A 1980 Teenager’s View on Social Media

Written by my 19-year-old self

I read technology articles quite often and never see any authors attempt to dissect or describe the teenage audience, especially in regards to social media. Probably because nobody uses that term and won’t use that term for what, another 25 or 35 years? Be that as it may, it is the apt term, and I have yet to see a teenager contribute their voice to this discussion. This is where I would like to provide my own humble opinion.

For transparency, I am a 19-year-old male attending the University of Delaware. I am extremely interested in social media’s role in my own life as well as how social media’s currently evolving. I’d say I’m extremely interested in social media’s role in society but society has no idea what any of this social media stuff is yet, I mean they really have zero clue, and to tell you the truth it’s frustrating. The all-too-few of us already thriving online now and who’ve seen the future, find it hard to explain to the multitudes who haven’t yet seen what this is all about and why it’s really important. Even in the computer world, the so-called leaders of the “revolution” seem pretty clueless in my opinion. I mean, you open any issue of BYTE or the other computer magazines and you see the latest blather from Jack Tramiel or Nolan Bushnell or Dan Bricklin or Steve Jobs or that guy up in Washington State, what’s his name, Bill Gates, and you know, you just know, none of them have the slightest clue about this social stuff, they’re all building toy computers that hobbyists are agog over, or writing silly little BASIC and assembly language programs that run on those toy computers that hobbyists are agog over. And they’re all starting to make some real money! But still, they don’t seem to understand what “computing” is really all about. The least interesting thing about “computing” is just that: computing. The most important and compelling aspect of computing is something else entirely: it’s connecting people together and enabling them to communicate in new ways. Let’s say that again. Connecting people together and enabling them to communicate in new ways. It’s about people, man! It’s not about RAM chips or 8080 versus 6502 versus Zilog processors. It’s about people. That is what this computer revolution is about. It’s that simple. It’s so obvious but why do so few people get this? Someday everybody will get this, and then, ha, I can see it now, then the problem will be that they will deny that there was ever a time when people didn’t get this. Just you watch.

To wrap up this introduction, the views I provide here are my own, but do stem from observation of not only my own habits but my peers’ habits as well. This article will not use any studies, data, sources, etc. This is because there aren’t any! It’s 1980, man! There are no degree programs in digital culture, no big conferences, no journals, no publications, no books even, covering this area. Heck, Sherry Turkle hasn’t even come out with a book yet on this phenomena, and a little bird just chirped in my ear that it’ll still be a few more years yet before Steven Levy writes his Hackers opus. So I’m here on my own, and will attempt to provide a view based off of my life in this age bracket—an age bracket that nobody in the Madison Avenue world really cares about yet, at least in terms of personal computing and online networking because Madison Avenue doesn’t even know what these things are yet. That being said, I’m not an expert at any of this by a long shot. Hell, I’m a latecomer to it, to be honest: I only got online last year. But rest assured there is NO data to disprove some of the points I make. What follows is just what I’ve noticed.

I think the best way to approach this would be to break it down by the programs and games and lessons and utilities and notesfiles I have used or heard about.

TERM-talk

Duh, I mean, it is the best, the most amazing thing in the world, right? I can’t imagine the world without it. Well, maybe you don’t know about it yet which if it’s that’s the case, you should! It’s so weird, I mean, that so many people, what, 99.99999% of the population, don’t even know what TERM-talk is. For the lucky few that do, it’s like the coolest thing imaginable.

TERM-talk is how people chat live, in real time, with each other online in private 2-way conversations. All I have to do is press SHIFT-TERM, and the system says, “What term?” and I type “talk” and press NEXT and it ask me to enter the name of the person I wanna talk to, and their group and presto: if they’re online at the moment, they get paged, and the system will say “Paging name of group….” over and over again until they answer. On their screen it says “user of group so and so wants to talk with you” which if you think about it is pretty amazing, unlike with the telephone. When the phone rings you have no idea who is calling. With TERM-talk, you always know who is calling before you answer. So only if you agree to talk, do you press SHIFT-TERM and type “talk” and press NEXT and suddenly at the bottom of both of your screens, you and the other party can start typing. You get one line of text to type, and the other person gets one line of text to type, and away you go!

