2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Home‌ ‌Computer‌ ‌Cultures‌ ‌and‌ ‌Society‌ ‌Before‌ ‌the‌ ‌Internet‌ ‌Age‌

Gleb J. Albert | gleb.albert [a] uzh.ch | Editor | PhD | Department of History, University of Zurich

Julia Gül Erdogan | julia-guel.erdogan [a] hi.uni-stuttgart.de | Editor | M.A. | Institute of History, University of Stuttgart

Markku Reunanen | markku.reunanen [a] aalto.fi | Editor | PhD | Department of Media, Aalto University

With this thematic issue (2–3/2020), WiderScreen returns to the topic of computer subcultures and “scenes”. However, while previous issues of this journal had a stronger focus on the artistic output of computer subcultures, the present issue focuses on the social conditions and practices that constituted computer subcultures and alternative user cultures in a particular period – namely the time span between the introduction of home computers as a mass commodity in the late 1970s and the triumphant march of the World Wide Web in the first half of the 1990s.

The microcomputer revolution did not only open up new markets and pave the way for the evolvement of the PC standard towards the 1990s – it also gave birth to diverse computer user cultures. While until the mid-1970s computer usage was confined to large corporations, universities, and the military, the home computer opened up digital technology to completely new user groups. The first home computers were built by hobby enthusiasts, and when the first models entered mass production, they attracted not just those looking for a digital typewriter, but also those who wanted to “tinker” with the machine and put it to creative use. These users were not always dealing with computers in ways foreseen by the manufacturers. Instead of becoming obedient customers of the software industry, they shared programs with each other or even wrote their own software. Instead of using the new technology for educational or professional purposes only, they indulged in playing computer games. Instead of being content with the limited capabilities of the machines, they found ways of pushing these limits. Some home computer user groups developed into distinct subcultures and “scenes”, with their own ethics, values, aesthetic codes and cultural practices. Some of them, such as free software activists, or the digital artists of the “demoscene”, were admired as technical pioneers; some, like software pirates or “phone freaks”, were stigmatised as dangerous and deviant; others, like hackers, oscillated between both poles.

This issue, born out of an international workshop held at the University of Zurich on 24–25 March 2017, deals with such unruly user cultures that sprung up in the age of home computing, their regional manifestations and transnational connections, their practices of communication before the mass availability of the internet, their entanglement with the industry development and the major global events that unfolded at that time. When choosing the papers for the conference and the subsequent publication, we wanted to bring attention to topics of home computing historiography that had not received the necessary attention in previous scholarship – such as alternative user cultures in the geographical “peripheries”, alternative modes of computer-assisted communication, and questions of the diversity of the subcultures’ participants. We wanted to move away from the typical success stories and hagiographies that dominate the public perception of the early history of home computing. Instead, this issue aims at offering a panorama of alternative user cultures that were of broader social and cultural historical relevance than the stories of genius inventors, successful entrepreneurs and heroic activists.

A major focus of this issue is constituted by the communication networks home computer users built “from below”. Before the opening and commercialisation of the internet offered possibilities for digital communication for everyone (who was willing to pay for a subscription), many home computer users resorted to decentralised, bottom-up ways of communication, namely bulletin board systems (BBSs) – file and message exchange servers running on computers in private homes, reachable by other users via modem and landline. The “modem world” (Kevin Driscoll) is largely a tabula rasa in media and computer history, thus we are very happy to feature three crucial contributions on the subject. In his paper on North American BBSs users, Kevin Driscoll addresses the tricky question of how many people actually used this mode of communication during its life period between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. His contribution introduces new statistical sources and discusses important methodological questions when it comes to calculating users of a decentralised and bottom-up platform. Even though the paper focuses on North America, it is surely relevant for other regions: While the BBS principle was invented by tinkerers in the US, BBSs developed into a world-wide phenomenon. The contribution of Petri Saarikoski highlights another region where BBSs were a popular way of communication – Finland. His pioneering study presents a rich and all-encompassing history of Finnish BBSs and their users, employing contemporary sources and oral history materials. The third paper on BBSs is a regional study and a contemporary witness account at the same time. In her essay, Beatrice Tobler reflects her ethnological work which she conducted on BBS usage for her licentiate degree thesis in 1994-95. She presents her findings from her participant-observer research in Swiss and German bulletin board systems, and reflects on her choice of subject which was highly unusual in these days, as hardly any work had been conducted on BBS usage in the German-speaking countries, and her thesis remains the only scholarly work on the Swiss BBS community to date.

While BBSs are only beginning to move from the periphery of research to the mainstream of the history of computing, the geographical peripheries (seen from where computers are invented, produced and marketed) had become a subject of research already for the last couple of years. More and more recent publications highlight the importance to study computerisation of the regions outside the US and Western Europe – not only in order to discover alternative ways of computerisation and computer usage, but also to find out that, from a global perspective, “peripheral” usages of home computers were much more the norm than the “normal”, formalised ways in the centres of computer production and marketing. Several contributions in this issue only shed light on various “peripheries” and explore them through the perspectives of comparison, entanglement and transfer. Julia Gül Erdogan deals with hackers in West and East Germany in a comparative perspective, exploring how a tinkering, playful way of computer (mis)use developed in both German states, what the self-conceptions of these tinkerers were, and whether they could find a common language after the fall of the Wall. Gleb J. Albert also deals with transfer across both the Iron Curtain and the global north-global south divide – namely the transfer of pirated software and the transfer of subcultural aesthetics and values that went along with the former. Already in the mid-1980s, commercial software pirates in the “peripheries” reached out to members of the crackers’ subculture in order to import cracked software into their respective countries. As these copies bore the insignia of the crackers subculture, their so-called crack intros, users in the “peripheries” learned about this subculture and often strove to become part of it, thus allowing the subculture to globalise itself. With the example of Greece, Theodore Lekkas and Aristotle Tympas present in their contribution a different kind of periphery – not across Cold War borders, but within the Western Bloc. With Greece being treated by the international hardware and software industry as a marginal market and not provided with localised products, users had to rely even more on their own initiative – and the computer magazines analysed by the authors served as an important coordination point for such efforts. At the same time, the paper shows how Great Britain as a heartland of European home computing served as a point of reference for users in the “peripheries”.

As many of the contributions show, it is not always helpful to see alternative user cultures in opposition to “the industry”. Often enough, computer subcultures and alternative user groups engaged in commercial activities, cross-fertilised industries, or even gave birth to whole new branches of industry. Ulf Sandqvist deals with the latter in his paper on the demoscene and the birth of the games industry in Sweden. Companies founded by members of the demoscene, a digital coding/arts subculture particularly strong in Scandinavia, were among the first game companies in Sweden. Sandqvist shows how both the technical and the social skills acquired within the subculture could substitute formal education when entering the software business, yet had its limits. A different example of the entanglement between users, subcultures and the computer industry is offered by Patryk Wasiak in his contribution on Polish users of the Commodore Amiga computer during the system transformation period. Polish Amiga users formed a “brand community” around this computer model, embracing the brand and vigorously protecting its reputation against competing computer models and its users – yet, far from being obedient consumers, they formed distinct practices of computing around the Amiga, such as tinkering, DIY merchandise, and piracy. Here, as well, the Polish Amiga demoscene was at the forefront of the “brand community”.

The manifold contributions in this volume will hopefully enlarge and widen our understanding of social bonding and user practices in the age of home computing, the crucial founding era of our digital present. We thank all contributors for their thoroughness and patience, the editors of WiderScreen and the anonymous peer reviewers for their valuable feedback. We thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam, the Department of History at the University of Zurich, the DFG-SNF research group ’Medien und Mimesis’, the Collegium Helveticum, Echtzeit e.V. and Digitale Kultur e.V. for funding our workshop which resulted in the contributions of this issue. We dedicate this issue to the memory of Thomas Hengartner (1960–2018), director of the Collegium Helveticum in Zürich, where our workshop was held. In conversations and in his welcoming address, he expressed much enthusiasm about our topics of research, and we wholeheartedly regret that his sudden passing prevents us to discuss them further with him.

Front cover: Main menu of BBS BCG-Box, source: Ville-Matias Heikkilä / Skrolli. Part of Nordisk Dator cover, source: slengpung.com.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Global Machines and Local Magazines in 1980s Greece: The Exemplary Case of the Pixel Magazine

do it yourself, Greece, home computers, magazines, press, programming, software

Theodore Lekkas
tlekkas [a] phs.uoa.gr
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Aristotle Tympas
tympas [a] phs.uoa.gr
Prof., PhD
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Lekkas, Theodore, and Aristotle Tympas. 2020. ”Global Machines and Local Magazines in 1980s Greece: The Exemplary Case of the Pixel Magazine”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/global-machines-and-local-magazines-in-1980s-greece-the-exemplary-case-of-the-pixel-magazine/

Printable PDF version

The article suggests that skillful and laborious work has been necessary to make the supposedly global (universal, general purpose) computer usable locally. This local use was greatly facilitated by the publication of computer magazines, which offered instructions to (as well as reviews and comparisons of) technological products, introduced interactive columns that addressed pressing user questions, and featured updates on and advertisements of hardware, software and peripherals. The article focuses on an exemplary Greek home computing magazine, Pixel, which was devoted to tinkering with computer programs and software more generally. It was the most influential in regards to home computing and ushered in the emergence and development of key user communities. Pixel had the largest circulation and went a long way in popularizing the home computer in Greece and in shaping its definition.


It is widely assumed that the digital computer is for our electronic era what the steam engine was for the late mechanical era and the AC generator was for the electrical era: the ‘global’, ‘universal’, ‘general-purpose’ machine par excellence. As such, it is supposed to be automatically usable in every context, without any work to adjust it to local use. It is supposed to be usable in every country after simply being ‘transferred’ to it, without any work to ‘domesticate’ it through extensive and skillful reconfiguration, especially from a software angle. We argue that this is not the case. Skillful and laborious work has been necessary to make the supposedly global computer usable locally. For example, in the Greek case, as we have already shown, one had to work substantially even to see Greek letters (fonts) in the screen or the print (Tympas, Tsaglioti, and Lekkas 2008; Dritsa, Mitropoulos, and Spinellis 2018). In this article, we elaborate further on the way personal computers – and, more specifically, home computers – were appropriated, localized and domesticated in Greece by focusing on the proliferation of Greek computing magazines in the 1980s. As our argument goes, computer magazines shaped the way home computers were introduced and used in Greece during this crucial decade.[1]

Home computers were introduced and became popular in Greece in the early 1980s, just like in the rest of the world. We know that three institutions/media ushered in this use: computer stores, user communities, and computer magazines (Lekkas 2017; Lekkas and Tympas 2019; Guerreiro-Wilson et al. 2004). In the Greek case, magazine articles were the dominant source of information for users (Lekkas 2017). They covered news, offered instructions to and comparative reviews of technological products, introduced interactive columns that addressed pressing user questions, and featured updates on and advertisements of hardware, software and peripherals.[2] Several of the early Greek publications focused on IBM-compatible office microcomputers, as well as home computers by various manufacturers. In the beginning, it was still unclear where and by whom microcomputers were to be used. Computers and their users were shaped in interaction throughout the fluid 1980s. This fluidity was carried over to the magazines devoted to computing technology.

In the present paper, we offer an introduction to the history of this fluidity by focusing on an exemplar home computing magazine, Pixel. We decided to single out Pixel for detailed presentation because, as we shall see, it was the most influential in regards to home computing: it had the largest circulation, it was focused on how to tinker with programming and software more generally, it ushered in the emergence and development of key user communities, and it went a long way in popularizing the home computer in Greece and in shaping its definition. We now know that software required skillful labor, the scarcity of which was responsible for a permanent ‘software crisis’ (Ensmenger 2003). Pixel emerged as a software-oriented publication that sought to address key dimensions of this crisis in Greece.

“When a demanding reader walked in”

The first computer magazines appeared in Greece in response to an increasing interest in the microcomputer, especially the home computer. They became popular due to their versatility in regards to the services they offered, their readability, and their low price (Lekkas 2017). International computer magazines were comparatively expensive. For example, the American magazine COMPUTE cost 750 drachmas in Greece in 1986 whereas the Greek MicroMad cost 180 drachmas. Moreover, the availability of international magazines was limited because their importing in Greece was irregular and in limited quantities. These factors made them practically inaccessible to many individual Greek users (MicroMad 1986, 136). Pixel was first published in October 1983, initially as a trimonthly insert to Computer for All, which had been first published only a few months earlier. The first issue covered October, November and December 1983. The second issue was already an independent publication, covering May and June 1984. Its cost was 150 Greek drachmas. It was subtitled the home-micro magazine. This subtitle is worth noticing, because it shows that it was the first Greek computer magazine to directly address users of home microcomputers.

