ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Loose Film Ends —

None of the following concepts/ideas/paragraphs grew in my mind enough to warrant a decent weblog entry, so I’m grouping them together, like a lost hiking party, clinging to each other for warmth and hoping you’ll read them before the ice weasels come.

There were a number of planned ideas at the beginning of BBS: The Documentary that I had on deck but which, for various reasons, did not ultimately happen or were morphed into other aspects of the work. A few that come to mind are:

  • An episode that was going to focus on just one “bbs scene”, start to finish, to show how the BBS could influence a community across decades, and to get a deeper feeling for what it was in the context of a location. I chose Worcester, Massachusetts because it was geographically close and because I thought it was just big enough to be interesting but not so big that the anonymity/population would be overwhelming. Too many people had left Worcester or were uninterested in being interviewed to make it realistic; one was semi-violent about the prospect.
  • An episode was going to focus on just those tiny/fringe voices that found a place on BBSes: UFOs, alternate science, sexuality, religion, based around small businesses, and even neo-nazi. The idea was to give some insight into how the BBS gave people a voice they didn’t otherwise have. This got absorbed into SYSOPS AND USERS, because it felt like I was just trying to do a freakshow, which I was personally against being a party to.
  • An episode that was going to talk about everything from Amiga MODs to Demo groups to ATASCII creators, you name it, to show the massive spectrum of art and artists that were able to express themselves over BBSes. I ended up just doing ANSI art, and American ANSI art at that (this became ARTSCENE) because just getting a grip on that story filled an hour.
  • An episode about computer and communications hardware, to show the history related to the equipment, modems, and other stuff associated with a BBS. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much more interesting and relevant to talk about the people themselves instead of their hardware.
  • An introductory short film with me (on camera) welcoming you to the world of the BBS Documentary and describing what they were. This got as far as narration and music before I shot it in the head, because while I want to think otherwise, I ain’t camera talent.

This is the nature of a project, especially a documentary, which I described recently as “a film where you shoot the footage and then find out what the plot is”. If there’s one thing I’d want people to know who were taking an interest in the process, it’s this: you have to be flexible. Just because in your mind the most important shot is a crying baby, if you don’t get your crying baby, suck it up and keep shooting and you’ll probably find something even more compelling than the crying baby. You can’t just go ripping stuff apart because the reality you’re filming doesn’t conform to your vague mental shooting script. You keep going and make the best of it; this happened to me all the time. It’s a shame some of these ideas never saw the light, but many more ideas saw the light that I never even fathomed would show up during filming.

Let’s switch gears. Far and away, the most complaints I get about the BBS Documentary series, in terms of content, is ARTSCENE. I get some nice accolades for it too, but I have gotten nearly a year of rips and insults for that specific episode.

The reason for this is because it is so highly focused, and so intensely US-centric in content. I get a lot of petulant “I guess [my thing] wasn’t good enough for you” and “too bad you didn’t tell the real story”, and a bunch of stuff along those lines. It brings up an interesting perception, which both interests and confounds me: a lot of folks are pretty convinced I’m it, in terms of documentary exploration of this subject. That is, if the BBS Documentary didn’t cover it, we’re screwed, it’s over, it won’t be covered, dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind. I appreciate the unwarranted belief that I’m the canonical arbiter of history and permanence, but in point of fact that’s pretty much crap. I’m just the most recent attempt to tell online history and the story of computers from a specific position. In my case, I’m going to flood the market with dozens of hours of interviews about the subject, but that’s not the final word either. There is nothing stopping anyone from doing another film with a different core country in the center of the story; and in fact, there are documentaries that I have seen myself that take place in other countries and tell stories of “scenes” and computer-based social groups. Some are really good. Some are not really good. But they exist and are being made. No need to park the waaah-mbulance in front of my door.

Switching gears again, I am asked by people if I will be doing a documentary on X, where X is some relatively recent concept or social group. Here’s some of the suggestions I can remember off the top of my head:

  • Viruses/Virus Writers/Virus Companies
  • IRC
  • Warez Groups (Modern Version)
  • Wardriving
  • Hacker Conventions
  • Hacking/”The Underground”
  • “The Internet” (Modern Version)

I don’t mind dropping all those ideas on you, because I have no plans to do anything with them. The fundamental reasons are pretty much the same: modern “scenes” don’t trust guys like me. I am asked why the BBS documentary doesn’t go too much into “the current scene” in the context of the present. And besides my focus being on what was because of the danger of it disappearing, another trivia fact was that with very few exceptions (thank you Rob Swindell, thank you Leif Bloomquist), most people doing anything relatively in the “present” treated me like a litterbox.

