ASCII by Jason Scott

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Why Is Today Not Like What It Was Like? —

I didn’t write this; it was submitted to me to go into the Historical Essay portion of textfiles.com. But I like it so much, at his attempt to not just recount his past but understand exactly what was so special about it, that I’m putting it here, too.


This document attempts to answer a fundamental question:

Why Is Today Not Like What It Was Like?

by TCV

formerly Sir Galahad, The Main Man (unsuccessful),
The Unknown, The Watchman, FEH!Head

The intro to Textfiles.com poses a simple question, right? What was it like
to call BBSs? And there are a lot of great textfiles within the section –
some of them like jail-house confessions — that admirably explain what it was
like at the time of the BBSs.

It got me to thinking: What’s different about today’s online experience
that makes it different from yesterday’s online experience?

There is actually a lot more different about today than you might think.
And what’s sad for those of us who were there, there’s quite a bit more that
just can’t be recreated. Those experiences only exist in our memories and our
lame attempts to capture emotions in textfiles.

It turns out that answering that simple question ain’t so simple.

Let’s see if we can’t figure out Why Is Today Not Like What It Was Like.

BEECHWOOD-45789

My friend introduced me to BBSs one afternoon during my 14th year. He
showed me the ropes: how you place a phone call to connect and login to
Paradise, or The Dungeon, or Dante’s Inferno. He also explained how these “BBS
programs” ran on other people’s computers. The board operators kept their
computers on all the time (!!) and the board answered the phone. It was all
very mystical to me. When I left that afternoon, he gave me a big list of
local BBSs to call.

And that’s the FIRST thing that’s missing from today’s online experience:
single contact.

When you called a bulletin board — unless you were one of those rich
and/or thieving kids — you made a simple phone call from your computer to
another computer. If you had fairly good knowledge of area codes and local
telephone number prefixes, you knew where you were calling. This, at least,
allowed you to imagine where you computer traveled.

What happens these days? Well, if you dial a number at all, it’s
certainly to some unmanned, air-conditioned room where a bunch of lonely
modems handle incoming calls for a bunch of online services. Believe me,
there’s no pimply-faced guy there with some mean alias like, “Your Worst
Nightmare!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” ready to scare you with his might when next you
logon. What’s more, when you request a website, where does it come from? At
best, a room with a whole bunch of servers that handle thousands of web sites.

Certainly there are PEOPLE behind all this technology. Someone is
creating that nifty community you log into every night.

But today’s online experience loses that simple contact, the connection
of computer to computer, the single exchange between YOU and the bulletin
board. And, certainly, the locality of it is lost. When you called a BBS
devoted to your area, it operated IN YOUR TOWN, not on some server offering a
free month’s hosting if you purchase a set of steak knives.

And, by the way, this is true from the other side, too. While you once
could watch someone login to your BBS — and see just how lame of a typist
many people were — you can’t do this when you run a web site.

NO CARRIER

Do you remember dial-up? Yeah, I’m trying to forget it, too. But more
importantly, do you remember all that freaky noise the modem used to make?
That’s the modem negotiating a speed so it can make the connection to the
Internet service. At least, that’s my non-technical explanation.

Way back before 56k, people used to connect to BBSs at 110 and 300 bps.
The slower the connection, the cleaner the tone that came out of the modem. In
fact, way back when folks connected at 110 and 300 bps, you could hear the
tone beep-and-boop (the technical terms for modulate and demodulate) as
characters came across the line. (With the VicModem, one could pick up an
extension phone and whisper into the receiver, “liiiiiiiiine noooooooise,”
utterly destroying someone’s connection. Now, THAT’s COMEDY!)

As speeds picked up, it became harder to distinguish the modulation. That
wasn’t a big deal, of course, because you got a super boost in speed. Still,
sometimes I miss the old, simple carrier tone. When the carrier perked up,
text was sent directly to your computer and when you pressed a key on your
keyboard and you heard the carrier beep, what you typed was displayed on the
other person’s screen. It was an interesting technical experience that’s
nearly gone these days.

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING CURSOR

Not terribly long after many BBSs upgraded to 2400bps, one long-time, local
stated that 1200 baud was just enough for anybody. What he meant by that was
as the ASCII scrolled on your screen, a typical person could keep up with the
1200 baud text without it getting too far ahead. While it’s pretty obvious
that 1200 baud would not be quite adequate for today’s connections, what is
missing is the simplicity of the text-only connection.

Web pages and emails are amazingly complex, and not just underneath the
hood. Seems like the simplest pages have lots of elements vying for your
attention — Javascript, FLASHy objects, blinky banner ads, and oh, so much
more. It’s yards beyond a simple screenful of text like we used to deal with
everyday.