Every character is displayed in real time as each of us types. So *how* you TERM-talk with folks becomes part of your reputation. Kind of like what your handshake is like. We all know when we shake somebody’s hand and they have a firm, confident grip, full of vigor and life, a quick shake and release and you know this person is with it. And then there are those with cold, clammy fish hands that feel like they have no bones, it’s all just cushion all the way down… Well in TERM-talk, if you type fast, that’s cool. If you type slow, p e c k i n g . . . a w a y . . .a t . . .e a c h . . . c h a r a c t e r, it can be an ordeal. Some people are such fast typists, their text comes across their line on the screen as fast as the terminal can display text, it just pours out.

I’m somewhere in the middle, I try to type pretty fast. But I never really learned to type well, especially with my left hand which I only use my thumb and index finger on. Right hand I use most fingers, and so the right hand does maybe 70% of the work. But I get by. Some days are good TERM-talk days and I whiz by like the superstars.

Typos are another thing that sort of establishes your personality online. If you make a lot of typos, it gets old fast, since the person you’re chatting with sees all the typos, sees you pressing BACKSPACE, sees you re-typing the misspelled word, sees you misspelled it again, sees you pressing BACKSPACE again, only this time you pressed it too many times and chopped off some of the letters of the word before it, oh god, it just becomes agony TERM-talking to these folks.

And then there are the folks who abbreviate everything. “can u c me” and “r u there” and so on. There’s a whole “short speech” dialect out there that is catching on but I’m not a fan of it. I try to type whole words. I’m not sure I’d like TERM-talk if everybody talked like this. I mean I can understand why some do it because there are only 64 characters of text on the one line of text you get, but still.

This abbreviated text stuff, to me it’s a very delicate line, easily crossed if you’re not careful. On the useful side, for some people, myself included, asterisks have taken on a special meaning as a kind of code. Say you are chatting away with a friend, maybe even in the same office, they’re five feet or 50 feet away at their own terminal, and then the boss walks in, one of us might suddenly type “*” and if that doesn’t get the other’s attention and shut them up the other may type “***” or any number of asterisks to let the other know something’s up, somebody’s in the room, or simply, “can’t talk right now.”

Another way people have sort of established a trademark online persona is how they start and end a TERM-talk. Some people, you page ‘em and you know the very first thing they’re going to say is, “woof”. It just is what they say. Others say “hai” as an opener and “bai” as a closer (I never liked that) or maybe “What’s up” or “wassup” or simply “yo”. If it’s someone you don’t know real well, or they don’t know you real well, the greeting is usually more of “Hello” or “Hi there.” Some people then start typing periods, like ellipses, an end less series of ellipses, as if to say, “you’re taking my time, hurry up and finish typing your question please.”

One very cool, stealthy thing you can do is the BACKSPACE trick of erasing the two TERM-talk arrow characters on the far left of our respective lines of text, so the boss walking by doesn’t know we’re TERM-talking. If you are super cool and have been taught the ways of the masters, you can using your keyboard to first erase your own arrow character, then move the invisible cursor down to the other person’s arrow, and erase theirs too. This is especially fun if the person you’re talking to is a girl. They usually freak out and start typing, “hey, no fair, give me my arrow back!” at which point you innocently say, “what arrow? this arrow?” and show the arrow character now up on your line. Endless hours of entertainment.

And it’s total fun when two people in a room start doing a TERM-talk behind someone’s back while they are physically in the same room — this trick is usually reserved when the boss walks in. And of course they don’t know that you and your co-worker are cracking jokes while they’re standing nearby. Just don’t snicker audibly or let the boss see your screen. Getting caught TERM-talking does not please bosses who expect you to be working.

The Users List

Printout of a screenshot of the CERL Users List. Hard to believe there are only 27 users on. System must’ve crashed and just come back up. And ha, ha, look at that, there I am at the bottom of the list, probably linked in, heh, get it, linked in… catchy phrase, that. I gotta remember it, it might come in useful some day.

