ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Tyranny of the Ratio —

Not every part of history is bright and cheerful, and some concepts which we think we’ve grown past are certainly still with us to the present day. In these cases, historical knowledge of the situation is even more disheartening than none at all. Nothing’s worse than knowing we’ve encountered a problem before, have dealt with the problem, and now the problem has optimized and made itself even more insidious and evil the next time around.

Many situations fall under this general description, but I speak today of the Ratio.

The Ratio in the BBS world was a symptom of the natural supply/demand balance, twisted to cover an economy where nothing had specific monetary value. On BBSes, the two most precious commodities meted out to users were connection time and access to files. The most precious commodity meted from users to the BBSes were message posts and uploads.

Each side of the battle, for it became a battle, fought to get what they wanted from the other side. To be sure, there were users who loved nothing more than uploading and posting, and you had definitely had sysops which adored providing lots of files to download and leaving the time to “unlimited”. But the vast majority swung the other way. Coming on, not posting, then downloading umpteen programs and disconnecting made you some sort of miscreant, an unwelcome cat thief in the home the sysop had set up. Conversely, the sysop who disallowed multiple downloads, who harangued and demanded his users post, was essentially a petty tyrant of a very, very small empire.

The ratio rose out of this, a solution which allowed the code to automatically determine who was welcome and who was not. It allowed the sysop to dictate how many files could be downloaded before the users had to upload. How many calls come come and go, scott free, before the non-communicative user had to post something, anything, in the message bases.

While the users could be laid some blame for not participating in the BBS’s life blood, its message bases and file areas, the resultant sense of force and brutal numbers that followed the institution of a ratio did little to bring warmth and truth to that board. The inherent flaw with this is that it’s a programming solution to a human problem. If you have to create a set of rules that represent an “ideal user” and then try to shoehorn all your people into it, you will end up alienating a lot of people you didn’t intend to, and keeping people you don’t want: folks so desperate for certain files, they’ll just hop through any amount of hoops to get them.

Exploring this concept further, I contend these approaches partially come with the heady rush of being a proprietor, of running a sort of concern or business with actual customers/users, even if they’re not specifically paying you with money. You’re in charge, you make the rules, you decide what’s what. It’s in that seat of power that you can bring your board to a new level, or crush it into a fascist ghost town. And if people, your people, start taking advantage of what you consider to be your good graces, then you end up instituting rules to keep them in line.

Nothing is more unreadable than a message posted under duress, an attempt to fulfil a ratio requirement and get back to downloading files. You’re shoved against the microphone, told to be witty, and only then will you get the meal you were promised. The short run seems to be what you wanted: a flood of messages. The long run reveals what you really got: a flood of crap.

I know all this because I’ve been at both ends of the situation. I have fought the leech and I have been the leech. I can defend both.

There is something magical in finding not just the tiny sliver of something you were looking for, but to find it couched in a complete collection, placed among all its brethren, with context and layout and the assurance that you’re looking at a pristine capture of it in its original state. It is natural to want all of this collection together, as you found it, ready to be held and treasured locally. You reach for the one file you can download, but the rest are held from you, deeper in the cell, and no amount of pressing against the bars will give it to you. It is a terrible feeling, and it is still happening.

Also, too, there is nothing worse than finding out that the number of calls to your BBS overnight were less than 3, because someone called again and again and pulled everything you had.

Even as we grow fat with additional resources of many times, richness where there once was poverty, we find new things we need to regulate, things that cost us dearly if given out freely. And then, once again, the ratio rears its head.

I have no solution, but the tenacity of the problem and how it has stayed in strong play to the modern day haunts me.

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  1. Flack says:

    As they pertained to BBSes, I always saw ratios as an unfortunate but necessary evil — “laws in a lawless land,” if you will. They served two purposes, only one of which you mentioned. The negative side of ratios (the one you mentioned) was that they were used to keep certain users “in check.” It is unfortunate that we have to have rules, but the fact is, without them there are people who will abuse any situation. Every time you see a sign that reads “Limit One Per Customer,” you can be sure somebody somewhere once tried to exploit a sale and ruin things for everybody else. The difference is (as you have previously noted) the average BBS wasn’t corporate owned; they were run by computer hobbyists who were paying for computers, hardware, software and phone lines out of their own pocket. Greedy users weren’t just stealing software — they were robbing the sysop of resources, and other users of access time.

