Many fans will be unfamiliar with the name Skip Shayotovich. We tried - unsuccessfully - to locate him (and if you're reading this Skip, please drop us a line). Those lucky to have the original Dark Empire comics will find his name in the letter pages of issue #1. Other than that, you'd be hard pressed to find him associated with Star Wars today.
But on February 25, 1991, Skip Shayotovich pioneered what became modern cyber-fandom, from rumor discussion to websites like TheForce.net. On that day, Shayotovich announced the creation of the Star Wars Echo on FidoNet, and the saga finally got a place to hang its shingle in cyberspace.
To be fair, Star Wars has been a part of the virtual landscape from the getgo, starting with the first online services in the early Eighties. And there was a Star Wars newsgroup on the fledgling Usenet (though no one today can remember the group's name). But only a handful of people had even heard of the Internet, and the commercial services were proprietary: you could send e-mail to a friend if you were both on CompuServe, but tough luck if they used AOL? unless you also subscribed to AOL. There was the problem of living someplace that had service coverage to begin with: other fans could be found if you lived in New York City, but what about Newport, Oregon?
And even if you managed to jump through the hoops, what could you do? Star Wars lacked an online home to call its own: followers of the saga found their only hope lay with fans of Automan, Ark II and Logan's Run in a general sci-fi forum. Or worse: they had to share the bunks on a Star Trek board. So help me, I'm convinced that the whole Wars/Trek blood feud started when a Trekkie logged on pokey one morning and saw a Wookiee wearing the sacred Mr. Spock Underoos.
So apart from fanzines and the occasional sci-fi convention, the fans had no line of communication. We knew others were out there? somewhere? but without a place to congregate around we wouldn't know another fan was a block away, much less any details of a sequel. George Lucas himself witnessed that fact: the story goes that shortly after A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas paid a surprise visit to a sci-fi convention in California. During the impromptu Q&A session one person asked "so who is this Darth Vader guy anyway?" Lucas replied: "he's Luke Skywalker's father." Lucas was consciously testing how fast a spoiler would spread through the community, and it's said he was quite surprised about how the revelation in Return Of The Jedi was still unknown to most people. But that's how it was? and if Lucas tried that stunt today it would be on TheForce.net within a minute-ten.
All of this changed starting with the Star Wars Echo: the first virtual location available to every fan with a PC and a modem. Except for major residential areas, most people didn't have Internet access in the early Nineties, but computer bulletin board systems (BBS for short) flourished everywhere, and it was on BBSes that FidoNet was found: an ingenious worldwide network of bulletin boards. Private e-mail could be sent to other users, but most of the correspondence was found in specialized forums or "echoes". Sometimes you paid for FidoNet service, but a generous BBS hobbyist might let you use it for free. For many of us it was our first foray into the virtual realm. If discovering the Internet was like Luke finding Yoda, then FidoNet was Obi-Wan telling us "you've taken your first step into a larger world."
From the beginning, the Star Wars Echo was consistently among the most heavily participated areas of FidoNet. It gave die-hard SW fans their forum, and maybe it served the saga itself as a kind of "cultural thermometer". While the Echo launched three months before "Heir To The Empire" heralded the Expanded Universe, the public's interest in Star Wars had fallen into apparent narcolepsy by the early Nineties. Not even Echo founder Skip Shayotovich anticipated any new films: the "greatest source of new information regarding that galaxy far, far, away" was the West End role-playing game, he wrote in his announcement. So for fans starving for Star Wars, with no new movies on the horizon, the Zahn books were like magic waters... and Echo members reciprocated by igniting the flames of the "great canon debate" soon thereafter! The Echo was helping prove that Star Wars hadn't died from the public conscience? in fact, it was only just beginning to come alive.
And for the first time, it wasn't just the fans coming together: people directly involved with Star Wars began visiting the Echo to "meet" the fans in open dialogue. Kevin J. Anderson and Kathy Tyers posted to the Echo occasionally. Timothy Zahn popped in a few times. At least one Echo-lite went on to leave a mark on Star Wars lore: Dan Wallace, author of The Essential Guide To Planets, participated. The first morsels about "Shadows Of The Empire" came from visiting Lucasfilm reps. Naturally the initial tidbits about the prequels - back in the day when an armor-clad Kenneth Branaugh was flying the Millennium Falcon against an army of Spaarti-cloned Mandalores - became a hot topic. At the same time Lucas was starting to write Episode I in his battered red notebook, Mike Schwab was keeping the rumors straight in "Out Of The Maw", the newsletter of the Echo. Meanwhile, Echo member Rich Mason was compiling the very slick "Starfighter Command" (see below).