Just press shift-U from the Author Mode page and you jump to the users list, and see all the users currently on the system. Well, not all of them. It might say, “Users = 597” and that means there are 597 people online but then the list of users on the list might only go on for 2 or 3 pages and if you counted them up it might be 100 people or less. That’s because most of the users on PLATO, during the day at least, are students, you know, the ones who are trying to learn something in some educational lesson. Supposedly that is the purpose of PLATO. But hey, you can’t complain really, without them, there’d be no funding for this system, and without this system, there’d be no fun for the few lucky souls who have author signons on PLATO. “Author” signons are accounts with more privileges, including the ability to write new programs using the TUTOR language. But I digress.

The Users List is interesting because not all authors list themselves on it. Some just don’t want people to know they’re online at the moment so they hide themselves by having their info not show up. Especially important if say it is late at night and you are in a computer room you should not be in because, say, the building is locked and how the hell did you get in there. But the problem is, system people, who have author signons with even more powerful privileges, see EVERYBODY on the users list, even hidden people. So you’re screwed if you are trying to hide.

But TERM-talk lets you indicate you are busy, if you don’t want anyone to bother you. And lots of times are good times to be busy, whether you’re deep in some gnarly TUTOR code, trying to solve some bug, or whether you’re surrounded by pesky Orion warships firing phasers and proton torpedoes at you in Empire. Not a good time to see that Trixie from your anthropology class wants to chat with you. Not now Trixie, I’m trying to save planet Romulus!

Emoticons

Emoticons are cool. I’m not aware of any other online system that uses them. On PLATO you can create an endless series of smiley faces, frowns, little monsters, beer glasses, martini glasses, Santa and reindeer, Star Ship Enterprises, and other little figurines, all by combining and overlaying characters on the keyboard.

It’s fun to insert them into a TERM-talk, and sometimes the conversation simply becomes a competition to determine who can come up with the most interesting, amusing, crude, or just original emoticon or little graphic face or monster or car or airplane or whatever.

The real gods of emoticons have turned it into an art form, and create animations full of emoticons, that actually do things. One of the most famous is the Star Wars one with Darth Vader’s ship and two other TIE fighters, firing their lasers. All done by typed characters carefully superimposed on top of each other with the patent, determined care of a medieval monk making an illuminated manuscript.

TERM-consult

TERM-consult is a special version of TERM-talk for the online PLATO consultants, called the PSOs. You invoke TERM-consult when you need online help, a live chat with an expert. I try to use TER<-consult only sparingly because a) they’re busy and b) the more I use them the dumber I appear to be, and if there’s one thing you don’t want to appear online is dumb.

The thing with TERM-consult is, well, I can explain it best like Murphy’s Law. If you need help, and you call a consultant, they don’t come instantly, especially during a busy weekday when there’s gazillions of people online. They can be a few minutes. So the odds are high that you will either a) have solved your problem or b) realized your problem is not something you should be wasting a consultant’s time on, or c) forgotten your problem altogether, by the time the consultant gets around to answering your TERM-consult. So in my experience, again, I use it sparingly, but when I do, it’s incredibly helpful.

Monitor Mode

Screen sharing, PLATO-style. You can do this while in a TERM-talk and it just happens automatically in a TERM-consult: one person sees everything you see on your screen. If you move around from one display to another, or, say, move up or down to view some TUTOR code, the other person can watch along and comment on what you’re seeing and doing. The online consultants use it often to watch you try to reproduce a problem and then help you troubleshoot. Or they take one look at your TUTOR code and point out the really stupid mistake you have in line 5, at which point you realize my earlier warning about not doing TERM-consult too often is solid wisdom from one who’s been there. Monitor mode is kind of spooky, I mean you’re sharing your whole screen with someone else. But the builders of PLATO did one thing to reduce the Orwellian creep-factor: every 10 seconds or so, you see a “so-and-so also sees this display” message flashed at the very bottom of your screen as a reminder that you are in monitor mode.

