Vegan Cheeseburgers

Months ago, I was thinking about changing careers. I wasn't working at Electric Minds yet and was daydreaming about finding a job doing new media computer-related stuff. I had heard that a great place to meet cool people doing cool work was Thursday Night Dinner.

Thursday Night Dinner took place on the second floor of an old house in the Mission, on Ramona Avenue. First thing I noticed: a stack of cheeseburgers. I knew that each TND, as everyone kept calling it, had a theme. This week's theme was vegan food. Hmmm, I thought, these people aren't overly concerned with consistency. Second thing I noticed was that the house wasn't really a house: office equipment and computers filled the rooms. But it wasn't really an office, either. Well, if it was, then it was the funky office of my dreams, with a back stairway leading to a patio and a kitchen and couches and hot-pink Ethernet cable running from computers up the stairs and out windows and a glow-in-the-dark palimpsest of postcards and kitsch in the bathroom.

I saw a friend there, and we giggled and gossiped in the narrow hallway as people squeezed past us. She knew where everyone worked, all the romantic entanglements, who the movers and shakers were. "Oh, yeah, she's been working at c|net and can really tell you the dirt on what it's like to be there now. And that guy by the door, he used to date the woman pouring drinks in the kitchen. Oh and I want you to meet my friend - he's going to India next month." There were seventy-five people there--a lot of old friends, it seemed. Every computer sprouted a cluster of onlookers showing each other web pages, using a chat program or carving their names into a virtual picnic table. I felt like a new arrival on a friendly shore and I wanted to find out more about who these people were.

Jenny Cool When I started doing Thursday Night Dinners with my roomies at 59 Ramona in 1994, the idea was to hardwire sociality into the week. No matter how busy, no matter how crazed we all were, we ate together each Thursday. We would have that time to connect with others like us (single techno-folk) and to begin, little by little, to build a community. It's great to see that still going on and to see it growing. It's heartening to see how strongly people gravitate to Cyborganic and TND--because really they're gravitating towards one another.

TNDs are keeping the Cyborganic community fueled with face-to-face time--every week, a different theme, and every week, you get the sense that you are with your people: mostly young, fun, smart as hell, technologically savvy. These are the people you go to for cutting-edge Web design, and they're employed at Organic, C|Net, @home, HotWired--the biggest guns across town. Cyborganic attracts people who want more than a place to put their home page. Internet service? You can get that anywhere. What you can't get anywhere is a tribe strung together with shocking pink Ethernet cable.

Cyborganic was born in 1993 of a collective vision of how technology can cement a community. Longtime friends Jonathan Steuer, Jenny Cool and others wanted to find ways to combine a real-time hangout and a virtual, computer based space. As apartments came up for rent, a core of people moved to one-block-long Ramona Avenue. In September 1996, Cyborganic moved from its old home to shiny new headquarters on Mission Street, with Multimedia Gulch to the south and the Financial District to the north. The place is huge, three floors, with plate-glass floor-to-ceiling windows facing onto Mission Street. When I first saw it, I thought, "Oh, wow, anyone can walk by and see the geeks in action!"

Howard Rheingold I knew Jonathan Steuer was not your ordinary geek when I first laid eyes on him: pre-Raphaelite hair, purple overalls, cell-phone with a Keroppi sticker poking up out of one pocket. I trace the origins of HotWired and Cyborganic and a lot more to the Net Jams he used to have at Stanford. When Steuer was a graduate student and had the keys to a room full of workstations connected to a T-1 line, he'd invite friends to bring junk food and tunes and spend the night exploring cyberspace. Then he became Online Tsar for Wired and convinced the keepers of the keys that they needed something a bit more net-savvy than an AOL folder. That's when Jonathan brought me in; we started thinking up what was to become HotWired. Ultimately, neither of us were comfortable with the direction that venture took. I left and started dreaming of the webzine/community that was to become Electric Minds. Jonathan and a bunch of friends started working on their dream of a community that would have an online component and a real life component. As Thursday Night Dinner became a legendary institution in San Francisco, their real-world gathering place outgrew their cyber-commune on Ramona Street and they moved into their public space on Mission Street. The mandate seems to be the same: find ways to use technology that are both humane and fun. I'm all for it.

