Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Another One

I don't know what I'm going to call this sucker. I really don't have any business starting anything right now, anyway, but I'm pretty stressed and need to feel like maybe I'm accomplishing something.

And this story's old enough that I probably won't fuck it up too bad if I get interrupted fifty times, which is pretty likely.

Back in the fall of 1990, I was living in a dorm room on the OU campus, with a bunch of other 18 year old dorks who were really into computers and/or Jesus. And when I say dorks, I mean DORKS. One of my roommates was a Mac user, and had pictures of unicorns on his walls. Pink sweaters. A picture of him with Uhura. My other roommate masturbated to a picture of a 486x33 IBM, called his computer Maryann, and left his room only for Bible study.

Both of these people were absolutely petrified of me, as you can imagine. I was still listening to Mercyful Fate/King Diamond, drinking whiskey in bed, and setting fire to Everclear in our communal bathtub. I didn't want to be friends with those guys, and I wanted them to stay as far away from me as possible.

But I got along well with many of the other people on the floor, even if they did use Macs. Or, in one astounding case, a NEXT. Thus, it was one of the other guys on the floor who introduced me to the fascinating world of bulletin boards, and their uses in picking up girls.

Back in 1990, the internet was a gray-on-black labyrinth. Normal people didn't have internet access--hell, normal people didn't even know it existed. I first heard about it when I was given an account so I could access the FORTRAN compiler for my first (and only) computer science course. I fiddled around with usenet stuff, but found that the same was true then: most people have no business writing things in a public forum. Either their grammar and spelling was bad, or their grammar and spelling was bad PLUS their reasoning was bad, or they were just plain ol' annoying. I joined newsgroups for Evil Dead, various bands, LSD, and bomb making, but soon figured out that most of the info was either WAY over my head, false, or just not that interesting. Plus, it was in plain text, which reminded me of my FORTRAN homework, so I just let it slip.

The BBS, however, was a whole 'nother matter. It was mostly text, granted, but BBS communities tended to be much smaller and personal, and contained a wide variety of information and people, instead of one exhaustive thread on one topic. And it was in color. ANSI, yes, but color.

The downfall of these things? One person could log on per phone line, and the phone line stayed busy while that person was on. As I became more and more entangled in the web of local BBS's, I found my modem (2400 baud, kickin' ass and takin' names) would spend much time redialing a number, until the last user had gotten offline, and the next could log on to add their messages to the system. I also noted that after a time, I could actually hear my modem pick up (or cease redialing) from halfway down the hall, in someone else's room.

You can see, then, why it's called a bulletin board. Things just appear there, and you can't ever find anyone doing it. Entire communities were built up, and competing software systems were developed. These were all public domain systems, and all had their own distinct features that allowed a group of BBS geeks to sit around someone's basement and argue for hours about whose was better. Not unlike motorheads or wine aficionados, only we probably had less of a tan.

Even more interesting (this IS interesting, right?), you could actually send someone a private message on another bulletin board system, anywhere in the world. This was accomplished by the actual BBS systems calling each other to transfer messages, and in some cases a message could actually be transferred OVERNIGHT. FOR FREE.

If this sounds a lot like email, you're right. That's exactly what it was, only much, much smaller. Think ham radio meets UNIX nerds.

This was all inexpressibly fascinating to me, but I was merely content to log on to the guy across the hall's lame-o site until he actually got a real, live girl on the other end of the modem.

I couldn't believe it. Neither could anyone else--within fifteen minutes there were ten or fifteen guys in various states of dress, shoving and craning their necks for a glimpse of John's computer screen. If you're picturing the cast of "Meatballs," or "Revenge of the Nerds," you're not far off. We couldn't help it. We were kids--shit, I was barely 18.

John had already blown his chance to play cool by the time I got there, in that he'd actually initiated live conversation with her--once again, primitive instant messaging, but only available between the sysop (system operator) and whichever user was online at the time.

If you remember your Tron, you know that Sysops are fearsome beings, capable of deleting your account, erasing your messages, or actually logging on as you and publicly announcing you liked to stuff Vienna Sausages in your ass. Sysops varied from absolutely inapproachable (Rome, a Mac board) to very engaged and normal (House of Ill Repute, which I'll get to in a sec). Even when your sysop was a member of the board, however, if he didn't know you personally, odds were good you'd never know he was around, reading your messages and watching what you read.

John was about as fearsome as a bowl of Froot Loops, and as soon as a GIRL found her way to his board (something Douglas Adams-esqe, if I remember correctly), he had jumped all in the middle of a conversation with her.

Within an hour, she'd talked to every one of the geeks in the room, and most of us had made fools of ourselves. I was the exception. I didn't talk to her, because I hated pushing people, and the line wasn't so much a line as it was an ever-morphing blob of cowlicks, fat, and sweatpants. Also, I'd read that she frequented another board (because I always got an angle, yo)--a board I knew.

Within a week, I had developed a rapport with the guy from House and the guy from Rome, and convinced them I wanted to set up a BBS. Since I had a PC, Rome's system was right out (which sucked, because it was more fun)--but Ted's BBS was run off the most complex PC software yet, called World War Four, or "dubya dubya eye vee," to the uninitiated. By the weekend, both Ted and Jamie from Rome were knocking on my door with a set of 5 1/4" floppies, ready to set me on the path to BBS stardom.


At 9:58 PM , Blogger Beardking said...

House of Ill Repute. That shit cracks me up man. I used to log onto that BBS. I can't for the life of me remember what the hell was so interesting about those things back then, but I can remember MANY days that I spent staying up into the wee hours of the morning dialing up new ones. There even used to be a BBS oriented newspaper that circulated with all kinds of phone numbers to contact other BBS's.

At 8:24 AM , Blogger Jefe said...

I was thinking this morning that SOMEONE would surprise me by remembering that place...

At 10:03 PM , Blogger Dylan said...

Ahh, ye olde BBS. I remember them fondly, including comparing notes with my other proto-geek friends. Luckily, most of the BBS ops in Hawaii were fabulously wealthy, and maintained 2-4 phone lines.

At 12:18 PM , Blogger Daisy-Girl said...

Wow. I was in fourth grade. I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.


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