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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