In the final part of my ridiculously long interview for NULL emag, we chat a bit about my BBS, Distortion, and my efforts to collect and archive scene history, and a bit more about the BBS scene, past, present, and future.
Distortion is a cool BBS with some nice art. What is it that makes a BBS cool?
Thanks! There’s a variety of things that can make a system worth checking out in my opinion. A customized setup with nice art and/or some insane, custom modifications is certainly high on my list, but you need content too. That can be anything from really nice, curated file areas, to a great local message area. I’d throw an active door game community onto that list too. Something that I really used to like back in the day were systems that had really unique content, whether that be a distro site for some unusual zine or group or something, or maybe the HQ of some sort of prominent scene figure. I’ve called some amazing boards back in the day, and we’re really fortunate that we have some great telnet systems still around these days.
One of the things I really like on Distortion is the section with all the history/information about you, Distortion, Mystic BBS, Gutter, etc. I don’t think there are too many BBSes that do that and the history of the scene is disappearing to oblivion. Should we do something about it? Find a way to record things down? Right now, for someone new to learn about the scene, they pretty much have to watch the “BBS Documentary”, read many of all these textfiles.com files, and read many emags (hopefully) from 16colo.rs. Should a group make an effort and record the history in a more productive way?
Thanks for noticing! For the record, that’s another good example of the kind of unique content I like to come across. That’s part of why I did that on Distortion. The other reason being as you’re implying, the preservation of this kind of history. I’ve always been kind of concerned with documenting the scene. There’s a few reasons for that. On a basic level, that’s how I tend to learn. I try to really understand things – I break them down, form associations, etc. which leads to what sometimes feels like a more academic view of certain things others might take for granted. The other reason may have something to do with coming to the scene so late, feeling like an outsider that very much needed to learn about the culture, and then having it dissolve right in front of my eyes. It was like “hey wait, there’s all of this culture here? and now it’s disappearing!”
I became kind of obsessed about this pretty early on with files in particular. It didn’t take me long to start noticing how I could find some files on some systems that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Whether this meant particular versions of particular software, or unique files associated with certain groups, zines, mags, software, etc. I started “collecting” the files that were interesting to me, particularly those around underground BBS software, doors, modifications, and source code. At some point, this turned into actively calling long distance and leaching file areas. When my participation in the scene shifted to mostly being on the Internet, this grew to include arranging leach sessions with other SysOps and searching for obscure web and FTP sites. Eventually I had put together a collection that was filled with a lot of fairly rare, esoteric files and, using the resources I had with demonic.net, I ended up putting them all on a public FTP site to “pass it on” as it were. These days I can easily trace a lot of files on places like archives.thebbs.org back to coming from my collection. I don’t think a lot of people outside of Demonic ever knew about my involvement in this, though Radman gave me kudos for my efforts in the readme on his Dark Domain ACiD artpack archive DVD release, which felt like more than enough recognition for my efforts.
From attempting to obtain the source code from a BBS author who ended up discovering that he had lost it due to failed tape backups, trying to track down specific files I was after, like finishing off a collection of missing zine back issues, to my own numerous instances of bad luck with hard disk failures and other incidents over the years, I noticed how utterly fragile this digital-only content was when not distributed or, maybe worse, horded. My efforts turned more from a focus of putting together a great collection of files for my own greedy purposes to actually saving files from total extinction. I created a local message base on Distortion called “scene archaeology” to discuss this and continue to try to obtain copies of people’s setups, file bases, unique files, etc. While my efforts have mostly dried up over the years, I’ve got quite a lot of stuff these days, though I honestly haven’t gone through and sorted it as well as I used to do. It’s mostly just huge unsorted dumps of files. I owe a lot of that to others who have attempted to archive files in a similar way as I used to. People like Jas Hud and his huge BBS warez torrent that was floating around for a while, to Jason Scott’s archives in places like software.bbsdocumentary.com, textfiles.com, and archive.org.
In summary, I feel like it’s important that we try to preserve this stuff, less risk it being gone forever. I urge anyone reading this who might have an old backup tape, zip disk, old stack of floppies, whatever it may be, that has some old BBS file systems, BBS backups, or even your own personal archive of source code or WIP files if you don’t mind sharing them, to put them somewhere so they’re not totally lost. Hell, I’ll take them and add them to my own collection for that matter – you can email me at jp(at)demonic.net. 🙂
Finally, this is another reason why I like emags and ezines. Similarly to Distortion’s numerous bulletins about the history of the system and some of its associated groups, these things really help to snapshot a moment in time and (hopefully) save it for future readers.
How were relations between sceners back in the 90s?
Since we were almost all late pre-teen to early adult males, it was… ever read Lord of the Flies? 😉
Actually, I think the fact that so many of us had the brash attitudes that come not having fully developed out of a childish narcissistic worldview meant that while sure, there was plenty of conflict, often over petty bullshit, and dumb stuff like the tribalism that came with scene “groups” and other grouping that came from things like allegiances to our favorite PCs, OSes, and BBS software, it also meant that most of us dealt with each other head-on rather than there being a ton of passive aggressiveness.
