Heartattack and Vine: A subjective analysis of a successful BBS

This document was first written in February 2005, and may contain historical inaccuracies due to the fallible memory of its author. It was written in Quanta and Kate on SuSE Linux 9.2 Pro.

WARNING for the pedantic and anally retentive (of whom I include myself): While this document makes some attempt at formality, it is written free-form and uses free association. It therefore contains many more digressions than are usually found in the format. It is also significantly longer than I thought it would be: At last check it required 9 sheets of US-letter size paper to print.

Abbreviations, acronyms and definitions

History of updates:

by Jason Mack, aka Aladdin Sane aka Nighthawk

An electronic Bulletin Board System (BBS) was an electronic gathering of people for the purpose of socialization, information sharing, collaboration, and general trading. It has been likened to the English concept of the pub, or the concept of The Commons popular in early America. Oddly, both of these analogies have been applied to Internet as well.

A typical BBS consisted of a dedicated (2nd) personal computer in a personal residence connected to a dedicated (2nd) POTS analog phone line via a blessedly deprecated device known as a MOdulator/DEModulator. Yes, Marvin the Martian was involved in the development of the device: In fact I am sure that he was Hayes Microcomputer Products, Inc. Employee #1.

Something that may seem odd now, but didn't then, only one User could use the BBS at once, because there was only one incoming phone line to it. There were multi-line BBS's, but these were usually commercial operations.

BBS Users consisted almost entirely of those within the local calling area to the BBS who also owned a computer, phone line and MoDem.

Some of Google's definitions of 'BBS' I found absolutely hideous, I did find one I like at N. Shaw Associates - Dictionary of Internet Terms, though it is a bit dated:

"Bulletin Board System (BBS) A computer, and associated hardware, which typically provides electronic messaging services, archives of files and any other services or activities of interest to the bulletin board system's operator. Many BBS's are currently operated by government, educational and research institutions.
Although BBS's have traditionally been the domain of hobbyists, an increasing number of BBS's are connected to the Internet. The majority, however, are still reachable only via a direct modem-to-modem connection over a phone line."
The BBS has been superceded by the 'popular' Internet, a result of the NSF withdrawing it's backbone funding and AUP for Internet in the early 90's. The Internet's WWW (currently using the HTT Protocol on port 80) has spawned communities similar to the BBS tradition, but they are mostly obscured by rank commercialism on the WWW.

Heartattack and Vine BBS (H&V) was open to the public in Austin, Texas from June 1992 to 1993. It was then up in the local Greater Houston calling area until December 1994.

Why was H&V BBS successful?

Before starting the project I had BBS'ed for a few years, and had seen what I liked and disliked in some of the over 400 BBS's local to Austin at the time. It was quite a large and diverse community before the birth of the 'popular' Internet.

Something about that feeling of like and dislike I had kept, both conscious and subconscious, and that went into the decisions I made about the design of H&V. It was my experience as a BBS User that largely dictated the design principles I used.

By far the most popular BBS software in Austin was WWIV (name reputed to be derived from an online game called World War 4 but pronounced "wiv") by Wayne Bell, aka Random, WWIVnet 1@1. WWIV was developed and maintained throughout the 1980's and well into the 90's, mostly as a DOS program written in C. WWIV was distributed as Shareware, but also came with the source code when you licensed it.

Free Software was not widely recognized by Personal Computer users at the time, nor terribly useful to them: The UNIX® system and its general class as GNU and BSD runs on 32-bit and better computers, mostly mini-computers until Linux became widely known (there were a few high-end exceptions available back in the 80's such as XENIX and SCO UNIX System V/386, but they were priced right out reason: I remember seeing a copy of SCO UNIX on a -USED- store shelf about 1989: The price tag was $899, compare that to about $69 for DR DOS), and most PC's were 16-bit capable only at the time.

My first observation about H&V's success: H&V was very successful in Austin in the early 90's, but was not very successful later in Houston. This brings me directly to my first point: A BBS is made up of Users, not software, not hardware, not form or style or content. The success of H&V in Austin can be attributed to the Users.

The BBS Sysop is merely an organizer of technical infrastructure. While the Sysop is also a User of the BBS, the Sysop is far more restricted, by a sense of objectivity that I call professionalism, than is a regular User of a BBS. The Sysop has a huge role in the success of the BBS: But only in the contrary sense that he keep his nose out of the Users' business to the greatest extent possible.

The contrast between the successful incarnation and the unsuccessful one may also have had to do with the software used: The Houston BBS market was largely stitched up by Tag and Telegard, illegally modified versions of WWIV source code whose authors claimed full credit for something they did not write, but merely modified. While Tag and Telegard were easily preferable user-interface-wise to WWIV, the source of their innovations made them virtually unheard of in Austin, apparently a more enlightened, civil and respectful place than Houston.

