virus: BBSing & textfiles (was Swollen Ranks)

Dave Hall (
Fri, 5 Mar 1999 15:42:45 +0200

>Dave Pape wrote:
><<Wasn't there some mythical golden age when mailing lists and newsgroups
>were allegedly less hierarchical than they are now? >>

Richard Brodie responded:
>Mythical, maybe. In real life? Doubtful. I started one of the first global
>mailing lists in 1979: SF-LOVERS. Even then there was a clear hierarchy.
>It's a function of being human, I think, not of the list milieu.

The following recent article on BBS textfiles (and it's links) may prove enlightening: or go straight to It is worth noting how "organised" things were then, but that's just my own biased perception. It was just as chaotic, but smaller in scale.

The study of the evolution of BBSes to The Web is, IMO, *one* of the many critical components of understanding whatever this memetics stuff is really all about, and what we may have in store for ourselves in the coming future as change rapidly accelerates, better or for worse. We are, after all talking about a single decade, but it feels like 1,000 years to those fortunate enough to have discovered "BBSing" early enough, as Richard must have with his SF mailing list. He's had TWO decades to mull this over and observe. That's a lot of incubating time. That partly explains, to me at least, why "Virus of the Mind" was published what is ages ago in relative terms. It's probably reasonable to say he has remained at least one step ahead for a long time (who was the first to report Dennett's very significant, IMO, lecture to the unwashed masses? And report it well enough to have scored a life-changing hit in my mind) and only a wild/risky leap-frog is likely to help in catching up, unless he slows down and gets bogged down in the present, or simply retires to <try> enjoy the fruits of his life work thus far.

So definitly mythical, maybe. Having experiemented with "owning" a 32-line BBS in the bad old days i.e. 1000 was a lot of users then for the entire system, I would say, from my own experience only, they are a LOT less hierachical now (and thus near impossible to control without draconian bounderies constantly in need of erection, for good or for bad). I bluntly admit I played God as the sysop, simply because I could and felt intuitively that I had to .... and because it was I who was paying for the infra-structure and thus stood to lose a lot (of face / money better spent on food) and felt the need to nurse every aspect of the system as a whole to ensure all 32-lines were kept busy to make as much money as possible .. to keep it switched on. There was also the issue of getting new users to come to the system. With hindsight I should have used it to sell porn as that was where the money, sadly, has always been, but that didn't feel "right" to me. The system never quite broke even, however the experience of running what was essentially a DisneyLand on a 386 PC has proven useful to better understanding interhuman comms, to the extent that I'm pretty much obsessed with finding "the answer".

IMO, most BBSes, with the obvious exception of AOL (where Steve Case plays God so effectively that he's apparantly "difficult" to work with) suffered as a consequence of the God/sysops not quite knowing when to stop meddling. There is a lesson in that for list-owners alone. Of course there are no guidebooks as each system is different is a different animal, constantly evolving. Did Walt Disney wander around DisneyLand telling arbitary visitors that it was he who made the place, from his imagination, and thus they should say something nice to/about him? Perhaps, as it would obviously have been a difficult impulse to stop when the proof that one guessed right becomes clear after many years of humiliation. There is almost no doubt he at least told his own brother who said the idea was insane and blocked it at exec level, "I told you so". I think the truly successful guys simply count the money made/lost and move up/on and don't bother with getting too involved in meddling endlessly with their own creations, as they realise they're getting all the positive memetic feedback their own body/mind systems require ... through the exchange of value that can actually be used more widely that ego-food ... i.e. money.

To build my case on the importance BBSes->Web to *my* understanding of memetics, I'd like to use a real world example that is currently still playing itself out 8 years later. The BBS that I ran used a package called MajorBBS. It had source code. It had very basic gambling software sub-systems (even seen a slot-machine done with ANSI gaphics?) As I could not afford to pay programmers at that time, I allowed access to the code to all the young whizzkid programmers using the BBS and naturally, being kids they tinkered with the fun stuff .. the games and gambling sub-systems. 8 years later, those "kids" having learned real fast about the real bad world of business through a series hard knocks, all now own/work for a company called MicroGaming Systems and make a good living by sell *real* gambling software systems to online gaming institutions. The software of the BBS system did the evangelising, showing them just how many hours compulsive gamblers would spend on the system. The "memetic chain" will continue to grow if they continue to survive financially, which appears likely, as I recently heard someone talking head CEO bitching about the gambling laws in the USA and how the South Africans and Australians are cornering the online gaming market. Stupid man could always immigrate to South Africa or Australia or Tibet. FWIW I think gambling is about as useful to humanity as alcoholism, which is why I do not "day trade" in stocks. But if it gets *good* ideas better recognised, through systems like Robin Hansen's Idea Exchange, then it's worth looking into for the benefits.

The point: amazingly and quite by accident, something I started completely in ignorance has self-replicated itself, although I have no "tangible stake" in the replicated entity. It took two major "memetic components" to combine: the human group culture (the software developers) and the idea that Internet gambling would be big one day, given the evidence of human behaviour on the tiny little BBS in the boondocks of this world. A third component, just as neccessary IMO, was a major kick in the teeth, for MicroGaming Systems would not have been founded were it not for the fact I bankrupted my own company at the time and all the programmers had to jump ship and look after themselves. A leader among quickly took up the reigns and they stayed together. The world is potentially "safer" if the Microsoft programmers stay at Microsoft and stop doing things like writing mind-blowing books and developing audio/visual streaming software etc. etc. etc.

Finally, I should mention that a mid-80's semi-SF book by Ben Bova (I *think* it was his book .. or James Follet) told a story of a gambling satellite in the sky. It was that story which convinced me to spend the money on the BBS gambling sub-systems. David Brin has also had a major influence on my life with his description of "ferret" agents and electronic publishing in his novel, Earth. My final book plug of the post is "Story" by Robert McKee, a master craftsman in movie script-writing. Life, IMO, is a movie and you either write the script or become a "innocent bystander gets squashed" extra. It's useful to know how to structure one's "life story" for mass consumption.

My 1/2c worth,

[Durban, South Africa]