We were cyberspace pioneers once, and young

The Thinker by Rodin

In 1984, I purchased a Commodore 64 computer and a 300-baud modem. I cannot recall exactly how much money it cost me. I think it was around $300. For the money, not only did I have a “personal” computer but also I had a way to reach out into a new electronic frontier. With my girlfriend (and subsequent wife) looking over my shoulders, I connected my C-64 computer (with its whopping 64K of memory) to my phone line. I then dialed long distance to another computer in Arizona. I found the phone number to dial from a newspaper article. This was my first adventure into cyberspace. I was 27 years old.

The C-64 was nothing fancy. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in dabbling in computer science, it had great virtues as a learning tool. Between the Apple 2e at work and the C-64 at home, I learned far more about computers than I ever expected. When programming in BASIC was no longer enough I experimented with assembly language. I even wrote some self-modifying code. These plain machines were almost as addictive as crack. Eventually I succumbed. Information technology became my second career. Now it now keeps me very comfortably out of poverty.

The C-64 eventually proved limiting. However, I could not afford an IBM compatible PC, which were running at least $2000 in those days. My employer at the time gave me a loaner computer so I could work from home if needed. It ran an 8086 processor and MS-DOS 3.1. The modem burned up the phone lines at an incredible 1200 bits per second. My monitor resolved green letters against a black background. I could use it to dial into work. However, I could also use it to dial into IBM PC compatible electronic bulletin board systems. There I could download programs and games. After a year or so that got somewhat old. Instead, I started to spend more time in the bulletin boards actually chatting with fellow BBSers.

BBSers. BBS = Bulletin Board System. We denizens that spent way too many free hours connected to electronic BBSes were BBSers. In those pre-Internet days, those of us who could not afford AOL or Compuserve dialed locally. “Sysops” put their PCs online and used neat software like PCBoard to capture conversations and share files. We chatted with people who at first were virtual strangers. However, over time they emerged as real people. Moreover, they lived locally. Most used aliases. After a while, you learned the cool BBSes to hang out. Armed with Mike Focke’s monthly updated lists of local BBSes we dialed around a lot. It was like bar hopping, except you never had to leave home.

I was not beyond my high hormone years so I spent a year or so on adult BBSes. I was married by then but it was okay with my wife. She even tried BBSing out for a couple months before she lost interest. Locally there was a naughty BBS called The Doctor’s Office featuring “Doc” and “Nursie”, a married couple who were also swingers. If you wanted then instead of leaving dirty messages to strange women, you could go into chat mode and have this thing called cybersex.

This was very novel in the late 1980s. Hopefully the person you were having cybersex with was of the correct gender. (Women were hard to find online in those days, but somehow Doc and Nursie found them.)

Since Doc and Nursie were local, I went to a couple of their parties. No, I never got naked. I never came close. Some of that did happen from time to time, usually after midnight and in somebody’s hot tub. I did not hang around that long. As for the parties, I found that they were somewhat boring. Many people on the board turned out in real life to be smokers, or obese or dealing with many mental issues. So within a year I lost interest in the Doc and Nursie’s board. However, there were other boards with adult areas (like Zonzr) that attracted a better class of clientele. Under an alias, I had a lot of fun seducing women over the course of conversations that stretched for weeks. No, I never seduced someone this way that led to a real sexual encounter. Actually, I found the idea of online seduction in cyberspace more attractive than following through.

After a while I found that I was much more interested in spending my time on BBSes talking about politics than I was doing the electronic equivalent of heavy breathing. The reality was that sex chat got boring quickly. In addition, I was blessed with a wife who was a pretty sexy creature, and who was broadminded enough to let me indulge myself online. Since it was never illicit, it was a bit like drinking flat champagne. However, there were plenty of BBSes in the Washington DC area that offered political discussions. I was referred by a friend I met on Zonzr to Dawn Gibson’s very private little BBS called The Back of the North Wind. There I spent nearly nine years keeping the place lively. Also on The Back of the North Wind, I met people who would turn out to be my friends.

We would get together periodically, sometimes at someone’s house and sometimes at a public park. Riverbend Park north of Great Falls on the Potomac was a favorite place for get togethers. The BotNW people were fun, intelligent and very eclectic. I liked the exclusive and private feeling of the place. Dawn did not allow aliases on her board. She did however get very tired of the political discussion. So she created her own areas of the BBS featuring creative works including short stories and poetry. Dawn was always blessing us with her latest poetry.

Then the World Wide Web happened. By 1995, the end of the BBS era was easy to discern. Dawn kept the BBS going until 1998 anyhow. Her board was probably one of the last to disappear. However, by then it seemed something of an anachronism. Why dial up weird phone numbers and wrestle with terminal emulators when you could simply open up Netscape, jump to Yahoo and surf to whatever caught your fancy at the moment?