Was the Star Wars Echo the progenitor of everything about modern cyber-fandom? There might be a strong argument that it was. Years before Harry Knowles posted his Dewback images to a blank page - the germination of Ain't It Cool News - the Echo was already spilling the goods on the Special Editions. "I think if anything it helped to incubate the development of online fandom," says Brent Lynch, who served as co-moderator (along with Shayotovich) of the Echo during its heyday. But he adds that "when it comes down to it, it was the fans who put it all down on HTML who defined the course of fandom." Perhaps so, but in a time when the total number of web pages in the world could be counted on both hands, the Echo was already hard at work getting Star Wars info to the Internet deprived.
Whether or not the Echo was the true forerunner of modern cyber-fandom, the task of acquiring EVERY Star Wars image available did lead the Star Wars Echo to break first ground in the area that most impacts online fanhood: licensed copyright. Prior to the coming of the web, "File Transfer" meant finding a BBS's file area, locating "YODA4.JPG" in the graphics directory and transferring with x-modem protocol (there was also y-modem and Kermit? whatever the heck that was). If you got the file before the time limit kicked in (so other people could use the BBS) you could view your image... though it was anyone's guess whether the plundered good would be a still from The Empire Strikes Back or some jokester's airbrushed vintage of Yoda with Shannen Doherty (I'm serious).
The frustration in locating Star Wars material led some Echo members to hatch a plan in late 1994: every available image, sound file, video clip and text document relating to Star Wars was going to be found and put together on a single CD-ROM, available at cost for Echo members. It would have been easy, considering there was so little digital Star Wars media in existence (compare that to just one bulkmonststrosity like "Duality", true believers!) The project was already well underway when someone raised a question: would Lucasfilm allow for this kind of distribution of its copyrighted material?
The members in charge of the CD-ROM asked for permission. Lucasfilm's licensing department said no, and the project was canned? much to the dismay of the Echo-lites. Some thought Lucasfilm was starting to display animosity toward the fans at best. At worst, Lucasfilm was seen as trying to shut the fan efforts down, and it didn't help matters when the widely reported "Lucasfilm attack" on Jason Ruspini's website came a year later. Following these events, the company began to take the growing number of online fans more seriously, and also started cutting them a bit of slack: sites like TheForce.net owe a lot of their freedoms to these initial tests of fan love meeting copyright protection. The Star Wars Echo had been a leak in the dike. Now the dam had burst, and everyone - including Lucasfilm - realized they had to cope with a virtual deluge.
The Echo's impact is the more amazing considering how big an exercise it was to actually take part in the thing! A typical user would dial into the BBS, download all the messages from whatever FidoNet forums he subscribed to, hang up and then use an "offline reader" program to read new mail and compose replies. Then he would dial back into the BBS, upload the outgoing mail, and go through the same thing again a few hours later when the BBS downloaded its next batch of FidoNet. All of this sounds convolutedly schizo today, when "right-click/save to disk" comes second-nature and no one thinks twice about ICQing a friend. But for however primitive it seems, there was a kind of magic reflecting out of the screen that's almost gone today. I was using a slowpoke 486 machine one cold autumn evening, reading Echo mail after posting a few of my own, when I saw it: a reply to one of my messages. From a fan in Germany. And that's when it hit me for the first time:
"Oh my? it's? that's? those are real people out there!"
And that's part of the sadness about the absence of the Star Wars Echo today: it was about other people, not how we made contact with them. No one could talk in real time, but there was time tocompose some thoughts without feeling the "rush" of broadband Internet. There was a real sense of belonging, and of family even, among the Echo-lites. At one point there were plans to have a meeting of the Echo members: Denver was among the destinations talked about, long before the '99 Celebration. A lot of good friendships - some of which continue today - were started on the Echo.
But things are more complicated now, in part due to the progress of the very technology that first brought us together. "Because Internet anything really hadn't taken off, by and large in general the caliber of folks participating in FidoNet far excelled any discussion area that has come since," says Brent Lynch. It can't be denied that it's nearly impossible for that kind of fellowship to return, but for those of us fortunate to have participated, the fond memories will always be cherished (though Lynch comments that "the Jedi Council does envoke fond memories" of the Star Wars Echo's camaraderie).
