People wonder why I run a web forum that few people use or Discord servers that people are largely lurking on. My ex-wife, may her soul be at peace, wondered and never did understand it. I wonder myself sometimes, the work I’ve put into things and the consistent work I’ve put into a lot of different attempts at something similar.
As I grow older, I feel like the point of view that I came with, the history, the social events which lead to the specific kind of geek that I am are dying out. As they must, that is just how it is. My dad no more understands the world I became consistent in than I do his, or that Red or Jade / Otaku do mine.
For the sheer sake of nostalgia and interest, I watched a documentary about the online communities I grew up on, the BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems). It is an incredibly long but very accurate and honest depiction of the world that my computer experience comes from. It made me truly realize how different an experience it is now than when I was young.
When I first got into computers, most didn’t have modems. I got a 2400 baud modem from my Uncle Leonard, he had upgraded his modem and thought I would like to play with it. I, of course, did but I didn’t even really know what a modem did. All I knew was that you could hook it up to a phone line and do… Something? I didn’t really know what. In my bedroom we didn’t have a phone line, it was kind of a luxury to have a phone line in your bedroom and most homes came with one single phone jack. Ours was where most were, in the kitchen.
The first time I got online I had to prepare for it, we had a bunch of old phone cords around because, well my dad doesn’t tend to throw anything away. Keep in mind the Internet didn’t exist so when I wanted to splice the phone cords together into something long enough to get from my computer to the phone jack, I had to do a bit of trial and error. Naturally it wasn’t that hard, just a standard twisted pair. Solder, electrical tape – well, that’s not true. I didn’t have any electrical tape at first, but we did have a ton of masking tape, so it was making tape first.
I hooked up my 2400 baud modem to the phone and still didn’t know what to do with it. I had DOS at the time as I despised Windows. I couldn’t buy software for anything because I had no money (I did not get an allowance). Windows at that time was Windows 3.1 and it was slow on my computer and had a lot of graphics problems with my graphics card. Problem was that Windows came with Terminal Software that I could use to communicate with my modem. I’d done some DOS work trying to get a response from the device, I used the massive DOS 3.3 manual (the last really good manual for an OS that Microsoft ever released) and cobbled together a way to send commands to the modem via the COM port… It worked, but I couldn’t actually do anything with it.
To get online for the first time, I had to fix the Windows 3.1 incompatibility with my graphics card so that it would run well and stable enough to get to the terminal program that could actually use my modem. It was summer in Anderson, California. My dad didn’t want to run the AC during the day and in those days computers didn’t auto-shut-off or auto-stop the CPU for overheating, the computer would happily run until you burned our a component and then error out. When I started to smell the unique smell of hot plastic, I knew I best shut the thing down. My mom had an old candy thermometer (goes up to like 1000 degrees F) that had a probe, so I used my dad’s tools and I drilled a little hole in the side of my computer to put the probe, it was an analogue thermometer so I spent that summer using my computer until it got to about 200 or so, that’s about when it started to smell like it was going to melt something. Neither my motherboard or CPU manuals had operating specs for temperature that were useful, they all just said to shut the system down if it overheated. This practice meant I got about 8 or so hours of work on the computer in before I had to shut it down and wait another 2-4 hours (depending on how hot it was in the house) before I could use it again.
Took me about a month to, via trial and error, figure out the driver problem was that my card was an re-brand of a different card’s chip with a 2nd card’s board. In theory they were supposed to be compatible, but the direct memory writing addresses were overlapping from the standard. Now most games and even DOS could handle this without too much of an issue, with just a very minor bit of configuration. Windows, however, could not. So I had to get the device drivers from the one card whose chip was being used and the device drivers from the board was being used and find a way to mash them together. Lucky enough the company had actually solved this problem with Windows 3.0, so another week or so of trial and error, I got a working video driver for Windows 3.1.
So after about a month and a half or so I finally could open a terminal problem, I still had no phone numbers to dial with it. My dad had been looking into building a new computer so he was getting catalogs for computer parts and prices. I hated looking at these things because I knew I’d never be able to get anything out of them. One day he showed me a part, since now I was the computer expert because I had told them at length about how I’d made my own driver for the computer to run Windows (I knew a lot by this point about how Windows drivers worked and about how DOS worked, etc, etc). At the end of that section were ads for BBSes, a single one had a phone number in my local area code – Fatal Error BBS.