Talkomatic

In short, many have nailed this on the head. It’s dead to us. Talkomatic is something we’ve all looked at but it hasn’t been that popular for years. We have all heard the stories. This used to be THE place to be. Well, I hear “The Hop” was the happenin’ place 20 years ago to bring your girlfriend in your hot-rod Chevy or whatever, and hang out for a root beer or a chocolate malt while Wolfman Jack played the hits. Yeah, well, those days are long gone. It looked old in American Graffiti and that movie about the old days it itself what, ten years old or something now. Talkomatic is just uncool now, at least at Delaware. None of my friends ever use it. We would, if somebody else did. But it’s like the neighborhood bar that’s always empty. None of your friends go there. You don’t wanna be the only one in there, you know? On Delaware’s system at least, Talkomatic is like visiting an ancient Greek ampitheatre, the marble and stone well-preserved and the whole place still functional even, but nobody puts on plays there. Today, Talkomatic is like a having a fancy CB radio rig that works great but there’s nobody talking or listening on any of the channels! It’s like you are Charlton Heston in Omega Man, and there’s nobody left in the world but you! So you just turn it off and go do something else. We can all imagine what it must have been like, back in the golden days years ago on PLATO, having all the channels full, and people chatting away. All the pranks that went on, we’ve heard about ‘em. Like guys pretending to be girls, and then fooling some guy into thinking he’s talking to some girl and might get lucky. Sucker. Oldest online trick in the world. But a fully populated Talkomatic? Burning down the house, man! It really must have been something. The stories we’ve heard make it sound like it was incredible fun. And maybe on other systems it still is, but here on the Delaware system, it’s crickets, man. Crickets.

Personal Notes

P-notes (well, most of us write it as “pnotes”, and everyone pronounces it as “p notes”) are awesome and I and everyone I know use the program all the time. Again, this is one of those things that I just can’t imagine living without. It is so amazing to be able to send someone an electronic mail message and then go back to doing something else, and then get a reply later, sometimes even just moments later. And also it’s so cool to sign on in the morning every day and see the big “PERSONAL NOTES” banner on the Author Mode and know that there are one or more (usually tons) of un-read messages from people. It’s a great way to start the day. Some days are so crazy that you never get through all the unread messages, they just keep piling on even as you read and reply them. I can imagine as time goes on it’s going to become a real issue. I mean, can you imagine if everyone in a company had PLATO and used pnotes to communicate? Man there might be hundreds of unread messages piling up every day. You know it’s gonna happen someday. But for now it’s pretty manageable, and I don’t mind it at all. In fact I’d say pnotes are one of my favorite things about being online.

One of the coolest things that you can do with pnotes is send and get messages from people on other PLATO systems. The first time I learned you could do this, probably last year, it was mind-blowing. The idea first of all that there were other systems out there, around the world, had never occurred to me. I thought this was just a Delaware thing, you know, a secret entrusted to us Fighting Blue Hens. But no, it turns out there are PLATO systems in Illinois, Minnesota, Quebec, Florida, England, Sweden, Belgium, Israel, all over the place. And you can send and receive pnotes to people on all those systems if you want. I don’t know how many total people there are on all these systems but it’s more than I can count. As time goes on it’s going to really get crazy, with millions of people reachable this way. Oh man, my pnotes file is gonna run out of space all the time then.

If there is one downside to Pnotes and TERM-talk it’s that not all my friends have access to ‘em. People who don’t have access, well, that’s such a drag. But not just for them. it’s a drag for you too because no matter how much you jump up and down with exhilaration sharing the amazing awesomeness of pnotes and TERM-talk, if they haven’t yet “done” it, you know, like Jimi Hendrix, if you aren’t yet experienced, well, too bad. But they just don’t understand. There is nothing like going home to the parents house and sitting there at the dinner table trying to explain what an amazing set of conversations you had today on the computer. They’re like, what? It can take an entire dinner conversation to try to explain what pnotes and TERM-talk are, and then you realize by the end of dinner, you have gotten nowhere, and they still simply Do. Not. Get. It. It’s frustrating. Some day, everyone will use these kinds of tools and we won’t be having these pointless hour-long conversations at the dinner table or anywhere else, trying to explain The Future, which for some weird reason you, lucky bastard, are already IN, while they’re still stuck in the past. I look forward to when this stuff is all mainstream and people can just talk about the online mail and chats they had today and nobody bats an eye. It will come. Question is, how long?

