Certain innovations signal particular points in time, like artifacts recovered from an archaeological site. “The Walkman!” Barbara Klotz Silverstone ’84 said, when I asked alumnae about life-changing technologies that emerged during our college years. Who knew back then, as we cited the social honor code to quiet neighbors’ stereos, that portable music piped through earphones would herald the personal devices—and increasingly solo forms of diversion—to come?
At Bryn Mawr in the 1980s, our social networks were still anchored in place and time. We gathered at the College Inn for snacks and conversation and at Haverford’s Stokes Hall for Saturday night movies. We relied on letters and landline phones to keep in touch with friends and family, rushing to our rooms at 11 p.m., when long-distance rates dropped. “No one had answering machines,” Linda Garey ’84 recalls. “We had small dry-erase boards on the hallway door, so a visitor who missed you could leave a message. That is how we knew, for example, that friends were eating in Erdman at 6 p.m.”
When virtual bulletin board systems emerged in the 1990s, early adopter Eliza Fendell ’95 posted messages from her computer, one of the first in Rhoads South. “I’m not a computer science-oriented person,” she says, “but I grasped the social implications of an online environment pre-World Wide Web.”
With practice, she mastered the protocol: dial into Bryn Mawr’s still-new computing center, telnet into the Iowa Student Computer Association’s BBS, go to dinner while “Za” (her online name) advanced in the queue. One night, she x-ed (direct messaged) “WindowWalker”—because “he wrote in complete sentences with correct punctuation!” she jokes—and launched a “pen-paly” exchange with the man she would eventually marry. They didn’t share physical descriptions of themselves until he road-tripped from Texas and they arranged to meet at a bookstore in Bryn Mawr. She: preppy in tweed skirt, knit shirt. He: long-haired, earring, biker jacket, torn jeans. “If we’d met in person first, there’s no way I would have talked to him!” Fendell says. “An online persona lets you access who you are internally.”
In her first years at Bryn Mawr, Mary Wessel Walker ’06 made an art of creating “cool away messages” on AIM, a format that was fading by the time “Thefacebook” rolled out, one college at a time, beginning in 2004. She joined the Bryn Mawr network while studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, still beyond (the renamed) Facebook’s reach. “That was the last time I made friends I couldn’t connect with on Facebook,” she says. “I’m the same age as Mark Zuckerberg. It was definitely a before-and-after moment.”
As Wessel Walker recalls, before Facebook added the status update feature, a user’s “wall” was like a dry-erase board: a profile showing the groups you belonged to, visible only to your college network. “I joined one called Erd’s the Werd, for people who worked in Erdman [food service],” she says. “We weren’t just using the group to swap shifts. In the early Internet, people used clever language to connect. If you came up with a funny group name, people would join. Now, there’s so much content on your wall that you can’t see the groups.”
Designed to connect people, Facebook (which opened to anyone with an email address in 2006) and other social media platforms have disconnected our relationships from place and time. “It’s interesting how rapidly our standards of privacy and expectations about being constantly available changed,” says Emily Pinkerton ’07, who graduated in a pivotal year. Among the technological innovations launched in 2007: iPhone, Android, Twitter, and Kindle.
An English major who works in the technology industry, Pinkerton explains her divergent interests in writing code and writing poetry as an “obsessive level of attention to detail” she applies to solving tech problems or to “compressing an entire universe into a small block of 60 words.” She credits Bryn Mawr’s Summer Multimedia Development program with twining her talents into a career.
After stints at Stripe and Twitter, Pinkerton reflects, “I’m more circumspect about technology now. I think a lot more about unintended consequences and how privacy might be compromised.” Though her digital skills are valuable, she says studying the humanities trained her to think critically about the human context for new systems.
Currently working at Turbine Labs while she pursues an M.F.A. in poetry, Pinkerton’s personal code of ethics—“Make sure your work is good work and that it serves communities beyond the one you live in”—is what we all practiced in close proximity at Bryn Mawr.