MY SECRET LIFE ON THE BOARDS By J.D. Hildebrand Reproduced by permission
I learned everything I know about gerbil ranching from a
computer enthusiast I know only as Sysmoose.
I've engaged in serious philosophical debates with good
friends I've never met, people with names like Doctor Catalog, Sir Eric, Dragonfly, Lord Kalkin and Xeno Paradoxus.
I've corresponded for almost two years with a small group
of people who live in or near Madison, Wisconsin–where I've never been. I don't know their names, ages, genders, races or educational backgrounds. Most of them wouldn't recognize each other on the street–and I wouldn't recognize any of them. But we share citizenship in a community complete with taxation, law enforcement, class stratification and civil disobedience.
The community exists, if that's the right word, as a pattern
of on and off bits in a home-built computer, and in the network of wires, transformers and relays that allow computer users with modems to send messages over telephone lines.
I'm a citizen of the Bulletin Board of the Absurd, a private
bulletin board service (BBS) that's just one of thousands across the U.S. That citizenship has changed the way I think about computers, communication, friendship and society. I believe that the BBS represents an important new communications medium that will do much to change the texture of American life of the next several decades.
IN THE BEGINNING
I had no awareness of online communities the first time
I dialed The Absurd. I was evaluating a communications software package for a magazine article. I picked the phone number at random from a published list of bulletin boards.
My modem made dialing sounds, then I heard a high-pitched
squeal. Text began scrolling across my screen: 'Welcome to the Bulletin Board of the Absurd. Seven cps speed limit enforced 24 hours per day.' I had made contact with a BBS.
I typed in my name and a made-up password in response to
prompts, and that was that. From then on I was free to read messages, reply to them or start new conversations. I was a member of The Absurd.
I read some messages, and was immediately struck by the
zany names adopted by most of the users and by the off-the-wall messages they'd posted, which included a discussion of the moral implications of eating avocados posted by someone called Theron 'This Message Brought to You by the Guacamole Achievers' Ware. The Bulletin Board of the Absurd was well named.
Having verified that my software could receive messages,
I felt obliged to test its text-sending capabilities. I pushed 'W' for Write. I addressed my message to ALL, and tagged it 'Howdy' in the Subject line.
One and all-- This is my first time here, so if I break any local rules
please bear with me. I live in San Francisco. What kind of computers do you use? –J.D.
The BBS displayed my message to me, offered me an opportunity
to edit it, then posted it. 'Your message is number 122,' I was told. Now all I had to do was log on again in a day or two and read the replies to my message.
BREAKING THE ICE
I gave The Absurd a three-day wait, just to make sure, before
logging on again. 'Message base contains 108 messages,' the board informed me. 'Checking mail…No mail for you.'
No mail? Could it be that none of The Absurd's members wanted
to talk about their computer systems? Had my message been improperly posted? Had I innocently broken some BBS custom and offended the other users?
I started searching the board's menus for a 'Help' or 'New
user' section, and was intrigued by a command called 'Chat.' I pressed C to see what it would do.
** CHAT ** Paging the Operator... The Operator is here. Hi.
It seemed I was in direct communication with the BBS's system operator. 'Hi,' I typed. 'Are you the sysop?'
Yes. Are you really calling from San Francisco? We don't get too many out-of-state callers--the long-distance charges are too high.
'I'm calling from my office, researching a magazine article,' I replied. 'How many users do you have?'
The directory has about 120 names, but more than half just log on to read the messages and never leave any. The active base is about 25-35 users.
'Did I do something wrong? Why didn't I get any response to my message?
'Hi, I'm new here' messages addressed to ALL rarely get a response. Send a message or two with some ideas in them and address them to the other users. Respond to their messages--the more absurd the better. Insults almost always get response (a high percentage of the messages here are of the creative insult variety).
'Thanks,' I said. 'I'll try that.'
OUT OF CHAT MODE
I had completed my first real-time electronic conference. I had also completed my software review. So any further long-distance calls to The Absurd would have to be on my own phone line, at my own expense.
At this point I was committed to getting noticed online.
So that night I logged on from home and left a half-dozen messages that I felt would be sure to create controversy. My final opus was addressed to 'Knuckleheads,' and in it I took specific users and The Absurd in general to task for what I perceived as an overall lack of literacy. I noted many examples of poor spelling and grammar, and closed by suggesting that users who couldn't compose simple sentences shouldn't bother replying.
FORGING AN ELECTRONIC IDENTITY
The next night I hit the E-mail jackpot. I found 11 messages
waiting for me, and many of the messages addressed to other users concerned my effrontery in attacking the BBS.
Xeno Paradoxus was particularly vicious in his counter-attack.
He got a lot of mileage out of finding a typo in one of my messages, and asked if it disqualified me from BBS use under my own elitist criteria. It was Xeno who first referred to San Francisco as Lotus Land, providng a key element of my evolving online persona. The Leviathan replied with a half-dozen scalding limericks that called my parenthood, intelligence and personal hygiene into question.
I had certainly succeeded in my goal of getting noticed. After a couple weeks of barbed messages and equally sharp
replies I noticed a curious thing. The Absurd's users referred to me as 'he' and 'him'–always the masculine, though I'd never given a hint of my gender in any of my messages.