File Space

File space is really a drag. There’s never enough of it, and the powers that be give you so little, never enough to do anything decent. You have to steal it or con your way into some, especially if you want to start your own notesfile or game. Worst is trying to ask for more space for your personal notes, so you can receive more messages and not have to delete old ones so quickly. Oh, I guess I didn’t explain that. Yeah, pnotes fill up fast. There’s nothing worse than trying to send someone a pnote and get told you can’t because their pnotes file is full. Well, actually there is something worse: when someone tries to send YOU a pnote and they get told YOUR pnotes file is full. Sometimes you get TERM-talks telling you this: “hey your pnotes file is full, and I am trying to pnote you” followed by an “end of talk” — they hung up. Well alrighty then, I guess I should go clear up some space…

The Notesfiles

Sure, I use ‘em. How couldn’t I? I spend hours in ‘em every day. And with the Sequencer, I can scan through hundreds of them automatically, and only see the stuff I haven’t yet read. So give it an hour, maybe two, and it will scan through the hundreds of notesfiles I have in my Sequencer, and I’ll be up to date on all the day’s controversies, news, jokes, arguments, politics, movies, books, interpersonal relationships, sex-ed questions (god, I hate that notesfile… but everyone checks it out, and then wonders who’s asking these questions?).

The Notesfiles are one of the most used social media outlets for my — or really any — age group. It’s where people ask questions, give answers, question someone else’s answers, question others’ sanity, get into flame wars, and so on. You know the drill. Message forums. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Some I just skip, like the ones on microcomputers (=micronotes= is hugely popular but I just cannot find a reason to care about the latest Apple computer, or Commodore, or whatever. There are rumors that IBM is going to get into personal computing, but, whatever. Yawn. I doubt they’ll get it either. Just more spreadsheets and word processors and BASIC and assembly language and some laughably primitive single-user games. I really don’t know why they bother.)

Public notes, =pbnotes= it’s called, is of course one place you have to check out regularly. As well as =udnotes= which is about University of Delaware specific stuff. I never quite understood the difference, since the overlap is like 90% but I guess for the 10% of sites connected to the Delaware system that aren’t the University, they don’t care for Delaware news and discussions. I wrote my first note ever in =pbnotes= last year. Of course I immediately got flamed for it as being a stupid question. One learns quick.

The =politics= notesfile is full of debates and screaming and yelling and impassioned arguments as you can imagine. I avoid it. =tvnotes= and =musicnotes= are okay but people like some bands that I can’t stand, and I just don’t have the time to read about all that stuff.

Delaware is famous for =whine=, which is where you go if you wanna whine about something. And boy, do people whine. About everything! Traffic, weather, sports, grades, parents, President Carter, The Who’s latest album. I mean, everything. They even whine about whining. Real, long, knock-down, drag-out online flame wars about how much whining is going on and how many whiners there are. (Too many, naturally.) There is this one horned-rim-glasses nerd type named Carl who you see around campus a lot who really takes this notesfile too seriously. This is =whine= so why are you whining about whining? That’s what you do here.

In fact the whining about like real serious stuff, policy issues and soon, got so like, serious that they eventually broke whine into several notesfiles, =whine= and, =policy=. The latter being, of course, a place for serious, respectful discussion about policies good, bad, and ugly and why they should be changed or not. Of course, =policy= was full of whiners too. I don’t hang out there much.

And then there’s =hotair= which is like =whine= but supposedly write-only access to all. Seriously, so they say, not even the system people have read access. It’s like /dev/null on Unix systems. Though of course, the system people do read it from time to time. I’ve heard stories. It’s kind of sad. Then there’s supposedly Carl again. He supposedly takes =hotair= too seriously too, and writes diary type stuff there, or whine-line complaints. He seems to think =hotair= is like the system’s suggestion box. He doesn’t seem to get that nobody is on the receiving end. At least nobody but the occasional system folks who go in there and laugh at what people have written. So I hear. (Nudge nudge, wink, wink.)

If you’re lucky enough to have some spare filespace, you can create your own notesfile and then restrict access to only your friends, so it becomes a place to hang out online. I am a member of a couple of such notesfiles, one of which has grown pretty large and is internetworked to mirror files on other PLATO systems— it’s what’s known as an intersystem notesfile where if someone on some remote PLATO system posts something in the file there, it gets replicated to all the other copies of the notesfile including your local one. This is cool. But having private friend notesfiles is going to be really big someday I expect. I mean, think about it — using the computer just to share info and news and stuff with your friends and nobody else. Once again, when a million people get ahold of this, watch out, man.

