Twin Cities Free-Net

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 04/11/2021 - 15:27

After my summer internships at NPTN and GLFN, I was ready to go to work for a Free-Net after college. As it happened, Twin Cities Free-Net (TCFN) in Minneapolis was hiring a general manager, and I scored an interview early in 1998. I had heard great things about the Twin Cities, and I was over the moon about the opportunity. I got a professional haircut -- my first ever -- and made a good impression at the interview, but I wasn't the most qualified candidate, and in any case I wouldn't graduate until May, so I didn't expect to get the job. A few days later I got a call: they had offered the job to the most qualified candidate, but he and his family had all been diagnosed with AIDS, so they would be staying in California for treatment! I agreed to start work at spring break and work remotely until I could move to Minneapolis.

My friend Zarrin let me sleep on the floor of her studio apartment for the two weeks of spring break and for another two weeks while I shopped for an apartment. As TCFN's first paid employee, I would mostly be supervising volunteers, something I had been doing since high school in various campus organizations. However, the landscape of the Internet was shifting very fast, so the work of the organization had to be re-evaluated every few months to stay relevant, and volunteers who had signed up for one activity had to be frequently shuffled to other activities, and the dropout rate was very high.

Cell phones and caller ID were not yet commonplace, so I took calls at TCFN's voicemail and returned them from whatever phone I happened to be at, including Zarrin's home phone. One such call was from an active member of the local Macintosh user group, which was also an incorporated nonprofit. He was thrilled to learn I was a Mac user and recruited me to be a liaison between the two groups. Before the summer was out, he had talked me into buying two pallets of old Macs (SE/30s and SEs) from an electronics recycler and fixing them up for resale to TCFN users for whom even an old Mac would be an upgrade. The TCFN board said it was fine if I did it on my own time. I learned a lot from fixing up the machines and eventually found homes for all of them. I sold them for just 1% of the original price, because they had originally retailed for $2000-$3000.

I had been hired to work 25 hours a week for $13,000 a year with no benefits. I was creative and frugal and fortunate enough to have no debt, and I made it work as my only income. I was also more than a little naïve. I was thrilled to find a studio apartment for $270/month that I learned only after I'd moved in was in a pretty rough (though rapidly gentrifying) neighborhood, and there were drug dealers and prostitutes doing business in the building. I was sheltered; I didn't know what I was seeing and assumed the best about everyone. I was lucky to only ever have good experiences with my neighbors. By the time I moved out four years later, my rent had gone up to nearly $500/month, and the criminal element had moved on, along with anyone else who couldn't afford it.

With only 25 hours of my week spoken for, and after four years of living in a small town with constant cultural activities on campus, I devoted the rest of my time to making the most of living in a big city ... or the most I could make on a budget. I read the free newspapers devotedly. I went to movies and plays in the parks, attended lots of meetings and lectures, explored the bike and bus and skyway systems. I tried most every restaurant of every cuisine, when I could afford to. I made connections with the Lao refugee community and taught their teenagers how to network the computers in their community center. From there I connected with an organizer in North Minneapolis and tried to get that side of town more involved with the South-Minneapolis-dominated Free-Net than they had been.

Unfortunately, as commercial Internet providers came on the scene, the Free-Net's more savvy and resourceful volunteers no longer needed its services, leaving us with a less skilled and less polished volunteer base as time passed. I had to scramble to find qualified people to do the work, and often I assumed too much about their capabilities, with disastrous results. What's more, the first system administrator I hired was openly contemptuous of the volunteers, causing those with self-respect to resign. I fired him and hired another with better people skills, but by then it was too late to convince the volunteers to return. The board of directors turned over such that none of the founders were there anymore, and none of the new people knew what they were doing. I developed ulcers and insomnia and finally had to resign for my health.

I stayed on the board for a while, but it became increasingly clear to me that the Free-Net was no longer needed by the community that could support it financially. Its mission had become irrelevant, to them at least. At one meeting I proposed that we just liquidate the assets and throw a party for the volunteers past & present, but the rest of the board wanted to try changing the mission and keep going. At that point I had nothing more to contribute, so I resigned from the board as well.

In hindsight, it's hard to know whether a different general manager could have kept TCFN alive. As of this writing, Austin Free-Net is the only one still in operation. None of us knew in the '90s how the Internet was going to develop. The Free-Nets were to the commercial Internet as public radio is to commercial radio; it wasn't a bad assumption that that analogy could work. But we relied too much on self-selected volunteers and didn't do enough to reach out to underserved communities where we could have continued to do good. In hindsight I'm satisfied that I did my best, but at the time I felt like I had failed.