On an average October lunch break in 2001 I fired up my web browser
to do my daily surfing of one of my favorite news sites, slashdot.org-
one of the featured stories included a link to the textfile.com web site.
Me being a BBS user of the 1980s I began to remiss of my computing days
of past and after some browsing I found myself speechless as I sat face
to face with my past- words that I had written sixteen years prior had
been preserved and to some degree, celebrated on this site. I remained
stunned for days and felt like I had just made contact with a long lost
brother as the message that I wrote all that time ago had some special
meaning to me. After a few e-mail exchanges with Jason (the webmaster)
he ask that I write some companion text to my original message to help
solidify the context of the message and to further the celebration of the
special times when it was written- times that proved to be the infancy
of the modern online community. I have included the added companion text
in this version of my letter which is written in italics and contained
The Modem Life. Is it Really Worth it?
[Users often focused much of their online time to systems that were
within their local calling zone for cost issues, multiplied with the fact
that there was a significantly smaller users community and it meant that
the same users would often converse on a number of local systems. As well,
with such a small home computer user base within the country many people
didn’t have immediate contacts to share their passion for computers with
which often lead them to reach out to others they found in the online world
for friendship. I personally had arranged a number of meetings with others,
attended several mid-size user group parties and even, along with a few
others went to the funeral of an online friend that I had who I had never
meet. I wrote this disclaimer since many people that would be reading this
message had met me or had some idea of who I was and to let potential abusers
and our peers know that I considered the use of this message as ammunition
for abuse to be of extremely poor taste. Today, this might seem silly but
I felt it worthwhile as abuse was gaining popularity as an online activity.]
Well, another typical day in the modem world. Doesn't it just make you want to throw-up all over the keyboard?
Recently I thought I would call the numbers on the Megaterm 3.0 Famous Systems phone book [Megaterm was a terminal program used to dial-up and communicate with BBSs, it’s distribution came with a list of BBSs that were favorites of the author.] thinking these would be the "Top of the line" BBS's. As the Megaterm began to dial with Safehouse I kicked back and watched. Busy. Not surprising. It then proceeded to dial other BBS's, most of which I never have heard of. After about two more tries the program started to freeze. Not sure what was going on I picked up the phone only to hear the recording "We're sorry but the number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service...". I then hit [U] to unmark the number and continue the Megaterm dialing. Not too worried that that board was down the Megaterm continued to dial as I again kicked back and watched. [Obtaining a connection to a board often seemed like a ritual to many online users of the day since access to most systems was limited to one user at a time. Of course, the most popular systems were always the hardest to get on to. The notation of using the brackets as in “[M]essage” was sometimes used as a courtesy to identify valid system prompt commands (in this case the letter “M”), this is somewhat analogous to providing key words.] The very next number that was opening message and the prompt for my password or 'NEW'. Being a new user I typed 'NEW'. To my displeasure the system told me it was a private BBS that allowed no new users and hung me up. Very displeased I kicked back in my chair and started to listen a little closer to the TV in the other room as the Megaterm began to start dialing again. After two more welcome busy signals the Megaterm started to flip from 'Click' to 'Busy' and back and forth. Confused, I picked up the phone and again heard that dreadful recording "Were sorry...". Very uneasy I pressed [U] to unmark the number. After a small welcome string of busy signals I got a ring. The phone was answered and a carrier was sent. The Megaterm then connected for me only to find that it was a Pixboard. Very pleased (I love pixboards!) I called back and loaded up Pixterm. [Pixboards were special BBS’s that were capable of transmitting images to the caller, this technology was quite revolutionary for the average online user of the day who was accustom to viewing just plain old text. Pixterm was the custom terminal program required to interact and view the images on a Pixboard.] Once connected, pleased to see some nice graphics in the opening message I then typed in 'NEW'. Only to find out that a $10 validation fee was required to access ANYTHING but the main menu and [M]essage to SysOp. [Most boards of the day offered a number of different levels of user access and most systems required the SysOp to validate a new user before they were granted privileges beyond reading messages. Validated users could post messages to these boards and were allowed to stay online for a longer period of time before being forced to log-off. Higher levels of access, which were acquired either by purchase, favor or personal contact, often provided benefits like allowing access to restricted boards, longer online times and access to a BBSs’ textfile database. Some boards also had hidden levels of access which, if obtained, allowed access to hidden message boards, allowed the user to know the identity of otherwise anonymous posters and provided moderation capabilities to delete messages.] After messing around for a few minutes I got bored and typed "OFF" to leave the system. I then returned to Megaterm and it continued to dial. After another busy signal the numbers sequence started over. And I got a ring, before I knew it, the words:
THE SAFEHOUSE MEGANET - PORT #02
were printed across the screen, me being a regular caller to the board entered my name and password only then to be logged off due to the fact the that port was being reserved for a level 5 user. [The Safehouse was one of the few systems that had multiple phone line capabilities but reserved one of those lines for a user with higher-level access, which I sadly didn’t have.]
