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Life lessons are what make one a unique individual. Personal experience sets the path one will walk, and helps one to choose which branch to take when the path forks.

Most personal experience is valued in retrospect, as something one has experienced in the past can contribute to wisdom in deciding one's future.

There's one bit of personal experience, a life lesson I've learned, that I'm still waiting to contribute to my future growth as a human bean.

About six years ago, I learned it's not really a good idea to coin a phrase. At least not in a public forum.

Let's go back to spring 1994. I'd been a member of AOL for a little while, having some unusual experiences as a result (which see, if you don't mind the blatant in-node nodevertisement). Coincident with my posting frequently in such AOL discussion areas as those devoted to 90210 and Star Trek, I also happened to be a closeted fan of Melrose Place.

I had been watching the show, and secretly liked it better than all the other "gen-X" shows that Fox was telling me I should enjoy. I liked it because the guys were cute (mmmmmm, Jake). I liked it because the stories were simplistic. I liked it because, and this is important, no one else at the time did.

I never talked about my addiction to other people, not even online. It was a personal, private thing. Something I was afraid to share, for fear of it becoming bloated with popularity, if not ridicule.

That all changed when I found the discussion area on AOL devoted to the archetypal soap of the 90s, and started reading messages from what sounded like some really cool people. And, even cooler, the producer of the show posted frequently there, giving out some insider tidbits, answering questions, and generally generating a lot of goodwill amongst the show's few in number fans.

We fans would gather in a chat room every week, the fans on the East Coast even politely waiting for us West Coasters to catch up before talking about the show online.

However, even rabid fans of something must find other things to talk about if a group dynamic is to form. And we found we all liked each other enormously. Geeks though we were, we had found common ground and formed a community. Some of us met face to face. Myself, I met several of my fellow fans, one of whom even moved out here to go to school.

Then, slowly, everything changed.

I blame Heather Locklear first, and the online phenomenon second.

Y'see, Fox had given the creators of the show a mandate: spice up Melrose Place and get those ratings up. The show, apparently, wasn't keeping a good portion of 90210 viewers, the show Melrose Place followed at the time (in fact, was spun off from).

And thus, Her Heatherness was brought aboard. The storylines at the end of the first season of the show developed a definite sudsy feel to them. No longer were the shows about struggling to pay the rent or getting a good job or how to be a completely sterile homosexual. Instead, we started to see people having affairs, love triangles, and other good meaty scandals.

Matt still didn't have a boyfriend, though.

The old-time fans didn't mind, at the time. No one could have imagined that the show was really going to last much longer at that point. It was seen as a desperation move.

As became evident that fall, it was actually a brilliant move to gain the show attention. But more than that, the show became some kind of weird cultural icon for those trying to identify "Generation X". It became part of the process of the 90s trying to distinguish themselves from the 80s. The shift from the Reagan/Bush years into the Clinton ones. A silly little TV show suddenly became this huge ... thing.

And then "cyberspace" hit us all. The print media couldn't stop talking about online interactivity. If you weren't "jacked in" you just weren't cool. AOL became a household word.

The old-time fans on the AOL discussion board were suddenly challenged with the tasks of greeting new fans to the show, proudly uncloseted in their love of Billy, Alison, Jake, Jo, Matt, Michael, Jane, and Amanda. The chats became larger, requiring a new room be created for every time zone in the US. A FAQ was developed. Drinking games became commonplace. At one point, it seemed more people knew me by my online alter ego's name than by my real one.

A writer for the show, who never participated in the fun publicly began feeding me inside information via instant messages to tease fellow fans with in exchange for some insight on what it was like to be gay in Southern California. I worked at a hospital at the time, and soon after she discovered this, Matt Fielding started working at a hospital on the show. Strange, but fun, coincidence (or not). I used to fax her transcripts of our chats. She sent me autographed cast photos. I even sent a gay pride T-shirt in to the show, which the Matt character wore onscreen, the actor signed, and returned to me. It was fun, the experience made me popular online, and I was lapping it up.

Then I had a really brilliant notion. I suggested online in a message that since Melrose Place was obviously a cultural phenomenon, its fans obviously needed a name or title or honorific to identify themselves by. I pointed out the terms "Trekkie" and "Leaper" as examples, and suggested that we ... the collected (and now very large) group of AOL members who were Melrose Place fans call ourselves ... "Placemats"

Things went downhill after that. Next thing I know, the phrase I coined started popping up in Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and even the officially sanctioned Melrose Place Companion book. The producer of the show called me its most ardent fan. I got to see an episode being filmed on location, and met most of the cast and crew of the show. An Atlanta newspaper called me at work one day (which was a little scary to think about, knowing the media could suss me out that easily) for an in-depth interview about the Placemats "community" and how online communication was beneficial to a young gay man. Worst of all, the line "Melrose Place is a really good show" was uttered in the seminal Gen-X movie "Reality Bites".

At this time, I started getting strange e-mails from people who never posted anything publicly, begging me for pictures from my trip to the location shoot, or for details that I hadn't shared with the group as a whole. I got a number of phone calls from closeted gays, and usually these calls were of the obscene variety (and usually with a pronounced Southern twang ... thank you Atlanta press). When I started ignoring these people, my best friend, who was my companion when we saw the show being filmed, and infrequent chat participant, started getting similar e-mails and phone calls.

Something had changed. It had all gotten too weird. I had attained a new, weird, mutant form of celebrity. I was creeped out by the quiet desperation of the rabid, but silent, fans who sent me e-mail. I was annoyed by the apparently enormous volume of married gay men in southern Georgia.

The worst experience, though, came in early '95. A torrential rain had poured down all night, and I woke up and found myself ankle deep in water. I'd never seen rain like this before, even after living through two hurricanes as a child growing up in Houston. There was no sky, just water falling down on us.

And in the midst of all this, I got a call from a drunken Melrose Place fan, calling from a bar on the east coast, who just wanted me, or rather the "online me" which was the only "me" she knew, to say Hi to all her friends.

That was the last straw. I had spent the day sandbagging around my house, ripping up carpet to find a leak in the foundation, I was wet and cold and really didn't feel like slipping into my online persona for the benefit of a drunken fan of a silly nighttime soap opera. I tried to explain this to her, but she really wasn't listening. I ended up screaming at her, venting all the frustration this strange celebrity had caused me to feel to her.

That didn't satisfy, however. So I continued to rant online, posting angry messages denigrating the show, its creators, and most of all its freakish fans who wouldn't leave me alone. It really burned the bridges let me tell you.

I didn't watch the show much following that incident. My brief fling with online celebrity made me a little paranoid for awhile. I unlisted my phone, quit AOL (and thus finding the 'net a far easier place to be anonymous), and quit talking to all my fellow Placemats, even the "core" original group of 15 or twenty people. I completely and utterly closed the book on that kind of personal interaction for awhile. I'd briefly seen what kind of popularity one can attain without much effort, but I'd also seen a strange underbelly to it. One that I didn't like, even frightened me a bit.

Now, six years later, I see the mementoes I've collected (the prop beer bottle, the photos with the stars, the autographed t-shirt) and wonder what it was I was supposed to learn from the experience.

I guess it taught me to be a little afraid of the easy connectivity this still-new communications medium provides. It made me realize how much of one's self exists, somewhere, as nothing but ones and zeroes flowing through an electronic soup. I guess it made me value real life interaction more, since when you actually see me day to day, I can't throw up an online alternate persona to deflect you if I don't want to deal with you.

I'd also like to meet the people who came up with the words "Trekkie" and "Leaper" and whatnot and compare notes with them.

I wonder if they have similar stories to tell.

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