12 June 2007


Geek communities then and now

Apple II PlusThe first online community I belonged to was in 1983, when my family got a Hayes Micromodem II for our Apple II computer and I hunted around for a few bulletin board systems (BBSs) to join. I've made and kept in touch with many of my friends via computers ever since—about two-thirds of my life so far.

The vibe of those online communities has changed a lot. BBSs were, by their nature, local. The typical ones I visited consisted of a dedicated Apple II or Commodore 64 or IBM PC in a teenage boy's closet or bedroom, hooked up to an extra dedicated phone line rented as an indulgence by parents or paid for from the sysop's (system operator's) part-time job. (A few even only ran late-night hours on the family phone line.) Because of long-distance charges, pretty much everyone who signed in to a BBS would be from the local Vancouver calling area, and those of us who were members got pretty good at knowing where a system was by the prefix—92x was the North Shore, 22x was the West Side, 43x was Burnaby, etc. Everyone used pseudonyms (mine was The Grodd), not really for any particular anonymity, but just because that was the tradition.

Only one person could be on the board at a time, so interactions were serial: I would set my modem to dial, and if the line was busy (or if the sysop was on the system or performing maintenance), it would retry until it got through. Then I'd check my email and the public message boards, post any replies, and log off. While I was doing that no one else could post anything, since I was using up the only phone line, and that was, in its way, liberating. I knew that while I was on, no one else could barge into a discussion thread.

That limitation even let bunches of us write long, relatively incoherent collaborative novel-length fiction pieces, because when one person was writing, no one else could take the plot off track. Some of us have tried to do the same in the Internet era, with artificial restrictions on whose "turn" it was to write, but it never worked as well.

What anyone raised on broadband Internet would find hard to believe is that our modems worked at 300 bits per second (which was also 300 baud, but let's not go there). When reading email or messages, words would therefore spill out in glowing green or amber on the monitor of my Apple II at a little less than 40 characters per second, which was a decent reading speed. At the time I saw little need for anything faster. Why, after all, would I need a modem that could send text faster than I could read it?

Later most of us upgraded to 1200 bps modems, and that was a major benefit when it came time to swap pirated software. (Yes, youthful indiscretions. I apologize to Brøderbund Software once again for never purchasing a copy of Choplifter.) At 300 bps, using a program like ASCII Express, two Apple II users could connect directly to each other over a phone line and swap software programs, while chatting at the same time. That was worthwhile because a program of only a few hundred kilobytes (like Choplifter) could take hours to exchange.

There were dozens of BBSs in the Vancouver area through the 1980s and into the early '90s, and even as the Internet and took hold, many of us continued to use them until the Web and widespread Internet email made BBSs superfluous. Since we were all local, some of us would meet up on occasion—one of the biggest such get-togethers was at Expo 86, where I met many of the people I'd been conversing with for two or three years in person for the first time.

By 1987 a particular group of us were hanging out together all the time (often at Denny's, late at night), so that the BBS and in-person sides of our relationships complemented each other. We went on camping trips, and often roamed about the city on strange excursions, so we called ourselves the Excursionists. Four of us became roommates, and I still play in a band with one.

When I first thought about writing this post, it came as a bit of a lament: that kind of local BBS-driven geek network couldn't really arise today, I thought. And then I considered groups like those who organize Northern Voice and the agglomerations I'm finding on Facebook, and I realize that they are not so different. Our online communications are less serialized—dozens of people can be on a single IM chat at once, for instance—but there is a very similar feel to the community overall, a sense of shared geekiness than can now encompass the local area, yes, but also people from all over the world of a similar bent.

Maybe I've changed more than the Vancouver online geek communities have. I'm not a teenager now, I'm 38 and a husband and father and cancer patient. But I still have that Ikea desk downstairs, and it still has the stubborn double-sided tape on the underside that used to hold my modem in 1983. Now the desk is part of a podcasting studio.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I guess.

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Although I was only on one BBS (TZ), I can still recall that glowing green text spewing out onto the screen in front of me at its speedy rate of 300 bps. Thanks for the memory!
Yup, for me it was Shoreline, oooh, the technology, the excursions, the memories.
..not to mention the snotty Elite Red Robin Meets, gah!

Tribe.net is my current social networking tool of choice... and I'm on a few international tribes (Hula Hooping being one of them), but most of my list is of local tribes, whose main focus is to share information on when we're going to next meet in person.

