#6 - Ghost Town

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 - 01:14 PM

Before the Internet as we know it today, there were text-based bulletin board systems all over the country that people could dial into. One of those systems, M-net, happened to live in Alex's backyard, and it was his internet home base for the better part of a decade. Alex went back this week and found out that it's actually still running.

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Comments [27]

Rick Root from North Carolina

The sports conference discussions with krj, jep, cyklone, and tonster are really the only things that keep me coming back regularly.

But there I am still, a user for nearly 28 years now.

Jan. 10 2014 01:50 PM
Larry lar

Kite....get your fanny back over to m-net

Jan. 01 2014 08:21 AM

Well that comment sure was petty and mean spirited! Keeping the spirit of M-net alive!

Dec. 11 2013 11:37 PM

Petty, mean-spirited jokes at the expense of others is what I remember of M-Net.
Such has drifted over to Grex as well.

Sorry Ken, Jan, et al.

Dec. 06 2013 06:27 AM
gorgo from yes m!ch!gan


Nov. 25 2013 07:27 AM
KITE from Jonesville Mich

WOW my first program I ever wrote... My Menu :)

Nov. 13 2013 02:37 PM
tsty / lkjh from ppl;s republic of ann arbor

fascinating, but short .. howzever, short can be beautiful too. for the record, that menu program, as noted, was written by dave parks who is now available streaming great music with (nearly instant) requests @ http://cisweb.us ...

Nov. 13 2013 12:32 PM
pattymcgr1 from Chicago

Ha! I remember M Net!
In a round about way, I met Alex thru it.

Nov. 11 2013 10:43 AM
Jan Wolter from Ann Arbor

Back in 1997, I wrote a history of M-Net and the other Ann Arbor conferencing systems. It really just skims the surface - not much about what it was like to use these systems, but at least it gives some sense of the large number of people who spent amazing amounts of energy on what now seems like a bit of a blind alley. If I was writing it today, I'd spend more time trying to explain to modern internet users what the heck these systems were all about.


Nov. 11 2013 06:42 AM
ernesto1581 from vt

great to revisit this world. I remember: the first list I was aware of was linguists and music theory people. They were all over the concept of far-flung interactivity long before anybody else. I remember in particular an interactive (meaning: someone would respond) list dedicated to learning the english of beowulf. I subscribed to lists dedicated to writing haiku and one for home-brewers, which was about all the off-task time I could reasonably manage at that time, at that job. The company and the criticism was, in retrospect, incredibly thoughtful, supportive, on point and well-mannered.

Nov. 09 2013 02:55 PM
Josh Renaud from Ferguson, MO

There were big chat systems like that in St. Louis, oFFw0rld being an infamous example. But I always preferred the smaller traditional BBSes. They were less about chat and more about message boards and games.

My parents were a bit more vigilant than the dad in this story, and it turns out that was a good thing. As a young teen, one summer I had a sno cone stand with my brother. I told the SysOp of one of my favorite BBSes about it, and he surprised me by coming out one afternoon to get a sno cone. My mother thought this was weird. She never allowed me to go to BBS events, and this SysOp did host a lot of picnics and stuff. Many years later, he was sent to prison for possession of child porn and for exposing himself during in a video chat he thought was with a minor.

But overall, I loved BBSing. I loved the conversations. I loved the "other world"-ness of it. It was like having a secret life separate from my day-to-day life.

I now maintain a wiki and a blog where I'm trying to preserve the history of BBS door games like TradeWars, Solar Realms Elite, Legend of the Red Dragon and many more. It's called "Break Into Chat" and you can find it at http://breakintochat.com/

This year I also became a sysop for the first time. I have a private family BBS where my daughter is learning to communicate online before I release her into the bigger world of Facebook and the rest.

Nov. 08 2013 03:04 PM
Ken Josenhans

What I miss the most about the active days of M-net (and Grex) is the ability for our interactions to flow easily between online and face-to-face, because of the mostly-local nature of the BBS in the pre-Internet days. There were regularly scheduled weekly and monthly events in Ann Arbor. There were also impromptu late-night runs to coney islands (Michigan's version of a diner), and small get-togethers for park walks, movies and CD swapping.

All that's left is the M-net Saturday walk & lunch, inherited by Grex since about 1992. We've had to make the walk route a lot less athletic though, as many of us cope with aging backs, hips and feet, and sometimes there is a stroller to be pushed with us.

The radio story didn't touch on the technical aspects of M-net. Users could do a lot of Unix learning & programming on the system, in an era when PC-based Unix versions had not yet appeared and personal computers were pretty limited.

When M-net started, in 1983, access to that sort of minicomputer power was mostly limited to universities and companies doing technical research. Mike Myers, the founder of M-net, spent roughly an average techie's annual salary on computer gear and set it up so the public could access it: it was a tremendous gift.

Nov. 08 2013 01:29 PM
Linda O

I'm still active on a couple of BBSes. (Eschwa and Junk) Even people my age don't seem to have any idea what the hell I'm talking about.

I never would have thought I'd be on a BBS with (essentially) the same bunch of people I knew in 1993, but I am. They're not all ghost towns, even if they're not crazy busy like they were.