I love =helpnotes= and definitely check that out several times a day. The general philosophy is so uplifting! It’s just people helping people, period. Everyone keeps it cooperative and friendly. You need a tip on a good car mechanic in town? Ask your question and within minutes you’ll know everything you need to know. Wondering if anyone knows the proper temperature for a Thanksgiving turkey? You’ll be bombarded with answers, including a few no doubt who’ll suggest you also ask in the =recipes= or =food= or =cooking= notesfiles. You have to be careful asking TUTOR programming questions because someone will pop up saying hey you’ll have better luck asking in =tutornotes= or one of the other technical notesfiles. But the general vibe is cool, and I just love how on PLATO, everyone in the whole online community is out to help each other. If you see a question that you know the answer to, a quick reply pays off in spades in terms of future karma. Being really helpful in =helpnotes= is also another way people establish their online personalities, their online reputations. It pays to be viewed as a reliable help-giver.

Dr. Graper using a PLATO V terminal at the University of Delaware. Photo credit: Bill Lynch

Delaware has its own local claim to fame in terms of an online diety, a genuine network celebrity, none other than Dr. Graper, and his famous =grapenotes=. Dr. Graper is a student who writes these really really long essays or stories in which Dr. Graper, the Master of Reality, usually saves the day. Of course, he’s a cranky son of a bitch, and likes to complain about whiners. “You aren’t a WHINER, are you?” he’s always asking. My favorite Dr. Graper stories are the Star Trek ones, where he writes a screenplay for an imaginary Star Trek episode. They’re hysterically funny. Oh, there’s also the famous story about SHIFT-ERASE, and how the world stops rotating when someone presses it, and well, the world ends. You always know someone is reading grapenotes on PLATO because you hear them laughing out loud. This often gets them kicked out of the classroom they’re in, if a classroom monitor person is on site at the time. Of course, they often then sit down and read =grapenotes= too. Best is when you see Dr. Graper himself, in person, shuffling into the room you’re in, finding a spare terminal, sitting down and digging in to post a new note. Imagine Charles Dickens’ serial tales coming out once a week in the newspaper, transfixing a nation, only, it’s Dr. Graper, and his stories are going live one page at a time, every few minutes, as he is literally typing them LIVE. So it’s possible to get fresh Dr. Graper material in near-real-time and it’s always a blast. Graper’s graduating this year I think, which is a shame, because everyone worries that once he’s gone he won’t have access to PLATO wherever he winds up next. What are we gonna do???

TERM-comment

TERM-comment is a utility but it is just so cool if you think about it. Anywhere on the system, no matter what you are doing, whether playing a game, taking some educational lesson, viewing somebody’s program, whatever, you can press SHIFT-TERM, type “comment”, press NEXT, and then get asked to enter a comment about the thing your’re doing. So if you see a typo, or a bug, or some kind of problem or issue with *anything* on the system, you just post a comment and the creator of that thing, whether it’s part of the official system, or somebody’s game, or your friend’s secret program that you have access to, or some educational lesson you’re taking, the creator of that thing gets your comment and will act on it.

If only all computers did this, provided a standardized, ubiquitous, universal method for reporting problems or just posting a comment on something. Ha, I have great trouble imagining any personal computer, even ones from Apple, ever doing this. Too bad. It really is useful.

The Games.

