“The inside story of New York City’s 34-year-old social network, ECHO”
Print Title: “The lasting impact of an online salon”
MIT Technology Review, April 25, 2023
by Nika Simovich Fisher
“Stacy Horn set out to create something new and very New York. She didn’t expect it to last so long.”
One January afternoon last year, a bouquet of balloons arrived at Karen Rose’s residence in Delray Beach, Florida. She wasn’t expecting a delivery, since it wasn’t her birthday or wedding anniversary, and she thought someone had made a mistake until she noticed the words “AND NOW?” printed on each balloon.
“AND NOW?” is the prompt that follows every action on ECHO, a 34-year-old text-based social network that still hosts a community of former and current New Yorkers. When you log in: AND NOW? After checking who’s online: AND NOW? Upon joining one of ECHO’s chat rooms, called conferences: AND NOW?
And now Rose, whose handle was KZ, was presented the same question, six and a half years into a battle with lung cancer that she’d documented on a section of ECHO devoted to health. When she notified the community that she was turning to hospice care, her fellow “Echoids” responded with the balloons, along with flowers and chocolate.
Then last spring, ECHO’s founder, Stacy Horn, announced KZ’s death on ECHO. KZ was one of the platform’s 20 inaugural members, having joined in its first year at Horn’s invitation and remained until her death at 72. She was the host of the network’s sex conference, a real estate agent, artist, self-proclaimed “dance snob,” taiko drummer, tennis player, and general “doer.” People of such eclectic interests were central to establishing the vibrant cultural personality of this online community.
ECHO stands for “East Coast Hang Out,” and when Horn founded it, she wanted to create a digital space that was social and unequivocally New York. Members had to meet two requirements: they had to be geeky enough to navigate a cumbersome, text-based digital platform in the early days of the internet, but culturally in tune enough to foster the types of conversations you might hear at a West Village dinner party. Horn enlisted her graduate school friends (she was a recent graduate of New York University’s interactive telecommunications program), as well as members of other bulletin-board-style platforms. One primary source of inspiration was the California-based online community known as the WELL (for “Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link”), started by Stewart Brand in 1985. Brand is well known for being a counterculture impresario in the Bay Area during the 1960s, editing the widely distributed Whole Earth Catalog. Just as the WELL brought together experimental, self-sufficient individuals who foresaw the endless possibilities of computers, ECHO defined the New York web scene and influenced the design of contemporary social networks, creating lifelong friendships in the process.
When ECHO was founded, the World Wide Web was still being invented, and browsers weren’t a thing. Users congregated in interest-based forums, but Horn found most of them to be male-centric, heavy in technical jargon, and, just like the WELL, centered on the West Coast. She craved a destination like the vibrant and artistic 20th-century salons of Gertrude Stein’s era, where users could exchange ideas and meet one another while getting lost in discussion.
What she ended up making was a hotbed of culturally minded early internet enthusiasts—a social network before there was a term for that. Through the evolution of this ecosystem, users would meet one another and contribute to the changing digital economy by starting businesses and cultural programming. They would forever transform their lives in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, all while making a lasting mark on New York’s budding tech community. ECHO was a blueprint for the larger-scale social networks that we see today, and it serves as a reminder that behind all networks are people, with a lot of words to exchange.
Featured Image caption: Stacy Horn, photographed in 1994, still lives in the West Village apartment that was her home when she launched ECHO.
About the Author:
Nika Simovich Fisher is a writer, graphic designer, and assistant professor of communication design at Parsons School of Design in New York City.