Update 9/13 3am UTC: This thread still seems to maintain at least some level of local interest here in Finland. I'll keep checking this out and will still answer questions every now and then. Thanks for everything so far!

I'm Jouni Heikniemi, and I landed my dream job in 1995 just after turning 16. I was hired by a Finnish computer enthusiast magazine called MikroBitti, and my job was to operate their BBS, MBnet. Over the years, MBnet grew to span 500+ nodes (simultaneous users) and 32767 active users (no coincidence there!). More info on BBSes

I became the chief system operator and manager of the team (and a minor celebrity in that certain niche). We also grew to be a high-volume web site and an Internet service provider for tens of thousands of users. The BBS was dismantled in 2002, and I left the company in 2004.

We had an extremely diverse system with stuff that most operators never encountered. We had custom hardware and loads of in-house software, heaps of technical problems (try connecting hundreds on 90s-era budget computers on a single network!), community management with extremely fanatic users, a helpdesk with its usual fun… I didn't do it all with my own hands, but I was in close touch with all of it.

For me, this AMA is an attempt to finally gouge all this material out of my gradually fading memory. I've been intending to write it up in some format for years, but can't seem to find the time. I hope somebody finds this interesting, so we can get it all out. I'll be glad to take both detailed and philosophical questions.

So… AMA.

Proof: Tweet, LinkedIn profile, an unfortunately tragic news snippet referring to me and my job

Comments: 168 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

jaba_16 karma

Aah! The memories!

I used to be an Amiga FileOp and a chat sheriff in the MBnet back in the 1996-1999 or so. In the early 1999 Jouni did pick me to be one of the brave helpdesk frontline guys and from there began my long MBnet/Sanoma career which I only lately quit this spring.

There was a small detail in our daily helpdesk routine which I still remember. The helpdesk did not operate 24/7, but from 3pm to 9pm or so. We helpdesk guys did arrive about an hour earlier and did run a small custom PCBoard command RUTINA, which did return the not responding BBS nodes. We then walked to a server room near us and rebooted the dead nodes. Usually there were only couple of those per day.

Since 2001 I was very actively involved with the e-mail/ISP stuff we offered. Installed new Linux servers, updated software, did investigate the problems, did glue different systems together with Perl, all that usual sysadmin stuff.

I must say the atmosphere at work when Jouni was still around was GREAT. We truly did spend lot of time together even after work. One of the colleagues who had been working for MikroBitti for a long time already did tell me that the reason she did like her job so much was because you could be sure you got to laugh every day at work. Everyone was so passionate and motivated.

I believe one reason why MikroBitti + MBnet was so successful during its golden days was that we MBnet guys were located in the same office sector with the MikroBitti magazine staff. We understood each other and gave ideas to both sides. After MBnet staff got separated to a completely different location, the co-operation between the magazine and the website/ISP staff almost completely vanished, which lead to all kind of things. Of course, the magazine itself was not doing so well at that point anyway, so it's hard to say how much actual effect the separation had.

But golden, golden years and I'm truly thankful to Jouni (and all the other MBnetnauts, of course) for that.

JouniHeikniemi6 karma

Thanks for the kind words and memories. I agree with much of that, but it's no surprise given our similar background.

A small anecdote of additional information on the RUTINA command, which would roughly translate to "grumble":

PCBoard nodes, particularly those running on OS/2, had a tendency to hang every now and then. The hanging was only manifested by a beep on the computer's speaker, but we had to solder out the beepers as it was impossible to pinpoint the beep from a shelf full of PCs. Instead, we drilled a hole into the PC chassis and inserted a LED-capacitor combo so that every beep of the beeper would instead lit up a LED in the chassis. This way, it was even remotely possible to pinpoint the hung nodes visually.

As the machines eventually spread to cover four walls in two separate rooms, it was no longer practical to spot the crashed nodes by simple eyesight. So RUTINA was developed to dump out a boot list that was dutifully copied onto a post-it and then taken with the operator to the server room.

Just one of the perhaps 100 custom admin tools we wrote.

poo7062 karma

Wow, OS/2. I haven't thought of that since... the BBS days.

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

That baby was gold. We ran four nodes on a Pentium 90, and it actually worked, staggering to a nigh-halt only when somebody was doing a CPU-intensive task such as QWK archiving. Wish I remembered how much memory it had, but likely not much. I would wager on four megs.

jaba_2 karma

16 or 32 megs, I would say. My original jaba.mbnet.fi was an abandoned BBS node and it had 16 MB at start, later expanded to 48 MB! :D

JouniHeikniemi1 karma

Ok, 16 megs sounds credible to me. I may well misremember that. PCBoard did run with surprisingly little memory though.

EvilPRGuy15 karma

What was your favorite door game? (Me: Tradewars)

JouniHeikniemi11 karma

Heh. Somewhat paradoxically, I never really played much of them in a multiplayer setting. Before I worked with MBnet, I liked LORD (Legend of the Red Dragon) and especially its advanced competitor, Usurper. TW was cool as well (for a while at least!), and VGA Planets even more so, but it wasn't really a door game like the others.