In 1983, N. Manoussos, the general director of Compupress, publisher of Pixel and Computer for All (Computer για Όλους), two of the most popular Greek magazines in the field at the time, noted the rapidly expanding demand for free software for home computers in the form of program listings. It was this demand that pushed towards the publishing of magazines specialized in home computing (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). The program listings were basically commands that formed a microcomputer software program, which were printed as a list on a sheet of paper. The user could type these commands in the microcomputer and then run them to make the software work. The target audience of the listings was users who struggled to find affordable software to run. There were listings for recreational, educational and business uses of the computer.

As these listings could not fit in the pages of Computer for All, a separate publication was needed. According to Manoussos (1983, 3) Pixel was introduced after Computer for All readers expressed through their responses to a questionnaire a strong desire for much needed software, to be provided for free, in the form of program listings. Manoussos, who was personally in charge of both the “Letter from the Publisher” column in Pixel and the corresponding “Note from the Publisher” column in Computer for All, has explained that the publishing of Pixel represented “an attempt by Computer for All to cover the need of ready to use software for home/personal computers by offering listings you can type in your microcomputer to create a ‘library of software’ or to study and discover new programming techniques.” The need for program listings is captured in the following reminiscence by Manoussos (Retrovisions of 80s 2019):

Computer for All was probably the first Greek magazine to include such listings. Given, however, that there was a limit in the pages of the magazine, its listings were referring only to the most popular computers, like Sinclair, Commodore, etc. For the same reason, computing magazines could only rarely publish more than 2-3 programs per issue for the same machine. We were always under pressure by the readers to cover the home computer that they happened to have or to include more listings, for special games. We struggled to do so in the context of Computer for All. This is when a demanding reader walked in to ask us why we did not publish a special issue of the magazine that would be devoted to listings. We thought that this was a great idea and immediately started to plan to so as to have this special issue [the first issue of Pixel] by Christmas of 1983 (n.p).”

According to its editorial team, the publication of Pixel was founded on the acknowledgement of the dominance of software over hardware. This dominance was not clear during this early period in the Greek community of computer magazines, as the assumption was that advances in computer technology had mostly to do with hardware and its improvement, which made computers faster and more capable. Pixel’s pioneering sensitivity to the dynamics of the importance of software over hardware was rather novel in 1980s’ Greece.[3] For Manoussos (1983), software was the most difficult to obtain, a “ghost in the machine”. This expression echoes the perception of programming by its protagonists as being a “black art” (Ensmenger 2012) by “the high priests of a low cult.” (quoted in Computer 1980) It has been illustrated vividly on the cover of Time, April 1984, on which Bill Gates was showing off his skills under the headline: “Computer Software. The magic inside the machine” (Time 1984, April 16, 1). For Manoussos (Retrovisions of 80s 2019), at the time, “the thirst of home users for software was endless”. In his view, this explains the publishing of listings in the pages of home computing magazines. “The capability and the availability to write a few commands in BASIC (and, at times, in machine language), to run a program that supported some little application or a game,” he remembers, “was a defining feature of the so-called ‘heroic age of computing’.”

Manoussos further recalls that, back then, a new “home PC” (his expression) was introduced almost every month, which was frequently incompatible with the rest. This made the sharing of software between users of different machines rather impossible and resulted in increasing tension between users and providers of software for home computers. To be sure, in the international case, home computers were personal computers, but the term “personal computer” in the 1980s was used for the IBM PC and IBM-compatible PCs (Sumner and Gooday 2008; Sumner 2012). In the Greek case, however, the term “home PC’ was introduced so as to bridge the gap between home computers and PCs, by assuming that the most powerful home computers could also function as PCs. This was to happen by using home computers to run more PC-related (e.g. office-type) applications.[4] Listings to run such applications were, in the first years, also offered through Pixel, which helped to reduce the aforementioned tension.

Users of program listings were Greeks who wished to utilize their home computers but could not afford to purchase commercial software or wished to learn how to program them. Programming was understood as one of the essential aspects of the use of home computing. Pixel immediately became a vehicle for the dissemination of software in the form of program listings. From the first issue, the section of the magazine that included the program listings was entitled “Software” (Pixel 1984a; Pixel 1984b; Pixel 1984d; Pixel 1984e). Pixel was the first magazine on personal computers in Greece to dedicate a large part of its content to the publication of program listings. Indicatively, program listings occupied almost one-third of the total pages of the second issue. It was clear from the beginning that Pixel’s publication was response to the demand for new software by a growing number of amateur home computer users. According to the editorial team (Lekopoulos 1988a, 136):

“The aim of the magazine is to cover the lack of information available to the public on computers. The wider public does not really know what a computer is. Some have a hazy image in their minds, an image promoted by the general press. Even those who do have a better image, do not adequately understand how microcomputers will affect society. Pixel aims to cover the field of home computers (Oric, Spectrum, etc), closely observing the rapidly evolving market of microcomputers and occasionally intervening to shape it.”

Writing in Greek, i.e. using Greek fonts, frequently depended on the offering of program listings. Suggestively, the Greek importer of the Spectravideo home computer relied on Pixel for the dissemination of a program listing that allowed Greek users to have Greek fonts in this computer. This program was written in machine language by ELEAN Ltd, the official Greek importer of Spectravideo home computers. It was published in the third issue of Pixel (Pixel 1984b, 112).

The publication of listings established a strong interaction between Pixel and its readers. Many of them negotiated with the magazine the publication of their own software in the form of listings. Readers felt honored to have their software published and circulated through the pages of Pixel. Also, the publication of software through Pixel offered to its readers the opportunity to spot and report errors and to suggest possible corrections to published listings. As we learn from letters by readers, some of the program listings, which were copied from British and other international computer magazines, contained errors.[5] To many of Greek users, Pixel offered a forum to showcase their skills and programming expertise, to position themselves within the new socio-technical environment formed around the introduction and use of computers in the Greek society (Lekkas 2014b).

The foundation of Pixel was connected to the issue regarding the appropriate identity of a computer user. For its editorial team, a user had to be skilled in programming. In the absence of formalized education in computing, this user-programmer was to be trained through the magazine by participating in the collective production and use of program listings, and, further, by reading a series of special training articles and guides to programming languages of home microcomputers. These were, mainly, the versions of BASIC included in the package obtained during the purchase of a microcomputer. The emphasis on the importance of magazine-mediated training in programming declined by the end of the 1980s but never disappeared (Lekkas 2017). In the third issue, the editors communicated the magazine as “the ultimate expression of the dynamic field of home computers” (Zorzos 1984). It included a series of new columns, some of which went on for several years and gained substantial popularity. This was the case with the column Interferences (Επεμβάσεις), the first column in a Greek computer magazine to focus on modifications of microcomputer software, especially games (Tsouanas 1984, 16).

New columns on programming were also launched. Parallel Roads (Παράλληλοι Δρόμοι), offered a translation of a piece of software to all BASIC versions. This guaranteed compatibility between versions just as it offered an opportunity for practicing translation between versions, thereby making BASIC as a whole accessible to all users (Pixel 1984e, 36). In addition, this column sought to solve a problem that plagued the proper running of a home computer by its users. It had to do with the fact that a program for one home computer could not run to another even though in both cases the language used was BASIC. Variations in the BASIC dialects, as combined with differences between home computers, made incompatibility a great issue (Retrovisions of 80s 2019).

Through information offered by the Pixel column Parallel Roads, a reader could use the same program in several computers and, at the same time, “identify the changes in the commands of the various dialects so as to understand how to produce the compatibility that he needed.” (Pixel 1984d, 36). The proper use of the computer did not have to do with the simple keyboarding of commands but reached into changing these commands through programming. As for familiarity with BASIC, the magazine assumed that it was indispensable for the “first steps in the use of a home computer”. “We certainly know, all of us, how to write at least one program in BASIC, the most common language of home micros,” we read in a 1985 article in Pixel (Pixel 1985, 28).

“A rather risky endeavor”

The publisher of Pixel, Compupress Ltd, was founded in 1982, a year before the publication of Computer for All in January of 1983. In the 1980s, Compupress undertook several important initiatives in the field of publications of relevance to computing and related technologies and it was one of the first companies in Greece to publish specialty material on them. As explained through its website, “Compupress was founded in 1982 with the initial goal of publishing magazines and books in the field of Informatics and the then emergent ‘New Technology’” (Compupress 2019a). Compupress also published books and software for computers and home computers.[6] Computing technology magazines of the early 1980s were published by new and small publishing houses, or even computer stores, which also published books or produced software. Compupress is a good example of a new and relatively small publishing house of this period.

In the early 1980s, home computing was certainly not a topic dealt with by large publishing houses and computing professionals. It was mostly picked up by amateurs who saw in the field of microcomputer technology a potential for themselves (Lekkas 2014a). RAM, the first computer magazine by an established publishing house, the Lambrakis Press Group, did not appear before the late 1980s (February 1988). By contrast, as already mentioned, Compupress, the new and small publishing house that published Computer for All and Pixel, was launched six years earlier. To indicate the lasting contribution by amateurs, we can refer to a report by the first editor-in-chief of the computer magazine User, Giorgos Kouseras. User was launched in February of 1990 through the efforts of a few amateurs, from a small space in central Athens. Following in a tradition established in the 1980s, the magazine employed only a handful of employees, usually no more than two or three. They authored columns under pseudonyms so as to make it look as if the magazine employed more staff. According to Kouseras, this helped them to project an image of reliability and representativeness (Retromaniax 2019).

For Kouseras (Retromaniax 2019), the publication of computer magazines without the backing of an established publisher was “a rather risky endeavor”, with unpredictable financial repercussions. It was an endeavor for a “hobbyist, friendly, spontaneous and romantic era”. The publication of the first issues of User was always difficult, with the amateurs behind it being constantly on the verge of a financial disaster. This difficulty was shared by almost all early editors of computing magazines. According to Kouseras (Retromaniax 2019), publishing the first two years of the publication of User was especially hard. Each User issue was potentially the last one, as the magazine was struggling under financial burdens. Similarly, Manoussos recalls that the sales of the first issue, which appeared in Christmas of 1983, was “well below their expectations, especially considering the intensity of work required to prepare it.” This is why “the impression around Compupress was that the Pixel experiment was to die shortly” (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). It was proved that it did not.

The reliance on amateurs resulted in the establishment of relationships defined by friendship and comradeship within the members of the small group that published a computing magazine, as well as between this group and the readers of the magazine. It is within this context that photographs of the Pixel editors having fun at a tavern were published in the magazine on the occasion of the celebration of the five years of Compupress (Pixel 1988a, 12). The members of the editorial teams were usually very young. In an article published upon the completion of one year of publication of Computer for All, the editor wrote: “we have a very low average age. There are no ‘rigid structures’ in our company. We share a sense of friendship and a common passion to make each issue better than the previous one.” (Computer for All 1984, 10).

Following in the style of the cover chosen for the first issue (1983) of Pixel (Figure 1), all of the magazine covers were a faithful reproduction of the style of the cover of TIME magazine. TIME had actually dedicated its January 1982 issue to the importance of the computer games industry, introduced under the title Video Games Are Blitzing the World. Despite its beginning as an insert, Pixel magazine was so successful that it inspired its own child publications: the annual Super-Pixel (an annual guide), Pixel Junior, which focused on listings on home microcomputers once Pixel started to cover additional themes, and Pixelmania, which was devoted to gaming. Compupress also published the magazines Information and Compu Data, which were tailored to the more professional aspects of computer use. From January 1987, it added the publication of the GCS Newsletter, a publication of the Greek Computer Society (nowadays Ελληνική Εταιρεία Επιστημόνων και Επαγγελματιών Πληροφορικής και Επικοινωνιών – ΕΠΥ) (Pixel 1987a, 69).

