Back in my halcyon days at university (1994-1996) where I first dipped my toes into the magical and mysterious world of the internet, the World Wide Web was just starting out, Facebook wasn’t even thought of yet, and spam was just something you ate from a can. But there was social networking in the form of terminal based BBSes.

A BBS is a Bulletin Board System that allows people to connect to (usually via dial-up) and read/write messages directly to each other or on public forums. Many were accessible via the ‘telnet’ terminal application which connected you directly to a BBS’ terminal.

There were also things called MUDs – Multi-User Dungeons – which allowed anybody to play a (usually) text-based fantasy game that involved other online players. And then there were Talkers which combined BBSes with MUDs. I was firmly in the Talkers camp.

Having watched this video about an old DEC terminal:

it made me become very nostalgic and I wanted to find out what happened to my Talker of choice – the one that kept me going throughout university until I left to embrace the internet as a commercial venture. That Talker was called Surfers. It was based around a system called EW-too. It was accessible via telnet, and everything was completely command based.

[email protected] ~ % telnet surfers.fysh.org 4242
Trying 87.98.248.19...
Connected to river.fysh.org.
Escape character is '^]'.
---,[email protected]@@o ----------------------,@@@ ---+---------------,[email protected]@@o ------------
  [email protected]@"""@@   * Surf's up.. *  ,@@@""    | * ..Later *  [email protected]@"""@@            
 [email protected]@   ,@@                   ,@@f      |              [email protected]@   ,@@    ___     
 [email protected]       [email protected]@  [email protected]@  [email protected]@ [email protected] @@@@@@@  ,[email protected]@@o    [email protected]@ [email protected] [email protected]       ,oooooo    
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    ,  ,[email protected]@[email protected], ,  @'           |          oo"oOOOO;ooooo"NNNo. ";    ";
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0POOOOOO;@@@@@@@@@@"OOOo---'-----|--------""""" V'"""""""""".%%%%%"NNNNNN%%
OOOOOOOOO;@@@@@@@;OOOOOOOOo::';:|  ~~  ~~~ ~~~ ~~ ~~~~ ~.%%%%%%%%%%"NNNNNN%
OOOOOOOOOOoOoooooooo,.OOOOOOOOo;| ~~~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~.%%%%%%%%%%%%%% Shade 
++++ A 24-hour, multi-user chat program based on EW-too by Simon Marsh ++++
Please enter your name:Movielad

 Welcome to Surfers!   We have a serious bit to get out of the way.
 Surfers is run for you to have fun; however, we have certain 
 standards of behaviour we ask you to maintain.  Please: 
 
 o Don't be rude or abusive to other users. 
 
 o Please don't use Surfers to perform or arrange illegal activities.
 
 o Please read the usage disclaimer by typing "help disclaimer" once 
   you are fully connected to the program.
   
 Disconnect now if you do not agree to the above.

 End of the serious bit.

Surfers is still around in 2022 – 26 years after I used it in 1996!
(with apologies to those viewing the above text on a mobile device)

It was there that I met quite a few people online, and while I used to spend my evenings in the university library playing around with the DEC Alpha machines (which undergraduates were never supposed to use, but I did so anyway – I loved DEC’s Tru64 OS) and regular PC terminals, the more I got involved with Surfers.

I even met a fellow student (Vicky) who was at a university (in Pennsylvania, USA) and started to correspond in real-life with her, sending – shock and horror – actual physical letters and photos! Even spent a bit of time calling the States – which was super expensive in those days, and you had to use the shared telephone in the student accommodation to do so. Real conversations were rather short, as you can imagine.

My time with Surfers ended when I eventually left university to pursue a career. I never heard back from Vicky, and it’s difficult to say what became of her. But all this is the precursor to modern social media, and back then it was just as addictive. My modern social media tends to go in bursts – sometimes I’m there, other times I’ll delete the account for a few weeks/months. I usually return after having a new break from the madness of it all. Social media can often be addictive, but it can also affect my mood quite a bit.

With Surfers, it was a quite different break-up. We were moving into an ever-increasing web-based world and telnet was eventually seen as being weak because of the lack of encryption between host and client. Besides, telnet was only useful now as an internal tool within a business for maintenance work (usually to access switches and other network equipment – it took some time for SSH support to appear even in higher end products).

But I am very pleasantly surprised that Surfers is still up and about. I’m fairly certain I recognised one of the super users on the board when I logged in a few hours ago, but everybody else has changed: all my previous Surfers friends have since long gone.

Telnet is not quite ready for retirement, it seems.