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Once upon a time, when every hour on AOL over your initial 5 hours a month cost $3.50, there was a great bunch of people who met in the Windows Members Helping Members area. Some of those people had screen names still familiar to us - Kayte, Michael, Shen, Dawn and others. Some now use different names, but they're the same folks. This is the same Windows MHM where Ruby, our current help correspondent, now hangs out - a place where experienced users offer assistance to those newer to the online world.

Lots of wonderful helpful people still hang out in MHM - but this particular bunch congregated there in 1994. Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? In cyber terms, it was. Those were the days of AOL for Windows 1.0, 1.2, and 1.5. Sending "attached files" was a brand new concept. Some other services didn't even have mail outside their own systems. For instance, AOL members could send mail to Prodigy, but Prodigy users couldn't answer it! In those days we got really excited when we snagged a 4800 connection to AOL. Sometimes we had to settle for 2400, 1200, or - gasp! - 300 bps. There were about 1,000,000 members.


That's not "signed on at this second." That's altogether.

Then the MHM board managers opened a new folder called "What is Unique about AOL?" Regulars soon found they could start a thread about anything at all - if it sorta vaguely related to America Online. The very best part was that because it was in the "help" area, it was FREE.

This spot quickly became known simply as "Unique," and this gang of folks started a free newsletter that came out one Sunday a month, called the Unique Rainbow. Hundreds of people first met there, popping hurriedly out to send an IM or write mail.

Well, AOL caught on to the, um, "lavish" use of the free areas and eliminated the "Unique" folder.

The Rainbow continued, though, and its subscribers eventually numbered in the thousands.

Some of the folks who volunteered for the Rainbow eventually negotiated a loan from AOL and opened their own area: "Roadside USA." Roadside opened in April of 1996, and - sadly - lasted only six weeks. AOL decided it could do the same thing more cheaply. But in that brief time, a whole 'nother bunch of regulars started hanging around, like Lysa and Joanie and JL and the Hawks. Now, the Roadside Post arrived every Sunday free in people's mailboxes.

When Roadside closed, some staff and groupies went to The Hub, and others to the brand new chat room at The Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic wanted a weekly newsletter and so, on June 1, 1996, the Galleon Atlantic  was formed, with the usual suspects: Shen, Lysa, Kayte, JL, Michael, and Joanie.

In late November of 1996, The Atlantic Monthly and AOL had a disagreement. The Atlantic went to the Web, and the chat room regulars decided to continue as if nothing had happened. They decided to create  a Member Room and, after half a dozen meetings and brainstorm sessions, settled on the name Orca's Place. Orca was a typo-crazed wannabe-journalist who appeared in a series of stories created for "Roadside USA." These stories now live on as The Pixelville Chronicles. The Orca's Place room opened on December 1, 1996. The same day, the Galleon Atlantic was reincarnated as the Frigate Anyway.

Though most of us originally met on AOL, our lives have become interwoven in many ways. We keep in touch with each other through email, IM's, website links, and - of course - hanging out in Orca's Place. We are living proof of the new communities and extended families which online access has made possible. Like any "town," we have our share of snerts and troublemakers wander though, but they don't stay long. And, yeah, we probably have a few skeletons in our closets. We've helped each other through lots of crises, but we also have our fair share of laughter and joy.

We've had many face-to-face meetings. We've had our first "real live" convention, complete with "real newspaper" coverage. We've even had a couple Orcan weddings! We've come a long way, baby - and who knows where we'll go next?

© 1998, Katherine E. Wattam

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ETA: That was the status of Orca's Place in 1998. Now, nearly eight years later, and nine-plus years after the Orca's Place member room was first created on December 1, 1996, Orca's Place is still going strong, still with volunteer leadership. Orca's Place has had two real-life conventions, plus a number of mini-conventions when Orca's members gather together in the real world to meet and laugh. Attempts are being made to plan a third Orca's Place Convention. We've been blessed with wonderful new people to add to the wonderful regulars from way back, and still manage to play trivia with volunteer hosts most nights. And still manage to laugh and sometimes cry together and support our Orca's Place friends through thick and thin.

Thanks to all who have and do make Orca's Place one of the best rooms on AOL.

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Page last updated 04/30/2006.