So incredible, so amazing, so addictive. I mean, where to start? My favorite currently is Battlestar, which is a clone, sort of, a value-added clone though, of EMPIRE, which of course is legendary, but is usually banned because it’s too popular. Battlestar is banned too, except certain hours of the day in certain computer classrooms on campus, and you have to hang out there long in advance of the appointed time, usually late afternoon, to get a terminal. The funny thing is, the classroom I play Battlestar in is reserved by a bunch of elementary school kids and their teachers beforehand. So you have all these kiddies screeching with joy playing their arithmetic games, like How the West Was One, which is a pretty cool game actually, and begging for more time but no, when time’s up, time is UP because WE, the older kids, are now reserved so we can play BATTLESTAR of course. Oh my god it is the coolest game. Better than Empire by far. It has hyperjumps, that look just like hyperjumps in Star Wars. Six teams, including Cylons. Oh man, with thirty people in the game is is pure mayhem, wild, ridiculous, unending, adrenaline-fueled mayhem. And while the game’s going on everybody is sending everyone in-game messages, or team-only messages. Just this river of messages you can’t keep up with because, well, it’s war! Photon torpedoes flying everywhere. Enemy phasers burning holes in your ship. Ships bombarding planets to kill off their ground forces. Or you trying frantically to beam down armies onto a planet to conquer it before some enemy ships get too close. Oh man it is just insane. And then it’s all over, way too fast, the hour’s up, and we all have to go. Probably to make way for more elementary school kiddies. Ha, they have no idea what they’re missing.

The Mines of Moria is a great game too. First-person 3D multi-user dungeon, where you team up with some friends or a guild — if they think you’re any good and let you in — and go down into the dungeon in groups to find gold and glory. You can get lost in Moria for hours, days, weeks. Overnighters? Very possible. And eventually if you get too into Moria you start having Moria dreams, and there you are trying to cross the Bridge of Khazzad-dum with a Morgoth on your tail…

Airfight. Another ridiculously amazing shoot-‘em-up, only this time with airplanes. Great 3D feel to the display. It’s only 30 simultaneous players but geez, it’s a madhouse in the sky! imagine in a few years when this thing scales to be hundreds, thousands, millions of users. Oh, man.

Site

I go into the site lesson every now and then. It’s a utility that lets you see who else is in the site you’re in, how much memory is in use for all the terminals in use at your physical site, and, depending on what level of access you have, you can see what the current users in your site are doing. You can even see what they’re doing inside the thing they’re in. Which can be really something. I remember this one time I was in the Drake Science building on campus and I was just surfing around online and this extremely well-known Very Important Professor type walked in and sat down at one of the terminals elsewhere in the room. He signed on, and started typing something furious. This then went on for a few minutes. I went into lesson “site” and there he was on the list. And it said he was in =sexnotes=. Oh, man. And it showed which main TUTOR unit and which active TUTOR unit of the notesfile system program he was running at the moment, which plainly indicated to me because I understood what it was saying, and what it was saying was that he was typing a new note into the =sexnotes= notesfile. I kept replotting the display, and noticed the main and active units changing to “insert” this and “replace” that — he was clearly editing his text now—and then, then I could see that the program was asking him if he wanted to save this note as anonymous or not, and then it asked him for a note title, and then it said it was doing an insert and save and write operations. And then he was done! He’d posted a new note. He signed off, quietly got up, and walked out, all cool and stealthy as if nobody knew a thing. I went into =sexnotes= and there was a brand-new anonymous note timestamped exactly at that moment, posted anonymously but I knew it was by this Very Famous Very Important Person on Campus, a most Distinguished Professor. It was a question about, well, let’s just say, it was a question about a part of his anatomy and why was his the way it was and was there anything he can do about it.

So much for privacy in the digital age, man. Someone knows, someone always knows.

The Others

Here are some other things I thought of at the last minute:

