The Online World Few Remember

I heard on the news the other day that emojis are used in something like over three billion texts a day. Holy shit, three billion transfers of information from one human to another, intended to be read immediately, sometimes from across the globe and much of it by teenagers gossiping, in love or breaking up. Yet I remember a time (oh no, I’ve officially become my mom), when the online world was in its infancy and almost like a secret society. We operated late at night because most of the household was sleeping and you needed to use the phone line. Yeah, most people only had one phone and one line back then. I have such fond memories of late nights with lights turned low, a gentle hum from the huge piece of metal and plastic that was my IBM AT, and a low resolution monitor displaying the amount of xmodem blocks remaining until I could play the coolest four color shareware game around. Ah yes, the good ‘ol days.


Modem lights were so cool. They had a hypnotic appearance to them, almost Star Trek like, and you knew exactly what each one meant. There was pride in that. Nothing like the cable modems of today that don’t use a phone line and are always blinking because there’s constant traffic being generated from numerous devices in your home. You would stare at them so faithfully as you downloaded huge files, we’re talking 300K at times and that took forever, thirty plus minutes at 1200 baud (communication speed). To put this in perspective, it would take you 16 hours to download Lady Gaga’s song, Born This Way, at that transfer rate. You would almost “will” the lights to keep blinking because of the time investment. Watching the RD (receive data) light’s continuous illumination while a brief SD flicker meant the block had completed and the next was about to begin. If you forgot to disable call waiting then the level of anxiety was almost unbearable. Any phone call from one of your fellow computer nerds up at two AM would insure failure of the transfer and disconnect you from the BBS (Bulletin Board System) you had waited hours to become available. No doubt some other geek would beat you to it, as their Q-Modem application was auto-dialing the number repeatedly, waiting for this exact situation to occur. Bastards! Of course since computers only did one thing at a time back then (there was no window to minimize) you just had to wait, and stare hypnotized at your external modem lights.

it would be years before I could afford a 9600 baud modem – photo credit:

Bulletin Board Systems, BBS for short, were the coolest thing for a geek like me in 80’s. Mathew Broderick had showed us the power of online communication with modems and we all wanted to be him. Even the software programs that his character used in the film to find other computers would soon be termed War Game Dialers. A BBS was a very cool and free way to post public messages, download files and in some cases send emails to people around the country, even the world! Yes I know this sounds bizarre but back then home systems weren’t networked to each other, so sending a free email to someone on opposite sides of the country, might take two or three days using a system called FidoNet. Basically computers would transfer packets of mail to another computer, as far away as possible, without long distance charges incurring. Then that computer would do the same until the message finally arrived, in relay fashion, virtually cost free. This was a great alternative to subscription computing services like CompuServe and GEnie.

bbs welcome screen that was member of fidonet. photo credit: associated schools of construction

The best part was anyone could run a BBS. You didn’t need special hardware, just a modem and a phone line and the software which was free of charge. You can imagine my geek hormones racing when my long time friend, George, explained this to me at 3 AM. I didn’t know him at the time and I was logged into his home BBS which I had just found the number for on a published list. He just broke into my session and started chatting, which was common in the day and a pretty cool thing to experience. I was so thrilled, and that night I actually downloaded my first Fido BBS program and began setting it up with George’s help. I didn’t have a dedicated phone line for the system but who cared? George could call! It was amazing to think that my computer could accept another computer’s phone call and I would be in charge of the conversation taking place. I was a SysOp! And Sysops were cool people, a high ranking automatically assigned to those in geekdom. The term, short for System Operator, meant not only was your computer a communications hub, you could customize it and make it your own, much in the same way today’s web pages and blogs are. You could even restrict access to only the most elite of geeks, the hackers and phreakers (phone system hackers). Well since I wasn’t either I’d have to settle for a few of my fellow geek friends.

most systems offered many file areas when you could download programs for free – photo credit:

Setting up and configuring my first BBS was a profound learning experience. It opened up the field of Information Technology and I was doing things in my dining room (my dad’s idea of where the computer should be) not even taught in school. I was learning about databases, user management, capacity planning, communication protocols, scripting and the list goes on. I didn’t realize it then, but I was building and fine tuning a skill set I would still be utilizing today. George and I quickly became good friends and I introduced him to my circle, forming a family that existed mostly online. I didn’t even meet George until a year after our first late night conversation. Our friendship continued to grow and in ninth grade my class mate Eric joined our geek family. Since Eric’s father worked at a computer and video store, his apartment was nicely littered with spare parts and floppy disks. It was a geek paradise. Sometimes we’d spend a weekend at Eric’s apartment when his father was out of town, just trying to network and connect anything with an Rs-232 port. It was the 80’s version of Stand By Me only with no dead bodies and lots of pop tarts.

the third version of true colors ran on maximus cbbs software. photo credit: wikipedia

I would eventually get my own dedicated phone line and create a full blown BBS called True Colors. The theme of my BBS was non-censored content, inspired by my love of the book Fahrenheit 451. In other words you could anonymously say anything you wanted in a message board, including about me, and I wouldn’t delete your posts. Most BBSs back then were moderated, with a few exceptions, so it found its popularity and a loyal user base. I met many people, including my first boyfriend Danny, and the most amazing roll model I would ever know, Jose. My sister also got in the act and would call other bulletin boards or sit in front of my computer and watch people write messages as they were logged in. The experience of operating a BBS truly enriched my life, and the lives of others, for ever.

It’s been over 30 years since I got my first home computer and the world has changed dramatically. The Internet is noisy and cluttered, busting at the seems with information and conversations. Sometimes late at night I think back when it was much more quiet out there and you searched for hours for signs of life, someone awake like you. We were almost like early explorers, taking the first steps into a realm that barely existed. We played computer games with no graphics and only beeps for sounds, our imaginations being the ultimate form of virtual reality. I actually miss that time of my life, that time of discovery and connection with friends. In the daytime we were just nerds, getting incessantly picked on at school, but at night we became digital superheros, assuming an alternate identity in a world we created ourselves.

I have to thank my friend George for our recent text message conversation which inspired this post. 🙂







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