For MBnet, LORD was the most popular game of all time. We tried getting Usurper to work for months, and even launched it at one point... But it just wasn't designed to work in an environment with that many users, so MBnettians were forced to stick with LORD and play Usurper in smaller BBSes.

neujersey2 karma

I wrote a plugin (or whatever the name for those expansion things was) for LORD that included a cheat to give me whatever I wanted in-game. I'm sorry. I don't think mine was widely used at all.

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

In-game module, I think. But worry not, you are absolved. I personally wrote a BBS vote application in early 90s and included a backdoor that enabled free editing of scores. I have no idea what I was thinking, but strange things happen when you're 12 or so.

S100RR5 karma

Barren Realms Elite guy myself. I still jump on a telnet BBS every once in a while and play for a month or two for nostalgic reasons.

JouniHeikniemi4 karma

Wow, I had all forgotten about Solar Realms Elite and BRE. I don't think they were ever really mainstream in Finland, but great experiences when you got your hands on them.

Rocketsponge12 karma

When you describe a BBS to young kids today, do you feel like you're telling myths and stories from the golden age of online?

JouniHeikniemi17 karma

You know, this is a really good question. I was already going to bed as it is midnight here, but read this one off my phone and had to come back.

Because, I think, the problem is that I don't really tell young kids about BBSes. It has happened every now and then, but it's very rare, and it is amazing how hard it is to explain the concept.

First of all, kids of today have grown up in a world where connectivity is not an issue. You are always online, and you can access all the services wherever you go. If you want to check out Reddit, you use your cell phone. You do it while waiting for a bus, or when you're bored in school. There is no waiting, there is no anticipation of getting connected.

Even if I could convey the concept of a BBS, truly understanding its value would require the recipient to understand the silence around it. Why would somebody want to use a 80x25 character terminal to write non-instantaneous plaintext messages to somebody else? The concept only makes sense in a world where there is no ubiquitous email, SMSes and everpresent Internet.

If modern-day electronic services were like BBSes, I'm not sure we would be so jazzed about them. They were great because they were the vanguard of a new era, the first reasonably fast way to communicate with big groups of likeminded people across geographical regions. We feel that when we look at 16-color blocky ANSI graphics presenting a menu - my daughter would just be confused as to where are the touch points she could use for navigation.

So... Myths and stories? Certainly. But it is amazing how 15-year old things can be so totally out of their world.

Rocketsponge7 karma

Thanks for your reply. I ask because recently I was telling a story to someone and the whole BBS era came up. They were amazed when I talked about how one of the great ones in Austin had 50 phone lines, and I knew the SYSOP so I got to see his wall of 50 modems at his apartment. I remember it as this amazing time where we were just exploring the very first things that would later morph into the apps/games/services that we know now. The first time I went to a meet up of fellow BBS users at a pizza joint and finally met the faces behind the electronic names was magical. And I still don't think I've ever had as much fun, terror, and thrilling victory with a MMORPG as I have playing Tradewars. But you're right - modern day kids would hate and be lost trying to use ANSI graphics and command lines.

JouniHeikniemi10 karma

I think you actually touched on another important topic there: Meeting people live.

While you still come across people on the Internet and then perhaps meet them live, the process is rather different. First, you have Google. Once you get a name, you can often get an overview of who they are. Second, people have profiles (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Github, whathaveyou).

In the BBS world, people typically were very unfindable, and few really made any effort to publish information about themselves. Given the complexity of even sharing photos (few even had a jpeg image of themselves before the advent of digital cameras!), people very rarely had any idea about each other's looks prior to actually meeting them.

Your mental image of a person was based on their deeds, forum posts and chat mannerisms, and boy were you in for some surprises. In some ways, that was also more fair - you were getting judged by your actions, not by your status or looks.

temotodochi2 karma

Actually i have planned a BBS like web interface for a long time, but since i can't really code too well (except some lua) it has remained just a plan.

I'd like to see web interfaces which scroll instead of "refresh" and have a parser and keyboard shortcuts - just like the the fancy bbs menus.

JouniHeikniemi2 karma

Actually, when I left MBnet, I went to work at Blue Meteorite Ltd., a software consultancy founded by Aki Antman, the creator of SuperBBS (incidentally, the BBS software I once purchased for my own BBS).

You can guess that us two veterans spent quite a few hours envisioning a web BBS software, but never went on with it. Would have been fun, but I doubt it would have had commercial potential anyway.

remolod11 karma

When did it all go to shit? I mean - Mbnet was pretty unique in the BBS scene and there was a real sense of DIY even in the magazine. When nearing the 2000's i noticed that the magazine started changing direction quite drastically. Was this all only due to sanoma magazines bosses being greedy and wanting more profits?

Skrolli had quite a good article about mikrobitti history recently and i happen to know some relatives who have worked in the house, confirming that the corporate culture was quite bad one. The bosses never understood Mikrobitti's uniqueness as a magazine even was the most(?) profitable magazine in the house.

JouniHeikniemi12 karma

I knew it would come to this :-) Your question is really about why the publishing company shifted the magazine's strategy in a way you don't like. You're not really talking about MBnet the BBS, you're talking about a national trauma somehow caused by dilution of a previously hardcore-packed enthusiast magazine.