I only make this point about "Copyrighted Work" because it seems there's a little dispute between those who respect "Copyrighted Work," and those who claim to but don't, on the matter of source code distribution today: History repeats itself. Had it not been for this ethical consideration of Wayne Bell's work, I would have switched to Tag or Telegard when I moved to Houston. I did not switch. Looking back, I do not regret it.

There are other possible reasons for H&V's lack of success in Houston; they are not within the scope of this essay.

The BBS I created first had my own personality imprinted on it, and then that of the Users. Ultimately the personality of the BBS becomes its own thing, and it is a composite of its Users. Hmm, one Sysop, hundreds of Users: Whose weight wins should be obvious.

What is the standard of success for a hobbyist BBS? A successful BBS gets used a lot. A non-successful BBS sits with its phone line open most of the time.

After selecting the target platform, WWIV, I downloaded the software, associated components, tools, etc, and printed out all the original documentation (as opposed to 2nd source documentation) and read it cover to cover. It was a lot of paper.

A decision has to be made with respect to BBS creation: What type of BBS are you making? You have three choices in 1992: Gaming (known as Doors for some very strange reason), File Trading, and Messaging (Conversation).

H&V was a Messaging BBS. My answer to the question of type came primarily from exceedingly limited hardware resources: H&V was run from a 20 megabyte hard disk drive on a 10 MHz 286. One of the first technical improvements I had to put in place was to license and install Novell® DR DOS 6.0 on the system (Hmm, maybe I used a 3rd party utility under MS-DOS® 5.0 at first, can't remember), to take advantage of that Operating System's unique (at the time) native disk compression technology. Every last byte of the BBS's storage had to be managed efficiently: There were no reasonably priced hard drive upgrades for that system (an IBM® PS/2® Model 30-286).

The preference for the Messaging type also came from my personal evolution as a BBS'er: I believe I followed the typical pattern: As a new BBS'er I first lusted after files, when that started getting 'too normal' the games may have seemed attractive for a while, then, as maturity set in, I became a Reader (now known as a Lurker), and finally a Poster.

Most BBS's have some software of the three kinds listed above: Their differentiation is in their emphasis of a particular type. H&V had a few very simple games, the complex space hogs were not supported (well there was not a game called "complex space hogs," but there should have been). Though most games I avoided for storage space reasons, this also cut down on required ongoing maintenance of the project.

For files, H&V had the essentials available that a new User needs to get started in its permanent collection, and that is all. H&V had an upload section that was open for download: It was carefully disclaimed as NOT VIRUS SCANNED, ie caveat emptor, "Let the downloader beware." The open upload section gave Users direct User-to-User access to files, Sysop intervention was not needed, and thus not desired. The archive files for regular download were not only virus scanned before being placed in the collection, but could also be scanned again remotely in real-time prior to download.

Online live virus scanning prior to download strikes me as an ethical point to putting up a Bulletin Board publicly, and WWIV allowed it, when modified if I recall. Trust comes from proof, if you're allowed to scan prior to download it lends an air of security to the place you're visiting. It was something I went out of my way to implement for the BBS, once the technology was available.

After I had RTFM, I started in on configuring. Creation of User Levels and assigning them specific rights strikes me as impossible to successfully emphasize the importance of. As I recall there were 101 levels allowed: From 0 to 100. I assigned each of 9 Basic User Levels from 10 to 90, plus a special level. (100 was of course reserved for The Sysop.) This leaves room for intermediate levels should the need arise later.

It was the explicit (but unpublished) policy of H&V to never delete a User Account for cause. Instead, those accounts were assigned Level 0: You can log in and see that the BBS still exists, but you can't do anything except read the System Announcements message base and your own personal e-mail. You have write access to nothing at all: Not even e-mailing the Sysop, you are "persona non grata" here, see?

Deleted User Accounts normally come back falsified and cause more mischief: By virtue of never deleting an account, the records associated with it were never deleted, and every User leaves forensic evidence of who they are, what they are about. Law Enforcement discovered this much, much later. Not deleting the account also lets the Forbidden User know that I know and am still watching: The kind of mischief that causes an account to be totally restricted (or deleted in the normal case) is irrevocable. Users who caused mildly annoying mischief were simply assigned to the Sandbox Level (though the term "sandbox" was not in use at the time, this is the right term for the concept), which was also the New User login Level, Level 10.

Another psychological device I used to enforce policy was to have an alter ego Co-Sysop account for admonishing naughty Users: This account was named after the Harlan Ellison story, "The Deathbird."

What 100% of mischievous Users fail to understand is that I'm smarter than they are, and I have the keys to this car. Most Users understand this implicitly, and play by the rules. Bad Users must never ever think that they are in control of their cyberspace journeys to my land. The BBS lends an illusion of control to the User, but ultimately I have the "Off" switch.