What’s also quite different is that even for pages that manage to be simple
– like the ones here at textfiles.com — there is hardly such a thing as a
“screen full of text.” Text is much smaller these days due to the higher
resolutions monitors can display. I’m writing this in TextWrangler on a
PowerBook G4. I’ve set the background to black, the text to green, and I’m
soft-wrapping the text at 78 columns. It takes up slightly less than 1/2 of
the screen. This is a far cry from yesteryear, where 78 columns was the ENTIRE
screen. Poor bastards like me with their weak-ass Commodore 64 had only 40
columns. Vic-20 users? I’m not sure they were even allowed on BBSs, seeing as
they had a mere 20 columns to play within. ;-)

It’s not easy to view things as they were, by the way. You can increase the
size of the text, yes, although at some point it does look ridiculous. You
could lower the resolution, but if you’re on an LCD monitor, everything’s
gonna get a little blurry. And today’s operating systems just aren’t meant to
work in anything under 800×600.

If you can force a 25×80 full-screen DOS session then telnet into a
telnettable BBS, you can get something close to the way things use to look.
But even that’s becoming harder to do without buying old equipment! (*sob*)
COMMUNISM

Many web sites these days want community badly. There are thousands of
books and web sites that explain how to create, foster, build, and massage
communities. And when those things don’t work, some web sites FORCE community.
(YOU WILL POST TO THE FORUMS!!) And community has done pretty well on the web.
There are THOUSANDS of websites with quality, busy communities.

It used to be that each local area had a handful of communities and while
some were specifically-inclined, a larger majority of them were general and
had strengths and weaknesses in one or more areas. Today’s communities are
typically micro-focused. They pick one thing and try to do it the best way
possible. This ain’t bad, but it has some downsides.

First, it’s hard to be successful at generality. Some of the most popular
BBSs were “general.” These boards typically just let the conversation go
wherever the users wanted. This freedom was meant to prompt the users to take
the wheel, as it were, and create the community. Many folks today will simply
pass you by if you’re not trying to shine some light onto some topic
previously in the dark.

Second, there’s a price to pay for your time. Just like you might have to
buy two computer magazines and visit four web sites to get a full story these
days, you have to visit several communities to equal up to what you would have
found on ONE popular BBS.

Third, redundancy. There are also a lot of repeat communities, so many so
that if one Star Wars community isn’t working, you can always go to the next.
For this reason, folks have very little reason to make a mediocre community a
stellar one. That leaves a lot of web communities overrun with weeds.

MAH THREADZ

Reading new messages is something people have done online since the
earliest days. But Usenet brought a shift to the way people read new messages.

Why am I blaming Usenet? Well, there’s no BLAME here, per se, but when
people started to read through hundreds of messages a day, folks sought a way
to easily jog one’s memory as to which conversation they were following. Thus,
the THREAD view was born.
On the old BBSs, you typically typed “N” for “New Messages” and you were
brought to each forum only to read those new messages in the particular forum.
How was it determined which messages you saw first? Easy. Your last logoff
time was compared to the messages in the message bases and the data/time they
were published. (Heck, there wasn’t much in the way of real threads with some
BBS packages; the whole of a conversation would ebb-and-flow, die and rise
again, as you read through the new messages. It was all very
stream-of-group-consciousness.)

Today, many web-based forums software, like vBulletin, force the thread
view, shunning the “show me all the new messages” view entirely. And some
packages really never show you the new messages, rather showing the topic
header with some graphic indicating new messages lie within. If your web
cookies are up-to-date and properly situated, then you’ll be able to read the
messages that are actually new since you last visited.

I haven’t found any web forums that do New messages quite like so many
years ago. I find it quite easy to miss honest-to-goodness, new-to-me
messages. A damn shame when community is supposed to be so important!

Let’s try to wrap this all into one typical call to a typical BBS. I’ll use
something closer to my experience — a Commodore 64 and a VicModem. (Hey,
Apple IIe owners. I’m STILL JEALOUS of you, that’s why I’m not using an Apple
IIe as the subject here. Nyah.)

The situation described is a BBS in which you called last night as a new
user. You’ve introduced yourself to the community and are hopeful for replies.
So, eagerly, you dial the seven digit phone number to Paradise/The Morgue BBS.
It’s busy. So you wait five minutes — which is interminable to someone your
age — and dial again.

This time it rings! Click. A carrier tone comes over the line. And just
before you remove the handset cord and plug it into the VicModem port, you
hear the tone start to modulate.

^^$@#!L C O M E T O

P A R A D I S E / T H E M O R G U E

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER THIS LOWLY PLACE
SYSOP: SOMEONE VERY MEAN. GRRRR.

