ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

World Expert —

As far as I can tell, I am the world expert on dial-up Bulletin Board Systems.

A statement sandbagged with such hubris has to come with some caveats, of course. Anybody can kick my ass with minutiae about the specific geographically-centered “scenes” they were part of for months or years. Employees of certain BBS-oriented companies can whip out more dirt than I was ever able to dig up, as well as specific dates that aren’t written down anywhere but in the memories of those who were there. But going from “Hey, let’s put some teletypes in downtown Berkeley” to “Synchronet just hit version 3.14a”, I’m probably your go-to guy to get information, either directly from my memory or from the archives I’ve built up.

Remember, the documentary wasn’t just about filming; it was about research. And, of course, there was no “TIme-Life series of the Bulletin Board System” that I could find when I started thinking about a documentary, or really a comprehensive archive to pull from, beyond the grab-bag of crap that represents. So I had my work cut out for me, and it was work. A lot of reading, a lot of e-mails, a lot of phone calls, and a lot of acquiring of other peoples’ collections to create some place I could then use to leapfrog up into working on a filmed documentary. One could argue I was “researching” since my youth, but that was more “observing”. was up around 1998, and I started seriously doing “research” probably August of 2001. To help this work, I built up some tools to keep track of stuff, tools which became and Even with just a few years passed, stuff was decaying from fact to rumor to insinuation to misspoken legend.

I have, lying around, literally thousands of e-mails of discussion with people, 250 hours of videotape footage (and I am still getting that stuff on, slowly), hundreds of gigabytes of collected digital material, and even audiotapes and flyers that are stacked up/boxed/protected. Believe me, I got The Stuff. The mistake people make is that they looked at the documentary and thought that was all there was, and that I’d intentionally left stuff out or avoided things to, well, I don’t know… exact revenge? Some people thought I was doing it to favor some conspiratorial bias I was intentionally trying to pimpslap the annals of history with. Then again, some people think I’m a federal agent, too, so there you go.

The purposes of a documentary are not in line with the purposes of a researcher and archiver. A documentary wants to put everything it can into a linear narrative. A researcher and archiver wants as complete a history as is feasible to build, from which infinite future narratives can be constructed as needed for purposes as yet unknown. The documentary takes a knife to the history meatloaf and slices out a nice thick juicy slab for you to enjoy, but there’s a lot of meatloaf left untouched. This leads to broken hearts.

I got a lot of broken hearts when I did this film; people who were pissed I didn’t mention them or their favorite BBS or their favorite software or their favorite whatever, some of them gleefully slinging mashed potatoes from their easy chairs while I spent endless nights and days writing letters and making phone calls. In some cases, I did speak to people who were historical figures or experts in a sub-heading that I was researching, and they wanted nothing to do with the project. In other cases, I made arrangements for a future interview, called, and they were gone, either dead or hiding from me (that sounds exaggerative and it isn’t) and only popping back into contact when they ordered a copy of the finished work.

But even if the pet subjects and people were not baked into the final DVD set, the information is still in my archives, the e-mails and essays and collected materials. Some of it is easy to find and some of it is only where I can get at it, but I definitely have a metric ton of it. I don’t intend to throw it to the four winds, shred it or eat it.

I was reminded of this when I was checking Wikipedia to study references to my documentary and how they were handled, and I stumbled on this revision where an IP address basically lifted the entire “script” of the “Compression” episode on the documentary into a semi-coherent narrative. After a handful of wiki-fiddles (adding minor changes to link it into Wikipedia style), someone blands it out so that it’s not about people anymore, and then it’s more wiki-fiddles to the present day. I did a lot of research about the subject of this controversy and was sent a lot of primary source material to get as close to the state of things as I could. Striking a narrative balance was very difficult, and I did a lot of triple checking of facts to get where I did. I also conducted a lot of conversations, either in-person, on-line or on the phone. You know, journalism and research. The fact that someone can stumble onto the (mostly cribbed from my efforts) Wikipedia entry, add a completely unsubstantiated line like “In retrospect, SEA vs. PKWARE was larely a non-issue to most BBS users outside of Fidonet” and walk away unscathed reminds me why I’m such a critic of the enterprise as it stands.

But the fact remains: what I should be doing is providing better access to all that work I dumped years of my life into, far beyond offering a nice DVD and the current offerings on the documentary and sites.

If I was smart, I’d take on an apprentice and just start throwing crap at him until he finally bursts out from under the weight of asshole Master Jason Scott and becomes a huge name in his own right, until one dark stormy night we fight to the death on the rooftops of London. The most likely candidate for this position is Kiel Bryant Hosier. There’s probably others.

What I think makes the most sense in the short term, however, is to use this weblog as a place to put up essays and narratives that didn’t make it into the film, writing, in bits and pieces, the book that a lot of people think I should have written and which, as a grand project, I have no actual energy to write. Putting together a pile of stories and compiled facts, which then will go into the BBS History site I have or into the other collections I’m running… that seems doable.

So expect, over this year, a bunch of essays, jaunty travelogues into BBS history, which will likely go into the mass of information online, get messed up by Wikipedia, quoted by Usenet, and riffed on by a hundred “web forums” asking if anyone remembers the “old days” before everyone else links to a bunch of O RLY GIFs.

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One Comment

  1. As you and I have discussed, all the complaints I’ve received about Commodork fall under the umbrella of, “you forgot to mention $X,” which really is to say, “you told YOUR story but you didn’t tell MINE.” I think it was you who said the positive feedback is nice but the negative ones are the ones you can really take something from. The e-mails I’ve received from people are either generic (you didn’t talk about telnet BBSes) or specific (you didn’t talk about my favorite cracking group).

    Some of the stuff I left out was stuff I simply didn’t experience, but some was cut intentionally in order to help the flow of the story. That’s something I don’t think most people get; the BBS Documentary does not represent 100% of Jason Scott’s knowledge about BBSes. When you research a project such as that, you amass an encyclopedia’s worth of data; the job then becomes taking that much data and presenting it to viewers in some palatable fashion. It’s the same with any movie that was first a book. You simply can’t make a 12 hour film. (And no my friend, that is not a challenge …)

    When writing books (or producing films) about nostalgic subjects such as these, I’ve learned that while some people read to discover what you have to say, they’re also looking for their own past in your work. Without that the reader (or again, viewer) walks away with an empty feeling that you didn’t tell their story.

    It was a difficult mistake to learn, but one I am correcting with book number two.