In celebration of its 20th birthday this August, I wanted to write about some of the largely untold history of Zer0net.
Most of my direct exposure to echomail networks came from the few networks the local PD boards in my area carried, including Fidonet itself. Beyond that, most of what I knew about them was observed from a distance – seeing reference to them in zines and emags, on BBS ads, and coming across the occasional network application or infopack archive. Mostly networks associated with BBS software and underground groups, such as WWIVNet, IQS, and TRiCNet, in other words, along with a few of the more infamous networks such as FelonyNet that were sometimes mentioned in old hacking text files. I also recall there being vestiges of some old underground message networks in my local 615/423 scene, but I can’t seem to remember a single detail about them. Anyway, the point is, I’d used networks here and there, and I knew of tons of seemingly awesome networks, but being an ignorant kid who was still quite new to all of this stuff, I never actually tried to join one myself.
It wasn’t until sometime in mid 1997 during an otherwise unremarkable session of vegging out on IRC that my friend and frequent co-conspirator Immortal Being (AKA, the one and only “m1cah” of kracked.com fame!) randomly decided he wanted to setup a small echomail network with me in an exercise in getting our asses off of the Internet and having some old school dial-up fun. My increasingly deep involvement in the scene was rubbing off on him, I suppose, and he was missing the good old days.
Working mostly from hazy memories of the last time he setup a network years earlier, we struggled our way through configuring our tossers and mailers (Gecho and Intermail) as well as our respective BBS software of choice. I was running Iniquity 1.00 a25r2 and he was running PCBoard 15.22, I believe. Through brutal recall exercises on his part and mind numbing trial and error on mine, we eventually got basic echomail working, dubbed our new, terrible network “SuckNET”, threw a little newschool ASCII banner we got a friend to crank out for us onto the login routines of both of our boards, and called it a success.
My BBS had gone “sort of” up and “definitely” back down in various incarnations since I first got into the scene in 1995, but by the late 90s I had finally gotten enough art to build a setup I was pretty satisfied with. More importantly, like practically all of us IRC junkies at the time, I was rarely offline long enough to accept calls anyway. That changed when I entered the workforce during my senior year of high school. Not being constantly on the Internet anymore meant that I could actually start leaving my board up a somewhat acceptable amount of time every day. An unexpected upside to responsibility!
Running a dial-up BBS at a time when dial-up scene boards were more or less extinct meant that I had relatively few callers and even less messages. Joining a message network seemed like a logical solution to the latter problem. At the very least, it might help me feel a little less isolated if I could correspond with some of the other diehard SysOps still out there. Of all of the operational “othernets” I knew of, the most appealing was, without any doubt whatsoever, Cybercrime International.
Billing itself as the premium underground echomail network, with a history dating back to the late 80s and all kinds of notable scene associations, including the art scene legends ICE. CCi had made a comeback in the mid to late 90s and, by Midnight Sorrow’s own admission, had made a major effort to absolutely assault the scene with its infopack. I was mostly familiar CCi for being the official Iniquity support network for a time during the period that Comatose’s IDT (Iniquity Development Team, responsible for the notable post-Fiend releases of Iniquity) was active.
So, I downloaded the latest infopack and loved what I found. A network devoted to preserving the dial-up boards and focused on the underground scene with message areas relating to things like hacking, phreaking, the art scene, and the demo scene. Not only that, but CCi had boasted some truly impressive statistics, with over 100 nodes and thousands of messages sent each month. Sign me up!
No, really. Please sign me up! You see, I applied for Cybercrime International and, well, I never heard anything back. I waited days, weeks, and eventually months. After chatting with a few people, browsing CCi’s echos on a board or two that carried it, and even calling the hub, Infinite Darkness, I determined that CCi had seemingly been on autopilot for a few months and its activity had been steadily dwindling as a result. Depressing. 🙁 Having already totally convinced myself of the merit of what CCi was going for, the idea of starting my own, similarly themed network was born.