Nov. 08 2013 01:10 PM
Evan from Santa Monica

I have to say, I found PJ's comments/questions to be kind of disappointing from a media-savvy person such as himself. Maybe the "why don't they just all move over to Facebook?" questions were a sort of Devil's advocate. I'd hope that people would be interested to find that online independent spaces like this still exist. And setting aside the non-corporate values of M-Net, the interface and aesthetics are a big nostalgia trip. When I started at college in 1997, it was my first time using the internet. Our email client was a clunky program that was strictly text, and it looked like the M-Net menu image up at the top. The internet was a very different place back then.

Nov. 07 2013 10:35 PM
Idealistic Pragmatist

Wait, wait, Alex Goldman was an M-Netter? What did we all call you back then?

-another former M-Netter now going by a different online name

Nov. 07 2013 08:38 PM
Ken Josenhans

Alex, thanks for the visit and the nostalgia. I still log into M-net most every day, for the sports conference, where about six die-hards still pontificate about Michigan sports. I wonder, is M-net the oldest public thing on the Internet? M-net turned 30 this year.

All of the text-based forums derived from Bob Parnes' Confer software appear to be fading in the last four years or so. Besides M-net and Grex, I know directly of New Cafe and The-Town, which present a M-net-like conference interface through a web page.

The Well still seems to be hanging in there, so at a certain level of cachet, charging money for access (as The Well does) seems to work

Nov. 07 2013 04:45 PM

I take that back. After you enter newuser, and MNet asks for a password, just hit Enter, and the newuser program will run.

Nov. 07 2013 02:31 PM
danr from Ann Arbor, MI

I was danr back on M-Net, which goes back even further than the early 1990s. I moved to Ann Arbor in 1985, and it was going strong then. I was also a Grexer.

I tried running newuser to set up a danr account on MNet, but I guess it's not working.

Nov. 07 2013 02:27 PM
bjl1313 from Philadelphia, PA

I used to be a Grand Rapids Free Net user back in the day. It really was an amazing thing to be able to use that as a jump off to talk to people all over the world.

Telling people, even those my own age, that I used to surf the web, text-based, blows their minds. They can't even begin to grasp the concept of a non-gui web.

Nov. 07 2013 10:04 AM

Hello Grexers - I used to hang out on Grex as well. In fact, until I gmail came on the scene, the Grex pine shell was my email client of choice. Especially since "@cyberspace.org" sounded so cool and futuristic. Nice to see you. Thanks for listening.

Nov. 07 2013 08:09 AM
Meg Geddes

What what? That menu is an *upgrade* from what it looked like the last time I was on it...

Nov. 07 2013 06:55 AM
Bruce Price

M-net wasn't alone. Shortly after we moved to Ann Arbor and signed on to M-net, a group broke off and formed Grex also knwn as Cyberspace.org and is still operating as well. We still have weekly meet ups for lunch on Saturdays. I disagree, it is still quite user friendly if you casre to learn the commands.

Nov. 06 2013 11:36 PM
Jan Wolter from Ann Arbor, Michigan

Hey, I helped run a BBS like that once long ago...no, wait, that was M-Net. I still occasionally yack on the phone with the guy who started it, Mike Myers. Mike spent something like $10,000 back then to buy a computer system for other people to play with. I've pretty much lost touch with Marcus Watts, the guy who did all the original programming for M-Net. You know that big famous system in California, The Well, was based on the same software that Marcus originally wrote for M-Net. Except they charged people money to use it. We never believed in that, and I guess the "giving the Internet away for free" paradigm won out in the end after all.

Nov. 06 2013 10:44 PM

I've got to say that this was more than a trip down memory lane to listen to. It felt almost like a call to action. With another guy called "Commander Zero", I ran a BBS in the San Francisco Bay Area called The Forbin Project from something like 1984-1986, if I have my dates right. An Apple II with a 300 baud modem (later upgraded to 1200 baud) ran the whole thing in my friend's bedroom on a dedicated phone line. And it was actually quite popular, with a busy phone line all day and something like 17,000 calls logged when we finally switched it off.

We would periodically have "member meet-ups" in the form of picnics, pizza nights, movies on VHS, etc. And they were crowded! We were 15-18 years old, and most of the users were under 25.

I remember how envious we were of the time when my friend's BBS got a 45 megabyte hard drive. It cost $7000. We were running from Apple 5" floppy disk.

Some insane people actually did a mammoth video documentary and released it on DVD, entitled, appropriately, BBS: THE DOCUMENTARY. If this podcast fascinated you, I recommend it for further study. Fun stuff.

Nov. 06 2013 07:43 PM
kommunic8 from Melbourne

Riveting listening. I found this particularly fascinating, it was like entering Indiana Jones'lost cave of treasures. Can't wait to check out the M Net.

Nov. 06 2013 06:22 PM
Rex Roof from Ann Arbor, MI

This episode is too short, I want to hear more.

(and I'm not just saying that because I'm featured in it)

Nov. 06 2013 06:17 PM
Dailyskew from Floriduh

Just checked out arbornet dot org to see M Net. Definitely not user friendly for Generation Y. Anyway, cool trip down memory lane.

Nov. 06 2013 03:42 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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