Facebook is much more of a 'do you remember when..?' thing, not actually of modern use aside from seeing what people are up to, right now. (and why is that okay on Facebook, but we were all mocking it as a stand-alone Twitter?)
Nice memories. I got into the geek thing later, mid 1990's. I spent a lot of time reading news groups. I never met anyone because living in the boondocks of the BC Peace there was hardly anyone else doing remotely the same thing as me. However, I knew, still know every Mac person, a handfull then, in town.
Loved the post. (Ah, the good ol' days.)

Related trivia: When Sprint Canada first offered unlimited long distance, they had many customers making long distance calls with their modems to BBSs in distant parts of Canada. When their network started to choke, they added a monthly time limit to their unlimited service.
I spent much of 1986 tying up the phone line and annoying my mother while I typed away on TZ and Blue Hell from my Apple IIe under the pseudonym Charlotte.
I still have the photos from the Long Beach camping trips in 1987 and 1988 with the Excursionists. Hard to believe it's been 20 years now. Hi to y'all, wherever you are!
Those were heady days. I had a hayes modem compatible on an Apple II compatible.

Blue Hell was written in 100 percent 6502 assembly language by Martin Sykes for the Commodore 64.

A 10 megabyte harddrive for an apple cost about $700 dollars at the time.

The Twilight Zone was written and maintained by Steve Hillerman who I've heard is now a sysop at SFU. He actually MADE his own Apple II by buying the motherboard and scrounging various parts. It was in a wooden box his dad built for him.

One other piece of trivia about the Twilight Zone was that for a short period of time it had a ~60 megabyte hard drive online. Steve had found this washing machine size device and made his own Apple II interface board for it. First on a breadboard and then later on a proper etched board because of heat problems. It died after a few months but while it was working it was incredible.

My nickname at the the time was "The Jinx".
Lots more detail about those days in my January 8, 2001 post and its predecessor.
w0w Apple-warez crowd representin' here...(the Grodd, the Jinx) k-k00l!!

I guess I'm a little late to the party. I did find Dereks site some years ago but I never bookmarked it, well, I never use bookmarks anyway, but I found this blog entry after a Google search. Or maybe it was a Google 'excursion'.

Anyway you're wrong, Facebook sucks and things aren't a fraction of how cool they were back then, except for our gadgets. Better gadgets is the only consolation.

Every once in a while I remember some board, or some meet, or some weird modemmer from back in the day, and I think maybe I should write a wiki about everything I can remember, because I was in it for a long time, crossed through several different mileus, etc. and remember a lot of things that are probably taking up space in my head that could be put to better use. And I bet a lot of people would like to read through entries on various BBS's and people and events. But I never get around to it because I don't like the idea of fondly looking back on a youth I didn't enjoy, but that only seems golden (like Pony Boy) because of all the crap I have to put up with now. I don't like the idea of being thoroughly washed up at 38, and having nothing to show for it except MODEMMIMG. Geez. Modemming was what you'd do to ignore the fact that you were too lazy or inept to have a real life. Or at least, it was for me!

BTW, when I first found Derek's site five years or so ago, it was when the term "trenchcoats and cutthroats" popped into my brain and I decided to Google it. Lo and behold, Derek and a few people had resurrected the Neverending Story. Unfortunately they were just winding it down when I found it so I didn't chime in with any attaboys, but it was fun to read. At least the new entries were. The re-post of the stuff from Crunchy Frog was a real eye-opener since I had always remembered my contributions as being particularly witty and hilarious. Upon reading the archives nearly 20 years later, I could only cringe at my input. I guess what a 16-year-old nerd thinks is clever doesn't translate too well to a 30-something cynic.

Oh well, I think I will wrap this reminicence up.. but maybe I will be back to comment on Derek's Penmachine articles now and then. I don't do MyFace or Twaddle, abandoned IRC years ago, and have been on a grammar-and-spelling-fixing strike from Wikipedia ever since Jimmy Wales started porking Rachel Marsden, so besides the yahoogroup on circuit-bending I moderate, anonymous comments on other peoples blogs is my only means of cyber-expression.

- D. Bird
Totally freaking amazing! I remember Steve's Franken-Apple, and the old dishwasher hard drive. If i remember correctly, he lived in the West End. I visited there a couple of times with my friend Grant Baker, who lived in Coquitlam. Grant was a Rush (the musical variety) freak who hunted with his dad who was a gunsmith, I for get his pseudo though. I was known as Doctor 6502 or 'the doctor', my real name is Tam and used to live in langley. wow! Small world!

Pretty close. Steve lived on the West Side, not the West End -- near 10th and Alma. He still works at SFU, as he has done for a couple of decades now. Grant is still around out there somewhere too.

You might enjoy a couple of my earlier recollections on this topic, which include Steve's comments.