This is the latest version of CCI’s infopack I could locate anywhere which, oddly enough, I found on 16color.es of all places. Released in December 1998, it’s likely the very same pack I used when I applied for membership. I highly encourage you to check it out, as Midnight Sorrow had the same sort of overly verbose, slightly self-centered obsession with documenting his network that I myself had in starting this blog. Particularly of interest is the history file.
Update: I originally had a small side note here about how I’d like to track him down to interview him about Cybercrime International’s final demise, but I guess we’ll never know. After posting a link to this article on Zer0net, Digital Avatar informed me that he believed that Mitch Waas AKA Midnight Sorrow had, in fact, passed away back in 2008. As such, I’d like to dedicate this article, and indeed Zer0net’s 20th birthday, to Midnight Sorrow. Here is a bizarre little autobiographical piece he wrote about his brush with actual cybercrime.
It was around the same time (spring 1999) that I bumped into a fellow calling himself Marlon Brando who had recently put out a new emag by the name of Mercenary that was, in part, dedicated to covering BBS scene revival. I actually don’t recall how he and I got together, but I’m going to guess it had something to do with Mercenary #1 featuring an interview with Midnight Sorrow himself, in which they briefly discuss the revival and future of Cybercrime International. Likely in my desperation to get my application to CCi accepted, I tracked down Marlon Brando on IRC and bugged him about the status of the network. Yeah, I was utterly shameless back then…
It turned out that MB, his board Black Hole Cafe being the CCi hub for Chicago, had also been observing CCi’s steady decline and apparent abandonment in recent months and wasn’t super happy about it. Having a similar love for the scene and views on BBS revival, he and I started chatting on IRC a bit. I honestly don’t recall who brought up the idea first, but MB seemed like the perfect partner to start a new network with and his board would definitely make an impressive second node. Once we’d agreed to work on the effort together, MB took the whole idea very seriously and, with that, we set out to make our very own underground echomail network.
You can run or read the text version of the one and only issue of Mercenary here, by the way. Yes, 16color.es allows you to execute emags in-browser! How awesome is that? Oh, and before you ask, no, I don’t recall why there was only ever one issue!
You might not get that impression today, but all of the ground work and the initial founding of Zer0net was entirely a joint effort between Marlon Brando and I, and we quickly set to work on defining what we wanted our new network to be.
First and foremost, and this will be obvious to you if you just looked at the above link to their last infopack, we were exceedingly “inspired” by Cybercrime International. Oddly, we seemed to be more inspired by the version of CCi from the mid 90s when it was first revived (when membership was only granted to proven, “quality” underground scene related systems and there was absolutely no moderation of conversation) than the one that eventually came to be by the end of 1998 (when they’d accept almost any system and echos were highly moderated to remove garbage posts and flames.)
Regardless of all of that, the basic theme of catering to topics related to the underground scenes was very similar, and large parts of our echolist (and the rest of our infopack) admittedly stunk just a bit of plagiarism. Still, an absolutely massive difference between CCi and what we were doing was that we had no grand ambitions for our network’s size, reach, and continued growth – we were fine with being a relatively small network. In fact, in launching an echomail network in 1999, and one with strict recruitment criteria at that, it seemed kind of inevitable, don’t you think?
I don’t remember exactly where we got the name Zer0net from, though I feel like I was probably the one who suggested it given that I had released a fairly trash oneliners/wall door with Demonic in the not too distant past with the very familiar name of “zer0liners”. In any case, we liked it – it was simple, catchy, vaguely edgy in that way that was so crucial to a good scene name, but also completely meaningless and ambiguous. I started working up some art for it immediately, discovering that is was also fun and easy to draw for to boot.
For the node numbering scheme we consulted a web based network zone database which someone was dutifully maintaining (and seems to have completely disappeared now, sadly) and picked a number that both looked “cool” and apparently wasn’t in use. Of course, most of the obvious ones like “666” and “69” were taken, but hey, “911” (the number you dial for emergencies in the United States) seemed pretty cool. Well, at least for a couple of years. 😐 We decided to go with country+area codes for individual net numbers as a throwback to the localized scene days when you repped what area code you were from. Of course, it turns out that giving away entire nets to individual nodes isn’t actually a smart idea, but neither of us were Fido Technology Networking gurus. Luckily that hasn’t caused us too many headaches over the years.
