Devil’s Playground

By Paul Ford

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Now and then you come across something on the internet that both restores your faith in humanity and profoundly damages it. The archives of the Devil’s Doorknob, the internet’s first truly anarchic space, is one of those things.

In the late 1980s, when the internet was still an expensive tool for the military, bulletin board systems were ad hoc proto–social networks. People would install special software on personal computers where others could log in using pre-56K connections, leave messages, pick up replies and share files.

Thirty years later, computer archivists are digging up digital history by bringing BBS files back online to download. You can view entire communities at once. And it’s amazing: the modern equivalent of Pompeii, with original images and text. Who were the people of the Devil’s Doorknob?

They loved smut in pixelated formats that would have filled the screen of an old DOS machine. Today you have to enlarge them to discern what’s going on, and smutwise it’s rough going. Count on plenty of squinting and wincing. There’s something with a corncob and another with a lobster. There are a lot of headbands (and lots of hair). The sex acts don’t look like sex acts; they look like a sofa exploded.

Dwelling on the porn, though, is missing the point. Exploring the archive is like stumbling into King Tut’s tomb. There’s a folder called Nonadult that, alongside cheesy sci-fi graphics, features a series of boring cat photos. There’s a picture of a suburban living room, a party. A man wears a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt; a girl with braces talks to another in jeans. The file is dated Valentine’s Day, 1997.

A folder called Textfile includes “A Guide to Disruptive Revolutionary Tactics for High Schoolers,” which, among its 81 suggestions, offers “Break into your school at night and burn it down.” (Thanks.) There are guides to video games, vampires, hemp, hacking. It all seems naive, in the way the past always seems naive. We live in an age in which terrorism is real and our government monitors every call. The Devil’s Doorknob looks weirdly innocent, in contrast to everything weird that came after.

Looking through these files, you get a sense of real human effort coming together. These people had a vision for a world full of porn, pirated software and guides to vampires, and they made it a reality, uploading file after file for years. Perhaps we owe them a debt of gratitude for all this and for that stupid picture of Garfield someone uploaded in 1989.

Today we computer-using humans tend to think in documents: reports, books, magazines. But this isn’t a document like those. It’s the state of a community, a tribe. It’s an entire world, not the work of one person but hundreds. Whatever that Valentine’s Day photo captures, it was a human moment, launched into the public record—the BBS—for all to see. Now it’s just one file among millions.

Increasingly, we do things in groups—we tweet at one another and share images on Facebook. Each of those things, taken in isolation, is meaningless. One can understand these new sorts of metadocuments only when they’re seen as the product of a whole community. After spending hours looking through these files, I had a map in my mind of this virtual place in its time. I knew what it was like to dial up the Devil’s Doorknob 18 years ago. I wouldn’t want to live there, but I’m glad it’s there to visit.


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