The woman, a polio survivor, wanted to know where she could buy a pair of shoes, each shoe a different size.
The man wanted to tell someone, anyone, about his past as an abused child. The kid just wanted the latest video games.
About the only thing the three people shared in common was that they own computers connected to their telephones and they routinely use them to call bulletin board services to find what they were looking for.
Someone told the polio survivor about an organization that provides shoes paired in different sizes.
The man added to his public testament recollections of a wicked stepmother.
And the kid, well the kid eventually got arrested for hacking, but that’s an unusual event given the thousands of Ventura County residents who call computer bulletin boards weekly without incident.
Nationwide more than 12 million Americans regularly log on. By making selections on their keyboard, they can find updated news and information, call up directories of conferences on a galaxy of topics or send electronic letters around the world. The current mailing time between Malibu and Madrid is about 10 seconds.
Most people call one of the big commercial information services with names that have become the McDonald’s and Burger King of the bulletin board services (BBS) industry, CompuServe and Prodigy.
On the other end of the BBS food chain are small, local boards scattered throughout living rooms and bedrooms in Ventura County. Many of them are free and open to the public, some charge a fee. Like their cork-and-thumbtack namesakes, the boards often communicate pretty ordinary stuff, finding dates, getting jobs and selling things. There’s an ample portion of wackiness, too. Agricultural bulletins on mutant cantaloupes, novels written by committee and titillating missives distributed on a connection called ThrobNet--the variety of material available for the price of a local call is simply astounding.
Although the boards often feel like CB radios for obsessive typists, they are quietly revolutionizing the way people communicate.
Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, one of about a half dozen such publications that have cropped up in recent years, explains it this way: Personal communications are usually one to one. Pick up a telephone, talk to a friend. If you want to tell the same thing to another friend, you have to make another call.
Of course if you own a newspaper or TV station, you can reach lots of people at once. That is called “one-to-many” communication, but it’s beyond the means of most people. A bulletin board system makes the power of “one to many” communication available to virtually anyone.
It’s called “many to many,” and some say it’s the purest form of communication since smoke signals because it’s instant, rarely edited and inexpensive.
Nobody is even sure how many bulletin boards exist nationwide. The estimates vary from 40,000 to 80,000. Hobos have their own BBS, as does Spam, the mystery meat. God and Ross Perot are both represented on BBSs locally, each through his respective fans.
In all, Ventura County is home to about 70 boards. The majority are operated as a hobby by their owners and without charge to their users. All it takes to set up such a system is a computer with a hard disk, a modem, a telephone line and bulletin board software that ranges in price from free to about $500.
Mark Zschiegner, of MegaHertZ in Oxnard, is typical of the hobbyist. He worked as software analyst for a government contractor before he was laid off in November, 1992.
“I got bored and started calling boards. I got interested and decided to host my own. I’ve got one telephone line and my computer is on a board that’s laid across a pair of filing cabinets. I do it strictly as a hobby. It’s a free service.”
The computer he uses, a 286 IBM-compatible, is an Edsel compared to many that can be bought today for $1,000.
Despite the enthusiasm of proponents, there is a limit to how complete BBS interaction can be. Many boards host outings for their members, “real time physical interfaces,” so they can get to know each other. Perhaps most telling, CompuServe, the king of on-line information, mails subscribers a magazine printed and bound in a format that’s changed little since the invention of the transistor.
SEX AND THE CPU
Among the most popular uses for BBSs are singles chat lines. Bill Doersam, a Navy technician from Pt. Hueneme, met his wife that way. Both were members of Surfside, a now-defunct board.
“I was out on a bowling night with a bunch of people from the board. I saw her a couple of lanes over and thought she was cute. I didn’t talk to her that night. Shy or whatever, but I sent her a message saying that I thought she was sexy.”
It worked. The couple had their first child Sept. 20.
Doersam said he has two friends who found their wives on the same board.
Stories like that led Rolling Stone to call BBSs the singles bars of the ‘90s. On many boards, the number of singles’ messages will be two or three times the number of messages in any other discussion group.
Like singles bars, singles chat lines have their share of jerks.
One board has a women’s message group that lists all the rude men not worth talking to. Others have “bozo filters.” If someone repeatedly sends you unwanted E-mail, you can tell the computer to ignore the sender, and they cannot put anything in your mailbox.
