Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

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