ASCII by Jason Scott

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BBS Documentary Update: The Dog That Roared —

The FIDONET episode is ready for the Eye of Doom.

Folks, we’re getting close. What’s basically remaining, aside from some basic refining and icing, is the last part of the MAKE IT PAY episode. I’ll talk about that episode when I finish it, which I hope is very, very soon.

FIDONET was a bear of an episode to edit, and represents months of work all on its own. There are several factors that caused this amount of effort to be expended, but the primary one is simply the subject.

The Fidonet was an ad-hoc network composed completely of volunteers that connected bulletin board systems all over the world, via a very complicated routing setup. It continues to this day, although the gravity well of activity has moved away from the United States where it was created. At the center of this was a figure, Tom Jennings, who achieved a mythic personality simply by the size of the whole project (at one point there were tens of thousands of BBSes connected) and his own unique character.

Along with Tom Jennings are many other giants, all of them with names that ring true for the people who were associated with Fidonet directly or indirectly: Ken Kaplan, Ben Baker, Thom Henderson, Bob Hartman…. and dozens of others.

It’s a nightmare for a person trying to tell “The story”. The Fidonet story is FRACTAL. The more you research, the MORE YOU FIND, until eventually you realize the whole thing is nearly untellable. It’s like trying to tell the story of “Computers”. It goes down in so many ways and so many levels. I wasn’t paralyzed, but I was certainly intimidated.

Luckily, the efforts of a number of good people, notably Bob Hartman and Tim Pozar, got me in touch with a nice percentage of the “big names”, or at least, enough names that would allow me to broach the Fidonet story with some level of authority. There are some people who I was unable to interview and a small amount who didn’t want to be on camera, but nearly all of them helped me with information and pointers to research.

I consider all of my episodes to be “foundations” in telling the BBS story. You have a rapidly downswinging trend when doing a technical story, where you have to balance the technical discussion with the number of people who will be able to understand and parse the information you’re pouring at them. You have to be careful to summarize without corrupting, and you have to be cognizant of not taking things to such an accurate level that only the people who the subject is about could understand them. I feel I struck a good balance with this episode, but I know already that there’s a 1,000 page book beyond it in things that happened that I am NOT covering. I hope that I can facilitate further research and work on this subject, with my documentary inspiring folks to dig even deeper than I have. I hope so, anyway.

I can also say that this episode gave me one of my most harrowing situations of the entire production: last year, I showed a beta version of the episode at the Vintage Computer Festival (, along with a good number of the rest. And knowing that I was showing this episode, Sellam, the organizer of the festival, arranged for Tom Jennings to come see it.

It is a singularly stressful situation to be showing a film in which a person figures majorly into the story, and to have that person seated one row behind you watching it. On several occasions, Tom let out a “WHAT?” when people said things that were speculation but not actually true, or laughed loudly when people recounted their thoughts on Fidonet from a perspective he himself didn’t have on it. I talked with him several times at the festival, and he was OK with the episode, a major deal to me.

Realize that for every event I show in the Fidonet episode, there will be a number of people who go “that’s not how it was”. This is, as far as I can tell, endemic to Fidonet. NOBODY agrees on ANYTHING most of the time. It was called “Fight-o-Net” for a reason. I am fine with this, and will host rebuttals or clarifications if there’s major contentions (I’m doing this for all the episodes, in fact). But I think, at the end, I captured a real sense of what this Fidonet thing was.

I want to take this time to thank everyone who bought this DVD set back in October, who are still waiting for their DVDs to arrive. Please be aware that the delay is for the best of reasons: quality. This fidonet episode is a joy for me to watch, to see this magical subject I couldn’t explain to anyone who wasn’t there, now readily packaged and able to show to my family or friends or everyone else and have them go “Oh! I get it now.”

It’s all coming together.

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One Comment

  1. Jason

    I am glad it is coming together. I wanted to let you known not only am I glad you are downloading all known podcast but that I am a avid shareware collector and have nearly all of the shareware CDs ever created. I have gaps and wonder if you have had any success in collecting those types of items. Along with that I have nearly 15 years of fidonet archived archived. Not partial but the whole thing. Literally millions of messages plus all of the sharewar ethat has been release on the file networks. The bbs as you know is still online at and will remain so as long as it is not a burden. If I decide to pull it down I have a couple of teraybytes of information archived..

    Looking forward to the DVD wish we could have been able to do a interview as was initially planned but sometimes this is the way things work out.