A 13-year-old on a BBS

My daughter recently found my journal. One of my favorite entries is from when I was 13 (1994):

Hello! Life is good! I have be the co-systems operator at Alberta Future BBS for nearly 3 months. I do mostly artwork as well as some other tasks. With my help the BBS has jumped from 35 users to 236 (in 3 months!).

Absolute Future BBS was based in Edmonton and was run by Shawn Logan. It was also one of the first local boards to use a GUI (Roboboard/FX).

Bulletin board systems (BBS) were really the precursor to the web the way we know it today. 

A hobbyist (the "SysOp") would run BBS software on their home computer and allow outsiders to connect via a phone line and modem. Popular boards would have multiple phone lines so more than one user could connect at a time. Once connected to the BBS, you could use message boards, play door games, and download files (known as "warez").

As a teenaged geek who loved computers, being asked to be a co-SysOp was a big deal. 

Even then, I was interested in marketing. I posted about our launch on Usenet groups, on FidoNet, invited people personally on message boards, and did ANSI and Roboboard artwork for other BBSes in exchange for advertising.

Tech apprenticeship

Thinking back, Shawn Logan did something amazing: he took a chance on a 13-year-old kid he’d never met face-to-face. To this day we’ve still never met in person (although we’ve recently reconnected on Twitter).

He wasn’t critical. When I sent in my first crude vector drawings for his site, he accepted them graciously and encouraged me to continue developing my skill. He taught me about building my first PC, BBS etiquette, and how FidoNet worked. If I had a question, I could call him at any time.

I hope the tech culture is still doing this.

The BBS scene was so small and personal that people would learn your age right away.

But our modern online communities are largely vague on age. We have no idea if a participant is 13, 33, or 63. We’ve homogenized everyone to being 20-30 years old, and at a certain skill level.

If you’re a web designer, you might have forgotten that you once started building sites in Flash or Dreamweaver.

If you’re a developer, you might have forgotten that your first foray into programming was HyperCard or Macromedia Authorware.

(Somewhat surprisingly) one community that I’ve seen show great sensitivity to new programmers (and young programmers) is Stack Overflow. Despite their mission to experienced programmers, I’ve heard from several newbies who’ve been graciously accepted there. I wonder if it has something to do with having a user’s age on their profile.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Let’s welcome new participants with open arms. Let’s be sensitive to the fact that some people in online forums might be… 13 years old.

Let’s take a chance on them.

Published on December 30th, 2012
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