It’s also tricky to really explain the nuanced layers and levels of respect and notoriety that came with gaining reputation in the scene. People were typically fairly respectful of those who they saw as having more scene cache, be that a higher profile or maybe just raw talent, than them. It wasn’t as simple as “if you’re not in the scene you’re a lamer. If you are, you’re my equal.” The obvious bad part of this whole thing was that it could be tricky for newbies to get involved without constantly unintentionally disrespecting people by breaking some unwritten rule or custom and getting a much worse reputation than being unknown, maybe even getting ostracized in one way or another. There could also be a lot of “hazing” type shit that came with people learning the ropes, particularly when it came to underground boards in the dial-up days. It could be a bit of a process. On the flip side, once you started to get known and make connections people were generally pretty cool with you.
Can you describe how things were back then with the underground scene? I mean, today everyone expects to be freely added to a network, freely download tons of files, etc. Things were different back then. Can you give us a glimpse of the past?
There was this 2 node elite warez board in my local scene that I found on several local BBS lists, but was almost always listed as private, or with a note saying there was a system password or new user password, or some other obstacle I had to get around. So, the first hoop I had to jump through was actually finding the correct numbers and cobbling together a list of potential access passwords from all of these old ass BBS lists.
So, I finally call it up and end up having to use a “call back verifier.” A call back verifier was a third party door or modification (I can’t think of any systems off of the top of my head that had this as a built-in function, actually) that would attempt to verify that the user entered their real phone number in by then calling the user back. They worked in a variety of ways, but often you had to answer the call with your terminal and then enter some sort of information to authenticate the session, flagging your number as validated. This wasn’t anything new to me, as call back verifiers were semi-popular with PD boards as well. Probably more so, even. The main point was to be able to uniquely identify you as a user, especially since few SysOps had caller ID at the time, and some of them took duplicate accounts very seriously.
So, I go through that process and then I’m greeted with something I’d yet to encounter in my short BBSing career: new user voting. Most NUV systems work by forcing new users to fill out what was usually an extra questionnaire form. Not knowing what the form was even for, I just half-assed it, and actually, in the case of this BBS, the questions were more like a quiz than an application, meant to test your knowledge on the underground scene. Shit like what “DOD” or “FSW” stood for. I was utterly clueless about warez and cracking groups at this point, so I did a shit job of completing the form on top of rushing through it. What happens in NUV after this is that subsequent callers are shown your completed form and then asked to vote on whether or not to accept you. That’s how validation was done. This could sometimes last a couple of days depending on how active the board was and how many votes were required. How this went really depended on the culture of the specific bulletin board system – some would happily thumbs down anyone they didn’t know or didn’t like for whatever arbitrary reason, while others would pretty much vote to accept anyone who applied that didn’t put anything too boneheaded on their form. In this case, I was down voted and then locked out of the system. Ugh.
Now, I was a hard headed kid, and now that I’d had a glimpse into this strange new system that was seemingly safeguarding something cool, I really wanted in. Getting denied only served to make me want in that much more. I impatiently waited a few weeks and then called back and applied with a different handle. This time I took my time and paid attention to how I filled out the form and did a reasonably okay job of completing it, despite still not knowing the answers to a lot of the questions. A more meticulous SysOp, or maybe just a better designed call back verifier, might have caught me as a duplicate user since I had to use the same number, but in this case I got in, and somehow got voted in. I honestly didn’t think I stood a chance, but there I was. I immediately located the file system and found it to be a treasure trove of multi-disk pirate group releases. Holy shit… games!
Except, that’s not the end of the story. Not unlike some private torrent trackers, you had to maintain a certain upload/download ratio (in this case, I believe it was handled with a “credits” system in which you were awarded a certain amount of credits as a new user, and per day, and more importantly, by uploading validated files.) So then I had to raid my meager file collection to try to get enough credits to snatch the good shit. I think I ended up resorting to nabbing files off of some of the other, less elite underground systems in my area just so I could turn around and upload them for credits there.
Finally, one day after trying to download a bunch of shit and probably being all out of credits, or perhaps time (your daily time limit was a much bigger deal in the dial-up days) I hung up and then immediately received a phone call. Since the SysOp had my real phone number due to his call back verifier, he took it upon himself to call me for a quick chat. I’m sure I was fucking shaking in my shoes, but he ended up being a very cool dude and hooked me up with some credits. He eventually went on to become quite a good friend and as an added bonus, from there on out, upgraded me to a “leech account” giving me unlimited credits. My days of putting effort into being a faux-productive member of the local warez trade were over, at least on that board.
Do you think those kind of “user evaluation” features should be enabled again? Should BBSes and networks be more “closed societies” with strict invitation requirements, etc. like it was back in the 80s-90s?
