by Cara Kiely Sullivan '93
When America On-Line offered me a chance to go on the road and on-line with their new forum, LOST in America, I jumped at the chance. With four traveling companions, five powerbooks and three digital cameras, I took to the road to experience and evaluate the American Dream and the American Reality through Generation X-colored glasses and disseminate my thoughts through my computer and modem for the 3.5 million users of American On-Line.
With four intrepid gearheads and a conversion van affectionately named "Telly," I toured the United States. That alone was interesting but this was a road trip with a twist. Control of the journey was not in my hands; rather, the users of AOL were at the helm. Through on-line voting and electronic mail, AOL users chose the destinations of the LOSTTravelers. Each week the users were given three options, for example San Francisco, Portland or Seattle; 65% of the users picked San Francisco and that was where the LOSTTravelers explored and adventured until the next vote.
The Travelers have been through the entire South, the Southwest, up through Colorado into the Northwest and down to Los Angeles, reaching out to the ever growing electronic community. With LOST we tried to mesh the real world with the digital world, or at least have the two meet halfway. At one point that actually happened, bridging the disparity between cyber and reality when an AOL family let us take over their house for Thanksgiving! The perspective was bizarre.
I explored the physical spaces and "real life" culture of the electronic community, in essence undertaking a study of Americana for the Digeratti. With a Macintosh 520c Powerbook and Apple 150 digital camera as my tools, and users of AOL as my travel guides, I set out in August to face the nation. Every day I posted a personal diary entry about my experiences. I fashioned myself as a female Ernie Pyle with a modem rather than a notebook.
Since all LOSTTravelers are between 21 and 24, it seemed likely that Generation Xers would be the most interested group of LOST in America users, but it turns out that the median age of users is 35 to 40, people who had already taken the "road trip" and were intrigued by this new way to experience it vicariously through the LOSTTravelers.
It made me realize the potential drawing power of forums like LOST in America. I think there is the possibility that LOST and other such new media endeavors can narrow the gap in certain demographics. Let me use the example of my parents who had very little interaction with computers and absolutely none with the Internet. Before I headed cross country I made sure they had a modem hookup, AOL and Netscape. I assumed they wouldn't do much with it aside from sending me e-mail. Little did I realize that I had created monsters. After checking out the AOL LOST in America site and getting the hang of AOL in general, my parents began investigating the Internet more thoroughly through Netscape's browser. They now know more than I do about what is cool on-line. The point is that a new medium that is artistic and interactive can excite and intrigue people who normally wouldn't use a computer. The possibility that an on-line service can mesh with reality makes the Internet more accessible to the digitally disinclined.
Besides the potential for drawing people into the information superhighway, this "road work" tested the boundaries of the workplace and communication. To participate in LOST in America I took a leave of absence from Chiat/Day Advertising (as of this printing TBWA Chiat/Day) whose founder Jay Chiat was an innovator of the "virtual office," a workplace where the limits of time and space become meaningless because of the possibilities offered by the computer age.
I saw this journey across the country as another manifestation of the virtual office and an opportunity to test it at a grassroots level -- and, more important, at a more personal level. My computer was not only my link to my writing job but my main link to my personal life. As my boyfriend said: "My girlfriend lives in a computer." In many ways I was the "I Dream of Genie" for the modern age.
However, the true gauge of whether a forum like LOST in America works is the users and whether they enjoyed or benefited from it. The immediate user gratification that new media endeavors offers is what interests people, but what addicts people is the interaction. The immediate gratification of television is similar but there is dissatisfaction there, hence channel surfing. With on-line services like LOST there is more user interaction.
LOST users get to collaborate, advise, denounce, ridicule, praise, suggest or ignore with one hit of the return key. Perhaps I am a cyber snob but the superhighway takes a bit more brain power and thoughtfulness than TV. At LOST we expect the user has something to offer, whether it be the best directions to San Francisco or comments on our work. People might read my piece and have their own ideas which they can then share with me immediately. It takes one simple e-mail to tell me that my piece on the homogenization of the United States sucked. I can respond, or not.
As a writer I felt the gratification intensely and immediately. I wrote my piece on Halloween in New Orleans. I took the picture of the vampires at Anne Rice's Party, and it posted instantly to the LOST site for AOL users to enjoy. I didn't have to wait for a monthly magazine or a daily paper to see my work published. However, I still had deadlines and I did my own editing. As a student of all that is digital I was fascinated, but as a paranoid writer I fretted. I often felt like a mother when her child leaves for good: there was nothing more I could do for that piece. I just had to let it go. Only after it was posted did I remember the perfect phrase or example to illustrate my point.
I had fantastic travel experiences in real time all over the United States (and parts of Mexico). Plus those experiences I had the opportunity to learn about other areas through AOL, traveling to other places in cyber time. I interacted with people in Maine while I was in Suarez, Mexico. The edges of reality and cyber began to blur.
My real journey ended but my cyber journey does not. Now I am back home in New York City but if I feel that wanderlust come on I don't even have to leave the building. I just fire up my Mac and go on-line.
LOST in America sent five new Travelers out in January to continue interpreting the American Dream and the American Reality. If you have America On-Line, just type the keyword LOST.