New User permissions were set to read access for just about everything: This was liberal. Write access was set to just about nothing: This was conservative.

WWIV BBS's commonly used the concept of the Validated User to distinguish from the New User where Validation is defined by the individual Sysop. H&V's validation simply required that the New User form was filled out (Gender and DOB were required, but real name, street address, phone number, any other personally identifiable information was not, and you could certainly lie about even the first two if you wanted), note that the Real Name field was required to be filled in for administrative purposes, actually using a real name was not the point of the field nor at all required by policy.

H&V, like the majority of WWIV BBS's, went by Handle (or, pseudonym, as opposed to Real Name) and User Account Number for identification. Real Name and other account details were only viewable by those with one of three possible Sysop privilege levels. H&V explicitly justified the anonymity policy in its Rules. Also required was the letter to the Sysop: This was a default function of WWIV, and H&V used it explicitly for subjective level validation. If you just left a dot (.) in the letter, you were validated as a normal User, level 20. But if you wrote something intelligent or witty you were more likely to start out at 30 or 40. As I recall this was suggested in the New User instructions.

The Rules for the BBS were purposefully very short: There were exactly four rules. Look, the huge majority never read such documents, and the few that do are not going to remember what they read two days from now. Give up on The Rules: Post some Policies and Guidelines separately, these will be implicitly obeyed by most. My BBS Rules reflected the basic values I have for having other people in my house: Some things are totally offensive and forbidden, and ultimately I own the BBS as I do my house.

Strategic Access Level assignments was something that I had learned from the experience of other Sysops in Austin: Experience is a great teacher, better theirs than mine. You don't have to use all the levels and options available: But making them available ahead of time is far better than the reverse: Having nowhere to go when you need more flexibility.

The next configuration task was to create download categories and message bases (also known as "subs" (no one seems to know authoritatively if that is for sub-base or for subscription), forums, or even "newsgroups" in one strange land) and assign them the Access Levels previously set up. The download categories were obvious, and there were few of them.

The local message bases were what made the heart of the BBS. They were carefully crafted to reflect what me and my friends were interested in talking about electronically at the time: "It's the conversation, stupid." Eventually WWIV allowed the division of message bases into topical subject groupings, similar to USENET hierarchy, you don't want message bases about Philosophy mixed with those about Computers, for example.

Categorization is an important organizational concept to any large project: All things in computer knowledge and use are placed in a tree-structured hierarchy. If not, then you have Windows®, and no one wants that. The tree-structured categorization of things is known to be the invention of Aristotle: Pay him his royalties now if you haven't already.

WWIV's ability to define flags in addition to a level for an account made it very useful software to the end user, the Sysop: I used things like the A flag for Adult-only topics, the S flag for Sysops-only allowed, these were used appropriately: Form follows function. A WWIV BBS was a three-dimensional entity, capable of self-limitation and self-control if configured properly from the start.

The large percentage of the message bases available were networked message bases, primarily WWIVnet. There were also a few non-WWIVnet networked message bases, and a very few gated USENET newsgroups. WWIVnet e-mail could also be sent through a gateway to Internet: But I don't think anybody ever actually figured out how (it was a nightmare).

In setting up the local bases I mostly followed convention: There were separate System Announcements and General Conversation (aka OT) bases, for these are definitely separate topics (poorly or hastily planned BBS's would use General for both: Their Sysops found out later what a really big mistake that is, or else never cared in the first place).

The General Conversation message base contains highly ephemeral information from Users. It expires quickly. On the other hand the System Announcements message base contains the history of the evolution of the project. Such messages are often relevant for a really long time.

"A generation which ignores history has no past—and no future." –RAH

I also looked at my pet peeves when creating local message bases: These are unprofessional, unobjective, and have no business in the objective pursuit of Sysop-ing: Sysops who used their subjective emotional states to make decisions inevitably wound up with an unsuccessful BBS. Acting on them before going live prevented a lot of annoyance later.

The concept of Flaming, or ad hominem attacks, annoyed me as much as the next User. But deleting messages always annoys the User whose message gets deleted: Some of them take it way too personally. To solve the problem I simply put up a message base for flames, and when my judgment said "this is a flame" moved the message or thread to the flame base.

Users of WWIV software had the right to turn off the ability to scan any message base they'd rather not see: The power to avoid or cherish flames was thus put in the Users hands without having to sacrifice any bases they did want to see: This kept the real bases alive from use because they were very clean of mischief. Also, User's who habitually flamed others, because they liked it, and were known to the Sysop community, knew right where to go on H&V to make their opinions known: This was easier for everybody.

The concept of Trolling, or provocation, had not been invented or recognized yet, that I know of.

