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The degradation of message boards.

Back in the day (the mid 80s), computer enthusiasts had dumpy, underpowered computers, and managed to do some pretty cool things with them (simple by today’s standards, but still cool). We talked to each other using a network of local computers running BBS software (“boards” in the vernacular) that typically had one inbound modem line, very limited storage space, and an all text interface. The message areas were active and filled with lively discussions that often strayed outside of the computer arena and into politics, epistemology, and local interests.

Not many of the people online in local boards were geniuses, but they shared a love of computers, and they all took time to make their ideas clear to each other. If someone was a troublemaker, computer illiterate, or couldn’t type a sentence without a typographical error, they were classified by the system operator (sysop) and the other users as a lamer, and their account was summarily deleted.

During that time, rumors of mythical time-sharing systems like CompuServe and The Source started to be bandied about. The systems could apparently handle many hundreds of users simultaneously, had enormous file libraries, and had areas where users could talk to each other. It’s worth noting here that online chat wasn’t a new idea at that time. Most BBS software had the ability for a sysop to chat with a user. More expensive systems, with multiple modems that could handle 4 – 8 users, had game areas (text adventures, blackjack, that sort of thing) where users could chat while playing. The idea, though, of hundreds of users in scores of chat areas all talking on the same server was a pretty foreign concept — and a quite appealing one.

The costs were pretty prohibitive to stay online for any length of time. Around the time The Source was purchased by CompuServe, you would be charged $12.80 an hour to be online. That helped local BBSs stay popular, since they were free. When I later got hired by CompuServe, I learned of chat addicts who would stay in chat rooms for hours a month and pay exorbitant fees, which presumably prevented them from upgrading to a doublewide. Even with the high price of being online, you had to mind your manners or be banned from the chat area (then called the “CB Simulator”).

On the flip side were message boards. A good message area on a local BBS was divided into maybe 5 sections that could handle about 100 messages each. To keep up with a conversation you had to stay very current and attempt to log on very regularly. On the time-sharing behemoth CompuServe, there were hundreds of special interest groups (SIGs) with perhaps 15-20 subdivisions each, and each subdivision could handle thousands of messages. It was heaven, and, were I and my fellow local users wealthy and had we hours of leisure time a day, we would certainly have rarely left our computer chairs. But we were mainly high-school kids, so that was not much of an option.

In college, some of us would be introduced to the early Internet, which was the unmatched technical miracle of the modern age. College campuses had things unfamiliar to high-school BBSers, such as routers, servers, numeric addresses for individual machines, standardized services such as electronic mail that could let users send messages to each other over completely foreign systems as long as the recipient’s username and the name of his/her mail server was known. But that was a closed system; only universities had access to it. Eventually word got out to businesses, and they were very slow to try to butt into the online world, thankfully.

To make a long story short, AOL came on the scene, and a few years later they stopped making ridiculous mistakes and started gaining a huge customer base, and changed the pricing model, and therefore the market, for the online world. During the same time, the Internet slowly opened up to commercial outfits, and CompuServe, AOL, and upstarts like Prodigy started providing ugly and unreliable bridges to the net.

The end results are mixed, and the old users, like myself, see them as mainly for the worse. For a monthly fee less than the cost of eating out for a night (or even cheaper if you are using a stolen account), any yahoo can enter a chat room and be an obscene, incoherent fool, cause havoc on message boards or Usenet (which was once an area held in high esteem where programmers, professors, students and scientists swapped information and ideas) — all without accountability.

There are benefits to having a nickel-and-dime enduser business model for the online world. I can communicate easily with my family down south. With enough patience I can find just about any programming tool or documentation. I can buy books, old six-million dollar man videos, and ancient games like Sim-Earth by poking around at different retail and auction sites. I can pay my bills and closely scrutinize what my bank account is doing. In some cases I can take work home with me.

The sad drawback that I notice the most, though, is the lack of good discussion anywhere. Eventually all the local BBSs lost their user base. Online Services spurned their content providers and embraced advertisers and commercial areas that guaranteed them better funding. [You can't maintain a system like AOL on $20 per month per user, so the revenue has to come from somewhere. It is inevitable that favor will be given to that which generates income. In the past, SIGs and Forums attracted users who paid by the hour, so it was easy to fund the sysops. That is, sadly, no longer the case.] Now online addicts are recruited as volunteers to staff question and answer boards, or self-proclaimed experts on various topics set up shop and have a message board buried beneath 5 or 6 clicks of related advertising and sponsors. When you finally find a message area, it is filled with incoherent mutterings of users, such as:

I’m looking for a free load down java preogram fopr my computer, can anyone help me . I need it in order to get into some chat rooms.


I’ve been looking for DAYS for the script that resizes the browser window to your set diemtions, where can i find it or what is it?!

..or you find dumbed-down advice columns where leading questions are met with their expected answers, or women talk about their ex-husbands and have catfights with each other. The irony here is that the women’s relationship/parenting areas have more intelligent conversation that is more grammatically accurate and better spelled than the technical areas. Go dames! But it is still a far cry from what I’m looking for.

There are still a few gems left out there, and more still on the net buried beneath pages of similar hits on search engines. Their obscurity helps them from becoming inundated with average surfers looking to type their two cents worth somewhere.

I’ll miss the glory days where an active populate of enthusiasts found refuge by dialing my old Apple //c to discuss the world around them, safe from the heckling mass of loudmouths that were easily squelched and much ridiculed. And, I might ad, I will fondly remember being privy to the earliest renditions of the Alchemist’s Handbook, phone numbers for various government computers, hacked passwords for online services, software cracks, and other tricks of the trade (all of which are 15 years out of date, and have probably long since gone the route of biodegradation on decades-old 5.25″ floppy disks), and mostly of living in an online world where people gave two bits about how they were perceived by fellow users, and acted accordingly, generating the kind of discussions that have all but disappeared from the modern online world.

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