ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Room With an Interview —

The following is an interview conducted over e-mail with me by APC Magazine, a technology-based website and print magazine in Australia. Since this website gets a few hundred people a week and the print magazine gets many tens of thousands, I see no issue with posting it here as well. If you live in Australia, stop reading and buy the magazine, I suppose.

On Mon, 3 Nov 2003, Maher, William wrote:

> Do you think we are experiencing a BBS revival?

The word “revival” is a little strange to me, because dial-up BBSes as a foremost entity of communication can’t compete with the speed, breadth, and pure financial investment into the Internet that has occurred in the last 10 years; that’s why they’ve disappeared off the popular radar.

However, for a good number of people, BBSes never went away, they just became ISPs or moved to servers that were Internet connected or otherwise found a way to survive. And for people whom BBSes were a nice, pleasant hobby, not unlike skateboarding or going hiking in the woods, they simply became other people and moved away from expressing themselves that way.
They made up the majority of BBSes out there, so that’s the driving reason for the perception of BBSes as a “fad” or “wave” that would come, build to a peak, and then crash.

Really, though, those people are now running websites or webpages or posting on various discussion groups or mailing lists. It’s not like they all suddenly died and walked away from computers and never wanted to think about BBSes again… they just aimed that part of themselves towards where the action is.

I should also mention that there are a number of BBSes, still single computers with modems hooked to phone lines, around the world, and in some pretty good numbers. So they’re as strong as ever in that regard, although now a novelty to people who don’t know any other connectivity but Internet.

> Have you been surprised by the level of interest?

I’m not at all surprised, because this specific subject has been given such short shrift by history. BBSes were a means to an end, and it was easier to talk about the end: hacking, computer usage, video games, or what have you; anything where you could put pretty pictures up (or in the case of computer hacking, scary multicolored images) as opposed to what, on the face of it, sounds like a tedious subject matter.

Obviously, I think differently, or I wouldn’t have spent the last two years working on this. And part of the reason there’s such interest is because of what I already knew: hundreds of thousands of people used BBSes. The people with the money to buy computers or the brains to acquire one cheaply. The people who wanted the most access to the most computer “stuff”. Folks who find themselves quite at home on the Internet, or at least comfortably using it and making themselves available through it.

When they see a documentary is coming out about BBSes, they immediately harken back to that earlier time, and when they see the names and terms come back after years of disuse in their minds, they’re swept up in the dream. And so it’s my job to fulfill the promise of that dream.

Essentially, I hope for my documentary set (there’s multiple episodes in the documentary) to give a sense of the feeling of running and using BBSes, as well and covering in some amount a large variety of BBS-related topics, topics which simply don’t have any context in other computer related subjects. I don’t think, for example, that there was much of a chance of a video-based fidonet documentary before this. (Although maybe this documentary will inspire others, who knows). I certainly know we weren’t looking at a documentary covering XMODEM, ZMODEM or PUNTER protocols, and the chances that anyone else was going to track down the creator of .QWK packets was… slim. (Although they wouldn’t have been disappointed, if they had.)

Recently, a group of talented members of a demo group called Hornet put together a DVD of PC “Demos”, those programs showcasing music and video tricks that played (and still play) on computers and are part of the “demo scene”. For people who never ever heard of any of this phenomenon, it just drops to the floor and out of sight, but if you in fact downloaded some or went to demo parties or anything like that, it was like hearing a favorite band was reuniting. I find it funny they named the project “Mind Candy” because that’s how I would describe the interaction of this memory and experience of earlier years, combined with the utility and ease of a DVD: It was like some tasty candy in your brain. I knew that if people who experienced demos in the 1990s (or earlier) became aware there would be a DVD coming out with this stuff, the two biggest bottlenecks would be how long it took to get their credit cards out of their wallets, and how much effort you wanted to take waving the product under the noses of the right people. When it got on, thousands flew out the door. Some people would be surprised this was the case, but anyone who knew the forces at work wouldn’t be. I think those same forces will be tapped by my documentary set.

By the way, the Mind Candy Demo DVD is described at

> Are people keen to connect to BBSes, or just talk about their past BBS
> experiences?

Like old video games, I think people pine for BBSes but their tastes have increased in sophistication and demand that a lot of BBSes simply can’t hold their attention. Web-based discussion boards have evolved into these crazy icon-based link-filled experiences for a reason, after all; people want that stuff.

However, like anything else, if the people are good and the conversation is good, the “rustic” interface works for people just as well as it always did.

So I suppose what I’m saying, in a greater sense, is that people ARE keen to connect to BBSes, as long as they’re BBSes worth connecting to.

That said, of course, there’s a lot of people who think of BBSes not as a hobby or part of themselves but as a phase in their life, like high school or wearing their hair a certain way. For these folks, BBSes are “over” and they’re more interested in it as a trivia exercise, or because they’re curious about what else was happening with other parts of the culture back then. They wouldn’t log onto a BBS now any more than they’d go out of their way to walk around the halls of their old elementary school.