I'll take a shot at answering that, but you probably already know I can't answer it properly without disclosing information that doesn't belong into the public. You can figure out a lot from the Skrolli article already mentioned and linked. The author Markku Alanen is my former long-time boss and mentor, and he shares much of the same experience - even though I don't agree with all his assessments.

That having been said:

Building online services in the media sector in 1990s was hard. Management focused on old style of measuring results, and our success with MBnet certainly had quite an impact, even if it wasn't realized immediately. Combined with the IT boom and Sanoma's sudden money-laden focus on digital media (except that the money never really came our way), there were suddenly quite a few cooks stirring the pot.

MBnet the BBS lost its drive simply because BBSes lost their drive, and no editorial action would have changed that. I doubt that even our best technical efforts, e.g. replicating the message forums on the web, would have had an impact beyond a few years delay. In that sense, MBnet the BBS was a lost cause once over the late 90s hump.

The fates of MBnet the Website and MikroBitti magazine are more entwined, and their destinies were shaped by editorial decisions, which were in turn guided by strategy (admittedly dictated by non-editorial management). It isn't a state secret that I left in 2004 in part because I couldn't see a positive trend continuing. Markku's nearly simultaneous exit wasn't a coincidence either.

My personal feeling about the whole affair: The blazing success of the MB product family was based on an organically grown team with an unbeatable spirit. We were really doing most thing rather cheap (including our own salaries), and we focused on the best attitudes instead of good credentials. Positive coincidences occur under those conditions, and they make all the difference. Such factors are impossible to replicate in a technical, business-like management style, and trying to coerce them onto the team led to happy coincidences disappearing, and you're seeing the results.

In later life, I have consulted dozens of organizations, mostly with software development issues. Same principles apply surprisingly often.

roveboat2 karma

Some grumpy old veterans would say MB was already quite shitty by the time MBNet rolled around - when the logo changed ;) Could you imagine something like the article in mikroBITTI (84/85?) on expanding your C-64s memory to 256kb (I think?) in MIKRObitti in the 90s? I can't.

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

MikroBitti was always highly criticized whenever something changed. At one point there was the page (or three, at best) called Peliluola, a section dedicated to role-playing. Removing that got us hate letters for years.

But it's definitely true that the magazine changed as the concept of being a computer hobbyist transformed from building your own to programming one to just using one. Some people never wanted that to happen, but some change was of course inevitable. One of the best parts of MBnet was that there was sufficient space for even less mainstream interests.

sauli_9 karma

Do you think it's possible that MB would someday make the file archive of MBnet public again?

I really enjoyed the files section of MBnet in late 90s and especially the Finnish shareware and freeware games. It's sad to see part of Finnish computer game history fade away now that MBnet files aren't available anymore and many games aren't available anywhere.

The whole Finnish shareware boom was really extraordinary phenomena mainly fueled by popularity MBnet and current MB staff should understand it better.

JouniHeikniemi6 karma

Quite honestly, no, I don't think they're coming back. Then again, I'm not in a position to say anything final on that. I have no idea if the files are still somewhere - they disappeared from the web after I left.

You're right about the Finnish shareware boom - I knew it at the time, but didn't even remember at this point. We didn't grant upload rights to normal users, but you rather had to apply for them. At one point, I had a few dozen upload requests from Finnish developers every day, and that probably wasn't even the peak (I didn't handle them later in the game).

The metadata for the files was stored in a SQL Server database during the later years, so it is not entirely impossible that at least part of the filebase would be salvageable, even though the original PCBoard data files could quite well be unreadable.

Of course, there's nothing wrong in asking MB for this - if there's sufficient drive to actually do something useful with the result, maybe the files can still be found. If there are volunteers for trying to restore the archive somehow, get in touch via email, and I can make some introductions.

thomble8 karma

We are about the same age. Some of my earliest, fondest memories were of BBSes in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember downloading pirated games before there was any sort of crackdown on that sort of thing. I remember when ZIP took over ARC for archiving, and later reading about the drama about that whole change. I remember the single player (or turn based) games, Legend of the Red Dragon, Trade Wars and the like. I remember the early multi-node BBSes and the early MUDs.

In my mind, all of this sort of vanished in the mid-90s when we got our first dial-up internet service. At that point, do you think that BBSes became the domain of hobbyists, or were there features and communities that continued to thrive and grow in the BBS scene?

As an aside, I grew up outside of Youngstown Ohio, in the same area code as Rusty & Edie's BBS which was, coincidentally, one of the largest BBSes in the world at the time, and is still associated with relevant intellectual property court cases in the US. I didn't realize how good I had it until my family moved away and only had access to hobbyist BBSes. Do you remember Rusty & Edie's BBS? Do you have any funny or interesting stories about the early Wild West of online networks?

JouniHeikniemi8 karma

I started hanging out in BBSes at some point in 1991, and ran my own single-node BBS for a few years. Understandably, that really became a sidetrack once I got my job, and I lost much touch with the rest of the BBS scene at the same time. So, there may well be others with better memories.