Figure 1. The covers of the first issue of Pixel (1983) and of the 119th (1982) issue of Time (Pixel 1983, October – November – December, 1; Time 1982, January 18, 1).
Figure 1. The covers of the first issue of Pixel (1983) and of the 119th (1982) issue of Time (Pixel 1983, October – November – December, 1; Time 1982, January 18, 1).

The magazine regularly featured reviews of the Greek computer market, presenting the main computer stores and, later, the first software houses. Also, Pixel often featured interviews with business pioneers from these fields. It was one of the first Greek magazines to carry out comparative tests. They were published in Pixel throughout the 1980s.[7] One of the most successful initiatives was the creation of the Pixel Club in 1984. This club went a long way in solidifying the bond between the magazine and its readers. The creation of computer clubs ushered greatly in the creation of mediation nodes for the home microcomputer use during the 1980s (Lekkas and Tympas 2019).

Editors systematically sought information from abroad, especially when their own field of expertise was not yet developed in Greece. Information could be acquired through correspondence with international colleagues or Greek students who were paid to copy technical information from the international press. In 1985, a column entitled London calling (Εδώ Λονδίνο) was launched by the editor Vasilis Konstantinou. It aimed at bringing news to Greek users from the “metropolis of home computers”, as London was referred to due to being home to many home computer companies, including Sinclair, Amstrad, Acorn and others (Figure 2) (Lekopoulos 1988b, 35). Referring to London as a “metropolis” of home computing shows how close the Greek users were to the British computing scene. This was due to two reasons: First, the large community of Greeks who studied at British universities and naturally served as a bridge between this scene and Greek home computer users, and second, the importing of many British home computers to Greece (Lekkas, 2014a).

Clive Sinclair
Figure 2. Clive Sinclair, the legendary owner of Sinclair Research, featured in Pixel with Computer for All in his hands. The photo was taken by a Pixel correspondent in the UK (Konstantinou 1987, 121.)

The column regularly informed Greek users about international shows and trade fairs, like the annual Personal Computers World Shows, which offered an opportunity for the most important manufacturers to exhibit their products (Konstantinou 1987). Konstantinou was one of the few editors of the magazine to have studied computer science. He actually did so in London, where he lived permanently. His reports to the column were transmitted electronically, probably a first in the Greek publishing world. The editor sent them through a FIDO bulletin board, a modem, which required a manual connection with a corresponding modem in the magazine, over a telephone line connecting Greece and the UK (Pixel 1987b, 17).

Also in 1985, Compupress had established an agreement with British publications in the field of computers and informatics for exclusive reprinting in its own publications (mainly Computer for All) of articles from the magazines Personal Computer World, Computing, Informatics and Datalink (Computer for All 1985, 94).

Pixel went through a similar revamping, starting with the November 1997 issue (134), published under the title Pixel NG (Next Generation). This was a magazine exclusively about gaming consoles. Pixel NG went out of circulation on October 1998, after 14 issues. The transformation of Pixel was in touch with similar transformations at the international level. In April 1988, the magazine’s editor introduced the changes in focus and content by stating: “Dear readers, as you have already noticed, going through the pages, the issue that you hold in your hands represents a very different image, which aims to help Pixel converge with the leading European magazines on informatics (Kyriakos 1988, 13).

Members of the Pixel community also contributed to the popularized of home computing through TV shows. In 1991, Compupress agreed with the Greek state television to produce three television series: One on personal computing (‘COMPUTERS: ΤΑ ΕΡΓΑΛΕΙΑ ΤΟΥ 2000’), one on gaming (‘THE COMPUTER SHOW’), and one on soccer game predictions and gambling. The Computer Show on ERT1, the main channel of the Greek state television, was hosted by Antonis Lekopoulos and Giorgos Kyparissis, both editors of Pixel (Compupress 2019b). Interestingly, Pixel organized concerts in stadiums, which included lotteries and entertainment activities. Through everything said so far, Pixel became the model for other Greek magazines in the field, which sought to copy its practices. For example, Market Guide, a special multiple pages column in Pixel that started with the March 1985 issue (8), was copied by other magazines, like Electronics and Computer (Ηλεκτρονική και Computer) (Ηλεκτρονική και Computer 1985) and RAM (RAM 1990).

The circulation of Pixel remained high during the entire 1980s. This seems even more impressive if we take into account that for many years the magazine only addressed users of home microcomputers and not of IBM compatibles, which represented a community much more prominent in other Western European countries. Pixel quickly obtained a readership in the order of tens of thousands and maintained it for years. According to data available from the Central Agency of Daily and Periodical Press S.A., the circulation of the 35th issue (July – August 1987) was about 25,000. This number did not include copies sold through subscriptions. According to the picture offered by Pixel itself, its average circulation for the period July 1986 to September 1987 was about 21,000 (Lekopoulos 1988a, 136). This accounted for 77.67% of the total sales of home microcomputer magazines – the main antagonists being MicroMad and EPTA (ΕΠΤΑ) (Lekopoulos 1988a, 137). At its peak, in 1987, the circulation of Pixel reached almost 30,000. This was higher than that of Computer for All, which had an average monthly circulation of 10,000-12,000 issues by targeting business users (Retrovisions of 80s 2019). In the early 1990s, according to the estimation of Kouseras, the Pixel circulation was about 20,000. Based on these numbers, we suggest that Pixel was the most successful Greek computing magazine of this era. Its circulation would only be matched by the computing magazine RAM during the next decade (Lekkas 2017).

“Hurray for Games!”

The focus on programming, as well as the publication of program listings, defined the run of Pixel throughout the 1980s. Its contents, however, gradually underwent noticeable transformation. Central to this transformation was the use of computers for entertainment, most notably for playing games. While programming itself was for some still a form of entertainment, there were many who thought of it as an unavoidable step to what was the real computing fun: games. By the mid-1980s, this step could actually be avoided because commercial computer games became available. This brought about a noticeable change, as knowledge of (and experience with tinkering with) the computer was no longer a key part of the culture of computing (Lekkas 2013; Lekkas 2014; Lekkas 2017).

A computer user could now be part of this culture by playing games on the computer without knowing anything else about it. The emphasis was shifting from programming the computer to using ready-made commercial programs for computer games. Playing games frequently meant competing against others, trying to get the highest score. Updates on the performance (scoring) in a whole range of games were regularly offered through computing magazines. Several of them, including Pixel Junior, ΖΖΑΠ!, SPRITE, GamePro, Computer Games and User, were almost exclusively covering the latest in computer games.

By 1987, Pixel begun to report important changes both in the technical characteristic and the aspects of use of home computers. These were due to the gradual dominance of affordable IBM compatibles,[8] but also the emergence of 16bit home microcomputers, which were superior when it came to audio and graphics. As such, it facilitated the creation and publication of impressive entertainment software. This oriented many to entertainment-related uses of the home computers. The emergence of Atari ST, Amiga 500 and other 16bit home computers marked an important turn for the Pixel content.[9] In comparison to the 8bit machines of the first half of the 1980s, they allowed for the production of “super graphics”, according to Pixel’s terminology. These super graphics impressed both the magazine’s editors and the users of home computers (Kyriakos 1987a, 9).

In September 1987, Pixel launched the first column dedicated exclusively to adventure games (Tsourinakis 1988, 30-34). Contrary to most other computer games, this category required more than fast reflexes and coordination from the user to implement an elaborate script. The genre was very popular among users of personal computers (Moss 2011). Entertainment software, and especially games with graphics, quickly gained in popularity. After 1988 they represented the dominant aspect of the use of home computers. It is suggestive that Super Pixel, the annual edition of Pixel, was published in 1988 under the title 1988: Hurray for Games! (1988: Ζήτω τα Games!) (Pixel 1988b, 161). In September 1989 (issue 58), Pixel changed its subtitle to Monthly Magazine on Home Micros and Computer Games. In the same year, the service Pixel Software Boutique was also introduced. It aimed at selling by mail computer game software for almost all kinds of home computers. The Pixel readers only had to select their preferred software and fill in the form provided (Figure 3) (Pixel 1989a, 77).

pixel magazine
Figure 3. In 1989, the readers of Pixel could order original software for their home computers by filling in the relevant form (Pixel 1989a, 77).

Starting with the 6th issue (1985), the pages dedicated to program listings had decreased, from one third to about 20% of the available space, while still remaining a substantial part of the magazine.[10] This reduction reflected the gradual availability of ready-made commercial software for home computers. Yet, innovative columns all but disappeared. The editors continue to value highly the use of home computers as a learning and programming tool. The constantly renewed the way they presented program listings so that “both expert and novice programmers can learn through them a few new techniques.” (Kyriakos 1987b, 10)

The unavailability of statistics on the use of 16bit home microcomputers for games makes it impossible to offer a safe estimate on the range of this use. However, the constant references to home microcomputers as ‘game machines’ (παιχνιδομηχανές) makes it clear that the use of home microcomputers for games was the dominant one, overshadowing the other types of uses. We should here take into account that home microcomputers of the second generation did not compare favorably to IBM-compatibles when it came to uses beyond gaming. Microcomputers were better only for electronic editing, and the use of graphics and sound.


Based on the research presented in this article, we can argue that the role of Pixel was catalytic in shaping the way users of home computers came to contact with and used this technology. Being relatively unknown to the vast majority of Greeks, and also being under constant reconfiguration, this technology was advanced only by satisfying the demand, apparent as early as in 1982, for media to connect it to users, to make it familiar to them, to instruct them how to do the necessary tinkering with this technology in order to adjust it to their own local needs. Computing magazines became this media, with Pixel being, as all evidence suggests, the most representative example. Home computing magazines, just like home computing itself, became mainstream, gradually, by the late 1980s, parallel to the emergence of entertainment uses as the dominant ones.

As we saw in the first section of this article, up to then, however, the role of Pixel in the diffusion of home computers in Greece had to do with three things: First, the shaping of a culture of use of home computers, connected to specific uses of this technology, like the programming and the production, entering and editing of program listings; second, the formation of groups around these uses, especially the one concerning the dissemination of computer software; and finally, third, the habituation of users to tinkering with home microcomputers as a way to adjust them to their preferred use. Pixel helped to promote all this through alternative channels, including TV and radio programs.

In the second section of this article, we argued that the publication of Pixel magazine reflected the need of an emerging community of users, who looked for ways to express their creativity and to pursuit a career in the new field of home computers. Given that this field was uncharted, this involved considerable risk and financial uncertainty. This kept the traditional actors in the business of publishing at a distance. The so-called “microcomputer revolution”, which is considered an important case of a “technological revolution”, fell, initially, to an important extent, upon the shoulders of amateur publishers (Retrovisions of 80s 2019).

In the third and final section we saw that the wider use of home computing technology came along the prevalence of their mainstream use, which had to do with the consumption of ready-made commercial software. We also saw that after 1987, on the grounds of the incorporation of devices for the reproduction of advanced graphics and sound, the 16bit version of home computers emerged as especially appropriate for the use of recreational software. The gradual emphasis on the recreational use, which challenged the view that tinkering with home computing was by itself pleasurable, lead to the ending of the publication of Pixel by the mid-1990s.


All links verified 16.6.2020

Research Material

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‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1988b. Pixel, April.

‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1988c. Pixel, June. 149.

‘Advertisement [Διαφήμιση].’ 1989b. Pixel, October.

‘Correspondence [Αλληλογραφία].” 1985b, Pixel, January.

‘Current Affairs [Στην Επικαιρότητα.]” 1990. RAM, February.

‘Events… Rumours… Comments… [Γεγονότα… Φήμες… Σχόλια…].’ 1987b. Pixel, November.

‘Events… Rumours… Comments…, 5 Years Compupress!!!! [Γεγονότα… Φήμες… Σχόλια…, 5 Years Compupress!!!!].’ 1988a. Pixel, March.

‘First Steps [Πρώτα Βήματα].’ 1985. Pixel, February.

‘Market Guide [Οδηγός Αγοράς].’ 1985. Ηλεκτρονική και Computer, December-January.

‘Parallel Roads [Παράλληλοι Δρόμοι]’. 1984c. Pixel, July-August.

‘Pixel Software Boutique.’ 1989a. Pixel, January.

‘Retail Prices Boards [Πίνακες Τιμών Λιανικής].’ 1990. RAM, February.

‘Software.’ 1984a. Pixel, May-June.

‘Software.’ 1984b. Pixel, July-August.

‘Software.’ 1984d. Pixel, September-October.

‘Software.’ 1984e. Pixel, November-December.