The odds of making a love connection on BBSs appear to be stacked against men. User lists show they outnumber women on the boards about 6 to 1, but in reality the ratio may be lower. Because of the unwanted attention, many women sign on as men.
Don’t believe anything until you meet the person face to face.
Yvonne Morris, 15, of Ventura uses different aliases, genders and sexual preferences, many on the same board. She said she spent two hours a day doing this until her brother left for college and took the computer.
“It’s just fun to fool people,” she said.
Some of the adult forums make singles chat lines seem wholesome.
Sadism and masochism. Bondage and discipline. There are adult story boards for people using aliases to write their fantasies, and X-rated chat lines so people who like to type dirty can send naughty messages in real time.
Some of the questionnaires you have to fill out to join these boards ask people to reveal information that most wouldn’t pass on to their analysts.
“Lots of boards are paying their bills with porno,” said Alan Bechtold of BBS Press Service, a Colorado company that publishes on-line news and text services. “It is logical that people would prefer to purchase the same materials they can buy in an adult bookstore in the privacy of their home.”
Minors willing to look around can find boards that will let them on, Bechtold said. He advises operators of adult boards to get a photocopy of the subscriber’s driver’s license and take payment only on credit card, since credit card companies usually restricts subscribers to people above 18 years old.
Some boards are dedicated exclusively to “giving good phone,” providing sexually satisfying material. A photographer who specializes in pornography established his own bulletin board in the 818 area code to distribute his photos.
The names of the boards often give a clue to their content. Another tip is if the board advertises GIF files. GIFs are graphic files, which often means they carry adult pictures. The rest are mainly computer-generated images of the USS Enterprise.
At least it’s safe sex, but with computer viruses that can enter your computer via phone lines, how long can it be before good phone is also a health risk?
Bowling alleys appear to be a popular setting for BBSers to meet. Christine Rogers hosts one such weekly outing at Buena Lanes in Ventura. She became the system operator, or sysop, after her son left home and abandoned the board he launched for his peers. Since then she’s become something of a computer den mother for Ventura County.
At 43, Rogers is nearly twice the age of the average caller to her BBS, Gridpoint III, in Oxnard.
“The inside joke on the boards is that I’m 21, but most of these people call me Mum,” she said. “Some of them are the greatest kids, mostly quite intelligent. During the presidential election we had two or three discussion groups talking about candidates.
“They are not just little computer nerds, and to be honest it has restored a lot of my faith in youth. They all have different kinds of interests,” Rogers said. “Some of them are not into the back of the computer at all.”
Rogers herself knew next to nothing about computers until three years ago when she bought one for her son.
“Even then, the bulletin board was his thing in his room. I never got into it that much until he moved out.”
At first it was like an abandoned pet left to a parent’s care. She was just keeping an eye on it for him. Slowly, she got involved. Now, her enthusiasm and participation has grown to the point that on several boards she’s consistently among the top players of Global Wars, a computerized version of the board game Risk.
On how to detect a group of BBS users in a crowd of people, Rogers said, “Look for mismatched people who don’t seem to have anything in common.”
Many of Rogers’ young users, like the pallid young man who uses the handle “Vampire,” demonstrate a high school thespian’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Others, like 6-foot, 3-inch, 210-pound James Armendariz, show equal zeal for kung fu movies, awkwardly chopping and sparring with others.
“I might get angry and physically intimidate him,” Armendariz said. “But on the board I can’t do that. Discussion is more free.”
Celeste Clark bought the Motherboard in Simi Valley about a year ago. During the 10 years it has been in operation the board has acquired 1,400 users from Ventura to north Orange County.
“My husband had been a subscriber for a while when we found out that the BBS was for sale. We decided that it couldn’t bring enough money to support the family, but it did look like a lot of fun.”
Although she declined to say how much she paid for the board and how much revenue it generates, Clark said she earns almost as much as her husband earns as a programmer for Transamerica Insurance.
Clark’s only fixed cost is about $1,200 per month for telephones. She estimates that she has $10,000 in equipment.
Hers is a for-profit board. Subscribers pay for the amount of time each day they are connected and the number of areas they access. For instance, X-rated pictures are typically only available as part of higher-priced unlimited access.
The costs vary from board to board, but it’s comparable to cable TV. Before she got into the information business, she owned a self-service laundry and before that she was a commercial loan officer.
“It is a great home business and you can make money. The problem is that for someone starting out it is difficult to make a living because there are so many boards out there in Southern California,” she said. “It’s difficult to get somebody to pay for it unless you are offering something that nobody else is offering.”