People don’t trust someone who says “I’m going to come in an quantify your life on video”. They trust it even less if we’re talking about their current life, and not something 10-20 years ago that they can reflect upon or consider with some distance. Trust me, I got the message: stay out of the present, stick with what happened. I don’t need the pain.

Additionally, and I don’t know why this shouldn’t be obvious, the number of people willing to speak on camera about ongoing quasi-legal acts are few and far between, and mostly consist of you (the filmmaker/journalist) being the latest con or challenge. This is part of why HPAC is not HPVAC in the series: people who wrote or who did anything with viruses assume (and it’s a good assumption) that going on camera saying “Yeah, I write/wrote viruses” is a one-way ticket to sucksville. So there you go.

(Like I said, these are all half-developed ideas, huddled together for warmth. I’m sure if people need greater context, they can catch me at notacon in a few months. Bring Pocky.)

Finally, some commentary on length/breadth. I get two main complaints about the current size of the BBS Documentary DVD set:

  • It is way too long and burdensome.
  • It is way too short and fluffy.

The second one is easy to answer: imagine me holding the box in front of my face and me yelling “IT’S FIVE AND A HALF FUCKIN’ HOURS!!!!!”

I found, ultimately, that lengthening the work (and make no mistake, I would have made it 10 hours long if it made sense) just found me kind of telling the same story in slightly different ground. For example, FIDONET, which covers that network pretty well, does not discuss Alternet and about a thousand other networks that used Fidonet or Fidonet-like technology to communicate in groups and lines that might never intersect with the larger Fidonet. I got ribbing about this from some of the groups or people who motivated the networks, but cinematically, how do you say “And also, there was something almost entirely like Fidonet but not quite like Fidonet but with many of the same issues and situations we’ve just discussed” and not be clunky? I couldn’t find a way in the editing room. Same for a lot of stuff which people have criticized me for not including. Like I said, for a lot of people, I didn’t go into the subject enough. While I understand this in a vague sense, the harsh reality of the concept stuns me. “You mean it should have been longer!!?

As for “It’s too damn long” or “it goes into crap I couldn’t care less about”, this I can understand more. I certainly didn’t create the film in a way that really lets you watch 15 minutes and “get the point” while you go out to the bathroom until minute 30 and catch up immediately again. This stuff is deep, wide, and all over the place. It’s like one of those 1,200 page books the author spent years on, and you’re just staring at it, stunned, going ‘Well, I’ll bet it covers the story of Robert Moses pretty damn well.” But that’s not what you specifically wanted.

And on that note, I’ll say: I’d rather have people who loved the subject/film so much they wanted it twice as long, or people who so completely didn’t relate to the film that they couldn’t hack 10 minutes of it, than a million people who could watch my film for the purpose of having something on the TV while they fix the numbers in their cell phone memory. I didn’t make it to be a background, or a screen saver, or another piece of crap flying down the pipe. I made it what it was to the best extent I could. This cuts down the potential audience greatly, but the audience it’s cut down to tends to be very happy indeed.

Oh, crap! Ice weasels! See you!

Categorised as: Uncategorized

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Anonymous says:

    Plus, doing an “internet documentary” is silly because it’s just getting started.

  2. Internet Documentary. On what? Geocities’ host of creative web pages?

    This is what the BBS Documentary was for me. I was very young in the 80s, that being my first decade of life, and in the neighborhood I lived in all of the guys were in either middle or high school. I used to hang out with some of these guys. One person in particular, lets call this guy Craig, had a computer. I don’t remember what it was, it may have been an Apple ][. Anyway, I would go to Craig’s house and watch him BBS, if BBS can be used as a verb. He’d explain things to me and let me play games. My point? Well, I have all of these memories, like dream fragments in my head about BBSs and computing during that time period. The Documentary helped fill in a lot of those gaps. I found myself wanting more after I finished the film. Not because I didn’t think it to be complete, but because I get easily overwhelmed when I consume media I deem as good. It makes a great starting point for personal research. Thanks Jason.

  3. phil says:

    “…for a lot of people, I didn’t go into the subject enough. While I understand this in a vague sense, the harsh reality of the concept stuns me. “You mean it should have been longer!!?”

    Actually, I know where they’re coming from. It’s a documentary not a slasher flick: give us detail; load us with information; show us the guts… (I am talking documentary here even if it doesn’t sound like it.)

    Reality: you can only dig so far beneath the surface in five hours. And with a subject this wide and broad, that’s not very deep. It gives a perfectly adequate grounding in the subject to those not in the know. For those of us who were there, we’re already know there is more to it.

    I enjoyed it for what it is. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I remembered things I’d forgotten. I took a trip back into what was a relatively happy time in my life. Thankyou.

  4. I enjoyed it for what it is. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I remembered things I’d forgotten. I took a trip back into what was a relatively happy time in my life. Thankyou.