As for the timeline: In Finland, I think it was about 1998 when the BBS scene first started seriously feeling the hit in popularity because of the internet. In MBnet, we countered by providing telnet-based access to the BBS from the Internet, and that turned out quite popular - for a couple of years. What finally killed BBSes was the fact that people sold off their modems and phone lines in exchange for xDSL and cable lines, and most BBSes were never accessible with that gear.

But certainly, there were elements like MUD-style gameplay, easy access of all kinds of files and real-time global chat systems like ICQ that no BBS could compete with.

During the transition period, I think many good community-focused BBSes thrived quite nicely. The feeling of being together was stronger in BBSes, and that was perhaps particularly true in communities tightly focused on less common topics. But since communities lose their speed quickly once enough of the key contributors disappear, the demise was quite inevitable - we saw this in MBnet as well, and the BBS was saddeningly empty during its last months.

I remember hearing about Rusty and Edie's, but the States are so many thousand miles away that they were always just distant rumors. The world was a bigger place then. :-)

I'd imagine the US BBS scene was more diverse with more wild lands. In Finland, we had a few court cases on copyright issues, but the whole BBS scene was very hobbyist-oriented to start with, so there was rarely significant financial values at play. Certainly there was all kinds of smut and unruly action, but none of it really made a mainstream splash in Finland, which was quickly gearing up for the Internet crazed bubble of the 2000s.

punadit3 karma

As for the timeline: In Finland, I think it was about 1998 when the BBS scene first started seriously feeling the hit in popularity because of the internet.

I went to my military service in Jan 1997 and my BBS and the scene was just fine before I left. During my service all hell broke loose and there was a significant decline in the popularity of all BBS's, including mine.

By 1998 the scene was dead as a dodo. Probably the biggest BBS's survived 1998 because they didn't lose the critical mass when their userbase halved - probably even the death of other BBS's moved the people towards bigger BBS's, because there still was somebody else, too.

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

You may be right, and there's some variation by geographical location on that probably. One key factor in Southern Finland was that the Helsinki region telecom operator HPY killed flat rate pricing (it used to be about 0.15 e/call), which cut down on the practice of loooong overnight chat sessions (it's not like we didn't dole out extra use time during the quiet hours of the night).

My recollection of 1998 was actually based on an interview I gave in 2002 (in Finnish, sorry for non-speakers). I expect to have remembered those things better 11 years ago than I do now, but I may have misrepresented something even back then :-)

endcycle6 karma

I remember when ZIP took over ARC for archiving, and later reading about the drama about that whole change.

I came in right about when that change was finished (and I think arj was also big at that time?)... what was the drama all about?

I also remember getting excited about new file transfer protocols - when one of our local (419 baby!) boards started using bimodem, I actually couldn't wait to get home from school to get on and try sending AND receiving at the same time. Waiting for that busy to clear was painful. :)

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

Don't you guys forget about LHA/LZH! I can't remember the details on packers either, but I think different archive types were common on different platforms - the world wasn't all-PC then.

Protocol-wise, I think one of the most important innovations - particularly for MBnet - was SModem, a transfer protocol developed in Finland. Its specialty was that for the duration of file transfer, you could access a multi-user chat. This chat, which you could access even without a transfer, then grew to be one of MBnet's major attractions. I think we had like 150 simultaneous chatters there at the peak hours.

razorbit6 karma

What software did you run the board on? I'm not sure if any of the usual packages could handle that many users. PCBoard? Renegade?

JouniHeikniemi7 karma

PCBoard. We were the only one to have purchased a 1000-node license. The next step downwards were 500 and 250 nodes; I think there were a couple of 500s out there. At any rate, we had a lot of direct contact with Clark Development Corp., and purchased the 1000-node version well in advance as we realized the developers were going backrupt.

I've still got these cute PCBoard artifacts!

BTW: That's not to say PCBoard handled that amount of users and nodes cleanly either. We hacked and hacked for hundreds of nights to get it to actually work.

robotreader5 karma

What was MikroBitti's rationale for running the BBS?

JouniHeikniemi8 karma

You could approach that on so many levels.

The access to the BBS was limited to subscribers for an hour a day, unless you paid 2.20 FIM/minute (roughly equal to 0.75 € or $1 in present-day currency) for access to priority nodes. I can't remember figures anymore, but the priority nodes never paid for a serious slice of the operating costs. Thus, the key financial driver was subscriber retention.

Factually, it's very hard to measure the impact of such an operation. Empirically, I know there were a plenty of subscribers who sent us letters (yes!) stating that the magazine sucks and they only subscribe for the BBS; I know some people used to subscribe multiple times to get more than 60 minutes per day of usage time. At the same time, there were many, many subscribers who never visited the BBS and were very happy with the magazine.

We certainly did have extremely faithful subscribers then, and that quite likely did pay off financially as well.

nestafo5 karma

Does the current Internet have all the features you had back then, or is there something you still miss in the BBS era?

