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Commodore 64 300 baud ModemIf you don’t know what it’s like to hand dial your computer’s connection to the outside world, you probably missed out on some of the early lessons that have steered some of the internet’s most successful people.  Or so says James Hong.  I was reading his post while ruminating on my own past history as a 604 BBS’er during my formative years, and I find it refreshing (and unique) to find someone else reflecting on that time in much the same way as I do.  I frequently regale crowds with occasionally exaggerated tales of my exploits banging away at my Commodore 64 in the basement of my parents’ house in Burnaby.

You see, for many of us the online world didn’t begin with the first commercial internet services in 1992 and the first gopher and web sites in 1993.  No… for folks like me it started with computers whose memory was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes, connecting to other networks and computers at speeds which would make even a Friendster user groan.

What it all meant back then was something very special.  Connecting to a local BBS in a community like Vancouver opened your world (and your mind) to people and things that you’d never have experienced living in the cozy sleepy suburbs.  What you experienced, what you learned, and the people you met were almost invariably not what you expected.  Almost as importantly, the speed at which ideas spread — across multi-line chat systems, especially, were breathtaking.  It wasn’t hard to imagine, when I first discovered email, FIDOnet and USENET, as well as services like QuantumLink (predecessor to AOL) what the implications of the technology would mean when applied to a global scale.

My first real job interview was with Wired magazine in 1993.  It had been hooked up for me by John Perry Barlow, whom I knew only through a number of email exchanges, and whom to this day I have not ever met face-to-face.

On a multiline system called Shoreline BBS, in 1988, I became addicted to a text-only multiplayer online role-playing game called InFiNiTy CoMpLeX, created by a local developer named Dave ‘Zoid’ Kirsch.  It was an amazing, thrilling, engaging experience and it was represented entirely in text.  Later, Dave would credit many of his ideas implemented in Quake as having been conceived and experienced originally within InFiNiTy CoMpLeX.

Such is the power of words.  When they’re portrayed the right way, you can get a job, you can fall in love, you can make friends and enemies, and you can even feel your adrenaline pumping as you flee “Cab the Commie” after blasting him a few times so you can grab some more ammo.

Transmit those words over wires and the opportunity is inherent and obvious.  I think this is why many of the original few souls drawn into the web (and I use the term metaphorically) of the online world came from three distinct backgrounds:

  1. Writers, such as John Barlow, prize the value of words.  So their attraction to beaming their own words across wires to others, and reading what came back was instantaneous.  No more publishers, no more editors… just communities.
  2. Hackers, such as Dave Kirsch, could visualize ways to represent data and represent newer and ever-weirder challenges for their skills which could have instant and gratifying effects out in the wild.  Programming was no longer a solitary art.
  3. Entrepreneurs could see that innate desire in people to connect wih one another, to express themselves, and knew how to capitalize on it.  Adrian Boyko, who ran Shoreline back in the day as a business, got it early.. I’d be curious to hear from him now.

Nowadays, the draw of the internet attracts a more general audience.  Even so I have noticed that most of the truly passionate, dedicated, and successful people who work in our industry have evolved their own interest and understanding of the world of connected information along one of these three distinct paths.

It’s actually pretty rare in my neck of the woods to run into folks who even know what a BBS is (or was), though I’m secretly happy when my mother, who admonished me through most of my teens for chatting with total strangers on a DDIAL, now regales us with tales of her “friends” met on the Scottish Snippets web site.

It’s mainstream now.   But the lessons we still use in designing and building services like Social Networks were learned more than 20 years ago.

+++  ATH

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