A new era began and an old era closed. Nevertheless, there was something unique about BBSing that the Internet does not really provide. BBSing allowed me to find people with similar interests who were also local to me. It was cool to meet some of these people in person from time to time. People who would never run across each other in real life could become friends. In addition to Dawn, my real life BBS friends included Jim, Frank P., Frank S., Debby, Angela and many, many others.

As the BBS age drew to a close it seemed likely that most of these friends would disappear into the vastness of the Internet. Fortunately, I had some of their email addresses. Some took the opportunity to close that chapter of their lives. Others nibbled around the edges. Still others, like me, missed those days and sought to recapture them. After The Back of the North Wind closed down, I tried substitutes like local Yahoo message boards. However, it was not the same. The Internet was full of foul-mouthed bozos with 8th grade educations who were as deep as a baptismal fount. Finding good conversation was tough. Finding good and local conversation on line became nigh impossible.

I was nostalgic. Eventually I decided to create my own place in cyberspace to try to recapture those glorious BBS days. It is called The Potomac Tavern. It has been on the web about five years now, two of which were on ezBoard. Eventually I discovered phpBB and decided to host the darn thing myself. If you have an interest in general conversation with an emphasis on politics and have the perseverance to visit regularly, perhaps you should check us out.

Trying to keep the local feel of a BBS in the Internet age has been difficult. The Internet makes location irrelevant. Nevertheless, since many of the members are people I knew from my days BBSing, many of them are happy to hang out on The Potomac Tavern. There are about a dozen of us regulars there saying our peace. It is small, but a fun place on the Internet. We have liberals and conservatives. We talk nice to each other. We do not tolerate rude people. Many of our conversations have real depth. Although I once had pretensions of some bigger and grander place in cyberspace, I am now quite content with our regular crowd of intelligent and artistic people just chatting about whatever is on our minds.

Why all this ancient history? I mention this because sometimes you can recreate the past. While The Potomac Tavern has its own unique feel, somewhat similar to what Dawn Gibson created on The Back of the North Wind, and many of the same members, it is still a different kind of place. Frank P., Angela, Jim and Debby — friends I made in those BBS days — now hang out in my forum. Others, mostly friends of Frank, have also joined the forum and contribute everything from poems to daily facts to new discussions.

We recreated the past on Sunday. I got a number of my old BBS friends to show up at my house. While a few had to cancel, and a number who did attend do not actively patronize my forum, it was still a fun time. It had been at least seven years since we did something like this. There were eight of us altogether. They provided dishes, I provided a grill and meets. We drank beer. We laughed. We talked about Hurricane Katrina and day laborers. We ate cheesecake. All of this happened on my deck, screened from the bugs, on a perfectly glorious Labor Day weekend.

One thing has changed. We are older. In some cases, we are also wider. Twenty years ago, I was young. Now I am pushing 50. In addition, I was one of the younger people at my own get together. Most of the attendees were now in their 50s and 60s. However, it did not matter. Time rolled back. We were still the fun, interesting people who helped create cyberspace twenty years ago when it was uncool and geekish. Places like The Well and Yahoo Personals owe at least some of their success to us cyberspace pioneers.

Yes, we were cyberspace pioneers once, and young. Moreover, despite the odds at least some of us remain good friends after all these years. We still enjoy each other’s company, in person when we can arrange it, but mostly online. After twenty years, I realize that I have lost the artificial distinction between friends who are online friends and friends who I know in real life. They are all my friends now. Even those I only meet virtually can be as dear to me as those I know in real life.

We were among the first astronauts of the Internet age. If we have inscribed on our tombstones “cyberspace pioneer”, it would certainly be fitting.

3 thoughts on “We were cyberspace pioneers once, and young

  1. Ah that Commodore 64!!! (Though I guess I was 7 in ’84.) My first purchase was an IBM clone XT, with a 4MHz processor that would go up to… 8MHz when you hit turbo!

    Great post, Mark!

  2. I bbs’d for years. I bet the long distance phone bill was $100-$200 a month most months. It was always more fun calling out of town bbs’s and downloading files and software. Compuserve was 27 cents a minute at 300 bps.

  3. just wanted to let everybody know that bbsing is still alive in some form, via telnet.

    there’s a list of bbses here http://telnetbbsguide.com/

    you have to weed through a bunch to find decent bbses, but it’s worth it.
    Also check out http://www.myspace.com/bbses for more bbs information, especially for those
    people that are using vista, you have to enable the telnet client.

    a good client is mt32, you can get it at http://ozone.eesc.com

    i’d like to see more GOOD people in the bbs scene, so i’m working on getting people involved again!

    have a good one!

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