In contrast to the mostly young audience that Christine Rogers serves on Gridpoint III, Clark said the average age of her subscribers is 35. Most are professionals, about 30% are women.
“It’s a people business,” said Rogers. “Users tend to go to a board where they are comfortable. Your home board is like your neighborhood bar. If I was the owner of that bar I’m sure that atmosphere would reflect me. I tend to be more strict.
“I know lots of BBSs try hard not to censor things, but this is like my living room and I try to keep the atmosphere that way.”
Everybody who can type is on an even footing and that makes bulletin boards an attractive place for the disabled to communicate.
Chris Shinaverger, a blind hearing-impaired man, moderates a pub on the Motherboard called “Abled, Not Disabled.” His computer prints the screen contents in Braille for him to read.
“It is a great way to trade information or be social,” he said. “I really don’t meet very many people in the regular way.” That’s partly because transportation requires planning for many disabled people. One of the best things about the BBS, he said is it is the simplest way for the disabled to coordinate ride shares.
Shinaverger said he has a better chance of meeting people, especially since he is so well known on the boards. Women in particular, said Shinaverger, are hesitant to visit a BBS contact who claims to be disabled because the guy might be a perfectly abled predator.
“There are a lot of weirdos out there,” he said.
A safer bet are the non-social postings, which include a man who trains dogs for the disabled, offering to exchange his services for sign language lessons. Then there is one offering advice on navigating through bureaucracy for getting disabled plates from the DMV. Since he resumed classes for a Ph.D. in epidemiology at UCLA, Shinaverger has cut back on the amount of time he spends on-line. Whereas he used to be on as many as 18 boards, he now only participates in a half dozen. Despite the regularity of his contacts, his computer is missing the pizza boxes characteristic of late-night computer compulsion.
“You have to keep your hands clean when you’re reading in Braille.”
Recreational and social modem users cringe whenever hacking is mentioned. They resent the amount of media coverage dedicated to hackers. They point out that computers are like cars or guns: People who use them responsibly don’t get their names in the paper.
But computers also can be used criminally to share methods and codes for illegally gaining access to government, corporate and educational computer systems and making fraudulent long-distance calls.
That was the hacking attraction for two Oxnard youths arrested in March.
“The big thing was to get the latest games before they were out in the stores,” said the brother of one. “I guess the only place you can find that is on boards located out of state.”
Dale Herring, director of security for Thrifty Tel Inc. of Garden Grove said the boys used code-breaking software available on many bulletin boards to tap into Thrifty Tel’s computer network. Their computer would call Thrifty Tel hundreds of times, trying random numbers in hopes of finding a valid telephone code, similar to a long-distance calling card number.
One pleaded guilty, was fined $4,500 and placed on probation.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said one boy’s mother. “He was often playing games. We told him no modeming until after 10 p.m. when the rates went down. He’d be logged on as much as 6 hours a night. We thought he was only making local calls.”
Thrifty bills hackers $2,880 per day. The hacking happened over a period slightly less than a month. Herring said his company has not decided on whether to seek civil damages.
“We’ll try to pay as much as we can,” said the mother, a widow. “But if they ask too much, we will have to declare bankruptcy.”
Ironically, the young man is studying computer science at a prestigious East Coast engineering school on a full, four-year scholarship. Had he been arrested two weeks later, after his 18th birthday, he could have been charged as an adult felon and he might have lost the scholarship.
ELECTRONIC TOWN HALL
Ross Perot is on-line in Ventura County.
David Burns, sysop of Gooey in Point Magu, said one of his users told him that Perot was popular in the county, so Burns initiated a United We Stand discussion group. Although his name has become synonymous with the notion of an electronic town hall, Perot is not even a front runner in the race to establish one. Pasadena has a system and Glendale has one called Links.
Moorpark and Simi Valley both have a board where citizens can examine agendas for City Council meetings or access a variety of other government documents. The city of Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network (PEN) is a frequently cited example of the electronic town hall in action. It’s a public service open and free to anyone who lives or works in the city. It receives about 7,000 calls each month from residents.
Emblematic of Santa Monica, PEN even has a discussion group on being homeless. Contributions can be posted from public terminals that the city provides.
Peter Blachley and Sanford Drucker, both of Ojai, studied PEN before they launched Community Netlink of Ojai.
