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 Feature: The Once and Future M-Net

James Howard has written about his online home M-Net, the first public access Unix system. M-Net's history has seen the passing of several eras and milestones in the history of computing. It was there before the Internet was big. It was there long before the advent of the World Wide Web. Read more about it here.

 (Submitted by Noel Tue Mar 14, 2000 )

   The Once and Future M-Net

The Once and Future M-Net

James Howard <howardjp@glue.umd.edu>

It's Ugly and Complicated, We Love It

As part of my usual morning routine, I check my email, read the news on Yahoo! and Slashdot, then I login to M-Net. With Earl Grey in hand, I read the morning's new postings. chamberl wants to know what people think of the stick figures he drew for a paper. I check them out; they look acceptable. I respond and tell him so. Ah, someone answered my question about what mail client they like. And trex answered seldon's question about which conferences are most active.

Dropping into live chat system I see I am the only one there, except for a bot, who greets me with a predefined message. But less than a minute later two more people join. We talk some about PHP and SQL-powered websites. We also talk some about the weather in North Carolina; ric tells us he got hit with more snow than his town could handle. After a few minutes, edina joins us and we talk some about the height of the escalators servicing the Washington, D.C. subway system.

M-Net is a small, user-supported BBS hailing from the early 1980s and struggling to survive at the end of the millennium. It exists and is primarily used through a text-only environment supported through telnet. While a web interface for some features is supported, most users shy away from it. The BBS, called YAPP, is known as a conferencing system. It allows users to post message and then watch the responses roll in. The message and response combination is called an item. Further, items live in groups called conferences. Conferences are set up by the conference administrator, called a fair witness, and they are usually grouped according to topic. M-Net has conferences dedicated to music, poetry, programming, gossip, and dozens of other topics. In addition, there is a catch-all conference called "general" which is restarted on the first of each month and several conferences dedicated to discussion of system policies, including conference creation.

Mentioned above, M-Net also features a multi-user real time chat system called Party. Upon joining, new users often comment that Party resembles IRC, even though Party predates IRC by more than half a decade. After the appearance of MUDs and IRC, Party adopted many of their features including noises, also called emotes, as well as multiple channels, or discussion groups.

Since M-Net always offered a full Unix shell account with full access to the standard Unix toolkit, including a C compiler, M-Netters soon began developing software to make their stay on M-Net more pleasant. One user created a program that would instantaneously send another user a one line message called a telegram. Another user developed a program that let them spy on who was logging on and off the system. Another user created a program that let them quickly see the last time all his friends logged in. All these programs shared a common feature: they were cryptic and difficult for new users.

The frustration of learning to use these tools soon gave rise to a group who considered learning the tools a right of passage. In many ways, this culture still exists more than 15 years later. Those who learn to use the system may complain about how complicated and difficult to use it is. But more often than not, those who learn it, come back for many years.

The First Public Access UNIX System

M-Net's history is nearly as complicated as its interface. In 1983, Mike Myers of Ann Arbor, Michigan purchased a $30,000 Altos 68000 single board computer running System III Unix. Before long, Marcus Watts, also of Ann Arbor began writing software for the new system including a program allowing users to automatically create accounts, a real time chat system called party, and a conferencing system known as PicoSpan. And in the middle of June, 1983, M-Net went online with one dialin line. Before long, other conferencing sites including The Well and Chinet were using Watts's software.

Myers initially paid for all the expenses out of his pocket. In 1984, Jan Wolter joined the M-Net staff and worked with Myers to establish a patron system. M-Net's patrons were given access to a reserved set of phone lines for their generosity. Soon, M-Net was able to break even and even repaid some of Myers's initial investment.

Myers claimed to run the system as a benevolent dictator, allowing the users to act as they saw fit. Over the years, though, he became more uncomfortable with the uncensored and unchecked users of the system. In the Spring of 1990, he sold the system to Dave Parks.

Parks's purchase undermined the faith of the users and the donations soon slowed. Parks threatened to cut off guest access or all access if users did not donate more. This had the opposite of the intended effect as users did not wish to donate to a service that may not exist the next day. In January of 1991, Parks announced the system was for sale again. Several users, including Watts, at this point met and discussed plans to start a similar service. These plans materialized as Grex, which opened to the public in July of 1991. Today, a cordial, if not friendly, rivalry exists between M-Net and Grex and among the users.

Later in 1991, Parks sold M-Net to a nonprofit corporation called Once and Future Systems (OAFS). In 1992, OAFS merged with Arbornet. Arbornet has started as a for profit conferencing system also based out of Ann Arbor in 1984. However, in 1985 a user led consortium purchased the system from from its founders and had run it as a non-profit ever since.

In December of 1992, M-Net gained a full Internet connection. Shortly thereafter, the aging Altos was replaced with an Intel system running BSD/OS. Simultaneously, M-Net replaced PicoSpan with the PicoSpan-compatible YAPP conferencing system. Although the hardware and software have received extensive upgrades over the years, the platform is still fundamentally the same.

Since the OAFS/Arbornet merger, the system has been run by the Arbornet Board of Directors, a group elected by the patrons of M-Net. Often plagued by personality conflict and confusion over the mission of M-Net, the Board has suffered from inactivity, stagnation, and resignation. Only over the past year has an Arbornet Board stepped up and made significant changes to benefit the system. However, a new period of growth and prosperity is underway.

Rough and Rowdy, Ready for Abuse

Today, M-Net has well over 7500 registered users. However, even with this many users, there exists a core constituency of 100-120 people who make M-Net. Some of these users have been contributing to M-Net's growth for all 17 of its years. Others have come along within the last year. Many hail from around Ann Arbor, where M-Net is still based. Some use M-Net to communicate with old friends after leaving Ann Arbor for the far corners of the world. And still others among us just stumbled across it one day and never left.

With a core group this small, many of us feel closer to each other than we do our real-world friends. Many of us have met face to face some have met their husbands and wives on M-Net. Of others we only know an online persona. However, real-world social dynamics are at play. No matter how close we are, or even if we have met, we truly know each other. This can lead to incredible results.

M-Net has earned a reputation for scaring off new users. As one long-time user and former Arbornet president jerryr put it, "M-Nut (M-Net) is the kinda place where you dip your toe in and someone grabs your leg and pulls you under. The strong survive. The weak don't." Short and simple, this description sums up M-Net.

Fights are often personal. In fact, fights are often. One of our many conferences, entitled flame, is solely for abusing each other. We also have a conference called gossip dedicated to making up information about other users. M-Net users are quite vicious towards each other. Any argument, or for that matter, any discussion, may turn into a series of personal attacks without warning. This is par for the course. However, this differs from most online forums because we do know each other. We already know about each other and that information provides fodder when the cannons are blazing.

However, it should be noted that M-Net is not entirely about insults and injury. Many conferences are educational and entertaining without resorting to abuse. For instance, M-Net has prided itself on its conferences dedicated to computers and Unix in particular. A question posted is likely to be answered with authority and swiftness. Another popular conference is the story conference. Here, users enter poetry and fiction and let other users critique their masterpieces. Another popular item is the never ending story where each person writes one or two sentences in a story.

M-Net's history has seen the passing of several eras and milestones in the history of computing. It was there before the Internet was big. It was there long before the advent of the World Wide Web. M-Net for a time hosted Byte Magazine's online presence. The M-Net style and toolkit made the WELL, Chinet, Grex, and many others possible.

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