Realtime Text /2/ Interview with BBS-artist

The previous post was inspired by a conversation I had with Erik Nilsson, probably the only one who’s made a music video on a BBS. We talked about the 1990’s, when teenagers used BBS instead of WWW to talk. When you could see how the person on the other end of the modem was acting. I’ve added my comments [in brackets] to explain some technical stuff that Erik talks about.

ERIK > I remember as an early lamer, the sysops would wonder what the fuck you were up to. I remember the feeling of knowing that the sysop could be watching your every move. It was a bit like being in someone’s house, or in some sort of social club.

I remember the local BBS Secret Gate as one of the first places where I was accepted, and met friends. They had 3 nodes [phonelines = 3 simultaneous users] so you could chat with other users – not just the sysop. That’s how I started to hang out with Mortimer Twang, and together with Trivial we started Divine Stylers.

CHIPFLIP > Did you talk mostly about computer stuff, or also other things?

ERIK > I lived in an isolated place, so the computer was really a window into a world full of everything. Mortimer’s early mod music was my introduction to loop-based alternative music. The loopy and psychedelic aspects of dance music works really well in amiga trackers.

But there was also friendship, and pretty close conversations. I remember when I had my own BBS and my best friend called. We had fallen for the same girl, and I remember the chats we had about it. The pauses and the trembling made the conversation more tender. It was a really emotional talk, which I can still think back to and appreciate. It could have been through any medium, but I remember how the pauses and the tempo of the text made it more “charged”. I remember typing “I’m crying” and getting back “me too”. :)

There is a big difference in seeing the words take shape, instead of just reading them. It’s more personal. What you type is closer to the thought you have before you say it.

CHIPFLIP > Why do you think the real-time text isn’t around anymore?

ERIK > What was once standard no longer exists. It’s as if technology has taken a step back when it comes to text-based communication. I really don’t know why the intermediate step of pressing return has been added. It’s like you publish the text, while you used to say things more directly. The movement of the cursor reveals how the person is hesitating, erasing or contemplating.

If you chat on a BBS, you press return twice to signal that the other one can start writing. But it was still possible to interrupt the other one, if there was a heated argument for example. That doesn’t happen the same way in say Skype, because there is a gap between the users. It feels more plastic and more “simulated” than it has to be.

Well, when I think about Skype, which I use on daily basis there actually is a ‘function’ reminding about the old days standard in a weird way. In Skype you can actually see on a small icon when the person is typing and erasing, it’s really far away from the old chat style, it’s a weird verson of it in some way.. Still not even close to the thing I miss, but I guess someone was thinking about this gap when making Skype.

CHIPFLIP: And it’s more difficult to change your mind, too. Did you use the backspace often?

ERIK: Yeah, you erase constantly if you’ve learnt how to type street style. Erasing is just as important as typing. ;) I got really into animated text. It was a like digital thumb twiddling. You typed something, erased it, and replaced it with something new to make an animation. Sometimes you erased it because you didn’t want to keep it on the screen, like card numbers for example :) You typed it on the screen, and when the other person had written it to a piece of paper, you erased it.

CHIPFLIP > So one way to make animations on a BBS is to quite simply “type the animation”. And due to the slow modem speed, it will look animated when you play it back. But what kind of options were there to make the graphics on the BBS?

ERIK > There were a couple of different chat systems. The most common one was that each user had a colour, and you simply pressed return twice when you were done. There were also more advanced chats for ami/x, where you could move the cursor freely, like in a text editor or like the message editor in C*Base for C64.

CHIPFLIP > Was there anything bad about it being real-time?

ERIK > No. I mean it’s not the real-time thing that made it disappear. It changed because IRC took over most of the communication for the elite scene, since it was more global. When internet came real-time chat just disappeared by itself. It’s probably all just one big PC bug.

The situation is a bit similar to that of PETSCII [Commodore’s own ASCII-standard, with colors, plenty of graphical characters]. PETSCII is a better and more evolved system for text and symbols. It was more beautiful and personal to directly use the keyboard to write a letter to someone using colours, symbols and even 4×4 pixel graphics. Today you have to load images and change font colour in some menu to make a really spaced out e-mail. It’s slower, and it’s not “in the keyboard” like on the C64.

CHIPFLIP > What’s the best modern alternative to PETSCII?

ERIK > ANSI is not really an option, from my point of view. It’s typical “slow PC” style. Like some kind of Atari. You draw the graphics in a graphics program. Choose with the mouse. Draw fancy stuff from choices you make on the screen. It’s just like Photoshop.

PETSCII could’ve been a good source of inspiration for mobile phones, for example. But it needs an update to have meaning and function today. But how the system works, makes it the most interesting one I know of, still. ASCII is okay, but you still have to use a special editor to make the graphics. That’s a step in the wrong direction.

The C64 is like a synthesizer – you just turn it on, and get to work. With modern computers you have to wait for it to start, find the right program, and so on. They say that computers are faster today, but honestly – I have no idea what they are talking about! They only seem to get slower.

It’s strange, because computers were not supposed to become stiff and flat, like they are today. There’s all this talk about more convenience and speed, but from day one humans have only made it harder for computers to help us.

CHIPFLIP > A very broad explanation, also, is to consider analogue media as immediate (light bulbs, guitars, TVs, analogue synthesizers) and digital media as more-or-less indirect. It can never have zero latency and we seem to, somewhat paradoxically, accept that changing the channel on a modern TV takes 10 times longer than it used to. If you know Swedish you can read more about those things here.

Other than that, thanks so much to Erik for sharing his thoughts on this. Let’s fix the future!

One Response to “Realtime Text /2/ Interview with BBS-artist”

  1. Mark Rejhon Says:

    Hello…

    I’m Mark Rejhion, the author of XEP-0301 at http://www.xmpp.org/extensions/xep-0301.html and working to help make real-time text popular again. It’s the extension that makes real-time text work on Google Talk compatible networks.

    – Gallaudet University has a web-based Google Talk demo client with RTT at http://tap.gallaudet.edu/rtt which you can use to try out real-time text as well. It works on iPad and Android too!

    – I also have a program called RealJabber that enables real-time text when using XMPP servers (including Google Talk), at http://www.realjabber.org

    Cheers,
    Mark Rejhon

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