> Why would people be interested in finding out about old BBSes?

I’ve long ago gotten away from trying to “Sell” the idea of why BBSes were interesting. They either are or they aren’t on their face. I intend for the documentary set to have a short introductory film about BBSes, just putting down the fundamentals, for people who never ever heard of them beforehand. Like a lot of subjects, the vast majority of people interested in the subject experienced it directly or indirectly and want to get more of a handle on it, or something horrible/astounding happens in a subject and everyone wants to know the “inside story”. If neither of these situations happened, the documentary becomes a little less interesting. If you own a computer, however, you probably know something about BBSes already and this documentary will give you the option of a ton more insight into them.

My primary motivation behind the documentary is to save an important piece of history. Folks like me are doing this all over the world, and I’m sure they think of the rescuing/collecting/research issues first, and the snappy slogan a distant second.

That all said, I think people might find some amazing human stories in what seems like a computer-geek subject, and they’ll certainly not hurt for lack of variety in these stories. That, I can guarantee.

> Do you think increasing problems associated with the Internet, like spam
> and viruses, has anything to do with people’s interest and nostalgia for
> BBSes?

Only slightly. BBSes had a different set of problems, and a different set of ongoing issues, some of which (over-popularity of a single-line BBS but no money coming in to expand, sysops growing bored with their BBS but the software stability so good the BBS is on life-support for years) never really got solved before websites started becoming a new way to express yourself. It was certainly not an endless path of sunshine and rainbows. People who weren’t on them who pine for them are misguided in that same quaint ways that people pine for living in “simpler times”, which actually means “lacking anesthetic, toilets, dependable roads, sanitation or freedom from persecution”.

There was an Apple II virus in the early 1980’s. Multi-chat systems like Diversi-dial had built-in forced advertisements. A lot of these downers existed beforehand; so they’re kind of the nature of people in some ways.

Naturally, of course, I wouldn’t trade my times on BBSes for anything, but I wouldn’t want to throw out my current systems and internet/web access for them either.

> Do ex-BBS users complain about the state of the Net?

I get a lot of mail with a lot of opinions about the current state of the world and drawing parallels and vectors with the percieved state of BBSes way back when. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t, but the whole thing was a different experience for different people, which is part of the magic.

I do believe that there were/are a segment of greed-driven folks who have no interest whatsoever in the positive aspects of the Net and who think of it as a great opportunity to make it a popup-choked flash-ridden porno pipe. There are definitely more of these folks than in previous decades and the presence of even one or two can ruin your time like ants in a picnic. So I do agree with folks there.

But I’m one of those crazy folks who think the internet just shot governments (as we knew them) in the head, and no amount of posturing/legislation/back-room trickery will change that. If I want to, right now, I can talk to somebody across the world or organize a mailing list of like-minded folks in an hour, I can send 20 years of collected textfiles from to someone in under a day, I can digitize most anything and get it to others in almost no time for almost no money. I happen to think that rules.

> Do you think these problems make the BBS days look even more idyllic?

I would say that without a doubt this is the case. Just like it’s very hard for current OSes to compete with the stability of the old single-user 6502 and similar-based OSes (simply due the complexity), it’s hard for the Internet with all the aspects and involved parties to really compete with the BBS experience for straightforwardness and simplicty. While there are plenty of cases of downers, harassment and some of the other harbingers of human nature in the BBS story, the whole thing seems like it’s quite surmountable compared to today’s world. As we barrel down towards advertisements in BIOSes and viruses that can potentially embed themselves into phones, I’m sure we’ll pine for the “simplicity” of today’s world as well.

> What have been the most interesting outcomes of the the BBSlist and the doco?

Well, the most interesting thing about the BBS list was the number of stories old sysops and users felt they needed to send me out of the blue, simply because they were so delighted someone remembered them, even if the extent of their years of work was boiled down to a name, number, and year span.

Keep in mind the experience many sysops have with the list. They look up their name in Google, curious to see where it’s linked, and they see it associated with a name they’d long forgotten, the name of the BBS they ran years ago. They click through, and here’s this massive, massive list of bulletin boards, all with year spans, software, sysop name, and all the names their BBS went through. The effort on my part has been relatively minimal; a series of perl and bourne shell scripts scrape BBS lists from all sorts of places that I’d been collecting anyway. But the shock of seeing this formal pantheon of dial-up boards bring many of them to highly emotional states; I’ve been told more than once of sysops crying as they see that someone, even someone who never called, has made an effort to remember their BBS. For others they lurk among the other BBSes in their area codes and they see all these other names of places long past, so they get really nostalgic for those times and share as well. I honestly didn’t expect any of this when I set out to do it.