    The other (and slightly more positive) purpose ratios served was to keep BBSes alive. The vast majority of BBS content was provided by end users. Sure, sysops tweaked menus and colors to make each BBS (at least seem) unique, but at the end of the day, it was messages (provided by users) and files (largely provided by users) that could make or break a board. Without posts and files, boards grew stale and died. Ratios were a way to ensure delivery of new content.

    You are correct in saying that ratios didn’t always solve the problem. I had a fairly lax file ratio on my old BBS — 10:1, if I remember correctly, meaning users could download 10 files for every 1 they uploaded. Most of my users never even noticed the ratio, in fact. Those who uploaded things every now and then never ran out of “credits.” The users that the ratios were designed to regulate were the ones who worked the hardest to get around them. Those were the people who would upload a hundred MOD files (tiny music files) and then spend hours downloading the latest warez. Spirit of the problem violation, yo. And the worst idea I ever had was implementing a post:file ratio, requiring users to post 1 message for every 10 files downloaded … talk about increasing your noise to signal ratio, sheesh.

    BBSes were more personal than the Internet. When someone hotlinks to a picture on my website or scans my server for downloadable files, I don’t take it personal — they’re just somebody (or a script) searching a random IP (mine) for “stuff.” On BBSes, things were different. The people abusing my system were often friends of friends, or people I had met at parties. It’s difficult to tell someone to their face to quit acting like a greedy jerk; it’s much simpler to let software-limited rules to (at least try to) do that for you.

    When I throw a party, I can count on my friends to bring food, burgers, beer, etc. I can also count on someone showing up, not bringing a thing, and consuming way more than his or her share. These are the people ratios were created for. When everybody shares, everybody wins.

  2. LateBlt says:

    I remember a couple of BBSes with post-call ratios (PCRs) which had notices from the sysop that acknowledged the problem of people posting crap just to get their post-ratio up. It said something like “Garbage posting will not be tolerated here! Anyone putting up garbage posts just to increase their PCR will have their messages deleted and their account banned!” This almost sounds like a good idea, but in practice, of course, such a concept is required to make some distinction between a “good” post and a “garbage” post. Where do you draw the line? What process of arbitration makes that decision for each messages that goes up on the BBS?

    The answer, of course, was the sysop. This, again, led to the potential for abuse of power, since if the sysop didn’t like you or didn’t think your messages were clever or contributing enough, s/he could simply lock you out with the justification that you were trying to fill the message boards with nonsense to get around the PCR.

    For my own part, on boards that had a PCR, I usually tried to make a good-faith effort to put up messages that weren’t meaningless drivel, but didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of content to them either. These usually took the form of a simple invitation-for-discussion question, like “So what does everyone think of (some game or movie that recently came out)” or something like that. I used local political issues a couple of times, like “Has anyone noticed any effects from the restructuring of the city council?” The latter type of question is of course one of the things that BBSes were great for, because you had the assurance that most callers were local and would know exactly what you were talking about, as opposed to the Internet where a guy in Idaho might read the message despite probably lacking the faintest clue about the city council of a town somewhere in Nebraska. Such posts are really quick and simple to make as ways of increasing your PCR, but they do tend to foster decent discussion on the message areas (which is what the PCR was designed to encourage).

    I find it a bit funny that you describe file upload/download ratios in terms of quantity of files. The vast majority of BBSes that I saw with file ratios based those ratios on the SIZES of the files rather than the quantity, meaning you could upload a single huge file and get credit for lots of smaller files. A system like this worked out well for me, because I’m kind of a retrogamer and most of the games that I like to play are older and smaller, so I could acquire a copy of a single relatively new and huge game, upload it, and then be able to download several of the smaller games I wanted.

    FTP sites today still routinely have ratios. Some P2P programs also have a tit-for-tat system in which people who you’re uploading a file to will automatically give you a higher priority in their waiting queue if you’re waiting to download a file from them.