‘The Open Channel.’ 1980. Computer, March. https://doi.org/10.1109/MC.1980.1653540.

‘YOU & US [ΕΣΕΙΣ & ΕΜΕΙΣ].’ 1986. MicroMad, February.


Compupress, ‘Company History [Ιστορικό Εταιρείας].’ Accessed September 7, 2019, http://www.compupress.gr/istoriko_gr.asp.

Compupress. ‘The Company. General information. [H Εταιρία. Γενικές Πληροφορίες]’ Accessed September 7, 2019, http://www.compupress.gr/taftotita_gr.asp.

Retromaniax. ‘Η ιστορία των πρώτων USER [The history of the first USER]’. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://retromaniax.gr/threads/%CE%97-%CE%B9%CF%83%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%81%CE%AF%CE%B1-%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD-%CF%80%CF%81%CF%8E%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD-user.3158/.

Retrovisions of 80s. ‘Ο Νικόλαος Μανούσος της Compupress στο retrovisions.gr.’ Accessed September 7, 2019. http://www.retrovisions.gr/joomla/index.php/reviews/2014-08-16-09-56-57/25-ceo-compupress-retrovisions-gr.


Brittain, James E. 1997. ‘The Evolution of Electrical and Electronics Engineering and the Proceedings of the IRE: 1938-1962.’ Proceedings of the IEEE 85 (5): 762–797.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 2003. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 2007. ‘The History of the History of Software.’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29 (4): 40–51.

Carver, Scott J. 1977. ‘”Tekhnologicheskii zhurnal”: An Early Russian Technoeconomic Periodical.’ Technology and Culture 18 (4): 622–643. https://doi.org/10.2307/3103589.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. 2003. A History of Modern Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Computer for All. 1984. January.

Corn, Joseph. 1992. ‘Educating the Enthusiast: Print and the Popularization of Technical Knowledge.’ in Possible Dreams: Enthusiasm for Technology in America, edited by John L. Wright, 19–33. Dearbon, Michigan: Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

Dooley, Brendan Maurice. 1991. Science, Politics, and Society In Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Giornale de Letterati d’Italia and its World. New York: Garland.

Dritsa, Konstantina, Dimitris Mitropoulos, and Diomidis Spinellis. 2018. ‘Aspects of the History of Computing in Modern Greece.’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 40 (1): 47–60. https://doi.org/10.1109/MAHC.2018.012171267.

Ducklow, Hugh. 1973. ‘Science, Politics, and the ‘New Statesman’, 1930-1940.’ Synthesis: The Harvard University Journal in the History and Philosophy of Science, 1 (1): 27–30.

Ensmenger, Nathan. 2003. ‘Letting the ‘Computer Boys’ Take Over: Technology and the Politics of Organizational Transformation.’ International Review of Social History 48 (S11): 153–180. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020859003001305

Ensmenger, Nathan. 2012. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ferguson, Eugene. 1989. ‘Technical Journals and the History of Technology.’ In In Context: History and the History of Technology – Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg, edited by Stephen H. Cutcliffe, 53–70. Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press.

Gascoigne, Robert Mortimer. 1985. A Historical Catalogue of Scientific Oeriodicals, 1665–1900: With a Survey of Their Development. New York: Garland.

Gooday, Graeme, and James Sumner. 2008. ‘By Whose Standards? Standardization, Stability and Uniformity in the History of Information and Electrical Technologies.’ The British Journal for the History of Science 43 (3): 503–505. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087410001196.

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Hempstead, Colin A. 1995. ‘Representations of Transatlantic Telegraphy.’ Engineering Science & Education Journal 4 (6): 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1049/esej:19950616.

Hopwood, Nick. 1996. ‘Producing a Socialist Popular Science in the Weimar Republic.’ History Workshop Journal 41 (1): 117–153.

Houghton, Bernard. 1975. Scientific Periodicals : Their Historical Development, Characteristics, and Control. London: Bingley.

Kirkpatrick, Graeme. 2015. The Formation of Computer Gaming Culture. UK Gaming Magazines, 1981–1995. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Konstantinou, Vassilis. 1987. ‘PCW SHOW 1987.’ Pixel, November.

Kronick, David Abraham. 1976. A History of Scientific & Technical Periodicals: The Origins and Development of the Scientific and Technical Press, 1665-1790. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1987a. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, March.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1987b. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, September.

Kyriakos, Christos. 1988. ‘Pixel’s news [Τα Νέα του Pixel].’ Pixel, July-August.

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Lekkas, Theodore, and Aristotle Tympas. 2019. ‘”A club for all the Greeks”: Home Micro Computer Clubs between Magazines and Stores.’ Geschichte und Informatik / Histoire et Informatique 20: 103–125.

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Lekkas, Theodore. 2014a. ‘Public Image and User Communities of the Home Computers in Greece, 1980–1990.’ PhD diss., National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Lekkas, Theodore. 2014b. ‘Legal Pirates Ltd: Home Computing Cultures in Early 1980s Greece.’ In Hacking Europe: From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes, edited by Gerard Alberts and Ruth Oldenziel, 73–103. New York: Springer.

Lekkas, Theodore. 2017. ‘Computer Technology Periodicals and the Circulation of Knowledge about the Personal Computer in 1980s Greece’. History of Technology 33 (1): 229–251. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474237260.0014.

Lekopoulos, Antonis, 1988a. ‘Pixel and HOME MICROS: Past, Present and Future [Pixel και HOME MICROS: Παρελθόν, Παρόν και Μέλλον].’ Pixel, February.

Lekopoulos, Antonis. 1988b. ‘Pixel Celebrates 50 issues [To Pixel γιορτάζει 50 τεύχη].’ Pixel, December.

Manoussos, Nikolaos. 1983. ‘A Letter from the Publisher [Γράμμα από τον Εκδότη].’ Pixel, November – December.

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Tsouanas, Nikos. 1984. ‘Break the Manic Miner’. Pixel, July – August.

Tsourinakis, Andreas, 1988. ‘Adventure [Περιπέτεια].’ Pixel, January.

Tsouroplis, Dimitris 1984. ‘Comparative Test. ORIC vs SPECTRUM [Συγκριτικό Τεστ. Oric εναντίον Spectrum].’ Pixel, May – June.

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[1] Ferguson (1989) shows the importance of studying technology-related periodical publications. Strange (1985) offers a similar account for histories of journals. Brittain (1997) showcases the co-evolution of a journal and a technical discipline. Ducklow (1973), Carver (1977), Dooley (1991) and Hopwood (1996) offer a geographically, chronologically, and thematically disperse sample on the history of technical and scientific journals and periodicals or general journals and periodicals that were involved in science or technology issues. More specifically, Hopwood focuses on the magazine Urania, which had a circulation of approximately 25,000 copies between 1924 and 1933, when it was closed down by the Nazis. Houghton (1975), Kronick (1976) and Gasgoine (1985) have published more general accounts of the field. Lancashire (1988), Hempstead (1995) and Corn (1992) have studied periodicals like the ones discussed in this paper.

[2] Our interest in the history of the role of computer magazines goes back to the early 2000s (Tympas 2003).

[3] Lekkas (2014a) shows examples of the importance of software over hardware in 1980s Greece. Ceruzzi (2003), Campbell-Kelly (2003), Campbell-Kelly (2007) and Ensmenger (2012) have given us pioneering studies on the histories of software, which argue about the importance of software more generally.

[4] An indicative example is the listing of a logistics program (“Πρόγραμμα Αποθήκης”) for the Spectravideo home computer published in Pixel (1984, 109).

[5] In this example, the source of the copied listing was the Your Computer British computer magazine (Pixel 1985b, 117).

[6] For a sample of books, see Srully Blotnick, «To «χρυσό» βιβλίο των υπολογιστών σε μετάφραση» (“The golden” book of computers in translation”); Sp. Kalomitsini – Th. Papadimitriou, «Κομπιούτερς, απλά μαθήματα για όλους» (“Computer, simple lessons for everyone”); «AMSTRAD. Χίλιες και μια δυνατότητες» (“AMSTRAD. Thousands and one possibilities”), «ASSEMBLY ΓΙΑ ΤΟΥΣ ELECTRON & BBC» (“ASSEMBLY FOR ELECTRON & BBC”); all advertised in Pixel (1988c, 149). For samples of updates on software, see the following advertisements: the software ΠΡΟ-ΠΟ ‘HITPACK 13’ for the Amstrad 664/6128 in Pixel (1987c, 182); «H Γλώσσα Μηχανής του SPECTRUM» (“SPECTRUM machine language”) and «GRAPHICS ΚΑΙ ΚΙΝΗΣΗ ΣΤΟΝ SPECTRUM» (“Graphics and movement in SPECTRUM”) in Pixel (1988c, 149); Advertisement for the publication «WHO is WHO Πληροφορική» (“WHO is WHO Informatics”), in Pixel (1989b, 55).

[7] The first such test was published in the second issue of Pixel and compared the Spectrum and Oric home microcomputers (Tsouroplis 1984, 20–26).

[8] According to a research by Dataquest, in 1988 the number of PCs sold in Greece was 27,000 (RAM 1990, 20).

[9] Kirkpatrick (2015) offers a reflection of a culture of diverse practices in the early issues of UK gaming magazines.

[10] Pages 86-114 from a total of 124 pages of Pixel, issue 6 (1985).

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

The Polish Amiga Scene as a Brand Community

Amiga, brand community, Commodore, consumption, demoscene, home computer, piracy, Poland

Patryk Wasiak
patrykwasiak [a] gmail.com
Institute of History
Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Wasiak, Patryk. 2020. ”The Polish Amiga Scene as a Brand Community”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/the-polish-amiga-scene-as-a-brand-community/

Printable PDF version

This article investigates the construction of rituals, shared identities and moral responsibilities of a community of Commodore Amiga computer users in early post-communist Poland. My primary aim is to examine the usefulness of the concept of brand community for consumer culture research to study the phenomenon of the emotional engagement of its users with the Amiga. Drawing from my empirical evidence, which includes analysis of Amiga related periodicals, disk magazines and other demoscene materials, I will provide an historical overview of the emergence of the Amiga in Poland, and discuss how the brand community was structured through club activities, numerous periodicals and disk magazines, and the activity of the demoscene. I will further investigate how the community constructed its rituals and shared identity, and finally focus on the social responsibilities of the community members and discuss the normative constructs of a “true” and “faux” member.


This article investigates the construction of rituals, shared identities and moral responsibilities of a community of Commodore Amiga computer users in early post-communist Poland.[1] This case study refers to the analytical framework of “brand community” proposed by consumer research scholars Albert M. Muñiz and Thomas O’Guinn (2001). This concept is an analytical framework that can be applied to provide a better understanding of how consumers engage with brands. The authors define it as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.” (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 412).

A study of such a community offers valuable insights into the role of users and intermediary actors in the co-production of computer technology (Jasanoff 2004). Moreover, a Polish case study can particularly contribute to the scholarship of the cultural history of computers. Due to the emerging market economy, the manufacturer lacked control over the distribution and retail of home computers, and so the Amiga emerged here as the dominant hardware platform due to the activities of local entrepreneurs, computer clubs and the demoscene, without any significant contribution from Commodore Ltd. and the short-lived Commodore Polska (1992-1994). Thus, this case can shed more light on the cultural logic of the phenomenon of the Amiga as a community project (Maher 2012), which was, and still is, substantially supported by dedicated brand users.

Here I argue that the emergence of such a local grass roots brand community without any significant contribution from the manufacturer, and its local branch, substantially impacted on the community’ ethos. In this ethos the Amiga was redefined from a consumer product into a community project. The community not only had its own rituals, but also shared the burden of the moral responsibility for supporting, continuing and even expanding the Amiga, when it was abandoned by the manufacturer. I pay particular attention to a range of intermediary actors that constituted this community and shared the same agenda of promoting the brand and keeping it alive despite the manufacturer’s failure. The community was usually referred to as the “Polish Amiga scene” (orig. polska scena amigowa), which included a range of Amiga users, who were using this platform in some sort of creative work such as programming, music and graphic design, or applying it in the routines of the office environment. This name can be misleading since the term “scene” in computer culture jargon frequently refers to the demoscene (Reunanen 2009; Reunanen & Silvast 2014). Here the local demoscene was a part of the broader “Polish Amiga scene”.