I think that’s highly debatable. There are pros and cons to that kind of thing, and I think most of us, being more measured adults, probably see more value in the pros of keeping it open, especially with the relatively minuscule user base of the scene as a whole. Having any society at all is probably more important than it being a closed society. 🙂 Distortion was actually a closed system with an NUP for a very long time, and even today I don’t auto-validate my new users, though I more or less accept anyone.
What do you miss today in the scene?
Oh, so much!
I really miss having insane amounts of free time to really deep dive into to the innumerable projects and interests I have. For instance, I’d love to have the time to really invest into getting better at ANSI – I strongly feel that, these days, if I kept cranking out work to the degree that I might have been able to as a teenager (if not for being distracted by numerous other interests) I could actually end up being a passably decent artist.
More existentially, the sense of wide-open, endless possibilities; mysteries to solve, systems to learn, and an infinite amount of adventure that had always been a part of my infatuation with computing (online and otherwise) is largely missing from my life today. I supposed that comes with devoting so much of my life to it for the past ~25 years. That sense of wonder, of adventure, was so much a part of the magic of computing and especially BBSing to me back then. Plugging a phone line into my modem for the first time was like the captain of a spacecraft pointing his vessel at some random patch of space and punching the accelerator – I never knew what I might find. Sure, probably a lot of nothing, or at least nothing very interesting, but that possibility was absolutely intoxicating.
For the record, I maintain that there’s even more to explore, to learn, and to invest in on the Internet these days, but just as my journey has lead to that whole feeling being mostly subdued, most people who are now growing up with the Internet being a normal part of their lives likely won’t feel that way either. Rather, they take it for granted. It’s still all there for those who seek it out, however.
Do you think that the scene is dead, is going to die, or has transformed into something different?
Let me re-frame that a bit. I think the scene as it existed in the 80s is certainly dead. As it existed in the early to mid 90s? Yeah, dead. Even as it existed in the mid to late 90s and early 2000, it’s dead. It’s really something else now, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not still very much a thing. In fact, in its current state it’s hard for me to imagine that it won’t endure to some degree in the same way as it has in the last 10-15 years. I probably wouldn’t have said that 10-15 years ago!
Do you think that today’s BBS scene and BBS software has some opportunities to grow and evolve or has it taken the path of no return? 🙂
Yes! The scene has definitely already slowly evolved over time. For instance, the greater integration with modern social media platforms (the ANSI scene largely revolves around Facebook right now, for instance.) This has resulted in more of us seeking out real-life meetups and a renewed interest in attending competitions and parties and really, just turning the whole thing into a more mainstream hobby.
On the software side, thanks to the work of some of the current active BBS developers, we’ve finally started moving from telnet to SSH which is something many of us have wanted for years and years now. It’d be hard to predict exactly how things will continue to evolve, but I feel like we’re all still waiting for a true “next gen” take on the traditional BBS software that both actually comes out (most of the semi-recent efforts on this front that I’m aware of have never been fully completed) and people actually adopt. Until then, we’ll remain making these kinds of tiny, incremental steps to modernization like those taken by software like Synchronet, Mystic, and x84, for example.
There is Mystic, Synchronet, Enigma, Magicka, Titan, Iniquity and more BBS software being actively developed. There has also been some small “movement” between/in networks like Arak/FSX/Fido… does this all mean that the BBS scene is going through a revival?
Nope! I’m afraid it just means that our little “retro computing” niche continues to be a fun, active hobby for those of us involved in it, which is great. The word “revive” is a little odd for me – I mean, as I said before, it certainly isn’t or hasn’t been totally “dead”, just changed. When I think of what a true “revival” would look like, it would be BBSing becoming a (if not THE) prominent way we interact online, and I’m sorry if I come off a little pessimistic here, but I can’t see the greater populace of the Internet suddenly trading in their Twitter and Facebook accounts for telnet or SSH clients. 🙂
After all these years, what is it that makes you continue to be involved with BBSing, ANSI art etc. Is it nostalgia, or the “magic” of textmode? 🙂
Definitely the nostalgia. It certainly goes deeper than that, probably on some kind of a psychological level – maybe that lingering infatuation I talked about earlier never really left me? I really think that for most of us that are still active, there’s something about our time in the scene that deeply affected us, one way or another. I mean, most of us were involved in some of our most formative years after all. It would be interesting to know whether most of today’s sceners would have considered themselves as especially prone to nostalgia before their time in the scene, or if their inability to let go of it led them to become more nostalgic in general. Maybe many of us don’t even consider ourselves to be all that nostalgic to begin with?
That said, I came across this great quote recently, and I wish I could remember it verbatim or even where it came from, but it affected me insofar as my recent involvement in the scene goes. While it was surely much more poignantly phased, it was something to the effect of “you shouldn’t deny yourself the things that made you who you are”. I immediately thought about this “hobby” of ours and how I should more fully embrace spending time on it without any apprehension, making more of an effort to invest my time and energy into it. That goes for all of my friends in the scene too, and anyone else who might be reading this. If you still love this stuff, and it means something to you, keep doing it!