The following is my contribution to Newly Digital, a distributed writing project about early computing experiences started by Adam Kalsey. Read the other entries, and then write your own: Brad Choate, Steven Garrity, Anders Jacobsen, Dan James, Adam Kalsey, Cameron Marlow, Jeff Nichols, Chris Pirillo, Andre Torrez, and Bill Zeller.
Message # 27476.
Date: 05/31/03. Time: 13:20:11. Read 327 Times.
From : Wax Pancake
To : All
Subj : Newly Digital
Hack’s Retreat may have been the last great Bulletin Board System, a throwback to the days of bearded, smelly hackers and floppy disks the size of pizza boxes. Its software was built from scratch, a beautiful and bizarre kludge by an idiot-savant who went by HACK MAN.
Because of this, and the peculiar user base, the Retreat was unlike any other board in the 805 area code — adored by its users, and tolerated by everyone else. Most BBSes used colored ANSI graphics; the Retreat had “Obfuscatronix,” a weird set of high-ASCII control codes that allowed users to animate their posts and add limited if-else conditional programming. Many other BBSes had “doors” with popular text-based games like Tradewars; the Retreat let you Tip the Bell Captain (“THANK YOU ‘VERY MUCH!’ SAYS THE BELL CAPTAIN.”).
The Retreat reveled in its quirks. Some discussion forums, like The 3am Club, only showed up at particular times of the day. Another forum, The Weird Enterprises Unlt. Boardroom, was only accessible by opening a door marked “Do Something Weird,” which might also read you a random quote or disconnect you entirely. Others, like UnGnown and the Temple of Dillusion, were rumored to exist, but most users would never figure out how to read them. Moderators were encouraged to “BOg” off-topic messages to The BOg of Eternal Stench and to promote unusually great messages to The Hall of Fame. And anyone could add comments to any message (“HAHAHA=105 RASPBERRYS=1 BLOWS!=5 OBFUSCATED=1 HUH?=1 DOINK=1 WHO CARES=1 BRAVO!=3”).
When I first called the Retreat, I was confused. (A common reaction, I would learn.) I had to look up “obfuscation” in the dictionary, in order to understand the board’s mantra. (“To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand.”) Other frequently-used words, like “doink” and “gnow” and “dillusion,” weren’t in there, but I’d figure it out in time.
I lurked for two years, quietly reading every post, hundreds of thousands of messages dating back to 1988. It was like reading an improvised, rambling screenplay with a cast of hundreds of brilliant weirdos. When I started posting, I felt like I was joining the ensemble and belonged to something bigger and more important than myself. The experiences I had online eventually evolved into offline friendships, which only gave the online experience more depth and meaning.
Hack’s Retreat would be the last BBS I ever called. In late 1994, I found the Internet and everything changed.
I’d read “Zen and the Art of the Internet” and the other textfiles that had trickled their way down to the other local boards, but it never seemed all that special until the head librarian at my junior college showed me NCSA Mosaic running on a library SLIP account. The Web was something new.
BBSes were a product of their own limitations, constrained by location and resources. Users are almost always local because of long-distance telephone fees, and the number of simultanously-connected users is limited to the number of phone lines connected to the BBS, usually only one or two. The Internet had infinite resources and was completely global; there were no constraints.
Every spare moment of 1995 was spent online, absorbing the culture of the developing Web. I had to drop my summer classes, because I spent every class in the librarian’s office. I was Suck.com’s first fan letter and won a copy of OS/2 Warp in c|net’s launch contest. I “borrowed” the librarian’s username and password so I could connect from home. Telix, my DOS-based BBS dialer, must have started feeling lonely. I still routinely read the messages on the Retreat, but less frequently and with less passion. BBSes, even The Retreat, felt like nostalgia.
I transferred to UC Berkeley in December 1995. When I came back home for the summer of 1996, the BBS scene was dead. Almost every entry in my Telix phone book was a disconnected number, and the Retreat was gone. HACK MAN had unplugged the Retreat and moved away, taking a decade of memories and creative output with him.
In memory of Hack’s Retreat (1988-1996)
— Wax Pancake.
Comments : WAY!=1 HAHAHA=1 RASPBERRYS=1 DOINK=1749 BRAVO!=1 PROMOTE ME=103