However, as I will show, the local demoscene became a key intermediary actor which contributed to the popularity of the Amiga, but also projected its script of pursuing technical mastery over hardware and using the Amiga to make demos. Aside from the demoscene, the community also included user clubs, numerous Amiga related periodicals, importers of hardware and pirated software, local garage hardware and software industries, and those who used the Amiga in their professional careers, particularly for “creative” work. The status of users who used the Amiga merely as a gaming machine was controversial and tensions about gaming, as one of the scripts of using the Amiga (Westlake 2015; Maher 2012, 207-248), will be investigated below. During the same period in Poland there were other similar communities surrounded by similar practices, but there were much smaller. In the early 1990’s there were still prolifically active communities of 8-bit platforms: the Commodore 64 and Atari XE/XL. There was also a small Atari ST community that included mostly professional or semiprofessional musicians and the desktop publishing community. The Amiga community was definitely the largest both in terms of number of locally produced software artifacts, computer periodicals, events, as well as mainstream media coverage.

This paper contributes to this special issue of WiderScreen twofold. First, I demonstrate how using a theoretical framework from consumer culture studies, supported with concepts from science and technology studies, can enrich our understanding of the cultural logic of computer-oriented subcultures. Second, this paper focuses on a local perspective by showing how a specific nation-wide Amiga brand community emerged as a rather secluded community cut off from Western Europe by cultural and economic differences. Originally, the brand community concept was used to explore the engagement of consumers with brands in long lasting and stable market economies. My study, however, explores how such a community could define and perform its role in the context of an emerging market economy, with loosely shaped power relations between the actors who participated in the consumer culture. Such seclusion led to the development of a form of technological autarky – the conviction that during the fall of Commodore Ltd. and the rapid decline of the popularity of the Amiga in the West, the Polish Amiga scene could still thrive, supplied with software and hardware upgrades by local companies. Thus, the analysis of this community offers a new perspective on the process of the globalization of high technology markets in the 1980s and 1990s. The seminal study of the history of the Sony Walkman (du Gay et al. 1997), as well as accounts on the global expansion of high-tech multinational enterprises (for instance Henderson 2003 [1989]), focus on the successful building of companies’ global presence by establishing thriving “global-local nexuses” (du Gay et al. 2003 [1997], 78-80). This paper rather shows how a community of brand users reacted to a short lived and unsuccessful attempt of building such nexus with Commodore Polska.

The shift from state socialism to the market economy forms the backdrop to this study. I situate my case in this cultural and economic background of the emerging market economy, which lacked well-established power structures, that govern relations between manufacturers, retailers and consumers. However, it does not address the broader aspect of the political change beside the introduction of the market economy, that enabled both the massive expansion of the local private business sector, and the possibility of taking part in the economic globalization of the 1990s. While doing so I intentionally challenge the popular notion of the omnipresent impact of the political sphere on society and culture in Eastern Europe. This paper primarily focuses on a short period between 1987 and 1995, which begins with the first testimonies about the local presence of the Amiga and ends at the point which can be approximately identified as the beginning of the decline of its popularity. The empirical evidence for this article includes content analysis of a range of Polish contemporary Amiga related periodicals and disk magazines, analysis of printed and audiovisual materials from Amiga “brand fests” such as an Intel Outside party, and interviews with prominent members of the Amiga community from the retro computing website Polski Portal Amigowy and Commodore & Amiga Fan magazine. The paper is organized as follows. First, I outline the concept of brand communities and discuss its usefulness in studying the phenomenon of the emotional engagement with the Amiga. I then provide a historical perspective on the emergence of the Amiga in Poland, and the process of community building by its users, through club activities, numerous periodicals and disk magazines, and the activity of the demoscene. Next, I investigate how the community constructed its rituals and shared identity. Finally, I focus on the social responsibilities of the community members and discuss the normative constructs of a “true” and “faux” member. The overarching goal of all three sections is to provide insights into the key role of a computer brand plays in the process of the forming a community of computer users.

Brand communities and computer users

The original study by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001) is based on empirical evidence from their fieldwork among consumers who owned Ford Broncos, Saab cars, and Macintosh computers. The authors examine such evidence with the use of sociological studies of the notion of community. While doing so, they focus on investigating how brand communities are structured upon three substantial elements of the community: shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 412). Their study refers to a previous study about the “subculture of consumption” of Harley Davidson owners (Schouten & McAlexander 1993; 1995). They note that Schouten and McAlexander “employ a structuralist analysis that describes a brand with a socially fixed meaning” and they outline the difference of their own approach: “We, however, see brand communities having an active interpretive function, with brand meaning being socially negotiated, rather than delivered unaltered and in toto from context to context, consumer to consumer“ (Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001, 414).

Muñiz further continued his work on this subject and in 2006 published a study of the brand community of the Apple Newton, an ill-fated PDA from the late 1990s (Muñiz and Schau 2005). This study investigated how a community kept a technological product alive, supported its use, as well as found new possible ways of using the Newton long after Apple discontinued its support. This approach emphasizes the interpretative role a community of users can play, and attributes to them agency, instead of considering them as consumers who passively adopt cultural meanings prescribed by manufacturers and marketers. This approach can be particularly useful in explaining how users of the Amiga negotiated cultural meanings of this platform, ultimately reinventing it as a community project which lasts to this day. Information about the current developments of this community can be found on the website of the developers of the AmigaOS project.

Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 415) note that “[brand] communities may form around any brand, but are probably most likely to form around brands with a strong image, a rich and lengthy history, and threatening competition”. They analyze the community of Macintosh computer users and provide a cursory investigation of how the widely shared and reproduced history of Apple contributed to the formation of identity among the members of the community. This issue has been further comprehensively explored in the paper entitled “The Cult Macintosh” (Belk & Tumbat 2005).

It is no coincidence that the Amiga also became a brand around which a devoted community has formed. Jimmy Maher (2012) comprehensively discussed the image and history of this platform. While discussing the strong commitment to the Amiga by users, he used the term “platform nationalism” (Maher 2012, 185), which is consistent with the sense of shared identity among members of brand communities. Maher’s term is used somewhat metaphorical since there is a difference between a love for one’s country and one’s computer. But, if we refer to Anderson’s (1991 [1983]) classic work on nationalism and ‘imagined communities’ we will see that nations were built as imagined communities based on several factors such as common language and culture, but also on imagined scientific and technological prowess. So here we can see “platform nationalism” as a belief in technical prowess of one’s computer juxaposed to the inferiority of the competing hardware platforms. The Amiga fits into a utopian story of a technology imagined and designed by a single enthusiast, who helped “creative types” to express their creativity with graphics, animation and sound editing tools. However, according to the widely shared belief held by members of the Amiga community, aside from the competition from Atari Inc., and later the PC platform, the real threat to the Amiga came from the within. Amiga-dedicated websites (for instance http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/) that constituted contemporary forums for this brand community extensively discuss how Commodore Ltd., with a gallery of top managers, were considered as villains, driven by short-term profits, which greatly contributed to the demise of the Amiga.

Studies concerning the engagement of consumers with brands from the 2000s coincided with a trend in science and technology studies and design history to shift their attention from technology designers to the users and intermediary actors (Oudshoorn & Pinch 2003; Lees-Maffei 2009). In a seminal collection of essays, How Users Matter, which substantially contributed to this trend, we can find Lindsay’s (2003) paper on contemporary users of the 8-bit TRS-80 computer who continue to support and use this platform as a productive tool. As she (2003, 30) explains, she approaches the life of a technology as a process in which users took an active role:

This chapter shows that the co-construction of users, user representations, and technology is not a static, one-time exercise by the designers of the TRS-80, but is a part of a dynamic ongoing process in which many different groups, including the users themselves, participate.

Such a remark is also true for the Amiga’s technology in which users actively participate and even provide this platform with a long afterlife after the manufacturer’s demise. Lindsay’s chapter was published in the book section titled “Users and Non-Users as Active Agents in the (De-)Stabilization of Technologies.” I will further outline the role of users in a similar context and explain how in a specific context the communities tried to first locally “stabilize” the Amiga, and then later to prevent its de-stabilization. Lindsay uses the term “co-construction,” which for the sake of brevity here can be described as a synonym for “co-production” (Jasanoff 2004), which has become a widely used term in science and technology studies. Its introduction and spread was related to the postulate of attributing social actors, other than designers, with agency in shaping technologies. With my research background in the history of technology I also find this concept as a suitable framework for discussing the agency of different social groups in shaping the development of computer technologies. Here, I would like to discuss the possibility of using the brand community concept of Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001), but not to analyze a homogeneous social group of end users.

The rise and decline of the Polish Amiga community

The first trace of the Amiga in Poland can be found in the pages of the popular Bajtek computer magazine (1985-1996). The magazine actively collaborated with local state sponsored computer clubs and regularly covered their activities. I have previously discussed (Wasiak 2014) the role of Bajtek and the state sponsored computer clubs in the shaping of the local Polish computer culture. In January 1987 the magazine published an article about the technical details of the Amiga 1000 computer with a short note that “Maniak” in Warsaw, one of the most prolific clubs, already had it available since November 1986 (Silski 1987, 15). This computer was plausibly brought privately from the West by one of club members who made it available on the club’s premises at the local culture center to other members. In 1988, a small circle of owners of this computer model, which was a rarity in Poland due to its prohibitive price, established their own user group named the Amiga Commodore Club in the city of Kraków. Marek Hyła, the Club’s founding member, described the trajectory of learning about this computer through personal networks:

First I saw the Amiga at my friend’s place in Norway in 1987. One year later the A500 was sitting on my desk along with a color monitor and twenty floppies. This purchase was also inspired by another friend […] who replaced his C64 with the Amiga few months earlier. Together […] we became the founders of the Amiga Commodore Club, the first “movement” of Amiga users in Poland. (Hyła 2007)

The Club, active in the years 1988-1990, had an estimated number of members of about a dozen in 1988, and about one hundred in 1990. It aimed to support current Amiga users with software, program manuals, and programming books, as well as to encourage computer owners to buy the Amiga. Thus, the club played two crucial communal missions outlined by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 424): integrating and retaining members and assisting in the use of the brand. The most notable club activity were regular copy parties where Amiga users could share their software libraries. In an interview for the prominent periodical Amigowiec (Polish term for Amiga user), another club activist romanticized the early Amiga users:

There was something phenomenal about this small group of Amiga owners, it were about one hundred of them in Poland at that time. [They] purchased this computer not because of fashion […] Those days people were buying the Amiga because they authentically had felt in love with her. (Kokoszczyński 1991, 15)

It is important to explain the specific meaning of the phrase “not because of fashion”. In the late 1980s, both important computer magazines Bajtek and Komputer (1986-1990), aside from short notes about the Amiga, primarily promoted the Atari ST as the future dominant 16-bit platform. Particularly the Komputer editors, with personal links to the DTP industry, regularly published promotional materials of Atari Inc. and promoted the Atari ST as a professional computer. In one Komputer issue we can even find locally made computer graphics with the message “Adios Amigo” (“Amigo” form is a Polish inflection of Amiga) (Fig. 1). The editors of Komputer also regularly boasted about the technical prowess of the Atari ST. For the emerging Amiga community such a bias helped to shape the image of the Amiga as a computer popularized in Poland by the grass-roots community outside of the mainstream dominated by the Atari community.

jack tramiel komputer
Figure 1. Jack Tramiel, who moved to Atari Inc. to develop the Atari ST, destroys the Amiga rainbow checkmark logo in a locally made computer graphics. This graphics included a copied scan of Tramiel’s face. Komputer 1986, no.8, 26.

The Amiga started to achieve much wider popularity around 1989, when the introduction of the market economy stimulated the massive growth of private trade. However, at that time Commodore Ltd still did not have an official local trading partner, thus the Amiga computers available for Polish consumers were distributed by small-scale importers and traders. One such trader provided a detailed account of the trade at a ‘computer fair’ (Wasiak 2014) in the city of Katowice. During such ‘computer fairs’ organized at the weekends in large cities one could purchase a second hand computer or equipment. However, the most prolific form of trade was the distribution of pirated software, usually copied on the spot.