You enter your alias and password and, after various promises of death and
stuff for those who would trespass against the BBS, you are whisked away to
the Main Menu prompt. An gets you to the Message Bases. A starts new
messages scrolling your way. In fact, here’s your first message to the
community:

MESSAGE 43 OF 57
BASE: WARROOM
9/5/1985 – 1:17AM
FROM: MR. BAD
TO: ALL (EVERYONE)
SUBJECT: I AM THE MOST BAD

YOU HAVEN’T MESSED WITH THE BEST UNTIL YOUVE MESSED WITH ME. IAM THE MOST
BAD YOU CAN EVER DEAL WITH. JUST TRY ME AND YOU’VE GOT A WARRR!!!!!11

MR. BAD
LEADER OF THE PACK
“COME SAIL AWAY WITH ME, LADS!”

It doesn’t take long until you see a reply to your inaugural BBS post!

MESSAGE 45 OF 57
BASE: WARROOM
9/5/1985 – 1:48AM
FROM: HELLS KEEPER
TO: MR. BAD, ALL
SUBJECT: I AM CONFUSED

HEY THERE, MR. BAD. THIS ISN’T SO MUCH A CHALLENGE AS IT IS HOPE FOR A
CLARIFICATION. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “THE MOST BAD?” DO YOU MEAN THE
“BADDEST?” CAN YOU PLEASE CLARIFY?

ALSO, I AM ASTOUNDED YOU WOULD QUOTE A SEVEN YEAR OLD STYX SONG AND AM
ULTIMATELY NOT SURE WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO. DO YOU HAVE A BOAT? TO BE
SURE, I THINK YOUR QUOTE CHOICE IS A BIT … AHMM … GAY. IF YOUR
INTENT IS TO COME OUT OF THE CLOSET, THEN PERHAPS A MORE DIRECT METHOD
IS APPROPO.
ALL IN ALL, I BELIEVE THAT THE HAPPY FUN BBS WOULD BE MORE IN LINE FOR
YOUR DECIDEDLY NEWUSER FORAGES.

H E L L S K E E P E R

And so begins your online relationship. All the fame (and fortune)
promised by other BBS-calling friends will be yours soon, you think. You
respond with various threats, when suddenly, the cursor starts doing some
unexpected things:

SYSOP COMING ON…

HEY MR. BAD. I’M JUST TRYING TO HELP YOU HERE. I THINK THAT IT WOULD BE
BETTER FOR YOU TO JUST LAY LOW FOR A BIT AND WATCH HOW OTHERS INTERACT
WITH THE BOARD AND THE USERS. I KNOW THAT YOU’RE ANXIOUS TO GET STARTED
AND HAVE SOME FUN, BUT YOU REALLY DON’T WANT TO COME OFF TOO SILLY AT
FIRST.

You respond in a most unfortunate way:

WHO DO YOU TINK YOU ARE? I AM MR. BAD. THAT MEANS IAM BAD. WHAT PART OF
THAT IS HARD FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND. IF YOU DONT LEAVE ME ALONE I WILL
CRASH YOUR BOARD. IAM ALSO AN HACKER OF SOME^@&**

That’s when you hear a click from deep within your VicModem. And it sure
ain’t long before you realize you can’t access Paradise/The Morgue any longer.

Of course, silly new users are around as much today as they were back
then. Perhaps, though, they’re more difficult to delete.

It would be interesting if someone were to take an old BBS package, port
it to Flash, make it fill a screen, and try to start a BBS-style community
around it. Perhaps, with the right visual and audio cues, it would even FEEL
like an old BBS. They could even give you the old modem sounds and mimic
good-old 300 baud.

That’s an exercise best left to the more technically inclined and not
someone attempting to simply relay Why Is Today Not Like What It Was Like.
Indeed, I know I haven’t captured all of the ways today is different, and I
don’t mean to imply that Today Sucks. My hope is that you now have a slightly
better understanding of yesteryear as you read through the textfiles.


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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Today, indeed, sucks. People don’t use their names anymore. When you’re chatting on a vB-type forum, you’re more likely to be talking with Mr. Bad than Johnathan Sysop.

    And what’s more, thanks to search engines, when you write something it’s out there for everyone. It’s not just for your little locale or circle of friends (unless if you use LiveJournal); if someone Googles you they’ll be able to find everything you’ve written. I miss privacy.

  2. stoolpigeon says:

    I did use my vic-20 to get on local BBSs. But my dad had to buy me a phone to do it. You had to manually dial, listen for the BBS modem to pick up, uplug the handset and plug the jack into the modem. First BBS I ever used was Star Trek themed.

    It was slow– but so was saving all my programs to a cassette tape.

  3. ispyhumanfly says:

    hey dude… i totally agree with you. i currently run a telnet board (soon to be re-opened) but also run a scene based discussion forum on the web. i’d very much like it if you would please stop by for a visit. tell me what you think… cause i sure would love to embrace the future with the style of the past.