So with that, we were off. MB and I worked through setting up our respective tossers, mailers, and BBS software (we were both running relatively early versions of Mystic at the time) in much the same way m1cah and I had done with SuckNET years before, only this time I had at least a little more experience with echomail and MB, luckily, brought a not insignificant amount of experience to the table himself.
Notably, MB and I, despite running dial-up boards, had decided to use the Internet for mailing exclusively. I had stumbled across a little utility called “Fidonet 2 Internet Mailer” that I was eager to try. At the same time, CCi had been moving in the same direction in recent years, so MB had some knowledge of Fido2Int himself, which turned out to be handy since it was a poorly documented and fairly quirky program. Fido2Int worked by leveraging SMTP and POP3 servers to send and receive echomail packet bundles via Internet email of all things. Goodness, what times to live in.
We did most of this work in July, 1999 and went public, releasing our first infopack, in August 1999, with the first version of our setup guide releasing the following month. Without many dial-up boards still kicking, and telnet boards still being incredibly rare, Zer0net initially grew quite slowly. Of course, keeping things underground, we never really made any effort to advertise or otherwise “market” the network and, for reasons I honestly don’t quite recall, the network wasn’t ever the Demonic network or, actually, all that strongly affiliated any of our other related groups or projects. Had I launched a Demonic related network at the height of our popularity, just a year or two earlier, we would have surely grown a lot more quickly than Zer0net ever did. I suppose we simply wanted to keep it its own thing. Quite odd, in reflection.
Of course, nothing ever stays the same, not even crotchety old FTN networks, and over the next few years Zer0net saw some notable changes.
First, Marlon Brando decided he didn’t want to be involved in running the network anymore, and handed his half of control of the network to me. Not too long after he ended up closing down Black Hole Cafe and dropping out of the scene entirely. No hard feelings, it was just his time to move on. He actually stopped by as recently as 2017 to say hello, so he’s still alive and kicking, if you were wondering!
Second, we quickly moved away from Fidonet 2 Internet to the venerable Internet Rex, which stayed a central part of Zer0net’s operations for many years to come. At first, we continued using email to pass mail, but then made a move over to FTP. Sending and receiving our mail bundles via a common directory on demonic.net’s host server at first, we eventually we moved to individually secured directories, then to having them hosted on the same box as Distortion itself. Today the network runs almost entirely on Binkp and thanks to the magic of semaphore driven events, mailing is close to real time across most nodes rather than being batched every so many hours.
The next significant change was a concerted effort to consolidate and reduce the overall number of echo areas we had. I was constantly annoyed by the way certain echos were almost entirely deserted while others got a fair amount of action, so, like a restaurant reducing the size of its menu to focus on the quality of just a handful of menu items, we cut our echo list nearly in half, combining different areas wherever it (mostly) made sense to do so.
The most significant change that happened to Zer0net, and indeed the entire BBS scene, was the spread of telnet BBSes. I believe a lot of people forget this fact, but for years running a telnet bulletin board simply wasn’t an easy task. You could run something like Daydream or Waffle under Linux, or you could run a board under OS/2 with SIO’s virtual fossil driver fairly effectively, but beyond running one of a small number of commercial BBS software packages that featured their own proprietary telnet daemons, Wildcat 5 or Worldgroup most notably, running a telnet BBS under Windows was, at best, suboptimal. With the releases of Synchronet 3.00 and Mystic 1.06, both in 2000, telnet was finally freely and quickly available to the vast majority of us who ran Windows, and a not insignificant number of us even leveraged its excellent com port and fossil emulation (intended for door game support) to use Synchronet as a front-end to host our favorite DOS BBS software. Add in the fact that broadband was finally starting to become available residentially, and the scene quickly transformed.