JouniHeikniemi14 karma

I don't think anything beats the Internet feature-wise - everything is on the net. I think the most important differentiator is the fact that you used a terminal program to connect to a single service, and did only a single thing at a time. It may not sound like much, but consider this for a moment: What if you could only connect to one web site at a time? Changing the site would involve a reconnection cost - and possibly at least a few minutes of idle delay while you queued for access to the next site. Add to that some scarcity: there weren't that many electronic ways to encounter other people back then.

What would happen is that you would - and did - concentrate far more on what you were actually doing. I think this is most obvious in the case of discussions: There are few discussion boards on the web that consistently match the quality of the best BBSes - or even usenet at its early days. So in a sense, Internet is more of everything with less quality and touch.

Functionally, I think the only thing really missing in the present-day Internet is personality of the sites, perhaps best illustrated by the "Yell" option commonly available in BBSes. Using that made the BBS computer beep out some tune, calling for the system operator to come and chat with the user online.

This was absolutely great for single-node home BBSes where the operator's personality oozed through every text and menu graphic, and Sysops were quite proud to have any user browse their creation. You really could develop friendships with the system operators that way. You rarely get such a "live" contact with a website admin! Of course, we didn't have a Yell option available in MBnet either - it really wouldn't have scaled to hundreds of nodes.

chrpike5 karma

"This was absolutely great for single-node home BBSes where the operator's personality oozed through every text and menu graphic, and Sysops were quite proud to have any user browse their creation. You really could develop friendships with the system operators that way."

I can vouch for you. I was the SysOp of my city's first BBS back in 1991. I lived in northeast Brazil and I called my system Jampa BBS. At that time it ran the software Remote Access (RA) along with a Frontend which I don't remember the exact name atm. The frontend allowed RA to exchange messages and information with other BBSs from the same network, which I used FidoNet at the time. Later, along with a group of other brazilian BBSs we founded another network called RBT (Brazilian Telecommunications Network), and back in 1994 we were able to send and receive emails to and from the Internet using a software developed by a fellow SysOp from Time Tunnel BBS. What you said is correct, the users could develop good friendships with the SysOps, some of those users are my friends up to today. Good times back in the 90's.

Edit: some spelling and grammar.

gaycrusader12 karma

FrontDoor perhaps? Very common frontend mailer from that time frame.

JouniHeikniemi1 karma

Other common names were BT (Binkley Terminal?) and D'Bridge. But FroDo was definitely quite common.

Ratsia5 karma

Thanks Jouni for all the effort you put into MBnet. Long time no see.

I guess everyone has a few key moments in their life that shape their future, in the sense that a different decision at that point would have resulted in a very different life. For me one of those moments was the night I decided to try out the BBS of the magazine I had been reading since it was launched. Quite soon after that I spent my daily hour of precious MBnet time chatting with my new friends (always between 9-10pm, to guarantee that everyone is there), only using the rest of the BBS to exchange the QWK packets, and the weekends meeting the same bunch of people. I still regularly keep in touch with a few of those and was even married to one for years.

For you it must have been still more extreme. So, my question to you is: Have you ever thought how your life would have turned out if you had said no to the offer in 1995? Your career and personal life must have been deeply affected by the years you spent there, especially as you were still very young that time, but do you think that you would have ended roughly where you are if not for MB/MBnet?

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

I agree with your theory on key moments. As it probably is for you, it is hard for me to grasp how different life would be had I not spent a big slice of my youth doing what I did. Being a part of a tightly-knit community in teenage years does tend to shape your character, and it's hard to speculate on that.

Professionally, it is surprising how little direct impact the BBS days have had. I ended up working with software, but I was doing that before MBnet (or even BBS) times anyway. The MBnet history comes back to me every now and then when meeting new people, but it has never been critical for anything I have done.

But one thing I wouldn't likely have gotten from anywhere else was the diverse experience in doing things. How many people get a chance to do business development, datacenter building, team management and professional use of SAP while still in their teens? That is a huge blessing, but it didn't result in a career as an Internet community person as one might expect, but rather a business/technology generalist.

On a personal level, I'm much in the same boat as you: I found my wife through my work in MBnet. Looking at it that way, it would be hard to overstate the impact of those years.

batmansavestheday4 karma

What do you think of reddit?

I haven't used Usenet much (too young), but I have sometimes been a bit annoyed by how reddit handles discussions. The threading is great, but it's very difficult to come back to a thread to check up on new content IMHO. Yada yada :D

Ninja-edit: I'm using RES. Any tips, fellow redditors?

JouniHeikniemi7 karma

I'm not extremely well-acquainted with all the nuances of Reddit. I think it's one of the best implementations of lightweight threading model, and it does gather a BBS-like spirit at its best.

A digression: We long debated if we should actually try to bring MBnet's community onto the Internet by implementing our discussion forums online, and the threaded/sequential design question was one of the hardest ones. I still don't know what to think about that.

h3vonen3 karma

Now I know I'm a tad late for this but as a former active user (especially the chat) I really wanted to contribute and still hope you might answer. I think I even met you and a bunch of the other guys at the central railway station metro level at a few MBNet "miitti" events. At one of them I remember separating from the main group to get totally wasted with a group of blackmetal-people who were not keen on going to the Carrol's on the street level but I digress...