One of our colleagues, with whom we were trading [in pirate software] at the fair, moved to West Germany with his parents […] So now we had an access to hardware which was much cheaper than in Poland. At the beginning we were importing one-two Amigas and sold them at the fair (of course, we did not cease trading with Amiga software, it was always profitable since the games for the Amiga were sold in large numbers). By selling Amigas 500 with peripherals such as memory expansions, external floppy drives, monitors, digitizers and joysticks, I managed to earn enough to buy an A1200 [with expensive peripherals]. Our sales were growing every day – it was the time of the Amiga [the early 1990s] and everything for the Amiga was sold perfectly. (Ramos 2009, 89)

It is remarkable to note that this interview was published in a local retro-computing magazine called Commodore & Amiga Fan (2008-2013) in a section where usually the editors published interviews with the prominent members of the C64/Amiga demoscene or the authors of popular programs. This highlights an important feature of the local Amiga community. The traders who specialized in importing the Amigas and Amiga-related equipment, as well as those who facilitated the massive flow of pirated software from the West (fig. 2, 3, 4), contributed to the stabilization of the Amiga as the dominant hardware platform. Thus, they were identified as important members of the community.

For the sake of brevity, in this paper I can only briefly mention the controversy over the pirate software traders. In early years they contributed to the stabilization of the Amiga by assisting the use of brand with a massive selection of pirate software. But later they became considered as those who de-stabilized it by hindering the growth of local software publishers, who would have helped the Amiga to stay alive by providing a steady flow of locally made programs when the Amiga software market abroad steeply declined in the mid-1990s.

amiga bajtek
Figure 2. Computer fair in Warsaw, 1989. A stand with pirate copies of Amiga games. Bajtek, 1989 no. 10, 3.
Computer fair in Warsaw Amiga
Figure 3. Computer fair in Warsaw, 1991. A stand of a teenage software trader who offers floppies with Amiga software as well as a selection of Western and Polish Amiga related periodicals. Enter. 1991, Sept., 17.
A custom made Amiga pullover
Figure 4. A custom made pullover worn by a high profile software trader who specialized in Amiga software at computer fairs. “River’s Edge” website.

The period from 1990 to 1995 was the heyday of the Amiga in Poland. At that time, the community was structured through the knowledge circulated through numerous Amiga-related periodicals and disk magazines. In those years seven different Amiga related periodicals were published. By 1995 all of them were out of print except for the Polish edition of the German Amiga Magazin (1992-1999). Similarly, most of the over 250 local disk magazines preserved in the comprehensive archive “Fat Magnus” were published in the years 1991 to 1995. Lindsay (2003, 37) notes that computer magazine writers are important mediators who play a role in the co-production of technology by circulating knowledge about computer use. In this case computer brand-related magazines also played an important role for the brand community by providing information about new brand-related products, and by offering attractive scripts of computer use. Amiga related magazines not only offered such knowledge, but also provided users with extensive coverage of community events such as copy- and demoparties, as well as content that could strengthen their identity, particularly information about the superiority of the Amiga, and its application as a creative tool. What is particularly important here, such magazines also offered space to express users’ creativity by publishing computer graphics submitted by readers (Fig 5).

gallery of computer graphics made with the C-64 and Amiga
Figure 5. A gallery of computer graphics made with the C-64 and Amiga submitted by readers. Commodore & Amiga, 1993, no.8, 35.

In years from 1989 to 1991, some of those magazines, with rather low circulation, were primarily distributed through ‘computer fairs’ (cf. fig. 3.). Here we can see an interlock of intermediary actors: ‘computer fair’ traders and magazine editors who both contributed to the popularity of the Amiga. During the period of the popularity of the Amiga in Poland there were three major gatherings that can be considered brand fests: The Amiga Game Show (1991), Intel Outside (1994), and Intel Outside 2 (1995). The “Intel Outside” slogan, also widely used in Amiga community in the West, was a response to the “Intel Inside” campaign of the branding of Intel processors (Norris 1993). There were several similar events in Western Europe, which attracted an international audience, but the Polish gatherings were rather secluded and there were virtually no guests from abroad.

Intel Outside party
Figure 6. Intel Outside party, 1994. Amiga Magazyn, 1994, no. 10, 48.

The Intel Outside parties (fig. 6) were organized until 1998. However, after 1995 those events became much smaller. While the Amiga Game Show was organized mainly by the local distributors of legal software and computer magazines, the Intel Outside parties were organized by major demoscene groups. Aside from such events there were numerous smaller demoscene parties, for instance the regular Autumn Party and Mountain Congress party series. However, Intel Outside, despite the major role of demoscene events, was also a brand fest, which welcomed visitors with no demoscene affiliation and who were simply interested in the Amiga. The dual nature of the Intel Outside party as a demoscene event and a brand fest shows how the Amiga demoscene was deeply embedded in this brand community. I will argue that the demoscene played a pivotal role in shaping the community by promoting the Amiga as a demoscene machine and thus “configuring the user” (Woolgar 1991) as someone who learns about the Amiga architecture and programming in order to make demos.

According to a rough estimate made by Marek Pampuch, the editor-in-chief of Amiga Magazyn and arguably the most prominent figure in the Amiga community, circa 100,000 to 120,000 Amiga computers, all models included, were sold in Poland until the end of 1994 (Pampuch 1994a, 6-7). The year 1994, with the bankruptcy of Commodore International, preceded by the liquidation of the short-lived Commodore Polska, saw the beginning of the steep decline of the community, which responded by evolving into two different but closely interconnected communities.

The first one was a group of dedicated users who engaged themselves in grass-roots projects for the continuation of the Amiga, such as the AmigaOne. The second one was a dedicated Amiga demoscene which were still exploring the possibilities of making new audiovisual effects with the A500 and A1200 sound and graphic chips despite the fact that PC platform soon began to outpace the Amiga in such qualities. Here I can only note that the slow demise of the Amiga scene was accompanied with the emergence of the “PC scene” (orig. scena pecetowa). Some users who adopted PCs as game or demoscene machines expressed their brand affiliation to the PC platform with their own imagery (fig. 7) and rituals. Such rituals usually included boasting about the groundbreaking qualities of the Pentium processor and the superiority of Doom (id Software, 1993) over any Amiga game in terms of technical excellence, gaming experience and the immersion of the 3D world. Further analysis of the construction of the brand loyalty of PC users, and particularly the reconstruction of the loyalty of former Amiga users, could greatly contribute to better understanding the dynamics of computer subcultures, but it is beyond the scope of this paper.

Figure 7. The symbolic demise of the Amiga in 1994 in a cartoon published by a gaming magazine. The chainsaw is a reference to Doom, a “killer app” for the PC platform. Secret Service, 1994, no.9, 13.

Community rituals

Here I focus on investigating the central imagery of the Amiga and highlight its role in making community rituals. Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 412) argue that brand community is

marked by a shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility. Each of these qualities is, however, situated within a commercial and mass-mediated ethos, and has its own particular expression. Brand communities are participants in the brand’s larger social construction and play a vital role in the brand’s ultimate legacy.

Here I would like to emphasize that a range of user’s activities discussed in my paper such as sharing knowledge about computer use and circulating software can be considered not as specific rituals but as commonplace practical activities that took place in computer users’ communities worldwide. However, in communities of computer users with strong brand identities, such activities can be also considered as rituals that serve the social function of creating and maintaining community (Bell 1997, 23-60). Moreover, below I will discuss a number of specific activities that substantially contributed to the creation of community.

While discussing the “cult of the Macintosh,” Belk and Tumbat (2005) explore the central role of the Mac imagery, which includes the story of building the first Apple computer in a garage, Steve Jobs’ India trip, the “1984” television commercial, and the minimalistic design of the Mac computer. While analyzing the Mac community from the early 2000s they argue that those are the core elements of the myth which underpins the shared consciousness of Mac users. The Amiga community had its own imagery. One of the key elements of this imagery was the superiority of the Amiga’s graphic and sound qualities over any other competing platform (Atari ST, PC, Mac) due to its ingenious and flexible architecture based on the coprocessor and custom graphic and sound chips (Maher 2012, 11-42). This supported a popular ritual of the Amiga community – the running of an impressive demo or a computer game to show these qualities to a larger audience. Running attractive demos for an audience was generally a popular custom among Amiga users worldwide. However, the specific case discussed below illustrates the role of ‘software fair’ traders in sharing the Amiga imagery by discussing the Walker Demo (Imaginetics, 1988), a commercial demonstration which aimed to show the quality of the digitizing tools for the Amiga. It was a highly popular animation of AT-AT vehicles from The Empire Strikes Back movie walking next to the A2000.

Year 1988. Wrocław, Sunday, computer fair. There is only one stand with the Amiga computer and there is a crowd of viewers there. Everyone is watching. No one is copying software at the moment. […] An imperial AT-AT walker slowly moves on the color monitor – this is the Walker Demo. Two individuals are looking suspiciously. This is the competition from the stands with the Atari ST. … They are simply starring in disbelief and anger. (Lifter 1991)

The aim of such a demo was to articulate a central theme of Amiga “platform nationalism”, the conviction that this computer can be used for creative work with astounding results. On the one hand, Amiga users could access such attractive audio-visual content in their own private space with demos and games. On the other hand, the Amiga was a tool for not only professional, but also amateur “creative types” (Maher 2012, 43) who were encouraged, or even obliged, to use it to express their own creativity. I will discuss such obligation in the next section on users’ responsibilities.

One of the most frequent features of both paper periodicals and disk magazines was a more or less elaborate list which informed readers about prominent cases of Amiga usage. Here I will focus on a specific elaborate article with such a list (BAD 1994, 43-44), which was published in Commodore & Amiga in 1994 and included an extensive list of the uses of the Amiga in Hollywood for producing special effects (Maher 2012, 132-142). The most popular point in this section was the Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) movie and SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996), a TV series which regularly appeared in materials of the Amiga community in order to highlight the potential of the Amiga. This list also included several musicians such as Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees and Billy Idol. In addition, this list also featured the use of the Amiga by the CIA (for unspecified educational purposes), the Israeli Air Force (for training pilots with combat flight simulators) as well as the use of CAD software for designing a stadium for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I have chosen this specific article because the author revealed the source of information provided above, a text file, which was most likely extensively circulated within the community both on floppies and Amiga BBSes. The circulation of such a list and the emphasis on such diverse creative and professional uses of the Amiga can be identified as one of central community rituals, which provided private, mostly young, owners with an imaginary bond with media industries, celebrities and well-known organizations and offered them a sense of being in their highly attractive orbit.

The aforementioned SeaQuest DSV as well as Babylon 5 (1994-1998), which also included Amiga-made special effects, were aired on Polish television. Thus, Polish members of the community could strengthen their sense of identity with the fact that the state-of-the-art special effects, which they could regularly watch on popular TV series, were made with the same computer that they had at home. Of course, such effects were made with high-end A4000s with broadcast quality video equipment, while at home they had low-end A500 and A1200 models, but all those computers belonged to the same “strong” brand.

Here I would like to focus on one of the core features of the shared consciousness of the Polish Amiga community, namely the core distinction between “the world” and Poland. My empirical evidence suggests a difference between my case study and observations made by Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001). As they note: “We see brand communities as liberated […] from geography and informed by a mass-mediated sensibility […] in which the local and the mass converge” (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 415). In the Amiga community the “mass-mediated sensibility“ has a special significance as most of the central themes of the Amiga imagery are related to its use in the media industries. So, the substantial part of the experience of the brand was the contact with media objects which could be somehow attributed to the brand. However, Polish Amiga users lived in a post-communist country and experienced significant cultural, social, and economic differences from the West. So, for my case the geography is definitely relevant. The aforementioned lists showcasing prominent examples of Amiga usage, while including some information on Poland, were always divided into “Amiga na świecie” and “Amiga w Polsce” – “Amiga in the world” and “Amiga in Poland”. Similarly, the ranking lists published by Polish demoscene media always used the same distinction.

The local Polish community at the same time appropriated and shared elements of the central imagery of the Amiga from the West, as well as building its own local imagery by providing media coverage for the creative uses of the Amiga in Poland. Here I can note some significant cases covered in Amiga Magazyn, which paid specific attention to the wide promotion of the Amiga in professional activities. Their list includes the use of the Amiga by TVP, the Polish national broadcaster, for making jingles, postproduction, as well as a much more mundane task of displaying questions in a quiz show (Bobek 1994, 12-13). Equally welcomed was the rather ingenious use of the A500 for post-production in a local private TV station in the city of Kraków (Pampuch 1994b) (Fig. 8). Another issue of Amiga Magazyn includes an interview with members of the popular techno/dance band Jamrose who used the A1200 both for editing music and making music videos (Korzeniewski 1994). In addition, it is also worth mentioning that Jamrose, as Amiga-related band, gave a concert during the Intel Outside party. An interview with the band was published in another issue, in which the main theme was making music with the Amiga. Apart from this interview readers could find several articles how to make music on their Amigas. The leader of the band also encouraged Amiga users:

Q: Could you, as professionals, give some advice to Amiga musicians?

