Network Nostalgia: Cutting One's Teeth

I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind…

One of the more interesting side effects of the commercialization and popularization of the Internet is that those of us who can legitimately claim to have been around In The Beginning are becoming an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. Nobody listens to us, because there aren’t enough people to form a critical mass on any given problem — yEnc is a good example where old hands were ignored for a variety of reasons.) The Network, through its growth, is beginning to forget its own roots — witness the recapitulation of most of the major problems as new technologies evolve. (Off the top of my head, one could easily argue that comment trolls and impostors on blogs are merely a revision of the age-old Usenet troll problem… with roughly the same solution — moderation. Moreover, private Web-based fora continue to suffer from all kinds of issues that were well-documented and mostly solved prior to the development of things like uBBS and phpBoard; how much simpler things would be if we could just shift stuff over to NNTP and be done with it. As Matthew says, “These problems aren’t caused by being on the Web; they are caused by failing to learn the lessons of the pre-Web history of electronic discussion fora.”)

Here’s the thing, though. Lots of us can claim to have upwards of two decades of Internet time behind us (holy crap!), but many many more lay claim to a much different kind of network history: The BBS. Remember those? Yeah, I do. I remember all kinds of things: How I never managed to get RemoteAccess to work for me, how much I loathed QuickBBS, how Maximus seemed to offer some kind of relief, how thrilled I was the first time BinkleyTerm successfully passed a connection from the front-end to the back-end system, how I ended up playing a fairly important role in the development and growth of a fairly robust FTSC network (MetroNet) that would ultimately shape my views about how voluntary networks should operate together. (That this network ultimately imploded shortly after I left probably doesn’t mean anything interesting — it was concurrent with the proliferation of cheap Internet access, and everyone who cared about the thing was moving over to Internet-land — to name@host.domain addresses, rather than, say, 201:5500/100.)

I don’t miss this era of the network, exactly — it was populated by very strange people and the small user base made the very strange seem much larger than they really were, and the phone bills could be atrocious if you ended up as the NEC — but it is a part of our history and as such it does deserve some special place in all of our hearts. I don’t miss fighting with badly-documented software (heck, I can get all that and more whenever I screw around with my Linux box), but I do miss the way it made me feel. You could spend quite a while wandering around this category on Wikipedia spotting familiar names and old favorites — perhaps the best example of “painless nostalgia” you’ll find in this area.