I do remember some heavy trolling in both the chat room and the discussions which did prepare me for the modern day forum trolls and comment section people usenet trolls. I'm actually keen on knowing if you have any fond or furiating memories on those BBS trolls you had to deal with on a daily/weekly basis? Any specific cases or people that you'd be able to share after 15 yrs?

JouniHeikniemi6 karma

Good memories on those meetings - there were plenty, and always quite innocent fun (a stark contrast to the beer-laden meetings of typical BBSes!). I hope the following rambling answers your question :-)

Temporary chat bans were probably the most contentious part of MBnet, to the extent that some of the voluntary moderators ("sheriffs") threatened users with penalties for real life actions - typically losing their privileges in the process once I found out.

The whole affair was rather unpersonal for me. Some trolls actually thought they annoyed me greatly, but I don't think they initially realized how unbalanced the situation was. It took me about ten seconds to remove their subscriber number's access to our systems, and it would often take them at least days, usually weeks and often forever to find another subscriber who wanted to give away his electronic access. Thus, banning was actually deadly efficient, something that is not usually true in modern-era Internet.

But some people certainly got over that threshold. One approach was to pay through the nose by using the priority nodes where you didn't need to be an identifiable subscriber, but paying 2.20 FIM/minute for the pleasure of trolling. Such attemps had to be curbed by other measures, but few such trolls lasted beyond one telephone company billing cycle. ;-)

I got my share of personal problems from all that though: threats, harassment calls at night, mischief such as somebody redirecting random phone bills to my address, ... One guy even founded a BBS that was focused on hating me. In order to become a user in that BBS, one had to answer a lengthy survey requiring profession of hatred towards MBnet and me personally. To the credit of this guy, a couple of years later he actually applied for a job with us and had the balls to come to an interview with me. I have to respect that.

There were quite a few cases where people were just acting plain mean (incessantly drooling on the few girl users we had, constantly breaking the rules just to see if they got away, trying to phish other users identities). Most of the problems were simpler, of the unthinking teen boy variety, and there's not that much fun in those. Many of the sheriffs (perhaps myself included at times) had a tendency to kickban people with some drama and flair, adding an insult or a movielike waveoff in the process. Those were rumored about and considered legendary at the time, but there's really rather little fun in from an adult perspective.

My strongest memories and stories probably involve calling those people (we had their phone numbers in the subscriber records) and typically reaching their parents; the ensuing discussions were ones of parents suddenly getting enlightened to the possibilities of electronic communication. I could sometimes overhear the poor user getting totally lambasted by an angry mom or dad, followed by a parental promise that such behavior would not reoccur. At times, they were fun we laughed for years thereafter - but again, I almost feel sorry for the guys. At any rate, it was somewhat comical given that I made quite a few of those calls while underage myself, and the respect I got from the parents was far more than they seem to be giving school teachers these days.

I once actually even delivered a real-life reprimand by meeting a frequent offender somewhere (I have no recollection where this was). Some user, who recognized me, came to tell me that one certain 14-year old boy in the crowd was so-and-so, a name very familiar to me. I took the opportunity to go talk to the boy, shaking his hand and letting me know how I'd love him to behave. I was probably five years older than him, but still a skinny, acne-faced youngster. He was shaking and looked like he could pee in his pants, and we never had trouble from him again.

Finally, I still sometimes get a round of giggles as I look at many well-known Finnish IT people and entrepreneurs. It is surprising how many of them have been banned from MBnet, or at the other end, who sent me heartbreaking letters on how they would really, really like to be chosen as a chat sheriff. But there's no sense in calling out names - I think kids need a right to be young and make some anonymous mistakes as well. :-)

TI-994A3 karma


JouniHeikniemi5 karma

No... No nostalgia for the BBS era, really. MBnet was an absolutely great place to work, and I really miss that at times.

But while the BBSes themselves were great communities, the limitations they had would really be unbearable at this day and age. Also, I think most BBS users also suffer from nostalgia seizures because those things happened in their (our) youth - it's only natural to reminisce about things in your teens.

I have found that people who were in their 30s or 40s in the BBS era see them way better in perspective. In a grander scheme of things, BBSes were just a phase in an evolution towards ubiquitous online presence, and their key part was to democratize online resources: everyone could host their own system and have others contact it. In reality, the world whizzed by pretty fast, and the next technology wave in the form of web sites and home pages always had much more potential.

benny24c3 karma

Have you ever played Digital: A Love Story?. If so, what are your thoughts?

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

No, and I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Looks very interesting though, thanks for bringing it up!

rivierafrank3 karma

man nice post. Its an era that has left town unfortunatly. I used to spend hours trying out new numbers to figure out which had BBS or whatnot.

Also, in about 95-96 we were playing... i forget the name....you had to buy land and tanks /jets/ and shit, all the players on the BBS were in one team...hell we were up against dozens of other BBS FROM AROUND THE WORLD (which was, well, awsome), each with around what 10 players or more.

