Sic 'Em, Fido

Tales from the Bitstream

Bad glam shot

By Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet

If the Internet is the Information Superhighway, Fidonet is old U.S. 22--meandering, sometimes deserted for long stretches, held together by sometimes cranky folks who prefer the scenic route.

Jeff: It isn't a marked road; nobody takes out full-page ads in the trades trumpeting "Fidonet Access;" but anyone can get on. It's mostly free and it's one of the most mind-bogglingly useful and fun places to congregate in cyberspace. It is the corner pub, it is the general store in every town with telephone wire. We met there, in fact. Fido is the first and largest of the communications networks that materialized next to and around the Internet, started in 1984 by a couple of computer geeks who didn't think everybody should have to be on the Internet to talk to each other in cyberspace. And before Compuserve, Prodigy, America Online, etc. decided that computer owners would pay to travel the bitstream, Fidonet, its offshoots and its imitators were moving the mail. And it's still growing as fast or faster than its corporate counterparts.

Nicole: It is also the birthplace of the ever-popular "flame," or rude cyberspace response to some disembodied writer who doesn't have the brains to agree with your opinion du jour. New computer owners often ask us, as known computer geeks, how to get on the Internet or what online service we recommend. The first thing we tell 'em is that there are dozens of systems they can call locally where they can play games, talk with other computer users and send e-mail around the corner or around the world, all usually for free. "Huh?" they say, and Prodigy may have lost another customer.

Like any truly good thing, Fidonet's popularity is spread by word of mouth. If you ask about it on AOL or CompuServe, you will simply be told to "find a good local BBS (bulletin board service.)" You probably won't be told how to find one; and for all you know, there's one right down the street. Since we're nice people, we forced the publisher to include a not-remotely complete list of phone numbers for BBSs in Connecticut and southern Massachusetts, and we can already hear the cyberhowls from system operators who didn't get included.

Jeff: However, we should point out that local bulletin boards, most of which are part of Fidonet, are not for everybody. Online services suffer fools gladly; after all, it's your money they're taking. Fidonet sysops don't suffer fools at all. Most will show you around quickly and answer a few questions, but you aren't paying them for this. You, in fact, are part of their hobby world.

Nicole: Far too many people forget that when they're BBSing. People who would never walk into a stranger's home and help themselves to liquor and food without so much as a by-your-leave think nothing of logging onto someone else's computer and giving them what-for for not having it set up to his liking. And then insulting half the people in their message bases.

Jeff: A kinder, gentler cyberworld it ain't, folks. Online services are businesses. The Internet is an anarchic democracy, ostensibly under the rule of the National Science Foundation. Fidonet is, mostly, a dictatorship of the proletariat. You, as a home computer user, are not even part of the proletariat. You are the peasants, for whom the proletariat toil. You benefit from this relationship. But you don't have any rights. If you're a good peasant, you'll be accorded extra privileges; you may even get your very own Internet address. If you're bad, you'll be sent to the gulag, or worse. Your access may be cut off, and you'll never wander cyberspace freely again.

This isn't as bad as it sounds. Being a good peasant means following the Golden Rule: being polite and criticizing nicely if you must and not breaking any laws like exchanging pirated computer software or nuclear weapons secrets with your friends. Refusing to honor the first two will generally result in your being "twitted," or made persona non grata by everyone, and violating the last two will likely buy you a few years fending off advances by large inmates of popular penitentiaries.

If you're an insane peasant, you will aspire to the proletariat and perhaps even become a Fidonet sysop yourself. If you do, the benefits include paying long distance phone charges for other people's mail, listening to the complaints of all the peasants and becoming involved in low-level proletariat politics. You'll probably not get to elect your leader and he or she will not get to elect theirs. Fido directives come from the top. See why we call it a dictatorship of the proletariat? Fortunately, these jobs are usually filled by geeks with no social lives and far too much time on their hands. And we're not joking about the infighting; they really do fight tooth and nail over who gets to be Zone Coordinator or Regional Coordinator or Hub Grand Poobah, all of which are jobs which pay nothing, require many extra hours of work, and which mean diddley-squat to the average Fido user. The good news is that most are nice people who happen to have a sick obsession. A lot of people who discover the local Fido network never bother with paying for online services again. They'd rather make occasional unsolicited donations to their favorite sysop so that he or she can support their habit and, by extension, everyone else's.

Nicole: It's a thankless job but hey, someone has to do it.

To Home Page