“The one thing that we found was that all of them were government-supported. We wanted it to be member-supported so that it would truly be a community bulletin board system,” Drucker said.
Blachley, the sysop, said subscriptions are $2 a month, and for that Ojai residents get access to Mayor Steve Olsen, Supervisor Maggie Kildee and Lucy Walker, the equestrian writer for the Star Free Press who will offer advice on horses and horse shows.
Compared to the 7,000 callers per month in Santa Monica, Ojai’s fledgling system has gotten a meager 288 callers since its inception a year ago.
“We got a couple of inquiries when we made library cuts,” said Curtis Updike, a Kildee aide. “I think maybe we had two.”
Still, Updike sees a distinct value in being able to respond quickly to constituent letters. With the click of a computer keystroke he can reach more people than by conventional means, hypothetically many more than the 30 or so active members on the board.
“Maybe when Clinton’s communication super highway is constructed,” he said, “there will be more people on-line.”
Getting the Message Across Without Words
Computer literates in the forefront of personal communication use a series of caveman-like drawings to express themselves. They’re called smiley faces or emoticons, and there are more than 200 of them, constructed solely from letters and symbols found on the industry standard IBM keyboard.
Note: To better read emoticons, tilt your head 90 degrees to the left.
:-) This is the basic smiley face.
;-) The smiley can wink
:'( or cry.
The smiley can express subtleties of mood:
The smiley can express a variety of things about the user’s appearance:
8-) wears glasses
:-P is sticking out their tongue
d:-) wears a baseball cap
@:-) wears a turban.
A Guide to Help You Talk the Talk
Here’s a glossary of some basic terms and a short list of abbreviations commonly used during computer conferences.
Cyberspace: Coined by science-fiction writer William Gibson in his fantasy novel “Neuromancer” to describe the world of computers.
Bulletin Board System: A message database (also known as BBS) where people can log on and leave messages for others usually arranged into topic groups.
E-mail: Electronic mail automatically passed through computer networks, or by use of modem over common-carrier lines.
Posting: An electronic message distinguished from a “letter” or an ordinary E-mail message by the fact that it is broadcast to a group rather than point to point.
Pub: A public message base on a certain topic. Callers can read the different postings to learn what is being discussed and then contribute their own posting.
Newbie: One who is new to and unfamiliar with bulletin boards and their operation.
BCNU: Be seeing you. Used when you’re about to leave a conference.
BRB: Be right back. Used if you’re going to be walking away from your computer or temporarily leaving the conference.
REHI: A greeting used when someone leaves a conference and then comes back.
ROTFL: Rolling on the floor laughing. Used after something very funny is said. (Also ROTF and OTF.)
RTFM: Read the freaking manual. The response when someone asks a question that’s easily answered by looking in the manual.
Spam: Information that might not be legitimate or real, as in “This rumor may have a high Spam content.”
Sources: “The Hacker’s Dictionary,” Eric S. Raymond; “Zen and the Art of Internet,” Brendan P. Kehoe
Making the Connection From Your Home
This is a partial list of bulletin boards in Ventura County. For a complete list call 805NEWS at 644-8922. It’s not a voice number, though. You have to use your modem to call.
The Opus Odium, Thousand Oaks, 374-8833. Great for messages, users say. Every discussion group averages five new postings a day.
Sanctuary, Camarillo, 388-4949. Home of Anarchy, Ventura County’s own computer network, allowing users to message anywhere in the county without making a toll call.
The Retreat, Camarillo, 484-4230. Said one BBSer, “If you enjoy writing and reading messages, call this board and you’ll be there for days.” Their motto: Strange people wanted.
Tirna-Nog’th, Ventura, 339-9752. Messages, poetry and on-line games. Global Wars and more.
Tom Cat Pictures, Camarillo, 482-8030. Features daily bikini pics for free.
The Motherboard, Simi Valley, 520-2300. Been around for 10 years--ancient by BBS standards. Now under new management. Home of the Ventura PC Users Group. Local numbers throughout Ventura County.
Gooey, Pt. Magu, 986-1216. Mostly Macintosh. Ross Perot supporters have a message base there. Network connects with a horde of other Mac users.
His Board, Ventura, 652-1478. God on-line. “Designed primarily to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and to uplift the King James Bible (Authorized Version 1611).”
Gridpoint III, Oxnard, 485-1804. Probably the only mother-and-son BBS in California.
MegaHertZ, Camarillo, 484-1481. Messages, Global Wars.