Now, I was a lonely kid. Not unlike many, many others. My parents didn’t really know what to do with me, I was always restless and wanted to take shit apart. I was really smart but had nowhere to put that. I also felt like I was completely alone, some of that was just the age. It was the early 1990’s, about 1993 actually. I was 13 going on 14 when I got my first computer. I think everyone feels alone and isolated at around that age, well most everyone. Still, I didn’t connect with the people at my school, I was bullied a lot but that wasn’t that unusual either.
When I first connected to this BBS, the Fatal Error BBS, I was treated with these brilliant colorful text-based art images (ASCII and ANSI art). There were message boards that covered every imaginable topic, and all of them were filled with people talking about things. It took me a few days to work up the courage, but I finally posted a few messages. Then, I got responses back. The way it worked is I would write a message, send it, and someone would have to call in after me and respond. Then I would have to call in to see and read that response. I got my first reply and it wasn’t the expected “shut up kid”. Instead it was someone treated me like I had a point worthy of discussion. I didn’t know there were people who thought like me out there, I thought I was unique and I’d just always be isolated and alone.
My mom used to tell me “hush” all the time because I talked non-stop. All day, every day, I would talk. Usually to her or my dad. My sister got fed up and would go to her room and avoid me, but mom and dad tried to listen. I would motor-mouth all day, only now I look back and imagine how exhausting it must have been. I got told to hush a lot. Other responses were “un-hu”, “oh”, “ok”, “yeah”, and “that’s nice”. Here was for the first time some person wanted to actually know what I thought! I was kind of hooked, I became a kind of BBS warrior, the only place I had any confidence at all was on a BBS. I would tell anyone anything, at 14 year old kid talking to grown ass adults and telling them how wrong they were… And I got away with it, even won a fair number of arguments.
I was honestly too late for the BBS. Even in 1993 when I made my first call to a BBS they were on their way out. Fatal Error had an Internet gateway where you could send mail to people over the Internet even. I called a lot of boards though, Red Ribbon, The Firehouse, Das Tube, Inevitable Cafe, and many others. I met people, went to BBS meetups, I was too young for most though. The adults didn’t really want to spend a lot of real-life time around a 14 year old kid (who would) and the ones closer to my age were 17-19 or so, they got into it when they were my age and a lot of them would be head off to college. It was a short 2 years before the friends I had made stopped showing up to meets and stopped posting to message boards. I wonder what happened to some of them, some of the people who really gave me so much companionship in a time where I had very little. All I remember now are handles, Firefighter, Shadow, Katnip, Grasshopper, MegaButt, Angel, Isis, and more that I’ve forgotten. I was a snot nosed little kid and those people defined my world, a world that my parents, sister, people at school, no one understood.
Searching Ever Since
See, I think that is why I do what I do. I have been trying to run services for, well since about 1998 or so. We got a 2nd phone line around 1997 or 1998, dad piped it into my room. I ran a Telnet BBS for a long time, my parents wouldn’t let me publish our phone number so I set up Windows to maintain my connection to the Internet 24/7. The local scene had died though, it was quiet except for like 5 people who called it, including my best friend Justin who I kind of forced into it.
I made it though, I had to work hard to get online the first time. I had to work hard to make a Telnet BBS (I called it Blue Covenant BBS). It was a labor of love really, I wanted to build it, learn, and when those 5 people called in it was amazing. I loved every second of it, something I made was being used by someone else and it was glorious! It was truly too late though, the Internet had taken over and Internet services were very difficult to run and on the fully connected Internet, there was no reason to use a kind of slow service by some teenager in middle-of-nowhre California.
Here and Now
Forums like PHPbb and vBulletin are the successors to the BBS. I think that’s why I have such an affinity for them. It is not unlike a BBS, you log in, you see messages. You read and respond and then wait. I had to work hard to get my web server up and running, mail server, all of that. Really the Discourse board is the closest thing to a BBS I’ve run in years. When I see Red, Chaos, Winter, JS, and everyone else come on to use it, it just feels good.
See the Discord Server is easy. There’s no real work required. Hit a button, decide on some stuff, and you’re off and running. That’s why I have tried so hard to put work into it, trying to build it into a community. A community like I used to have, years ago. So here I am, trying.
So that’s why I run this place and the Discord servers. Why I try to keep the Wiki up to date and keep the forum running. Why I feel bad when I can’t go online for days, I always feel that if I could just do what those old SysOps did back in the day, I would find my people again.
Perhaps I will.
I think that’s all I have for today. I’ll try to get some things replied to.