A: You should not be discouraged with the hardware you own. I assure you that the concept, not the hardware, really matters here. Even if you only have the A500 and love music, just get to work! (Korzeniewski 1994, 37).

One of the processes which took part during the demise of the Amiga was the cessation of any new information about its creative use that would stimulate the community. Muñiz and Schau (2005, 739), while discussing the religious motifs in the Apple Newton community, note that such motifs “invest the brand with powerful meanings and perpetuate the brand and the community, its values, and its beliefs.” Similarly, the steady flow of information about the high-profile use of the Amiga in creative work from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s perpetuated the community. The lack of any further information about such use was a clear indication of its demise. My reading of Amiga Magazyn from the years 1995 to 1999 and disk magazines from that time shows that the community which previously embraced high profile uses of the Amiga, such as the production of TV jingles or high profile Sci-Fi TV series and movies, evolved into a much smaller self-referential community which was perpetuated primarily by news about niche developments of the AmigaOne which came from other dedicated members of the community. At that time the community evolved into a social structure similar to TRS-80 users discussed by Lindsay (2003) – a community with a much smaller number of members, in which there was only a small percentage of passive “computer users” since most of the community members took to some extend the burden of responsibility to play one or even more roles from Lindsay’s list of designers, producers, marketers, distributors and technical support.

Figure 8. A500 used for the postproduction in a TV studio of a small local television in the city of Kraków. Amiga Magazyn, 1994, no. 3, 11.


The final section focuses on the moral responsibilities of the community members which are related to the rituals discussed above. Muñiz and O’Guinn (2001, 424) draw from classical sociological works, and note that “[m]oral responsibility is a sense of duty to the community as a whole, and to individual members of the community. This sense of moral responsibility is what produces collective action and contributes to group cohesion”. In general terms, from my research in periodicals and disk magazines, I can outline the community agenda as follows:

  1. To “stabilize” the Amiga during the turnover of 1980s and 1990s as the dominant hardware platform by convincing non-users that the Amiga is the best replacement for the aging 8-bit computers or the best choice as the first computer for home and professional use.
  2. To prevent the “de-stabilization” of the Amiga’s popularity caused by the expansion of the PC platform in both office and home environments by convincing users to stay with the brand, presenting it as a viable alternative to the PC, with its users being able to count on substantial support from the community.

One of the central tensions of the community was the legitimacy of using the Amiga as a game machine and users’ willingness to explore the technology, and a related distinction of separating users into legitimate and illegitimate members of the community. This issue was particularly acute for the community during the later years when simply playing games on the Amiga was considered as a mode of use which did not contribute to the prevention of the de-stabilization of the position of the Amiga. Muñiz and O’Guinn. (2001, 419) discuss the issue of legitimacy in brand community as follows:

Legitimacy is a process whereby members of the community differentiate between true members of the community and those who are not, or who occupy a more marginal space. In the context of brands this is demonstrated by “really knowing” the brand as opposed to using the brand for the “wrong reasons.” The wrong reasons are typically revealed by failing to fully appreciate the culture, history, rituals, traditions, and symbols of the community.

In the case of the Amiga “knowing the brand” has multiple meanings. The first meaning refers to the familiarity with the list of famous Amiga users mentioned above. The second meaning refers to technical knowledge, including about the canonical history of Jay Miner’s design of the Amiga, which included the blitter, the coprocessor which enabled modification of data within memory without burdening the CPU, and the three custom chips: Agnus, Denise and Paula. The users were required to learn at least the basics of computer science in order to successfully “share the brand” by, for instance, engaging in a technical discussion with a “non-believer”.

Here I can bring an exemplary case of “configuring the user” (Woolgar, 1991) by a demoscene member who, while providing an overview of different Amiga models available on the market, also discussed four categories of users: lamers, intermediate users, users interested in a specific professional purpose, and the “elite”, understood as hackers and demoscene members (Szczygieł 1993, 10). The author, who was a prominent demoscener himself, used the demoscene jargon terms “lamers” and “elite”. The former term was originally used as a derogative term for mediocre demoscene coders, to refer to those who only used the Amiga for gaming and who are not interested in exploring the technology beyond mastering computer games. But here the author identified lamers as those who are “not interested in the mastering of computer science knowledge” (Szczygieł 1993, 10). This explicit expression of the tension over “lamers” is an instance of an important element of tensions over “real” and “faux” brand community members (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001, 419). Currently, the memory about the Amiga in retrocomputing is primarily constructed through the prism of an excellent 16-bit game machine (Westlake 2015). Originally, every contemporary Amiga periodical and disk magazine considered in my study included a smaller or larger section with computer game news and reviews. However, according to the normative imagined Amiga user, he was allowed to play games on the Amiga only if he was also using it for some other non-controversial purposes. Here I can also give an instance of such a normative model. In the second issue of Amigowiec the editor-in-chief announced that the periodical will publish an extensive tutorial for the popular graphic editing program Deluxe Paint III (Electronic Arts, 1988; Maher 2012, 43-81) with a claim that “obviously everyone eagerly makes computer graphics with the Amiga” (Redakcja 1990, 1).

The aforementioned highly normative overview of Amiga users made by a prominent demoscene member was included here to discuss a broader feature of the local Amiga community, namely a dominance of the demoscene in terms of projecting their own scripts of Amiga use onto other users. Importantly, a significant part of the content of Amiga related periodicals was written by demoscene members. They wrote detailed reports from parties and analyzed recent trends in demos aesthetics and quality, and also provided accessible tutorials on “how to make your own demos”. They also tried to “configure Amiga users” by emphasizing the importance of learning assembly language to became a coder or to eventually master sound or graphic editing software in order to became scene musicians or graphic designers.

The influence of the script for using the Amiga as a demo machine can be illustrated with the example of the Polish translation of the Amiga Hardware Reference Manual, an Amiga “bible” of sorts. The bootleg translation of this book was published with the title Amiga Without Secrets – Make Your Own Demo (Amiga bez tajemnic – zrób własne demo). This shows how a local company, which published this translation, came up with a marketing strategy for convincing Amiga users that a hardware reference manual can be specifically used for mastering demo-making techniques.

Reunanen and Silvast (2014, 151) in their paper about the demoscene note its elitism:

the members of the demoscene wanted to distance themselves from the common uses of computers such as productivity or gaming. Instead of utility or entertainment, their interest lay in creative experimentation.

However, in this particular case study I can note two significant differences. Firstly, the Polish demoscene became much more deeply engaged in supporting the Amiga community. It is important to emphasize that demoscene members promoted the Amiga not only as an excellent platform for demoscene productions, but also as a game machine and an efficient productivity platform. Here we can attribute a higher level of moral responsibility for the brand expressed by the demoscene in Poland than in Western Europe. Secondly, the demoscene actively and widely “configured” Amiga users by encouraging or even obliging users to learn programming assembly language necessary for making demos.


One of the main obstacles which I encountered while researching this study was the lack of any other comparative analysis of computer platform nationalisms” except for the two previously discussed studies on the “cult of the Mac” among the American middle class (Muñiz & O’Guinn 2001; Belk & Tumbat 2005). This gap however, is as an important field for future research, and I would like to emphasize the potential for further studies of different hardware platform situated in the context of specific regions. In this context, I would like to mention the recent monograph by Jaroslav Švelch (2018), which covers the gaming culture in communist Czechoslovakia, which focuses on the local popularity of the ZX Spectrum as the dominant hardware platform well into the 1990s. The book gives insights into some aspects of the local brand community of the ZX Spectrum. Before the global dominance of the “Wintel” platform, there were several 8 and 16-bit hardware platforms, which are now completely extinct except for some small retrocomputing communities. We may assume that shortly before the acceleration of the processes of globalization in the 1990s, and the opening up of the Internet as a means of mass communication, there was a substantial number of different nationally based and region-wide brand communities, which shaped their own community rituals and responsibilities contextualized by a limited access to hardware, software and knowledge. I believe that the concept of brand community can be widely used to carry out such investigations of forgotten local cults of home computers.


All links verified 16.6.2020


Amiga bez tajemnic – zrób własne demo. Wrocław: Hurtownia Jurex“. date of publication unknown, plausibly 1991-1992.

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BAD. 1994. “Quo Vadis Amiga.“ Commodore & Amiga, 3: 43–44.

Belk, Russell W., and Gülnur Tumbat. 2005. “The Cult of Macintosh.” Consumption, Markets and Culture 8(3): 205–217.

Bell, Catherine. 1997. Ritual. Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford e.a.: Oxford University Press.

Bobek, Andrzej. 1994. ‘Amiga w TV.’ Amiga Magazyn 3: 12–14.

du Gay, Paul, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Hugh Mackay, and Keith Negus. 2003 [1997]. Doing Cultural Studies. The Story of the Sony Walkman. London e.a.: SAGE.

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Hyła, Marek (interview). ‘Polski Portal Amigowy.’ September 2007. http://www.ppa.pl/publicystyka/marek-hyla-twin-spark-soft-wrzesien-2007.html.

Jasanoff, Sheila, ed. 2004. States of Knowledge. The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London e.a.: Routledge.

Kokoszczyński, Tomasz. 1991. ‘Wywiad z famous Ziło.’ Amigowiec 0: 15–16.

Korzeniewski, Robert. 1994. ‘JamRose.’ Amiga Magazyn 7: 36–37.

Lees-Maffei, Grace. 2009. ‘The Production-Consumption-Mediation Paradigm.’ Journal of Design History 22(4): 351–376.

Lifter. 1991. ‘Chudy Agnus czyli pośmiejmy się.’ Fat Magnus, Issue 2. http://www.fatmagnus.ppa.pl/

Lindsay, Christina. 2003. ‘From the Shadows: Users as Designers, Producers, Marketers, Distributors and Technical Support.”’In How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, 29–50. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Maher, Jimmy. 2012. The Future Was Here. The Commodore Amiga. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Muñiz, Albert M., and Thomas O’Guinn. 2001. ‘Brand Community.’ Journal of Consumer Research 27(4): 412–432.

Muñiz, Albert M., and Hope Jensen Schau. 2005. ‘Religiosity in the Abandoned Apple Newton Brand Community.’ Journal of Consumer Research 31(4): 737–747.

Norris, Donald G. 1993. ‘”Intel Inside”: Branding a Component in a Business Market.’ Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing 8(1): 14–24.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, and Trevor Pinch, eds. 2003. How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pampuch, Marek. 1994a. ‘Nie ma tego złego….’ Amiga Magazyn 12: 6–7.

Pampuch, Marek. 1994b. ‘Wywiad z TV Krater.’ Amiga Magazyn 3: 10–11.

Ramos, 2009. ‘Giełda komputerowa.’ Commodore & Amiga Fan 5: 88–89.

Redakcja. 1990. ‘Poszło….’ Amigowiec 2: 1.

Reunanen, Markku. 2009. ‘Computer Demos – What Makes Them Tick?,’ licentiate thesis, Aalto University, http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:aalto-201206142600.

Schouten, John W., and James H. McAlexander. 1993. ‘Market Impact of a Consumption Subculture. The Harley-Davidson Mystique.’ In European Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 1, edited by W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, 389–393. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research. Accessed online: http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=11476.

Schouten, John W., and James McAlexander. 1995. ‘Subcultures of Consumption. An Ethnography of the New Bikers.’ Journal of Consumer Research 22(1): 43–61.

Silvast, Antti, and Markku Reunanen. 2014. ‘Multiple Users, Diverse Users: Appropriation of Personal Computers by Demoscene Hackers.’ In Hacking Europe: From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes, edited by Gerard Alberts and Ruth Oldenziel, 151–163. London: Springer.

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Švelch, Jaroslav. 2018. Gaming the Iron Curtain. How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/gaming-iron-curtain.

