Summa Nulla University

(formerly Spiny Norman University)

Note: School is not presently in session.

Welcome to the virtual SNUBBS page. I've just started with it, but I have big plans. Someday, the world!

Here's what's currently available:

What was SNUBBS, anyway?

In a simple sense, SNUBBS was a BBS, a computer bulletin board system. But it was really more than that, especially to me. I wrote and maintained the BBS for nearly a decade, and it had its own little culture, folklore, and language. The denizens of SNUBBS hung on for years, continuing the culture long after the BBS itself had faded.

Something special was going on. In part, I think it related to the group of people who frequented the place. Like a bar, a BBS lives or dies depending on the clientele. And SNUBBS always had its share of characters. Another factor was, I like to think, the innovative ways we interacted. SNUBBS had many different ways of leaving and reading messages, and each evolved its own sorts of idioms.

Perhaps the most important aspect of SNUBBS was that it exemplified what I think is best about what we now call "cyberspace." People of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs managed to get along there, and many real-world friendships were forged, just like a real college campus. If SNUBBS has a legacy, I hope it will include the notion that we created a place where just about anybody could get along if they were willing to try.

The Prehistory of SNUBBS

Before I created SNUBBS, I'd been calling computer BBSes for a number of years. This was back in the early 80s, when that just wasn't as common a thing to do. Most BBSes were pretty techie places (which was OK), but there were several really cutting-edge bulletin boards that really gave some inkling of what kinds of things we could do online.

One of my favorite BBSes back then was located in Berkeley, CA, and was called the Conference Tree. Unlike most BBSes, instead of a linear list of messages that were hard to navigate, the Conference Tree maintained branching discussions, forming trees of messages. The Tree also had a lot of less technical, more social discussions.

Finding the Holy Grail

After I graduated from college in 1984, I moved to Washington, DC. Since I didn't really know anyone back there, I figured I might meet some people through BBSes. I got a list of DC-area boards before I moved, and once I got a little settled, I started calling. One name on the list really stood out: The Holy Grail. As a long-time fan of Monty Python, I hoped that this might be a haven for similarly-minded sorts.

As luck would have it, the Grail turned out to be exactly what I was looking for: a very sociable and diverse group with some common interests. As it turned out, the Grail itself lasted less than a year after I found it. The sysop, Tim the Enchanter, had a lot of hardware problems, and had some difficulties keeping his heavily-hacked software running.

But the friendships forged on the Grail were strong. We'd gotten to know each other, both on-line and in person, and we weren't about to give up our playground. years after the Grail died, we still held Holy Grail Memorial Softball Games, and many of us are still close friends, both on other BBSes, on the Internet, and in person. Indeed, when Tim the Enchanter pulled up stakes and moved to Arizona in 1995, he kept a number of us informed of his progress as he dialed into online services at various stops on his cross-country drive.

Going underground

In the waning days of the Grail, it became clear that those of us who had come together on the Grail were going to need a new "place" to hang out. Since I had some time on my hands and a new Pascal compiler (Turbo Pascal 2.0 for CP/M!), I decided to try my hand at writing a simple BBS.

Since I was living in a basement apartment on Capitol Hill at the time, I called my project the Subterranean BBS, or STBBS for short. The theme of the BBS was based somewhat on a game we'd played on the computers at my high school, wherein the players dug caves and connected them with tunnels, and then wrote messages to one another in the different caverns. Since there was no assurance that people would take the same paths through the cave, there was no "thread" to the messages, and STBBS took on a unique, free-form character.

Coming up for air

Unfortunately, STBBS was not very stable, as I was still learning a lot about programming. It became clear that it was not going to survive very long (much like the Grail it was replacing), so I decided to create something newer and more sturdy. My original idea was to create sort of a virtual U.S. Capitol (an idea spawned, no doubt by my location and employment at the time), where by going into different "rooms" one could converse on a number of different subjects. I eventually decided that was a bit too esoteric, so I chose as a model a college campus, and SNUBBS was born.

The name was actually borrowed from something I'd encountered many years earlier. One of the "joke" political parties at my college, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) proposed changing the name of UCB to "Spiny Norman University," to avoid confusion with United California Bank (UCB). Although the party never gained control of the student senate, the idea stuck in my mind, and several years later I created Spiny Norman University BBS, SNUBBS.

[By the way, it was not long after that United California Bank changed its name, to First Interstate Bank (FIB). Go figure.]

Oh, and if you're not sure where they picked up the name "Spiny Norman," perhaps you should check out the original story, which came from the old Monty Python's Flying Circus TV show.

SNUBBS, the Golden Years

From early 1985 through the end of 1989, when I moved back to California, I operated SNUBBS in the Washington, DC area. Although it was never the busiest BBS in the area, it was always one of the most interesting.

The Lecture Hall

In its earliest incarnations, SNUBBS was very limited. The first feature to appear was the Lecture Hall. In many ways, the lecture hall was the definitive SNUBBS feature. It was an array of "desks," inspired by the desks I'd seen in the real lectures halls at my university. Bored students would write grafitti on the desks, and others would often respond, resulting in short, pithy conversations.