No one wants to look at the Internet all the time.

Jonathan Steuer The first round of funding was designed to get us into a new space, launch GeekCereal and stabilize our technical infrastructure. We did those things. Building out our new space will have to wait for another round of financing. Potential investors should call me immediately!

In the basement, we will have our server room. Computers don't mind where you put them. And we will have classrooms and small private workrooms where you can rent a computer and equipment in a well-supported environment. You can come to hang out for the whole day and work. We want to support the community of people who stick around here, host their pages with us and participate as active members of Cyborganic.

The ground floor will be informally nerdy in the front and get nerdier as you go toward the back. The front will have regular cafe tables and a couple of little terminals--nothing too in-your-face. No one wants to look at the Internet all the time. We will work more technology in as you go back. At the end of the room will be a Powerbook docking corner for the execs on the go who come in need a place to jack in and check their mail and slam an espresso, and generally a place for geeks to hold court. The mezzanine will have conference rooms to rent so the nerds who work out of their garages can have somewhere nice for presentations, and for the trade show folks at Moscone who want a more private meeting place with a net connection without major hassle or expense. And the top floor is the Cyborganic office space.

The glass and chrome of Mission Street was a startling change from back-porch, laid-back house-as-office Ramona Avenue. But two things hadn't changed: movement toward a grand vision of the ties between community and technology and the pinkest Ethernet cable known to humankind.

Jonathan Steuer In the summer of 1994, when I worked at HotWired, I was adamant about getting neon or fluorescent or day-glo or whatever the fuck you want to call it Ethernet cable. I kept bugging the tech guy. "Pink pink pink cable pink cable must have pink cable." He told me, "It's a hassle, they have to order it, it takes an extra four days." But they ordered it, they got it in, it looked awesome. Several months later I heard, when they were wiring the Wired offices across the hall, that they weren't going to use it for the rest of the offices. All of the leftover spools of cable were just sitting around. So I said, "Can I takethese, if you guys don't want them?" I was in the process of wiring the house on Ramona in the very early days of getting Cyborganic going. In fact, if you go over to 67 Ramona Avenue you can tell which building is the Cyborganic one because it's got pieces of pink ethernet going outside the house. Anyway, they were like, yeah, whatever. They're pretty heavy, I remember carrying them down to the car. But I figured, save me a hundred bucks a reel for category-five Ethernet.

And we used it, but most of the cable just sat there at Ramona. Almost exactly two years later, we took occupancy of this place on Mission Street. I still wanted the pink cable, so we wired the mezzanine with it, and we ran out halfway through and ordered more pink cable, and they sent us the wrong cable. So we had to call back the nerd stuff wholesaler. They were like, "Oh fashion-conscious nerds." P-ter Normal managed to chase down the correct color. It took an extra week to finish our wiring here but we did it. P-ter is finishing up the wiring as we speak. A substantial portion of the wire in this building was actually paid for by Wired, which I find very funny.

When we were at Ramona, we strung Ethernet across the street. Sonic, who still lives on Ramona, climbed up the phone pole and I stood on the roof with a piece of Ethernet. We tied a tennis shoe to the end to give it enough weight so she could catch it. We hung little notes from the cable that said "Attention cable and phone people: do not cut. It's just ethernet." It runs across a couple of people's roofs but no one seems to mind too much. I'll keep that alive as long as I can afford to.

Family values are not just for Bible-thumping conservatives.

