ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Smarties and Dumbells —

Sometime in my later teens, after being raised on the “mean streets” of Bulletin Board Systems, ASCII Express lines, and the occasional Diversi-Dial, I got myself onto the Usenet posting boards. It was stunning to me, because I didn’t know people could write online like that.

For a quick comparison of what I’m talking about, take this message base from the South Pole BBS in roughly Winter of 1984.. and see the difference in this random discussion on a Usenet board in 1988 about getting a Commodore 64 to read Apple II disks. Or, if you feel a need to be more organic, here’s a discussion about the importance of honesty in a relationship, also from 1988.

The difference could be staggering; you had full paragraphs, full ideas laid out, almost essays in form. Spelling was many times better, not to mention grammar and the general thesis being put forward. My initial reaction, which I’m sure wasn’t unique, was wow, these are all the smart people.

And without a doubt, you’re seeing pedigrees of university education in these messages, with youth generally teeming on the side of the BBS messages I posted. But I’m starting to think it’s a little more than that.

With BBSes, you had a very strict time limit; in many cases, you were given less than an hour a day, possibly as little as 20 minutes, to read all the new messages and post any responses, much less play some door games or download files. So time was of the essence. Without a doubt, the introduction of QWK packets, multi-line BBSes and other factors changed this time limitation, but it was there. With Usenet, you were posting locally, always able to read at your leisure, able to post at same, and when you put something out, it would warn you of the weight of your words.

Actually, that little factoid might be forgotten; it used to be when you used a Usenet client, it would often print a message warning you about consequences of your action. The message would read something like this:

This program posts news to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. Your message will cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere. Please be sure you know what you are doing. Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this? [ny]

That’s the warning that the rn (readnews) Usenet news client would print before you could post to a large group; I’m sure other clients had similar warnings. Were it the case that modern posting clients had warnings like this!

This livejournal entry you’re writing, where you describe in excruciating detail how poorly your ex-boyfriend performed in bed, will be not only world-readable and publically commentable, but will cause your name to show up in search engines when people look for a combination of your first name and “rotten lay”. Please be sure you know what you are doing. Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this? [ny]

We’re now living in a wealth of community posting interfaces; certainly forums and “BBS-like” software have to be some of the most recreated-from-scratch programming in existence. Everyone wants a shot at making it, and they all bring entirely different goals to the table. As a result, some places consider good conversation the vital spine that links their website together, while others consider it a quaint afterthought, enabling a little more “sticky time” by forcing people to re-check if anyone else also posted.

Even this weblog has the posting software provided by SixApart, who make Moveable Type. It’s pretty basic stuff, letting you post a few easy lines before the window starts to scroll and you kind of lose track of what you were saying in the beginning. One solution is to write stuff out elsewhere, like Notepad or VI, and then copy and paste your completed thought into my anemic little form. In other words, a hack. Right now, ASCII has its little group of posters (Flack, Leah, Shii, Stacia, hello) who live within this particular confined user interface and work with it, but the style of the overriding thing is somewhat dependent on how posting is “treated” by the site.

…here’s where I’m going with this. If you browse around, different websites treat user postings differently. And it feels like some of the interfaces appeal to a certain aspect of people while shutting out others. In other words, the interface is driving the conversation.

Let me show an example. The excellent comic XKCD mentions the issue with Youtube postings, but he’s quite on the mark. Take, for example, this Noam Chomsky video. Chomsky’s a divisive character, able to cause people to take sides. But look at the structure and style of postings this commentary gets:

a REAL educational system might do wonders.
The Framers, nor the ancient Greeks, EVER thought that an ignorant populace could govern itself successfully.
[We've proven them right.]
*** Why do you THINK the neocons have gutted education and funds for education?
[Hint: It IS a way to get a controllable, malleable, knee-jerk populace that'll put up with the "Patriot" Act and other measures to castrate liberty and give up all of our hopes.
It's working.]

This individual may or may not be making a useful point regarding the quality of education towards creating a proper citizenry of a republic, but if they are, it’s lost in a hash-stew of e.e. cummings-like poetry, bizarre (and short) shifts in logic, and the as-yet-unexplained use of three asterisks to mean… a paragraph break?

In the case of the community called MetaFilter, let’s go with another article about Chomsky, in this case a two sentence link to a bunch of letters about an interview in the UK Guardian. There are still postings with no capital letters, or punctuation, but then a weird thing happens: the longer the conversation goes on, the “smarter” it gets… although a lot of this is because a guy named “russilwvong” grabs the conversation by the sack and starts steering things. In the case of the metafilter interface, pretty much all the posts are on one page (you can look back and forth to them), you are given an account primarily aimed towards posting text, and it’s possible to reference individual comments in the thread by a URL (like or similar).

I could eat your day/evening up going from community to community and comparing how they handle this aspect of things, but what I’m essentially describing is this:

  • Forum and user interaction is often considered to be an afterthought.
  • Since it’s the most-quickly-modifiable aspect of a site, it ends up being the most vital and reflective of the site.
  • The User Interface (including the treatment of postings, the ease of browsing older postings, and the ability to make new postings in an easy refined manner) has a majority percentage effect on most forums’ quality.
  • We appear to be doomed as an online race to re-learning all this over and over until another Usenet-like messaging standard makes an appearance.
  • I’m sure Danah Boyd has covered this to some extent in front of multiple rooms of people for years on end.

Could it be, I’m asking here, a case that some of these places that have absolutely atrocious forums (like YouTube) should consider the design of their most dynamic and representative component more important? That maybe they should look at what makes one website seem jam-packed full of Smarties and the other packed full of Dumbells? While it’s fun to say “Well, that’s just the sort of people who would be interested in that website.”, I think it’s a cop-out. I think there’s a science here, a skillset that could stand to be expanded. The working real-life examples are there. I just wish they were used more.

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One Comment

  1. Two comments.

    One, something you didn’t mention that I recently realized greatly affected the way I wrote on BBSes was the fact that, at least in the old Commie/Apple II days, BBSes were in 40 columns. I’ve been calling (telnetting) a few C64 BBSes lately and I had forgotten just how quickly you can write a screen-full of text at 40×25. On forums today I’ve noticed that even the best written posts will get skimmed over or even skipped if they appear to be too long. At 40 columns, and sometimes without the ability to scroll back, it was to your best interest to keep your post on one page.

    A second thought, unrelated to the first but related to your post, is how interesting it is that design, through CSS and other means, has become seperated from content. Most of the forums I’m on have a button you can click that will instantly change the entire look of the site — colors, layout, graphics, everything. Back in the BBS days, your layout was quite possibly the ONLY thing that made your BBS different from the next guy’s. The concept of allowing your users to avoid seeing your custom drawn menus was unheard of. Sysops went to great lengths to ensure that their board looked unique. I guess the spark of the thought there is how interesting that back then unique design was an important part of a board’s character; now, not as much. It should be, though.