And so I left my first serious message, which was destined
to be remembered on The Absurd as 'The Genderless Manifesto.' I confronted the users with their sexist assumptions and with other evidence of chauvinism. I signed the message 'J.D. the Genderless, Lotus Land, USA.' And for the past two years, that's how I've signed every message.
The response to my manifesto was mixed. Some rationalized
their assumption with statistics: most computer users are male, most BBS members are male, and so on. Others defended the use of 'he' as the generic third-person pronoun, a practice I could hardly fault.
But a small group of users, including Xeno and Dragonfly,
responded insightfully and seriously. The admitted the truth of my charge and sought to uncover more unthinking assumptions in evidence on the BBS. They sent me long, thoughtful messages about the nature of a bulletin board and its users, pointing out that in this electronic medium there lies the potential for communication free of prejudice.
'When you meet face-to-face you make assumptions based on
appearance,' Xeno wrote. 'When you see whether a person is a man or woman, how old he or she is, what race the person belongs to, how he or she is dressed, you adjust your thinking accordingly. Over the telephone you make similar adjustments based on the person's voice. But on a BBS you're free to respond to the person's ideas with ideas of your own. You're both completely free to be your true selves. It's the most direct, honest, prejudice-free communications medium in history.
My first full month of membership on The Absurd yielded
at least one tangible result: a long-distance telephone bill that approached $300. I began looking for a BBS nearer home.
I soon found out there's no shortage of boards in the San
Francisco area. Each has its own focus. One is about programming in Forth. Another is an electronic swapping and shopping forum for computer equipment. I found a number of boards devoted to matchmaking.
I found the single-focus boards boring after the rapid-fire
idea exchanges I'd come to look forward to on The Absurd. Several were more interesting, but operating under a hierarchy. Only a select few members got access to the really juicy parts. This created resentment among the second-class users.
Homesick for The Absurd's egalitarian expanse, I tightened
my belt and dialed Wisconsin again. It didn't take me long to realize I was a BBS junkie. Every night after work I rushed to my computer and logged on to check my E-mail. It was hard to stay away from the keyboard on weekends–sometimes I logged on three or four times in a single day.
Late last year I notified The Absurd's legions that I would
be absent for a week or two–I was entering the hospital to undergo some minor surgery. During my convalescence I received a get-well card from my online friends. My message was the excuse for a rare face-to-face meeting where they all signed the card.
Later I moved across the country from San Francisco to Maine.
(I immediately changed my online address from Lotus Land to Lobster Land, of course.) A new job required most of my time, and I became an infrequent visitor to The Absurd. But several members had my work address, and they wrote to urge me to log back on.
Once the dust cleared I settled back into my once-a-day
habit. The Absurd hadn't changed much. Some of my favorite users were gone (there's been no sign of Dragonfly or The Leviathan for a couple of months now) but there are plenty of new users. I've become an old-timer.
I maintain frequent contact with the sysop, both in CHAT
mode and via private messages to one of his alter egos on the BBS. The Absurd has required a nightly house-cleaning commitment from him since he set it up almost three years ago. 'It's one of the three oldest boards in Madison,' he confided to me. 'The average half-life for a BBS seems to be about four months.'
He admits that running the board has changed him. It's served
as a human connection that many hackers lack.
And if the knowledge he's gained about gerbil ranching hasn't
made him rich, at least he's found an enjoyable way to spend the evenings.
POSTSCRIPT: A REPLY FROM THE FIELD
Although modem-based communities are repeatedly characterized
as classless, genderless and general nondiscriminatory, each group has its own (usually unarticulated) code of communicative conduct, enforcement of which can amount to discrimination as invidious as any encountered within other social units.
Most of my online work involves studying the extralinguistic
and paralinguistic cues that affect our perceptions of the people with whom we correspond, cues such as: message formatting; syntax, punctuation and spelling; use of capital letters only; inclusion or omission of words and symbols to indicate inflection, intonation or mood; evidence of an imperfect grasp of system commands (e.g. a stray './SEND' near the bottom of a message; line length; message length; inclusion or omission of salutation and signature; number of typographical errors.
In a social exchange devoid of sensory data, we tend to
rely on these external cues in much the same way that we would rely on their missing physical counterparts–height, weight, gender, age, race, voice, scent, etc. It's not uncommon to observe group ostracism of an individual whose computer equipment is apparently inexpensive (no lower-case capability), or whose message violates an unofficial rule regarding appropriate length or format, or whose spelling skills do not meet the unpublicized standards of the community.
Less obvious but equally pervasive is the difference in
the quality and quantity of replies, with variance frequently dependent not upon message content, but upon the sender's fortuitous or intentional transmission of locally acceptable cues.
It seems, then, that assumptions based on appearance--and
our resultant behavior–are as widespread online as they are elsewhere. We don't yet have the nerve to fly blind; perhaps a vestigial biological imperative urges us to constantly gather and process data, regardless of their value or the accuracy of our analyses.
So while you can be certain that I'm not replying because
of the way your jeans fit, you'll never know whether I'm merely attracted to your tight commas.
Neue Electronene Untergrundbewegung