The orginal funky dream office at 67 Ramona Avenue was the creation of Jonathan, Jenny, Caleb Donaldson, and others. In addition to serving as the TND base, the house was where Cyborganic ran its web site and event creation service and hosted Cyborganic members' personal web pages. And it was the physical home of the space bar, a free chat area where Cyborganites hang out day and night. Anyone can log into the space bar; you don't have to be a Cyborganic member, though if you spend any amount of time there, you'll most likely get sucked in. Cyborganic also set up mailing lists to discuss items of general interest to the community -- everything from who is cooking and cleaning at the next TND to the environmental consequences of old-growth logging. The discussion on the lists is not always harmonious; lately, they have been alternately soul-searching, rancorous and cacophonous, focusing on the meaning and purpose of Cyborganic, what is suitable content for the lists themselves, and how to handle vociferous critics of the Cyborganic community and its efforts.

Ryan Powers We're a bunch of geeks. My friends Mark, Brian and Fixer, all live together now because of space bar and the community. That's how they met up and found each other and found a place to live. Another friend, Heidi, was living in Idaho. It was cold, her job was not working out, and she was totally isolated. She came across space bar and she found her way here. She wound up moving in with me, in my house, because I had an room open. It was all because of the community.

Jenny Cool For me, Cyborganic has always been about "family values." It's a voice that says families, communities, neighborhoods are not just for Bible-thumping conservatives, but are essentials for every human being--even geeks. We have to define what's meaningful to us, what we want. That's what I sought to do with Cyborganic, and I still see Cyborganic as an experiment in how to meet basic social needs in nifty new ways. I tend to think of Cyborganic as a club for people who don't ordinarily belong to clubs, an association of outcasts and rebels. Seems most Cyborganic folks take rebel pride in being weird and wild. I know I do.

Our goal is for there to be a thousand Justin Halls

Jonathan Steuer We're trying to provide resources for communities in the technical direction, a readymade set of tools. And we have a core audience of a particular sort: people who are actively making stuff on the web. We give them the stuff that they don't want to build themselves, whether that's a reliable server, a decent net connection, a way to preview their pages on a staging server before it goes live, conferencing tools which we're slowly rolling out and hacking together, the tools to do commerce, credit card-processing shit, that whole side of the fence.

We're appealing to those people as our community, their peers and their wannabe peers. These are people who know that they have something interesting to say but are not quite sure where to get the technical resources to do that in an interesting and flexible manner. I think that these are the people who ultimately will stick with Cyborganic. Right now, that's a very San Francisco-centered community of people. But as time goes on that will become less and less true. Our goal is for there to be a thousand Justin Halls, for it not to be a problem to find a place to host your site when it gets a lot of traffic, a place that will help you sell ads on your site and help you deal with the tracking and the reports to sponsors so you can concentrate on the stuff that you do well, which is making the content. That's the broad vision: an on-the-web and off-the-web place to support people doing cool stuff online.

Cyborganic's new location, on one of the main drags in the center of the city, makes it impossible to keep the door open, like they did at Ramona. There's a doorbell now. An "if you don't swing, don't ring" sign greeted loungewear-clad arrivals at the recent Playboy Mansion TND. The new lavender walls helped set the decadent tone. I said hi to familiar faces, met some new ones, talked to Terri Nelson, Cyborganic's Operations Manager, resplendent in a leopard pantsuit and platform heels, messed around on the space bar, looked at snapshots of bygone Ramona days with Jenny Cool, gossiped and giggled, ate a strawberry, admired the new wiring job, and settled into an evening of geek bliss.

Virtual Community Center Producer Jill Davidson had way too much fun writing this profile of Cyborganic. She was ably aided by Jenny Cool, Caleb Donaldson, Marjorie Ingall, Terri Nelson, M Normal, Ryan Powers, Howard Rheingold and Jonathan Steuer. Many thanks to all of you.


minni said:

What I find interesting is that most of the "environments" for VCs ( for example, chat rooms like the Palace) all have identifiable artifacts derived from real world, such as rooms, doors, places. The funny thing is that they are merely backdrops to help citizens navigate through the web of passages, and they do not provide any experience of the "place" like physical places do. Let's say we want a monumental public plaza that celebrates the pride of civility. How the heck can do we that?

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