My other relevant pet peeve, being a technophile was, and pretty much still is, proprietary hardware platforms: IBM set a standard in 1981, we all follow the standard to get anything done at all to this day. At the time a minority of local conversation tended to be about two proprietary hardware platforms, the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga were recognizable subjects in that category. I did not want me, or my BBS, to waste any time on those dead end, pointless debates. Since I knew it would get talked about anyway, I made a separate message base for such conversation and artfully named it Fruit and Female Friends.

The general principle of putting up message bases to deflect my pet peeves is the result of studying Psychology in college and actually understanding some of it: People will let out their ideas, opinions, emotions, this cannot be stopped and is often referred by the analogy of a pressure cooker. Giving people a defined outlet for their rants, irrational emotions, insane ideas, and drunken rambling results in a much more peaceful and secure feeling BBS than one that is "moderated to exclusion." The exclusionary principle of deleting posts is still taken as censorship in the 1st Amendment sense by the User, even though it isn't. This attribute of the human psyche did not change in the 20th Century, and bets are that it will not change in this century either.

A friend of mine used to go around shouting at people, "Content or catharsis?" The answer in many cases is, well, both.

The policy of not deleting posts, ever, also helps with the forensic alert mechanism mentioned above.

The BBS had a musical theme that reflected my personality, I caught the audiophile bug very young, and collect a lot of music. For those unfamiliar, the BBS' name is from the same-titled song by Tom Waits, the main refrain to which is, "You'll probably meet someone you know on Heartattack and Vine."

The suggestion of music throughout seemed to encourage the BBS developing its own personality: A thematic background that you can hear, in your imagination, your "mind's ear," supplements the one you can see with your monitor: You can't really enhance the experience in any other way: Of the five senses only sight is directly affected by the computer. (If you put up an auto-playing MIDI on your web site I'm never coming back: I said enhance, not annoy. Anti-Flash rants, including my own, can be found elsewhere.) Touch, smell, and taste are just right out, or are to be left for more artistic designers of the 21st Century.

I hadn't realized that that was what I was doing when I designed it: I didn't mean for H&V to be a "safe" homey-feeling place where people came to hang out frequently. Actually, I only did it to impress a friend, and because I had a lot of old hardware lying around (Hmm, I still do). But that was just what happened after it went live: A trickle quickly became a flood, and then the complaints about the busy signal set in. Busy signal complaints are the normal province of the successful BBS, a right of passage, I suppose.

Linus Torvalds reaction to what people have done with his little kernel project is exactly how I felt toward the BBS: Utter astonishment.

I did delegate as much maintenance as possible to others, and requested help from other local Sysops as needed. I took immediate advantage of a feature that was new to the version of WWIV that I originally installed: The Sub-op. There had always been Co-Sysop function in WWIV: That is the basic way to delegate responsibility: You give someone you trust that authority. The Sub-op had God powers only over a particular message base, but in all other ways was a normal User account.

I announced publicly at the start of the BBS that anyone could host their own message base on H&V, and a few took me up on the offer. This became a form of word-of-mouth advertising: With over 400 BBS's locally yours is immediately lost in the local BBS List without word-of-mouth. Nobody could or would visit that many BBS's (these days we can visit 400 web pages in a day, but web sites are multi-user and largely one-way, hobbyist BBS's were not). Wanting to encourage participation in their message base The Sub-ops would inevitably post on other BBS's about their message base at H&V, thus causing participation in H&V. The principle here is somewhat like the addage between giving a fish and a fishing pole: User enabling features should not be disregarded.

In summary, the reasons for the success of H&V Austin were complex: Strategic, careful and consistent User Account administration, interesting message bases, interested Users, hands-off Sysop (who knew how to keep the hardware running), feeling of safety, honesty, integrity, openness, musical theme, and Power to the People. This was done before I had heard the terms Free Software and Open Source, but I think the spirit was there then.

Definitions, acronyms and abbreviations:

Acceptable Use Policy
Bulletin Board System
Berkeley Software Distribution, a species of UNIX
Date of Birth
Disk Operating System
Macromedia® Flash®, Macromedia® Flash® Player and their descendents
GNU's Not UNIX. Honest, SCO. Did you think RMS was joking?
HyperText Transport Protocol
Heartattack and Vine. From a song by Tom Waits
International Business Machines
Musical Instrument Device Interface, also a file format
Modulator/Demodulator, look it's not even scary if your Bugs Bunny
National Science Foundation, a government funded entity in the United States
Off Topic
Personal Computer
Personal Home Page
Plain Old Telephone System
Robert A. Heinlein
Richard M. Stallman
Read The Fucking Manual
The Santa Cruz Operation, Inc.
Still don't know what that is
System Operator of a Bulletin Board System
The UNIX® system
A genus of computer operating systems
One who uses a BBS
"World War 4" BBS software for DOS
World Wide Web. One of several Internet services

© 2005 Jason Mack
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