(Disclaimer: Nothing I say about what I remember should be regarded as canon. My memories are far from reliable on this.)
Eleven years might be a curious number of years to remember back to, but this year will mark my 10th TAM (The Amazing Meeting) which is an nice round number.
Eleven years ago the internet was still recovering somewhat from the remnants of the tech bubble. While long gone at that point, “Punch The Monkey” was still something people remembered as an annoying banner. Skepticism 2.0 as it was to be known, was just beginning.
I wish I could remember exactly how I learned about TAM. Truth is I don’t. Back then, we didn’t have social networking, everything was blog based. The skeptic “brands” you know about today like SGU weren’t brands at all back then, and may not have even existed. The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) was only seven years old and seemed to be nothing more than a room in James Randi’s Florida home. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all, things have to start somewhere. Also, things like the JREF were still somewhat small and unknown. Few people were blogging about it.
In 2002, I didn’t know a single other person who identified as a “skeptic”. That changed in 2002 when James Randi came to speak in Rochester, NY. I was in the audience with no more than fifty people. Being shy, though, I didn’t bother to stick and and try to meet James Randi. Others who hung around on the local Road Runner newsgroups remarked how they went out for key lime pie with Randi afterwards.
Later in 2002, I moved to Kansas City, and a couple months later on a January night, I flew to Fort Lauderdale to attend the first Amazing Meeting. That night, I got to talk to Randi for a little bit, on an elevator ride and in the lobby. He was most gracious. There were roughly 150 people in attendance. A lot of people knew each other from various forums, but some people like myself, didn’t know anyone else. I didn’t really speak to anyone, though I did get to ask Phil Plait a question about Nancy Leider (remember when Phil was part of the skeptic movement?). I even talked to Jack Horkheimer about the comet that Constantine may have seen that lead him to convert to Christianity. It was a great weekend.
So looking back, there are a few things that stand out. There were no skeptic movement created “celebrities”. The celebrities or “big names” were big names in other fields first, like Sagan with astronomy and Randi with magic. There were a number of skeptical blogs who wrote not for fame or prestige, but because they loved skepticism and wanted to write about it. There were no major skeptic blog networks.
Skeptic newsgroups and forums seemed to be the most vibrant form of the online skeptic community. This was a time when it was still far more common to have a “handle” than use your real name. Discussions could get nasty, but because of the small, insular nature of the communities, it was nasty with respect. Trolls, of course, existed (as it was, as it will be again) and, of course, people still fed the trolls. There didn’t seem to be many real time interactions, like IRC or instant messaging. When I would join skeptic channels I would rarely find anyone else.
I won’t say it was “better” back then, a less connected, less organized time. It’s definitely better now, but not perfect. There were no “skeptebrities” back then. People weren’t concerned with brands, blogging networks, or high school like popularity. In the early days of Skepticism 2.0, certain people were able to establish brands through successful personal branding campaigns. Unfortunately, this has created a situation where new people entering the movement may confuse a brand with leadership. There are too many brands who know little about skepticism and have too big an audience. As annoying as that is, overall I still think things are better. Now, measuring results…that is a whole other question that I’m not qualified to answer.