Very discouraged and then realizing that some day, The Safehouse would die too such as others favorite systems like Sherwood Forest II, The Outpost, The World of Cryton, and Sherwood Forest ///. I then quietly went to bed.
[Extra Note: No offense Safehouse Manager]
A day or two later I decided to give a few of the local boards a call, only to find that the most active sub-boards around were abuse! After reading a dozen or so messages I came across a message that was insulting my personal favorite BBS, The Digital Dimension, on-line since Aug. 1983, a VERY nice system. The post was saying how bad the board was because the SysOp wouldn't give him high access, and never answered [F]eedback, or [C]hats. [Feedback was a simple e-mail letter to the SysOp. The chat function was a request that could be invoked by an online user for the SysOp to engage in a real-time conversation while the user was online. Once activated, the user could then continue with their online session while a message was displayed on the SysOp’ monitor indicating the function had been activated. It was always fun when a SysOp would break in on your session (particularly if the chat function was never invoked). To add to the fun, many SysOps had a message automatically displayed as a prelude to the chat that often included some overtones of a Godly entrance before the chat began.] I was pretty upset, the SysOp is a personal friend so I naturally [P]osted about the matter and explained how he is a very busy person and tries to do as much as he can, after all there are over 750 users! [The number of registered users for a BBS was always analogous to a tigers’ stripes and a point of great pride to a SysOp.] Feeling satisfied I logged off and observed a few other local boards only to find more abuse, hatred, and destruction. I then decided I would go outside and get some fresh air and live a normal life, after all I don't want to take the image of a 'computer freak'. [Many people of school age that had a computer were considered a computer freak by default since the concept and benefits of why anyone would want a computer was totally alien to the average person.] A day later, very concerned, I again auto-dialed to same board with Matthew Dornquast's beloved Megaterm. After about a half an hour of dialing I heard the computer in the other room signal that a ring was detected. I came in the room and went through the logon procedures and went straight to the abuse board to find about 10 new messages after mine! I began to read them; more of the same hatred. I then came to a post about 4 after mine by the person that I posted about. He told me off and posted my number. I was very uneasy, I have never heard of the guy before and he posted my number! [Much like what will possibly always be, not all online users of the day were cordial and some were even looking for trouble. Posting an individuals’ phone number on a BBS was often used as a method of attack against a person in an attempt to destroy that persons’ anonymity of using an alias. It also attempted to demonstrate ones’ resourcefulness as personal information was often highly guarded from the general online public.] Not sure to post or not I sat there for a minute and said why not. Not bothering to read the other new messages I [P]osted. I then told him how everyone had their own right to say what they want and that posting number solved nothing. Of course later that week, for about three days I received prank calls, I would pick up the phone with a "Hello?" Nothing. He would just sit there, hoping that I would get upset with his deed. This will make him happy. I then started to tell him how much of a man he was by prank calling, he was probably expecting to here "We have a trace on our line blah blah blah!" I then hung up. He never called back. [These of course were all days prior to Caller ID and related technologies. As phone abuse was often a method of attack against another online user many people either did or claimed to of declared to the phone company that they were receiving harassing phone calls and worked out arrangements to have a call trace placed on their line.] Later on that day my very good SysOp friend of The Digital Dimension called me. He started to explain how he was told earlier today that he was going to be moving at the end of this school year. He then asked me very seriously 'Bryan, will you please run a copy of the board in Houston while I take a copy to Iowa.' I thought long and hard, being a SysOp required a lot of work, time, and devotion. A whole lot. I agreed. Many things were now needed to be done. Now realizing that I didn't have the hardware to support the system, that weekend I started a buying spree. I first bought my Sider 10 Megabyte hard drive, $695. [Can you believe 10MB for $700? The scary part is that was considered cheap- the Sider was the first hard disk widely available for under a $1000.] Then bought a Thunderclock, another $110. [Apple II computers did not come equipped with a system clock, which was necessary to keep track of users login times. The Thunderclock was an expansion card that plugged into the system bus and provided this basic function.] I of course needed a firmware chip for my cat, $30. [This firmware EPROM plugged into a socket on an Applecat brand modem and enhanced the functionality of the modem to allow it to answer phone calls.] And so my computer won't overheat, a System Saver, $70. [The “System Saver” was an encased fan that attached to the outside air vents of the Apple II to provide increased airflow though the otherwise fanless unit.] I then realized that I would need my own phone line so I called the phone company and got it installed, $120. Realizing how many callers I would loose if the number changed, I would have to pay an additional $60 to get the same number, 713/497-4633 but that will have to wait ‘till he moves. After realizing I just spent over a thousand dollars just to get the board started I began to get use to the software. It was a home brew. [custom written.] Nevertheless, a very nice one. I started to write new "mods" [modifications] and features for the board. I only had a print out of the board then so the SysOp could get his software copyrighted. [More specifically, the SysOp was ultimately wanting to get his software published and was advised by his agent to not distribute electronic versions of the source code for it.] Knowing that in order to keep the high quality of the system it would require many long nights over the keyboard, more night then ever before. Typing... thinking... working... programming. After showing the SysOp my progress, he was quite pleased. I rewrote many functions. Many features were now more efficient and faster then before. I also started the beginning of our soon to be enormous [L]ibrary on our new 'baby' the 10 Meg Sider. [It was often in the mind of an individual to better understand ones computers and how to control it. As well, me being the person I am, couldn’t leave good enough alone.]
