“The Telegram”: 24 years in the life of one email list and how it fanned cyberpunk fever and opened a door into a new

I was alone, sick, and cleaning out my email box when I read an odd email from a poster of a tech company forum asking for help in setting up a service he called…

"The Telegram": 24 years in the life of one email list and how it fanned cyberpunk fever and opened a door into a new

I was alone, sick, and cleaning out my email box when I read an odd email from a poster of a tech company forum asking for help in setting up a service he called “electro piggy banks” — a privacy-protected monetary system that simply collects and sends cash, or does it?

This was one of those lo-fi early days of email, which means the addresses were just alphabetized because not yet we had filters. There were dozens of other users who had received similar email.

I turned the cursor over and looked at each user’s name and forwarded it to the list. What I saw began to make me seriously question the hype surrounding virtual money.

Another day, another message about my email list. Someone else offered to translate dollars into bitcoins.

Each day, an ex-boyfriend wrote an email from a now-secret email address, telling me how he, his fiancée, and her mom had been sent a rare coin.

These days, the posts go dark but not the questions, which come with each message. For instance, while it was easy to confirm that it was someone named Jeremy, the question: who was that? What kind of experience did he have with Bitcoin?

And what did he do with the coins? One thing he told me he did, was give them to a friend to buy a condo — and that “not many people can afford to buy a $3,000 condo,” in China.

Next, I started wondering why we were opening this email list. I realize it now, but in those early days it made us feel special. We felt like part of a startup. It is the single most powerful feeling you can get on the internet.

Many of us were gamers, too. For a group of young people who looked so much alike that we sometimes forgot what region we lived in, our online universes were a magical zone where magic was occasionally sprinkled onto their cells.

Facebook existed solely for parents, and only a select few of us had profiles.

But I wasn’t there.

***

The entire idea of cyberpunk—fear of the unknown—emerged out of the 80s and the books of William Gibson. We accepted cyberpunk into our reality because we had no idea what it was.

Most people you talked to couldn’t even name a late 80s tech company. But our Facebook feeds, our Gmails, and our Reddit boards filled us with first-hand experiences about cyberpunk, what it means for our lives, and the general mindset that the virtual world wasn’t something we were supposed to be a part of.

But these false beliefs about the future took us out of the moment, making us happier and emptier with virtual life than ever.

**

While we never met the person on my inbox, we did meet decades later, decades after I stumbled upon her. My partner, Scott, and I knew her from our early years and had spent many years with our old buddy, Ian from New Zealand.

We first met in Auckland, when I was working at a publishing company there and Ian was working at a TV studio. Over the years, we’d met a couple of times while Ian was in town, and inevitably it came to the topic of the Telegram who was still operating on this list.

When you pass a number to someone from this email list, you get their message, in an unconventional format, because those messages are used only by the lucky few people on the list.

One morning, about two years ago, Scott got an email with our original invitation to join. But it wasn’t the old guy at the book company on the list—the grandfather of the website—it was this blonde woman. And the email was signed with his email address.

Her name was Rose. And she looked like the one on my list. Her email signature listed half a dozen drugs she wanted me to try, but none for me.

Could it be she was too busy to keep up with all those users and that she just wanted to help? When Scott read that in her email signature, his first thought was about that list, the one that helped him, so many years ago.

I came face to face with that one digital twin for a moment in a hotel room in Florida. Rose and I both wanted to begin this conversation, to become a part of it, to help rebuild the old reality that we thought we’d lost.

The Telegram was still an active, private network, and Rose had no place to charge, no reason to continue to email, but she kept going.

They came back once, twice, three times each, but Rose answered their emails.

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