I still telnet some BBS for fun, but nothing much is going on. Reading people's stories/jokes/.txt files/tutorials/phreaking shit and all was a lot of fun.

Juxtaposition was the BBS I liked the most.

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

Your post reminded me of one thing: the state of porn. We had none in MBnet, so just take this in the context of BBSes more generally.

In early 1990s a low-resolution (by today's standards) 200k JPEG called banana4.jpg circulated the Finnish BBS scene. The file took like 15 minutes to transfer on a 2400 bps modem, and it contained a Playboyish softcore image of a lady with... ah, I guess you can imagine that.

Contrast that to year 2013, when the major newspapers in Finland have just been running stories on how inundated 10-year old kids are with all sorts of porn movies streaming right into their cell phones. I mean, certainly teens traded those "adult gifz" back in those days, but it's really nothing like there is today. In this sense, I think the lesser connectivity may well have been a blessing.

jampola2 karma

Still using BBS's these days? (yes! They do exist to some extent!)

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

Nope. I quit when (or even before) MBnet was exterminated in summer 2002. Not that it wouldn't be fun if I had the time, though :-)

Bloodari2 karma

How did you guys get around long distance charges for the users?

JouniHeikniemi4 karma

Well... Long-distance charges were always the users' problem, and there was fairly little we could have done about it. I know of cases where underage users racked up phone charges equivalent to 500 euros in a single month. Of course, such horror stories happened with or without the BBSes - at some stage, dial-up Internet was the main cause, and it definitely happened with other BBSes as well. We had a 60 minute daily time limit which did cut out the worst cases, and long distance call rates in Finland were never exorbitantly high to begin with (not that every rural Finland teenager's parents agreed with me).

For the maintenance posse, we had to find ways of course. Perhaps the most commonly applied one was to devise various callback systems where the user would only make a short initial call, and invoke a script which then dialed back to the user's number to transfer the call costs to us. Of course, we got some bulk discounts as well. Needless to say, access to such a feature wasn't given lightly.

Bloodari2 karma

Did you ever have any run-ins with the law? I know here in the states a couple BBS were raided.

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

Not significantly, not incidents like you're probably thinking about. We had a strict policy on managing our downloadable files - for instance, everything was prescreened against a tight set of rules. That kept out illegalities such as warez, porn and cracking material.

Once we dove into the ISP business offering space for home pages and email accounts, we had our usual share of dubious content, copyright issues and so on. Perhaps the most dramatic incident was the one referred to in the news snippet linked in my proof section, but that didn't happen with the BBS.

Zahne19772 karma

I ran a 2 node BBS back then, although I didn't make very many long distance calls to the larger BBS's. (I did call Rusty and Eddies a few times though)

I currently run a 6 node Synchronet BBS. If you're curious, you can poke around at linenoisebbs.istmein.de port 4242 via telnet. Alternatively you can just use a flash enabled browser and surf here: http://linenoisebbs.istmein.de/ftelnet.ssjs

I carry DOVEnet, but I haven't gotten around to applying to become a FideoNET node yet. The system also has IRC (Port 6667) and working mail.

JouniHeikniemi1 karma

I logged in with the browser version. That looks like what a BBS would be if implemented with modern protocols. Pretty much what we imagined back in early noughties, but it was nontrivial to implement back then.

My own BBS was active in several echomail networks in the first half of 90s, but MBnet never was. Is there still real, meaningful traffic in Fido and others?

atp1232 karma

When MBnet (BBS) was closed, I remember how Mikrobitti wrote something like "don't worry, we'll store all the messages and maybe do something with them later" (or maybe it was MB's web site). Of course now I know they aren't gonna use the message database. But has anyone been able to read those messages after MBnet was closed? Actually I wouldn't want that there would be a site like Google Groups, because everyone used their own name, they were young and probably wrote stupid things (I did). But it would be cool just to see some messages, maybe read them with Blue Wave..

JouniHeikniemi8 karma

I was the one to make that promise, and I planned on delivering that. I even wrote an application that exported the message forum content into HTML format. But, it wasn't really finished and never a high priority, and it got lost in the noise of other things. I don't think anyone picked up on that once I left.

I'm not sure how the material should be published (if it should - I see your point, and wouldn't perhaps be proud of all my writings either). I'm fairly sure the actual data is still somewhere, but there are very few people who could even theoretically know where. If there's a reasonable idea on what to do with those messages, perhaps that promise would still be deliverable. ;-)

remolod11 karma

I would be extremely interested in this as well. Perhaps get together with the Univ. of helsinki and some other institution to preserve this unique part of finnish computing history?

I think it would be interesting to save whatever there is left from an unique era. It could well be used for example for studies of our cultural history.

Also YLE might be interested :) the messages are as valuable as the Elävä arkisto in preserving our popular culture

Oh and about the names: i wouldn't want my old embarrassing messages to be revealed either so perhaps the names could be censored - even a partial archive of the message history would be really valuable historically

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

As I stated elsewhere about the file base, if there's sufficient interest and drive to actually do something with the data, there's no hurt in asking. It would be great to have that data nationally archived.