In the SNUBBS lecture hall, each student could claim a desk and give it a name or slogan. Then he or she and the other students could write, one line at a time, grafitti on the desk, which would keep the most recent fifteen lines. As the grafitti scrolled, different idioms appeared on different desks. Some would evolve into collective story-writing, others into poetry, and (quite commonly) into pun wars.

Discussion sections

After the lecture hall came Discussion Sections, again modeled after my own college experience. The discussion sections were a number of more traditional BBS message areas, but modeled somewhat after the tree-structured discussions I'd enjoyed so much on the Conference Tree BBS years before.

Each discussion area eventually had a "faculty member" (a known, trusted user) assigned to it. These characters would lend their own personalities to the topics of discussion they led.

SNUBBS develops culture

I tried to maintain the college-campus metaphor throughout SNUBBS as much as possible. New users were "freshmen." By applying at the administration building, they could become sophomores, with somewhat more privileges (longer messages, access to privileged discussion areas, and so on). Eventually, as SNUBBS evolved to have dormitories and fraternities and sororities, class standing became more useful. Hazing of lower classes by the seniors was common.

Although SNUBBS sometimes had the reputation of being elitist (it was called "SNOBBS" by some), the group was really very accepting of anyone who was willing to come in with an open mind and sense of humor.

One of the keys to the SNUBBS phenomenon was that I tried to keep the board from being advertised publicly, avoiding BBS lists and such. Admission was by word-of-mouth invitation, but it worked very well. The BBS was busy, but usually not so busy that people were excluded.

SNUBBS, the Lean Years

In late 1989, I moved back to California from my nearly six-year exile in the East. I'd made a lot of great friends, many of them through the Holy Grail and SNUBBS, and I knew I would miss them. But it was time for me to go home. So I packed up my computer and moved to California, eventually settling in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is a wonderful city on the coast. It's one of the loveliest places I can imagine, between the ocean and the mountains. I found an apartment from which I could walk to the ocean or to redwood forests. In addition, Santa Cruz is a very wired town. It's got a large university with a lot of active computer geeks, and there were already a lot of very active, established BBSes in town.

This is probably where my long-time policy of not advertising the board hurt most. I didn't really know how to go about attracting a whole new student body, and most of the old students quickly tired of calling long distance to a board that just wasn't very busy anymore.

Traffic on SNUBBS got very slow. Then came the real blow...a hard-disk crash that wiped out the software. Now, I admit this should not have been a serious problem, but I didn't have very good backups, and I discovered that my utlities for starting a fresh campus were not synchronized with the current version of the software. I was unable to restart the campus!

Since I was really busy with other parts of my life, and hadn't been spending much energy on SNUBBS, I decided it was time to let it die. At least, temporarily.

Where SNUBBS stands now

As the masthead indicates, school is not presently in session. My life has changed significantly in the past year, but SNUBBS remains on my mind.

I no longer run a BBS at all. I pulled the plug on it recently, because I wasn't giving it any (much less enough) attention. On the other hand, one of the main reasons I have no time for the BBS is that I now work in the Internet business, for Netscape. As a result, I have much more exposure to the possibilities of the Internet and interactive uses such as a new SNUBBS. Of course, the downside is that I work long hours....

Where I want SNUBBS to go

In my limited spare time, I've been trying to keep abreast of the changes in the online world. I've seen other BBS groups move from local boards to Internet mailing lists. I've seen them colonize Usenet newsgroups. But at some level they are constrained to confoming to the channels presently available to them. SNUBBS will not fit into the current pathways of the Internet.

The SNUBBS manifesto

But it can. I find a number of disturbing trends developing in cyberspace, and I want to bring back SNUBBS as an example once again of what life online can be:

The window of opportunity

I will find some bandwidth to spend hacking. Enough of my old SNUBBS buddies are pushing me to bring our culture back to life, and I am sufficiently appalled at the Virtual Couch-Potato(e) world I see developing among the 'Net "surfers" that it's time to put my money where my mouth is: SNUBBS will return!

Summa Nulla?

Just as I drew much of my original inspiration for SNUBBS from Monty Python and their outrageous approach to the world, I've been inspired more recently by some of the productions from the ZBS Foundation. One of these excellent productions, the Adventures of Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe ("a good one!"), takes place on the planet Summa Nulla. In Latin, that means "the high point of nothing," which is about as good a description of SNUBBS as I've ever heard.

Moreover, Summa Nulla has a lot of very SNUBBS-like elements, like the Mole People, who love to make awful puns (something SNUBBS was always blessed/cursed with). And the Digital Circus, a group of renegade techies who do spectacular stuff. Techno-witches. Slimeys. Good Guys. Bad Guys. Absent-minded professors with strange fetishes. All these are the kind of characters that made SNUBBS what it was, and what I hope it will be again.

So go listen to the adventures of Ruby (there are four of them now), and think about ways you want to live in cyberspace!

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Maintained by Chard Nelson, of his own free will. Last updated