stalkers and trolls and Nigerian spam princes.
I'm not sure where Rob and I first met on Prodigy. I knew he was a law student in Los Angeles, and I admired his wit and encyclopedic pop-culture knowledge of everything from Batman to Bret Easton Ellis. He also lived 2,000 miles away, so there was no pressure. I figured we'd never meet.
When I'd been online for maybe a year, Prodigy dropped the bomb. It didn't want users to hang out and talk "Brady Bunch" anymore. It wanted us to shop, and, if we didn't, we were going to pay. We were suddenly limited to 30 email messages a month, and charged a quarter per message for anything over that. A lot of us quit in protest.
People today agonize over taking digital vacations, but I don't remember it being difficult to live without Prodigy. Life moved on. I landed my first journalism job, my boyfriend and I broke up, my best friend moved away. A year passed. And sometimes in the back of my mind I wondered what that guy from Los Angeles was up to.
Then one day, close to Christmas, I found his mailing address from a cassette mix tape he'd sent me (because it was the '90s) and mailed him a Christmas card. He wrote back, and in a matter of days we both joined Prodigy again. (We only stuck around for a few more months each. Prodigy itself hung on until at least 1999 in some form.)
By the next summer, Rob took his first flight to Minnesota so we could meet in person -- although I dragged a friend along to the airport in case he was a serial killer. In person, he was exactly who he was on screen, the same bright, captivating guy whose posts I'd always relished reading. There was no hidden core of snark or mean, and his humor came from a warm heart.
Eighteen months and seven airplane visits later, he proposed at a coffee shop in Uptown Minneapolis. We got married in October 1993, and now live in Seattle with our daughter and more rescue cats than we intended.
I have single friends who show me Tinder and OK Cupid. And in a way, I'm jealous. It's all so smooth and professional. You can snoop out your intended's looks and Google their LinkedIn profiles. It's sleek and technologically advanced.
These days, of course, people connect online all the time, but when Rob and I were first married, I never liked to tell people how we met. Back then it felt embarrassing, like I couldn't find love with people who actually knew me, so I had to turn to a computer.
But as Rob and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary in 2018, I've finally made peace with Prodigy. I now find charm in the wide-eyed way we came to find each other -- "The Brady Bunch"? A quarter an email? Cassette mix tapes? That time won't come again, and probably for the best, but I'm glad to have been a part of it.