So you're probably asking why I chose this for an editorial? It's more a history lesson than a straight op-ed piece, but there are reasons I was led to do this, and I like to think they're good ones. First, it's to give some credit to someone for whom its long overdue: Skip Shayotovich, if you're out there, thank you for all the work that you did with the Star Wars Echo. You paved the way for a lot of the things we enjoy online now, and it's way past time that we said how much we appreciate it. To Skip, and to Brent and a lot of other people with whom the Echo was a first portal into larger adventure, thanks for the memories.
Second, it is a history lesson, if for no other reason than to reflect on some very humble origins. The days when "high-end graphics" meant a RIPscrip-ted image of Darth Vader are long gone, but I still get a thrill every time I watch "TROOPS" while thinking about how, just three years before that came out, most people would have only seen the clunky images of ASCII text filing down a screen. It's not right to try to bring back the past, but it also wouldn't be right to not take some time occasionally to consider how we came to enjoy what are now doing as Star Wars fans. And appreciating where we've come from also helps us to think about the ground that we are laying still. This is a new frontier yet, and we should be thankful that our generation is the first to cross into it.
We've come so far in just ten years... can't wait to see where we'll be in ten more!
May 9th, 2001
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03/17/03 - Joshua Griffin - Put the REAL Classics on DVD
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01/14/03 - Michael Potts - Clone Wars: Expanded Universe Editorial
09/03/02 - Joshua Griffin - Digital Pirates Sink Ships
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04/11/02 - TFN Staff - Thumbs Up, Tumbs Down for SW2 Marketing
03/08/02 - TFN Staff - Clone War Trailer Reaction
01/13/02 - TFN Staff - TFN Reaction to SNL N'Sync Skit
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12/12/01 - Chris Knight - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
12/07/01 - Jeff Yankey - All I Want for Christmas
11/17/01 - Guest Editorial - Ritual and Romance of Episode II
10/04/01 - Guest Editorial - Why Episode I is Brilliant
10/02/01 - Guest Editorial - Episode I is Star Wars
09/30/01 - Guest Editorial - Why I Loved Episode I
09/25/01 - Joshua Griffin - Episode II: Make It or Break It Time
08/21/01 - Chris Knight - SW2: Attack On The Soul?
07/13/01 - Joshua Griffin - Special Time for SW Fans
05/14/01 - Joshua Griffin - AlphaCon is Finished
05/09/01 - Chris Knight - In The Beginning... Star Wars Comes To A Wired World
04/17/01 - Joshua Griffin - Global TFN - International Outlook on Star Wars
03/14/01 - Chris Knight - Palpatine vs. Hitler: Prequel Speculation Runs Amok!
02/13/01 - Chris Knight - "The Force" of Love: A Valentine's Day Editorial
01/17/01 - Chris Knight - Star Wars Could Continue... As Television Anthology
01/11/01 - Guest Editorial - A Review of A New Hope After the Prequels
01/07/01 - Guest Editorial - No - We Want the DVDs Now!
01/04/01 - Chris Knight - New Digital Disciple Says "Lets Wait On Star Wars DVDs"
12/21/00 - Joshua Griffin - Is George Lucas Really a Genius?
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08/17/00 - Jason McCabe Calacanis - The SW2 Fan Trailer (guest editorial)
07/14/00 - Joshua Griffin/Scott Chitwood - TFN's Spoiler Policy
06/20/00 - Chris Knight - Star Wars and the Saga of Life
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04/08/00 - Special Guest Editorial by Skybaugh - Worth the Wait
03/30/00 - Joshua Griffin - What Star Wars Has Won
03/19/00 - Joshua Griffin - The Next Denver Celebration
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01/27/00 - TFN Staff - Flaming TFN over DVD
01/25/00 - Chris Knight - Motivations of the Sith
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01/10/00 - Joshua Griffin - World-Wide Star Wars
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09/07/99 - Scott Chitwood and Paul Ens - Comic and Book Wishlist
08/18/99 - TF.N Team - Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down on Episode I Everything
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07/10/99 - Brian Linder - The Jar Jar Factor
06/08/99 - Joshua Griffin & Chris Knight - Why is Jar Jar in Episode I?
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03/09/99 - Scott Chitwood and Paul Ens - A Chat with LFL
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11/05/98 - Scott Chitwood - Prequel Spoilers
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04/09/98 - Scott Chitwood - The Art of the Space Battle
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02/09/98 - Scott Chitwood - Xerox Sites
02/03/98 - Scott Chitwood - Canon Issue, Part 2
01/07/98 - Terrence Daniels - Canon = Personal Preference
12/17/97 - Darin Smith - Everything I need to know...
11/15/97 - Chris Kivlehan - Six Episodes or Nine Episodes?
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10/22/97 - Paul Davidson - Trek vs. Wars