After a month or so, with the same old BBS abuse and programming, I took a look at all the work I had done. Over 200 files in the [L]ibrary so far, many new features which have never appeared on a board in the U.S. (to my knowledge) have been thought up, organized, and programmed. I then thought, when I take the board over I will be the victim all this major abuse on these other boards. What an honor. God, what an honor! I then began to wonder, why, why does everyone abuse everyone else so much? Are they insecure? Are they really that upset? Are they just blowing off a little steam? Do they enjoy making enemies? Do they feel superior to insult others? I don't know. I really don't know. I myself like to make friends. Not only just friends that I will talk to on the phone, but ones that come over on weekends, go out partying on Friday nights, play sports, and just about anything else a true friend does. Without knowing that I went to the same school as Shadow's Pawn for almost a year I meet him at the SysOps house and am now good friends with him. Despite the fact that I am two years older then him, he is on the football team, I am in band and enjoy playing the trumpet, and we had almost no common interests became good friends because of similar interests, the computer. But I still came back to the same question "Why do they abuse?" Why? Life is bad enough as it is, and then there are the feds who are after all us pirates, phreakers, and hackers. [I had to laugh some when I read this. Pirates are individuals that distribute copyrighted software. Phreakers are individuals who acquire and use long distance PIN access numbers that don’t belong to them. Hackers are individuals who attempted to penetrate computer systems that they weren’t granted access to. (The modern definition of this activity has changed and is now referred to as cracking. Crackers of this day were individuals that found methods to circumvent software copy protection schemes, if someone was successful in a particular pursuit they would say they “Cracked it”.) While I’ve never been one to not give people their due and don’t condone these activities I found that many people did them out of necessary to further their knowledge of computers given their limited resources. At that, many were minors and knew there was a limited recourse that could be taken against them at that time. I laugh because the fear of the feds was something that was often the buzz on different message boards while the reality showed that they typically had little interest in what was going on.] Who needs more enemies? While we can all be helping each other the "good old" traditional computer activities like helping others get up to date "wares", even if they have a Networker modem and not that "excepted" Applecat? [Wares are the items of trade for a software pirate. The Networker modem was capable of transferring data at 300 baud while the Applecat could do 1200 so the bias was obvious.] I remember back when I first got my modem. I couldn't remember one abuse board. Not one. Then suddenly one by one, slowly but surely, they started coming up with the demand of them due to the large amount of hatred from two users. Now, the abuse board is just as common as the public board. Why? Why? Then somewhere, some one person had a grand idea. The same thing that happened over two hundred years ago. This genius said, that order in the modem society is a must and some form of government must be formed. Thus came Tele-Trial, with this new concept came new constitutions, new sub-boards, and an incensement of tele-conferencing phreaking. The constitutions would set the laws of the BBS. The sub-boards would provide a special meeting place for matters of the tele-trial and the tele-conference for the often called "court room" for the trial of the defendant. This system worked in many places. Punishments were often deletion from that board or even to the great extent of credit card information being released, and abused. But for many, deleting ones password would not keep them off the system. They would just call back with a new handle and abuse more people till he was deleted again. And the process goes on and on. Believe me, I have seen it happen. So I came to the conclusion that this method is not full proof. I then came upon a crazy idea of mine. Not so sure of myself I begin my think more in-depth. One hope for me remained, and I then walked to my computer, put in Apple Writer and began to type. [Apple Writer was the de facto standard word processor for Apple II users of the day.] Now, I have completed my work. My task is finished at this moment of Sunday May 26 1985 at 12:55 in the morning. I thank you for you time and am sorry for any and all errors.
In Jason's comments about my letter he said that this was a plea to the online community of 1985, in retrospect I have to concur that he is right. What’s sad however is that you could change a small amount of this message and make it meaningful to an online world that exists years later- sufficient to say that it’s hard to imagine some aspects of the online community ever changing so long as people can operate with some degree of anonymity. Throughout the decades that I’ve spent online I’ve found that, from a human perspective the modem lifes’ greatest tool is to allow people the freedom to express what they really want and be the person they want to be- no excuses, no limits, no regrets. Some people that appear as kind individuals in person live in shadows online where their true self can run free without fear of retribution. Others however prove themselves noble and dignified without reward and are often brighter gems then what the eye beholds. The choices come from within, the freedom is yours. In the end, I think you just have to ask yourself "What kind of world do you want?"