ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Founder of the BBS —

A friend of mine was kind enough to forward me some discussions between himself and a gentleman who has declared himself “The Founder of the BBS”.

His name is Bob Shannon, and he’s most certainly some level of “old school”; he’s done work with Commodores since the early 1980s, created a magazine for Commodores that sold many issues, is a grandfather, and he’s been doing photography for 40 years, so that earns him a few bones. Respect to Bob Shannon.

But Bob claims that he invented the BBS for Microcomputers, in 1982, writing a BBS for the Commodore Vic-20. There’s a number of problems with this statement, mostly involving reality. Ward Christensen wrote a BBS program (you might have heard me mention him once or twice) in 1978, in February. If you want to say that an S-100 kit computer isn’t really a “home computer” or “Microcomputer” in the standard sense, then I would point at Communitree BBS, written in either 1978 or 1979 (sources vary) for the Apple II (Later, it was re-written as a commercial product). There are BBSes dating throughout the late 1970s into the 1980s before Bob’s program shows up, although we’re talking about numbers in the low hundreds, so Bob is certainly no late-coming newbie.

Back in 1996, Bob merely claimed he was one of the first BBS software packages… which, if you take into context of a 20-year history starting in 1978, is not that hard to argue with; he’s probably in the upper echelon. But apparently the last 9 years have urged some reflection on Bob’s part, and he took to that vested authority Wikipedia to both delcare himself the Founder of the BBS and to tweak the entry on BBSes to reflect this new crown as “founder”.

My friend idly wondered if I could grind ol’ Bob, with his delusion of grandeur, into the dust. I figured that truth and accuracy do that anyway. But the greater issue here interests me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered guys whose version of history are at odds with the “known” stories, or the “official” timelines and cast lists. In some cases, the people who have approached me or who I’ve talked with have presented such completely off-the-wall stories related to subjects I’m researching, that the whole of my entire knowledge of the subject would face turmoil should what they say be true.

But here’s the deal: I have to research them anyway.

Yes, it’s time I’ll never get back. But it’s relatively minor to do a bunch of research into a subject you know cold, with a new perspective…. compared to that person, that out-of-left-field opinion that showed up at your doorstep, turning out to be right. If by some bizzare set of circumstances they are telling the truth or are adding a view of history that is at odds with many other tales, then you are doing yourself and the world a disservice not to have listened.

My documentary didn’t cover this subject, but the circumstances of Gary Kildall’s death in 1994 were given to me in the form of nearly a dozen stories, many of which conflicted each other. The guy died, officially because he fell off a barstool. I am not inclined to agree with that story.

At one point, I recieved a phone call where someone claimed to be someone else I had already interviewed. I spent an evening verifying that I’d interviewed the right guy.

One potential interviewee claimed that a prominent BBS was a front for a child sex-slave ring. I had to go check THAT out. (It doesn’t seem to have been.)

If you’re in the business of facts, you can’t just crumple up people who come to you with different ideas and throw their opinions away. Perhaps you might not immediately grab their stories and go running to the world shouting “The Truth Is Here!” but you can’t just dispel ideas just because they’re different.

The secret downside of the way information travels and can be copied with such perfection in the modern age is that we set ourselves up to be poisoned, pulling our ideas from polluted rivers of knowledge that are being dumped into with every crank, weirdo, and brilliant but misunderstood genius in the known world. If you’ve ever done a web search on a fact that you know is wrong and watched the hundreds of hits come up with newspapers, websites and forum messages declaring the untrue to be true, you know what I’m talking about. Personally, I can live with this situation, very comfortably, but it requires constant awareness, constant skepticism, and some amount of heartfelt belief and faith that there might be a germ of truth in something completely wild.

This situation is never going to go away now, just like the situation of markets never went away after we invented money. It’s just here, a part of us, a part that connects us all.

Even if the part is deluded and nuts.

Update: Bob Shannon and I have been in pretty intense e-mail conversation in the week since this entry was written. Here’s the outcome and the ongoing situation of that.

Bob wasn’t entirely too pleased with the phrase “grind into the dust” being near his name, along with “crazy”, “deluded”…. you know stuff that wouldn’t really apply to him as a person. And of course he’s right. Those are easy terms to throw around when you don’t have any facts about a person, and a few tidy online scans hardly constitute actual research about what a person has or hasn’t accomplished.

The shifting line of Bob’s belief in being one of the first in some aspects of the BBS story is in fact pretty stable, once you accept his premises. He’s definitely one of the first Commodore BBS developers, and he was involved in the whole nascent personal computer world from its beginning. Whether he holds a specific “first” crown might be a fun game to play, but he certainly can claim pioneering status in the grand scheme of things.

In the future, I’m hoping to work with Bob to write a nice summary/interview of his BBS work and life, and make it available. Until then, rest easy: Bob Shannon is a fine fellow.

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  1. Mungojelly says:

    That’s a beautiful entry. I almost hate to sully it with a comment.

    I think one way Wikipedia is an instrument for truth is precisely by attracting everyone who would like to see history distorted. It brings them into a real dialogue, where the truth is likely to be exposed. Better to have all the lies together, where you can keep an eye on them.


  2. Jason Scott says:

    Mungo, my little friend. Are you implying that Wikipedia’s function is that of a little box with a stick holding it up and a string leading to the rational side of the Internet, attracting cranks who will then be trapped inside when the string is yanked?

    I can live with this allegory.

  3. phil says:

    I think UserFriendly have rather neatly summed it up today…