So after a large collection of hundreds of these stories came in through e-mail, I realized there was this untapped saga in human history, the story of the BBS. People had known about them, they’d gotten a lot of people their first taste of being online, but there wasn’t any program out there that had done justice. It was as if folks were more than happy to discuss freeways and bridges and racetracks and motor oil, but never to discuss the car. It’s a very odd gap once you start looking at it, and I had started to look at it.

Since I had a film degree, I figured it might be neat to go after such a project, collect stories from all these people and see if I could make something of it. That was 2 years, 167 interviews, thousands of miles, and lots of money ago. I have a short number of further interviews to do, and I’m well past 200 hours of footage. It’s been something else.

In terms of interesting outcomes of the documentary filmmaking so far, a lot of them center around myself: first time I’ve visited Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon… had the undivided attention of millionaires and people just scraping by… halting a 30-year slide into prejudice and dismissal of a lot of the world by focusing too much on ‘book-learning’ and ignoring real people. And meeting heroes, both personal ones and ones in the truest sense of the word. You can never meet enough heroes.

In a more general sense, this documentary is providing a base for others to build work off of; I know of a couple documentary-like projects coming from specific groups inspired in part by my documentary filming, and I hope there’s even more when it comes out. That would be great.

> Any good stories about old BBS buddies linking up again?

Interestingly enough, I’ve not had cases of people who were on old BBSes linking up with people they were on with, that I know of. I suspect after the documentary comes out and people’s faces show up, as well as publicity surrounding the BBS list and related materials comes with it, that there will be a flourishing of old ties and forgotten friendships, which would be fantastic.

> Do you think BBSes are facing extinction?

In a world where people collect glass telephone pole insulators, where you can buy brand-new Model T parts, where people are still programming new games for the Atari 2600, and where I recently took a ride in a elevator that has been running for over a century, I am not concerned about anything related to “extinction” for dial-up BBSes, and telnettable BBSes or web-based message boards are experiencing anything BUT extinction.

If you confine the definition to dial-up BBSes, no, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to snuff out BBSes; they’re just too powerful a thing and they’ve got 20 years of intense programming behind them to make them resilient, dependable, and cheap to run. Right now you can have incredible computers with modems built in that are the size of what used to be a CD drive. And smaller. While we want to think of the whole world being attached to cable modems and counting their downloads in dozens of kilobytes a second, that’s not the case, and BBSes fulfill a need for the people without such connections. I think they can consider themselves quite safe for the moment.

> Is there much debate in the BBS community about whether to do away with
> Telnet and text interfaces?

I am not qualified to speak of the whole of the current BBS community, especially considering how many fragments it’s in. But I can give some idea of those fragments.

You can’t beat text interface for speed or universality; I can’t imagine people are saying there shouldn’t be BBSes that use that ability. And the same with telnet, although I think you can make the argument that ssh might be a better choice.

Web-based and telnet/text-based BBSes are dissimilar animals, solving different problems and presenting different interfaces to (often) the same data. I think it’s going to be more and more the case that people will have fun adding every possible interface to a BBS and letting people make their own choice to read and post using Java, their cell phone, a PDA, some weird IRC interface… whatever floats your boat. At the end, in the core, there will be some “there” there, some community that matters to the folks on it, and it won’t matter where you’re coming from.

There have been a number of attempts by folks to bring together various metacommunities of BBSes, that is, communities of people who simply use BBSes who want to debate things. I don’t see this as wildly successful because the people using BBSes and BBS-like technology are so variant. But they seem happy with where they’re going, so who am I to say?

I think the biggest “debate” in BBSing these days is which ones are the best. Just like it’s always been.

> We are an Australian magazine, so I’d love to be able to say if there’s
> any news about expanding the list to include Australia? Can you say
> when?

Here’s the fundamental issues involving that.

I’m an American, and I know the North American Numbering Plan (area codes) of this part of the world very well (you couldn’t use BBSes nationwide and not get a pretty cozy relationship with them). As a result, I coded all the scripts and other programs for the site with those in mind. I also was able to put in stuff handling area code splits, as well as transferring of BBSes between these area codes and other anomalies associated with them.

In the case of other countries, I simply don’t know about them well enough to consider adding such a list. The reason there’s a Swedish list on the site is because there was a guy from Sweden who said “You need a list” and I said “If you’ll do all the work” and that’s just what he did, gathering information on how phone numbers worked in Sweden and allowing me to make modifications to the scripts to import his lists. Without him, it would never have happened.

All it takes is a driven (insane) Australian (or any other country) volunteer who wants to teach me how his country’s phone numbers work, and I’ll add that country as a sub-site on the BBS list. Do what you know, and do it well, is my motto. If you try to make it that your system or website has preparations for every possible contingency and trying to make everyone happy, you’ll never get off the ground. The BBS list is well on its way, and I hope over time that I’ll have an awful lot of countries listed, but I need help. I am, at the end of the day, one guy. Which I hope inspires your readers as to what one guy can do.

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