BackTalk: My Neighborhood—Online

By Chrystie Hill

Recently, someone asked about my first job, and I said without blinking an eye that I was a 'community-builder' at the local Woolworth's counter. It's true. My first job was behind the Woolworth's counter in Bremerton, WA.

As a 16-year-old, I worked 20 hours a week, and my $4 an hour paid for cheerleading uniforms, yearbooks, enough outfits for me and my sister never to have to wear the same thing twice in one trimester, and gas.

I wore a red vest with a white name tag and kept my hair in a ponytail. I loved my customers. I loved the neighborhood. I loved being friendly and chatting with people. I loved the burgers and root-beer floats.

In orbit

Four or five years later, I found myself sitting in a college 'computer center' (this bunch of OPAC-type things...what do you even call those?), waiting for my weird friend Jeff to get off this thing he calls PINE. Why don't you just write a letter? I say; it's nicer. The next year my boyfriend says, hey, you've gotta look at this. He's sitting at a public access station in the library. He clicks on the Internet icon and, voilà, the World Wide Web!

Humph, I remember thinking to myself, I wonder what's going on after Marzano's tonight? Marzano's was the family Italian restaurant where I had been a server for four years. I worked lunch and dinner three or four nights a week and made friends for life with the owner, coworkers, and customers alike. After work, we'd sit out on the deck, talk, and share a glass of wine. I loved this restaurant. I loved the neighborhood. I loved being friendly and chatting with people. I loved the 22-ingredient vegetarian penne and the vino.

After college, I spent a year in a ­Seattle café, pouring espresso for a small neighborhood outside of downtown. This time I wore a black apron but no ponytail. I memorized the favorite drinks of no less than 200 regulars and colleagues. For a short period, my friends, neighbors, and coworkers were literally in orbit around that café. You guessed it: I loved my customers. I loved the neighborhood. I loved being friendly and chatting with people. I loved my double short dry cappuccinos, for here and to go.

You can take it to go

The next year I went away, and everything came together. For the first time since email and Internet access had become widespread, I was away from my roots. It took maybe ten minutes for me to head to my new computer center and ask for a dial-up account, get an email address, and figure out the web.

In graduate school, that was my best direct connection back to the support and nourishment of my old life - the people and the places I cared about most.

Four years later, and I was a tech-geek convert. By the time I had finished my studies, I loved technology partly because I had been hooked by the 'so cool' factor but also because I had seen it, both in my graduate work and in my personal life, help people connect very quickly and efficiently with information and with each other.

I've been lucky to work with online community projects ever since. As far as technology goes, I've since lost that lovin' feeling because now I simply see it as a tool for helping people make connections.

In many cases, it's not what we gather for but a container for how we gather. I still marvel at the capacity that technology has to create connections in ways we once could only expect from physical experiences and interactions. But, in the end, it's the connections that really make the impact on our lives and our relationships.

Feeding time

From burgers to vegetarian penne, cappuccinos to chiantis, we gathered not just to eat and drink but to feed our minds and to do so in concert with others around us. Back then, it was the counter, the café, and that lovely front deck (not the technology) that served as the container for those experiences.

Granted, the feeds I'm more accustomed to these days aren't quite as tasty, but the work I do as an online librarian is remarkably similar. I still love my (patrons and) customers. I still love my (online) neighborhood. I still love (instant messaging) chatting with people. Though now it's the tagging, casting, and syndicating that feeds me. The best part is, whether I take mine for here or to go, my community's right there with me.

Author Information
Chrystie Hill is a librarian, writer, and tech-advocate currently working with Steven Cohen on a book about libraries and community building, to be published by ALA Editions next year. Follow their project at

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