  • Authors — I love this program. It’s basically a directory of all the users on the system, at least users with author-level privileges. Mere students don’t get to put their info in here, but authors do. So it’s like a phone book, but you can find someone and then pnote them or even TERM-talk them automatically. You can find out what kinds of programs they’ve written, what they’re interested in, all sorts of things. What I like doing is browsing the other PLATO systems’ author directories. CERL, of course, is the biggest, with lists of names that go on and on and on, endlessly fascinating to see all the people who’ve been online for years longer than you have, doing all sorts of amazing things. But the remote systems, like in exotic places like KTH in Sweden, or Brussels, or University of Quebec, or Florida State, or the lucky few CERL users who are based in Hawaii, it’s all so amazing. It makes you appreciate how many thousands of people around the world are on PLATO. Can you imagine in a few years when it’s millions? Oh, man.
  • Indexer — Yeah, I’m plugging my own creation, deal with it. It’s an index of everything interesting on PLATO, from programs and utilities to all the notesfiles to all the best games. Plus, it shows you which ones are active at the moment, and how many people are in each. So it’s kind of a living, breathing thing and gives you a glimpse of what’s going on on the system right now. It’s growing in popularity. You should check it out.
  • AIDS — The online help and reference system is really a marvel if you think about it. Just the sheer amount of material here, on every facet of PLATO, every individual command and concept in the TUTOR language, it’s all there, with huge multi-page explanations — with examples, even — of how everything works. This is how PLATO shines and shows how important the “help available” philosophy is on the system. You can always get help, no matter what the subject, someone has the answer on the system. I particularly like how AIDS is embedded right into the TUTOR editor so while I am programming and I forget the syntax of the -findsa- commad, I just type Qfindsa and suddenly the syntax of the command is superimposed over my code.
  • The Link — Omigod. The Link. “Linkctl” is the lesson name, as in Link Control. I got a glimpse of it last year late one night when a friend who already had access showed some of us die-hards what it was like. We were in the big basement computer classroom of Smith Hall way after midnight and we must have stayed on there for hours, all sitting around watching our friend use the Link to get to, where else, CERL. I could not believe what CERL was like. CERL is the Computer-based Education Research Lab, and “cerl” is the name of the PLATO system there. It’s the first one, the birthplace of PLATO, at the University of Illinois, and when you see what is on “cerl” you realize you are in the wrong place and need to withdraw from the University of Delaware and pack up your stuff and somehow find a way to get out to Champaign-Urbana and enroll in the University of Illinois, because “cerl” is the shit. But then people will tell you, man, it’s 1980, and the CERL system’s golden days are already over. I don’t know, the first time I watched my friend use The Link to remotely log in to CERL from his terminal in the basement of Smith Hall at the University of Delaware, I knew CERL was the system to hang out on. it was like the Emerald City. He took us through all the popular notesfiles. Especially ones that aren’t available on Delaware. Like =drugnotes=. Can you believe it? A big, popular notesfile too. They say the cops read it. It was hilarious to see what people were asking, writing, saying. And more amazing the University of Illinois hadn’t shut it down. And then there was =ipr=, the famous, notorious notesfile on interpersonal relations. It’s legendary. It supported the Anonymous Option. Meaning you could post your note anonymously, which might be important if it is of a sensitive, personal nature and you want to talk about something private without revealing your identity. Everyone reads =ipr=. Fewer write in it, but everyone reads it, it’s like gawking at the tabloids in the shopping cart checkout lane at the grocer’s. Boy meets girl, girl dumps boy, boy wants to kill himself. Girl doesn’t like boy. Girl likes girl. Boy likes boy. Girl hates parents. Parents hate girl. Boy running with the wrong crowd, wants to get out. Girl hates her friends, but doesn’t want to hurt them. Girl and boy want to get it on with another girl. On and on. The long sordid saga of human relationships, in every combination imaginable, every sob story you could imagine and many you could not, all typed up and commented upon for public consumption. We spent an hour just page-turning =ipr=. And we took a look at Avatar. Oh my god. Avatar. Imagine Moria a thousand times more sophisticated, with like 60 or something simultaneous users! Some inconceivable number. Avatar, the greatest, most amazing, most complicated, addictive, multi-user 3D dungeon game ever created on PLATO. And it wasn’t on Delaware, only CERL. The place was throbbing with activity. In game messages furiously flying by. Mind-boggling. Why doesn’t Delaware have Avatar!? Anyways… as I type this, I now have my own Link access and I managed to finagle a signon on one of the CDC systems as well as CERL so I can link over through the CDC system and then link from there to CERL and I do every single chance I can get. Basically The Link is a 9600-bps dedicated data line between various PLATO systems. There are Links from Delaware to Control Data’s systems in Minneapolis, and from there you can Link again (which is so mind-boggling if you think about it) to CERL. There’s some response-time delay once you’re on CERL via a Link but who cares, you’re on CERL, the best PLATO system of them all, pinch yourself, this is as good as it gets.

Author’s note:

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I’m writing a book on the big long history of the PLATO system, the scope of which is merely hinted at in this piece. To learn more about PLATO see my PLATO History website. To learn more about my upcoming book, see The Friendly Orange Glow.