The Once and Future M-Net
The Once and Future M-Net
James Howard <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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
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
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
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
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.