ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Statement of Work —

I was browsing around for mentions of the documentary, and found a nice lively discussion about the documentary’s scope and range on a usenet newsgroup, alt.bbs.synchronet. Here’s the thread I found.

It’s an interesting one, because it kind of captures everything that I’ve really been proud of as well as most everything I’ve been criticized about with the documentary. It also includes the opinions of two of the subjects who are IN the documentary. That’s a nice change too.

Here’s the summary:

Good: Looks good, flows well, is professionally packaged, edited nicely, interesting to watch, faces put to well-known names, lots of stuff covered.

Bad: Misses subjects, avoids certain topics, doesn’t discuss BBSing outside of the US in detail, doesn’t mention XXX or YYY or ZZZ or (…infinite). Acts like BBSes do not exist in modern era, acts like they are history and not in the present. Clubs seals.

(Sorry, I made that last one up.)

Naturally, you can’t really do ANYTHING without criticism; there are no perfect films and don’t waste time thinking you can make one. What you do is make the best one you can make, put it out, and take the good and the bad responses together. If it makes sense to, you speak.

I’m reprinting my part of the discussion here, simply because it’s a good solid “statement” on my part about the work.

Hi, everyone.

Jason Scott, BBS Documentary director here. Saw some nice discussions
and debates and, well, accusations. Thought I’d jump in here.

First of all, I want to thank, again, Rob Swindell and Frank Vest, who
both opened their homes to me and my equipment, knowing nothing of my
“work” before then. In Rob’s case, I showed up many hours late (I
misjudged travel time from San Francisco to Los Angeles) and in
Frank’s, well, there I was jamming a lot of lights and cameras into his
home, and after his marked reticence to being interviewed at all. I
appreciate both of your allowances for this, and of course for the
hundreds of others I interviewed.

I think it’s important to note what function the BBS Documentary is
attempting to fulfill and what it took to achieve that function.
Previously, and I am not exaggerating, there was nothing like it. There
were written articles about BBSes, a few scattered photographs and
collections, and there were names and concepts in danger of fading away
forever. There was nothing to hang one’s hat on, no work to say ‘It was
like this….’. That’s what I shot for, basically an overview of a 25
year history that at first blush seemed impossible to really capture.
This is, basically, why we didn’t see something like it before and why
an amateur with a film degree had to do it.

I didn’t expect it would take 4 years to accomplish; had I known that,
I don’t know how much I would have taken on, or if I’d try to do what I
did, but there we are, I started in 2001 and ended work in 2005 and
that’s more than 10 percent of my current life spent making the film.

The focus of this documentary is the experience and the situation of
dial-up BBSes. It’s not meant to be about Internet BBSes, not meant to
be about web forums, not meant to be about current “scenes” that have
their roots in BBSes, and it’s certainly not meant to cover the cutting
edge of BBS technology. This isn’t hard information to garner, and if
someone thought that the video format would be the way to tell this
story, then they would do so, or even better, have the assembled people
available an e-mail or website away to do so. Applying that standard to
the BBS Documentary will inevitably lead to despair.

Also, it’s important to take into consideration the issue that
“complete is the enemy of interesting”. In the case of these episodes,
they are meant to be INTRODUCTIONS to their subjects, to cover them in
as universal and straightforward as possible, without getting captured
into that horrifying geek loop of “but this exception… and this
one… and these…. and this…” and then each episode is a three-hour
laundry list of every variant concept. I am fully aware, and I state so
in the commentaries of all of these episodes (all the episodes except
COMPRESSION have director commentary or statements) that the episodes
represent a scoop, a sliver of the “full story”.

The lack of non-north-american coverage was a decision, one I made
months into the filming when I determined that just trying to capture
the nature of BBS activity in the United States and Canada was going to
be a years and years effort. How good could it have possibly been for
me to travel to countries I’d never been, in languages I do not know,
arbitrarily interviewing people with no knowledge on my part of who did
what (due to the aforementioned lack of language skills)? It would have
been a disaster beyond disasters. So I pulled away from a global view.

When I said “a few hundred BBSes” were left, I meant in the United
States, and I meant dial-up. This number came from consulting fidonet
and other BBS lists. And I think I was being generous.

Remember, it’s all about dial-up, not internet-based BBSes. So I have
to take exception to it not covering something it was never meant to

Now, all this aside, there are two things I’ve worked to do to make up
for obvious deficiencies in the documentary’s coverage.

First of all, there’s over 250 hours of interviews, of 205 people. With
one exception, I have full rights to do with these interviews as I
wish, so I will be making pretty much all of them available! I have
made a deal with ARCHIVE.ORG to have a large sub-collection of all
these interviews, with salient points covered in them and who and what.
For example, there’s two hours of Rob Swindell where I only used
roughly 45-60 seconds of this footage. Same with Frank Vest. In their
interviews, and in dozens of others, MANY subjects were covered, many
of the same ones people are unhappy I didn’t put in the documentary.
ALL OF IT WILL BE AVAILABLE, under a Creative Commons Attribute
ShareAlike license, meaning they can be used in almost any way people
would want to, including as the basis of further documentaries. This
will hopefully put to rest the idea that my documentary quashes
additional BBS concepts that were covered. 250 hours. That’s 10 solid
days of BBS discussion.

Second, I will be continuing my work with TEXTFILES.COM and the
BBSDOCUMENTARY.COM sites to add more and more information, information
which might not have been easy to portray cinematically (remember, the
documentary is a movie, not a book) but which can have that
all-important critical mass as a location to save this history.

Again, it’s history, I focused on the past because the past wasn’t
being told in this fashion. I do not pretend, anywhere, that it’s the
final word. It’s the first syllable of the first word. The problem I
attacked was that the first word wasn’t even being spoken. Now it is.

So keep talking.

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  1. Wow! I really enjoy your writing. And your idea of posting the complete raw interviews is great. Thanks!

  2. Jon says:

    Sweet! It’s good that somebody took the time to do this — I enjoyed the documentary quite a bit… and one day, I look forward to showing it to my kids so they can see where all this crazy stuff came from.