In fact, the early to mid 2000s was probably the “golden era” of Zer0net, with so many amazing boards like Grymmjack’s Sector 7, Sociopath’s Elixir, Tracker1’s The Roughnecks, Skatter’s Black Thursday, Lord Scarlet’s Idle Dreams, Sinister-X’s Outzone, Jinx’s Tir Tairngire, Smooth’s Dungeon 3, Mercyful Fate’s Haunting the Chapel, Access Denied’s Pharcyde, and Captain Hood’s Piranha, to name but a few favorites, either transitioning to or being purpose built to run on telnet. It seemed like practically every one of the best, most active scene related boards was on Zer0net at the time. Given that it was a time when the underground BBS scene was experiencing a real paradigm shift, it’s nice to look back and remember Zer0net being a part of it, even if it wasn’t necessarily a pivotal part of it.
One more recent change is that I’ve been transitioning away from the name “Zeronet”, instead branding it specifically as “Zer0net”. This is largely due to the appearance and popularization of this admittedly pretty cool thing. I wish they’d Google’d for the name before deciding on it, but hey, maybe they did and just assumed what they were doing was way more important than us, and they were probably right. 😉 It’s less annoying than being confused with NetZero and getting random emails from obviously extremely confused people trying to sign up for free dial-up Internet accounts back in the day, at least. Yes, that happened. Besides, unbeknownst to us back in 1999, it’s not like no one else had ever used the name before.
Zer0net is somehow still here, still fairly active despite wild swings in activity that tend to defy obvious logic or pattern, and still operating under its original mission statement of providing open, largely unmoderated conversation around a variety of underground scene related topics (and Metallica) hosted by some of the scene’s very best bulletin board systems.
Of course, I have to give a big shout out to all friends of the network past and present: our close to 100 node SysOps, our innumerable users over the years, the scene artists who helped keep our image oh so elite, and all of those who greatly contributed to the network by helping other new nodes get setup or even stay up, or helped with the administration of the network in various other ways. Also, a special shoutout to our oldest nodes: Hax0r’s stalwart Synchronet 3.x system Hax0r’s Palace, Dream Master’s (himself running an even older othernet, DoRENet) Dreamland BBS, and g00r00’s Sector 7 (formerly Pulse before inheriting Grymmjack’s setup, which itself was one of our original nodes!) Those old bastards have been with us since near the beginning.
So what’s next? Well, in August I’ll be replacing Zer0net’s old statically released, numbered infopacks, which haven’t been updated since nearly the beginning, with a constantly iterated on, unnumbered, single pack, which is a more modern and, honestly, much better way to handle minor changes like node and nodelist file updates. As long time node ops can attest, this new infopack has been a long time coming and it feels only too appropriate to be releasing it on our 20th birthday.
Beyond that? Perhaps one day we’ll move to mailing via Binkp exclusively, and encrypted Binkp connections at that. I’ve also been tossing around the idea of finally adding file gating to the network for hatching nodelist updates and sharing relevant scene related releases with our nodes. Most importantly, Zer0net isn’t going anywhere as long as I’m still around, and if I’m no longer around? Well, I hope someone will pick up the pieces and keep it going then too.
For posterity, here is a quick and dirty archive of our old, official releases:
ZN-001.ZIP – Zer0net Infopack #1 (1999) ZN-002.ZIP – Zer0net Infopack #2 (2000) ZN-003.ZIP – Zer0net Infopack #3 (2001) ZN-004.ZIP – Zer0net Infopack #4 (2002) ZN-HELP.TXT – Zer0net Setup Guide 1.0 (1999) ZN-HELP2.TXT – Zer0net Setup Guide 2.1 (2001) ZN-HELP3.TXT – Zer0net Setup Guide 3.0 (2002)
1. Untitled SuckNET Banner by Julian Stardawn (I think?) Unreleased. (1997)
2. te-bhc1.ice by Tetanus and Tainted-X from ICE 9811 (1998)
3. mae-cci3.ans by Maestro from Legion #1 (1998)
4. Included in jp-col17.asc by Jack Phlash from Hazmat #6 (1999)
5. gj-0net.ans by Grymmjack from Warlock #1 / Glue #36 (2001)
6. jp!-zn20.ans by Jack Phlash from Blocktronics: Dark Side of the Block (2019)