Rob's Ramblings

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Free Speech

Way back in the mists of time, well, 1979, long before the world wide web ever existed, when only nerds and teenage boys had computers, when Pan Am still ruled the air, and when teletext was still an optional extra on your telly, the Post Office brought out this alternate way of accessing pages of information on your TV screen via the telephone line, and they called it Prestel.

Although it carved out niche markets in the financial services and travel industries as a way of getting real-time information out to subscribers, Prestel never really took off at home. The adapters for your TV were expensive, cumbersome and rather a pain in the neck. You could buy TVs with the adapter built in, but they were just silly prices.

In the mid 1980s, though, East Midlands Allied Press wanted to diversify their home computer magazines, and somehow came up with the idea of running an online service, and thus, Micronet 800 was born. With cheap or free modems and software for the more popular home computers being given to subscribers, it took off quickly, and thus a torrent of viewers were thrown into the online world.

But nobody really knew ... Prestel was primarily an information service. Companies paid for space to publish things, and users paid to be able to read it. Interaction was initially limited to a few "response frames" where users could fill in an online form and it was delivered to the company owning the page. After they had dialed up each remote server in turn to collect the messages. Since the early adapters had little more than a numeric keypad to control them, interaction was necessarily limited. Dedicated terminals had proper keyboards, but they were expensive and often only to be found in the financial or travel agent offices!

The home computer users quickly changed that - suddenly there were lots of people with full keyboards using the service - reading information and writing back to the Information Providers. Prestel Mailbox was quickly released, allowing ISPs to write back to the users, and for them to write to each other, and a centralised message computer created so that messages were no longer isolated at each server.

It was still very much a one-to-one communications though. If you wanted your words to be visible to more than just the one person you were writing to, there was little outlet for you.

Several organisations thought of ways to deal with this. "Letters to the editor" on various sites were the first, of course, mirroring the print media format.

A couple of IPs came up with automated softwares to take users messages and re-publish them on their paid for pages in an automatic carousel. Suddenly people could talk to each other, in public. Micronet ran a lot of these "chatlines" of course, but there were several others on various IP sites.

One of the earliest was a section called "Free Speech" on the Pan Am airline site. Initially populated by travel agents, it wasn't long before the "Micronetters" home computer users found it. This quickly overwhelmed the original operator (Justin?) as he downloaded and re-uploaded the messages manually, moderating and commenting on them as he went along. This format was unique on Prestel, and when he said he would have to give it up, I volunteered to take it over. This would have been 1985-1986 or so.

Over the next few years I ran "Freech" as it was often known, due to a slight timing glitch in the original upload software that occasionally messed up the page header. We migrated all over Prestel as I blagged spare pages from different IPs, ending up running it on a British Rail computer, accessed via a gateway...

Freech eventually closed down when a slightly salacious message, which I had already removed the contact details from and commented "no more like this" was featured on the Parkinson show in a sensationalist "look what I ran across while looking for train times" item. No matter that it was probably the most publicity the British Rail online enquiry system had ever had, they decided to pull the plug on me. I didn't even know about it, as I had taken up a new job and was 200 miles from home at the time and updates were somewhat more sporadic.. We relocated briefly to The Gnome At Home, but the damage was already done. This was late 1989.

So.. on to the reason for this blog post.. As well as the online publishing, at the behest of some users whom had "gone offline", I was for a time also offering a printed version of the messages in a magazine format.... and I've just managed to recover some of the original files used to generate the magazine.

It's not from the start, and it's not from the end, but here, for the first time in 20 years, you can re-read a little bit of the merry banter between nogger, EMU, Silicon Implant and many more. Not forgetting the moderator, me, The Mad Sysop (aka TMS).

It was an innocent time ...

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