I can help with getting in touch with the right people and help with reformatting the binary data if it can be found, but curating the mass into something archivable... That's a worthy challenge. Again, get in touch via email if you're volunteering.

Madpony2 karma

When I ran a WWIV BBS back in the 90s, I remember I could always see what the user was doing whenever they were logged in. Was there a similar way to view what each of the 500 users on your system were up to? Or did you have to use reports and logs to monitor activity? I've always been curious about how concurrent user BBSes worked.

Also, did you have the ability to pull a random user into SysOp chat? That was my favorite part because it would really creep the user out :)

JouniHeikniemi5 karma

Practically, the answer is "no". Of course, all the nodes were running in the server room, so there was nothing to stop an on-premise administrator from walking up to the server room, plugging in a display and keyboard and finding the correct window (most nodes ran on OS/2 multitasking boxes with 4 nodes each). Thereafter one could view and chat just like in a single node BBS.

In practice, that didn't happen in MBnet. First, we weren't on-premises (much less in the server room) all the time. Second, a person with that much access was typically swamped with other work anyway. There was also a privacy question - we were running the system on behalf of a public multinational company, and the legal situation didn't encourage us to expose ourself to potentially private data on the user's screen.

This wasn't the case with many multi-node home BBSes - their SysOps typically had easy access to the nodes and could use them just like single nodes, although just for a single node at a time. And of course, those SysOps typically had far less privacy concerns and greater interest in single users than we did.

All that said, we could of course send text messages to any node, and we had the multinode chat environment mentioned elsewhere in the thread - although I don't think we had a way to force someone there.

The details on this are very hazy, but I seem to remember we were actually experimenting with a tool that ran as a TSR (background app) on the nodes, and on request took snapshots of the screen, and then rendered them onto the operator's display (within PCBoard). This gave a very clumsy, one-frame-per-ten-seconds-style view into the user's screen. But still, I don't think it was practically used much.

DeathsDesign721 karma

Heh saw BBS and thought' I remember using those with my 9600 baud modem!

Guess this was a wee bit after that :)

JouniHeikniemi3 karma

MBnet was founded in 1994, and I think those first nodes ran on V.34 (28.8k). But that was just the BBS end - many people had 9600s in those days, and rural areas had copper wiring that didn't permit much beyond that even with a faster modem.

Certainly, MBnet was a late-comer to the BBS scene by comparison with the earliest systems there were. Not that it would've been practically possible to build such a system five years earlier either.

When MBnet opened in late 1994, the telephone exchange in that part of Helsinki crashed several times, leaving thousands of people without telephony connections. The capacity was quickly upgraded by the telephone company though :-)

RedWine_1st1 karma

I have a case of CRSAM (can't remember shit any more) but the dates most people mention seem so current. I did a quick check of dates for Intel processors and the Pentium came out in 1993. I transitioned from a 286 to a state of the art 100 Mhz Pentium. I thought I may have already changed from a local BBS's to what I would call a dial up ISP. The @Home Network came out in 1996 and I would guess I had it by the 96-97 time frame.

This occurred in Connecticut USA. I realize technology reaches people at different times in different areas. Anybody have an idea of their time frames when then went from: BBS, dial up ISP, non-dial up ISP

JouniHeikniemi2 karma

In Finland, commercial ISPs started appearing in early 1990s, and as SLIP/PPP protocols improved, real Winsock-based dialup Internet became more common around 1995 or so, first with modems and then with ISDN. The ADSL revolution in late 1990s.

But I don't think it was really a question of how accessible the Internet was. It was, but as long as buying ISP access really bought you terminal access to an unix box, it wasn't that much more than a BBS. It was the proliferation of web sites that really made surfing the web an interesting alternative, and that took surprisingly many years even after TimBL cranked out the key protocols and Mosaic had already been launched.

ILikeBumblebees1 karma

Do you still have any of the message board or file archive content from the old BBS? Was much of it in English?

This would be a wonderful thing to preserve for posterity. There are some old golden-age BBSes still online and accessible via telnet (bbs.execpc.com, for instance - ExecPC was also one of the biggest in the world, and their entire BBS is still online, with content dating to about '87) and these are wonderful resources for digital history.

If you do still have any of the old data from the BBS, would you consider giving a copy to someone like Jason Scott for archiving/publishing purposes?

JouniHeikniemi2 karma

I answered this question in two separate threads. The file base is rather universal, although there are some Finnish applications thrown in. The message boards are almost totally in Finnish.

The data may or may not remain - at the very least, I don't have it. Archiving some of the memories and data of the BBS era is a great goal, and one I'm very sympathetic to (hence this AMA as well). But actually making the archives meaningfully available would require someone to take an active role in the process. I do hope such a person makes an appearance. :-)

Nershide1 karma

Post some ANSi pics !

JouniHeikniemi2 karma

True fanatics of course know these already, but check out these links:

AnsiGuy gallery Ansi animation videos

MBnet was rather devoid of ANSI graphics, perhaps most because we didn't have really motivated in-house talent for that, but also because we aimed for somewhat neutral thing called usability.

Captainawesome191 karma

Why does your post have so many acronyms?

JouniHeikniemi1 karma

It does?