Saturday, December 11, 2010

It's about the relationship, stupid

Every year or so, I am overwhelmed by nostalgia for the BBS days and start playing a TradeWars 2002 game (yes, they still exist). I don't stop to think why those ANSI text days were better than the current webiness I enjoy today, but while reading this Un-Marketing book, it hit me - it's about the relationship, stupid.

Back in the "good old days", you dialed into some local guy's computer, tying up your your line and his. There was no anonymous access, so you had to sign up. Usually, this sign up process asked more than your name and phone, but forced you to fill out a quick survey about yourself, or in some cases, write an essay on why you should be allowed access. In several cases, I had ensure my phone number was correct, as the sysop would try to call it, usually within minutes, to verify I existed and have a little chat. The relationship had begun.

From then on, connecting to that BBS was as much a social event as anything. Sure, there were single player games and files to leach or even fidonet-backed "global" discussion groups, but the real fun I found was in the multiplayer games and local discussion groups. Some boards would have real life meetups, where you get to meet that guy who kept podding your CT (TradeWars thing).

The icing on the cake was the sysop chat. At any time, the sysop could decide to be friendly and interrupt whatever you were doing to start chatting. Of course, you could call him as well, resulting in a physical ringing on his end. Not only was it usually the only sort of live chat boards offered, but doing it with the guy who ran the board on which you were dependent gave it extra value. Some times, the chats were simply to tell you he needed to shut down the board to reboot the computer or that he needed the line for something else. Other times, he just wanted to be friendly and find out more information about you. There is nothing like that surge of adrenaline when your screen blanked and then informed you the sysop wanted to chat.

His powers could go even further. Once, after uploading a rather naughty Trojan horse containing code to give our TradeWars characters billions of dollars (ended up crashing the game right after we logged in, actually), the sysop was so pissed that when we tried to log in next, he kept hitting the backspace key when we tried to type in our login name. It goes to show, BBSing was about the relationship between a user and other users, but primarily for me, between the user and the sysop. The sysop was g*d. If pissed that guy off, he'd likely tell the other 5 or so boards in your area, and you'd immediately have no access to anything.

With the Web, it feels like that extra relational dimension just isn't there, or at least it isn't forced on you as it was in the BBS days. I suppose there is social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, but it just isn't the same. That said, it is likely better and I'm just being a curmudgeon for not putting myself out there and giving it a proper go. Maybe I should stop muttering about how Twitter has nothing on IRC, and start tweeting every day. Or not. :)


  1. Sort of like the difference between having a few good friends and 769 facebook friends.

  2. I was such a sysop of a FidoNet node (region 634). I'm curious as to why you didn't you call multi-line BBS's with a multi-user "chatroom"? Anyway, yeah the relationship not only between users and users and operators, but also between operators was also one where the "social" element was more about one-to-one interaction than mass-group narrowcasts. Maybe forums are the closest thing to that today.

  3. @Anonymous Good point, multi-line BBS's were indeed a chat room, although they were pretty rare in my area (NorCal 916) so I can't remember ever chatting in one.

    Forums are pretty close, but there is something about knowing you are dialing into some guy's physical house, on a computer in his den, trying up his phone the difference between meeting a guy at a bar and sitting in his living room drinking his scotch.

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