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[1] Research for this paper was supported by the Polish National Science Centre grant 2016/23/D/HS3/03199. I would like to express my gratitude to Gleb J. Albert, Markku Reunanen, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments, which helped me to revise and improve my manuscript.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

New Scenes, New Markets: The Global Expansion of the Cracking Scene, Late 1980s to Early 1990s

crackers, history, home computers, media economy, piracy

Gleb J. Albert
gleb.albert [a] uzh.ch
Dr. phil.
Department of History
University of Zurich

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Gleb, Albert J. 2020. ”New Scenes, New Markets: The Global Expansion of the Cracking Scene, Late 1980s to Early 1990s”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/new-scenes-new-markets-the-global-expansion-of-the-cracking-scene-late-1980s-to-early-1990s/

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The article reconstructs the history of underground software transfer in the second half of the 1980s between the core countries of the home computer software industry and its ‘peripheries’ both in the Eastern Bloc and in the ‘Global South’. Utilizing contemporary sources and oral history interviews, it tells the story of how the cracking scene and the informal software markets in the ‘peripheries’ interacted and influences each other, and how, in this process, the cracking scene expanded beyond its original geographical core. The article contributes to the ongoing discussions about informal media economies, adding to them a historical dimension which was hitherto overlooked.

The introduction of home computers into private households in the 1980s and early 1990s (Sumner 2012; Faulstich 2005) brought several particular developments with it – such as the establishment of new cultural practices connected with home computing, such as gaming (Fuchs 2014) or ‘bedroom coding’ (Wade 2016). Also, home-computerisation brought with it new fields of commerce – not just concerning hardware, but also software (both business and entertainment), user literature or maintenance. Furthermore, it gave birth not just to a new public sphere of computer usage, but also new subsets of computer user culture – such as hackers, crackers, BBS users, demosceners, or gamers. (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014) And last but not least, the mass spread of home computers with their inherent possibilities of lossless data replication brought about new concepts of copyright, which in the end resulted in new legislations.[1]

Those particular developments have been researched in case studies over the last decade. However, in order to analyse how these developments influenced each other, it might be productive to do it in a case study that takes a focus on transnational entanglements. After all, home computerisation did not take place simultaneously all over the globe, but rather it was a process that developed (and, on a global scale, is still developing) for several decades, and its manifestations in particular countries were always bound to developments and events occurring outside the respective countries’ borders, as the triumphant march of the home computer took place against the backdrop both of a new wave of economical globalisation and massive changes in world politics.

A perspective on transnational entanglements taken here should not just focus on the level of development and marketing of computers, but take the user as its object of research (cf. Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003). The advantage of a user-centred history of technology is, according to David Edgerton, that it can be “truly global”, as it potentially covers “all places that use technology, not just the small number of places where invention and innovation is concentrated.” (Edgerton 2007, XIII) Especially concerning home computer history, a user-based approach has already shown its strength (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014), yet transnational connections of users have been explored only rarely (Wasiak 2014a). Furthermore, an analysis of the usage of one particular technology – like the home computer – on a global scale can show not only different user cultures, but also different forms of markets forming around this technology, as Tom O’Regan shows on the example of the VCR (O’Regan 2012).

The following pages present an analysis of how, at the end of the Cold War, a ‘Western’ home computer subculture, the ‘crackers’, not only spread across borders, but also nolens volens contributed to the surfacing of new markets and new cohorts of computer users outside the core countries of the home computer industry – both on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and in the countries of the ‘Global South’.

As the crackers were a subculture that was not only operating outside the official public sphere of home computing, but also one that has hardly received any attention as a historical subject within the institutions of computing history heritage, the source base for such an analysis is necessarily disparate. It includes the subculture’s digital artefacts and magazines preserved and meticulously sorted by amateur enthusiasts in various web databases, as well as physical artefacts such as paper-based correspondence collected by the author from former participants. It furthermore includes contemporary sources of mainstream home computer culture such as computer magazines, as well as oral history interviews with former active members of the subculture from a number of countries.

A remark on the territorial terms of the analysis: By describing the territorial expansion of the crackers’ subculture as ‘globalisation’, I do not employ the term as a description of a present state, but as a process (cf. Conrad 2013, 160). Obviously, the presence of home computers was spanning the whole globe neither in the beginning nor in the end of the time frame analysed here. ‘Globalisation’, however, can also be understood as a term describing a process in order to make tangible “the construction, the consolidation and the rising importance of world-wide interconnectedness” (Osterhammel and Petersson 2003, 24). My contribution sets out to explore this “rising importance of world-wide interconnectedness” among home computer users on the example of the cracking scene in the last years of the Cold War and the final phase of decolonisation. While there is a bias towards the developments in Eastern Europe due to the availability of sources and my knowledge of languages, the study also strives to employ sources from other parts of the world, particularly Latin America and the Middle East, insofar as they are available.

The Scene

The subculture in question never gained the same predominance in academia and popular memory as its more prominent contemporaries such as the punks, the mods, or the skinheads. Also, unlike the ‘new social movements’ that surfaced in the preceding decades, it was a ‘post-subculture’ or ‘scene’ (Bennett 2013; Hodkinson and Deicke 2007) with no explicit political goal or programme. At the time of its activity, however, it probably had an even stronger public presence, even if in a subliminal form: the digital artefacts that it produced ended up in disk drives of millions of teenagers (and quite some adults, too). The crackers – an international community composed of mostly young males – surfaced in the USA in the early 1980s yet came to full development in mid- to late-1980s Western and Northern Europe. They set themselves the goal of subjecting commercial software (mostly games) to ‘cracking’, that is removing their copy protection routines, and circulating these modified programs, dubbed ‘cracks’ or ‘releases’, past the formal distribution channels. For this goal, they organised themselves in teams or ‘groups’ which, hiding behind colourful names, fiercely competed not only with the software industry, but also with each other concerning the best ‘cracks’ and the most efficient ways of informal distribution. The goal of every cracker group was to become first in cracking and circulating a particular piece of software – an achievement that became symbolically fixed by marking the cracked version with a self-produced audiovisual opening credits, the so called ‘crack intro’ or ‘cracktro’. (Wasiak 2012; Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2015; Albert 2017)

On the one hand, this ‘scene’ cultivated a self-image of a mysterious elite high above the casual computer user, and perpetuated this image in its own ranks through rigorous competition and a meritocratic hierarchy. On the other hand, however, the scene was, one could say, open towards the bottom: for each ‘elite’ group, there were dozens of ‘lame’ groups, many of them merely being cliques of school friends, who probably did not have access to brand new original software to crack, but contributed to the spreading of cracked games as well as of the knowledge about the existence of the scene itself. Many computer users knew someone who was a scene member or knew someone else who knew someone. As a Swedish cracker recalls, “[i]n the 5 schools I had friends in, I can count 15 active groups in 1986.” (Newscopy 2006; also, along the same lines: Chucky 2015) Thanks to informal software exchange networks, modified program versions with ‘crack intros’ were a common sight for the majority of computer users who were not able or willing to buy high-priced originals. This lead to an omnipresence of the cracker scene as a topic in the home computing public sphere, occasionally even making it outside the specialised computer press and into the opinion columns of national magazines and into TV talk shows. There, the scene was presented as a mysterious phenomenon, with the connotation of something criminal and forbidden.

The discourse of ‘illegality’, however, was more a part of the scene’s self-image than a fact corresponding to judicial reality. As copyright for software became a mandatory part of the European Community’s legislation only from 1993 onwards (Jongen and Meijboom 1993), the crackers’ activities remained exempt of punishment in many European states throughout the 1980s. Even in countries where copyright had been readjusted in the mid-1980s, such as West Germany and the United Kingdom (Commission of the European Communities 1986), the possible consequences for participants mostly remained within the limits of house searches and either charges being dismissed or the culprits being sentenced to relatively low fines (Tai 1986). However, while the consequences appear relatively negligible compared to other forms of crime, they still were substantial for teenagers, and raised the prestige of the persecuted in the eyes of their peers.

It is essential to say a few words about the ethical premises and economic practices of the cracking scene. The crackers’ approach to software, data and information does not fit into the well-known framework of subversive digital subcultures such as hackers or open source activists. Crackers, even while ‘liberating’ proprietary software of its user-crippling copy protection, did not follow the hackers’ philosophy of ‘All information must be free’ (cf. Levy 2001; Thomas 2003). They did not adhere to the idea of ‘open source’ either – on the contrary, they zealously hid their own disassembling and programming tricks both from their competitors within the scene and even more so from the general computer public (Hartmann 2012).[2] Programs were cracked neither to enable others to do the same nor to release them into ‘public domain’. By adding their ‘crack intro’ as a signature to the modified programs, crackers did not ‘liberate’ commercial software, but symbolically re-appropriated it. The signature served as a ‘copyright notice’ for the crack, and removing it (or, even worse, replacing it with another intro) meant breaking a taboo. (Vuorinen 2007; Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2015)

Additionally, the ways of software circulation employed by the scene were everything but open, even though crackers often portrayed themselves as selfless Robin Hoods in contrast to commercially operating software pirates. Internally, software circulation happened in the form of a barter and status economy, with cracked software as a currency and speedy access to it as a status marker. Providing access to software for money was frowned upon – but this taboo concerned, in the first place, transactions within the scene itself. Computer users outside the scene were condoned to wait for cracks to trickle down from the ‘elite’ to the ‘normal’ users. However, in order to get hold of cracked software as fast as it was released by the scene, outsiders sometimes had the option of obtaining access to them through monetary investment. Several cracking groups sold cracked software on the side, often in forms of monthly subscriptions advertised in the classified ads of the computer press. It was not an honourable thing to do with regard to the scene’s own ethics, and those on the offering end rarely did so using the same pseudonyms as in the scene, but it gave them enough money to maintain their scene operations by paying their expenses (e.g. ‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989; Saturnus the Invincible e.a. 2019).

The scene’s fragmentation ran along platform lines: Groups active on one platform rarely were active in cracking software on other platforms. This had to do with teenagers hardly being able financially to purchase multiple computer systems, as well as with ‘platform loyalties’ maintained by users of particular computer systems (Saarikoski and Reunanen 2014). As for geographical boundaries, the scene acted transnationally from the very beginning. However, it was not ‘global’ in any meaningful sense. Its original perimeter of action until the late 1980s was mostly confined to certain parts of the ‘West’, namely the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Finland, the Benelux states, Great Britain, West Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland. This radius corresponds to the regions where home computers managed to become mass commodities at that time. More important for the scene, however, was the fact that these were the regions which featured formalised market structures for software, and most importantly, for computer games. After all, a subculture whose core activity consisted in ‘cracking’ commercial software had to rely on the availability of such software, ideally before or shortly after store date.

At the same time, however, contemporary sources attest to a territorial expansion of the scene from the late 1980s onwards. While scene activity had already been documented in Eastern Europe during the second half of the 1980s, by the early 1990s the scene finally surpassed its ‘Western’/‘Northern’ boundaries. A list of scene-affiliated bulletin board systems[3] from 1994 testifies to the presence of such scene hubs all around the globe – from Argentina and Uruguay, to Hungary and Turkey, to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand (‘World BBS List’ 1994). This expansion, particularly into Eastern Europe, is obviously connected to the conquest of new markets by the computer industry after the fall of communism – but this is just a partial explanation. Thus, the following pages set out to take a closer look at the expansion of the scene through the contacts between the cracking scene in the ‘centre’ and commercial software pirates in the ‘peripheries’.

‘Centre’ and ‘Peripheries’

What are ‘peripheries’ in this context, and what would be the ‘centre’, accordingly? The latter is to be understood as being congruent with the aforementioned countries constituting the core regions of the cracker scene’s activity – these are the same countries which hosted producers of hard- and/or software, or, at least, had formalised market structures for such goods. The ‘periphery’, however, i.e. the rest of the world, is not to be understood as a homogenous entity. It encompasses a wide range of regions, from those which did not have any noteworthy number of home computer users during the timeframe investigated (and thus fall outside the focus of this paper) to those with a growing number of computer users during the second half of the 1980s, but without access to the formal computer economies coordinated from the ‘centre’. It is important to point out that with a shifting focus from invention and marketing to actual usage of computer technology, the ‘peripheries’ were not an exception but rather the norm. As Jaroslav Švelch remarks, “in the 1980s, before international retail infrastructure and, later, digital distribution came into place, peripheries were arguably larger than centers, and much of the microcomputer world was running on pirated copies of games.” (Švelch 2018, 152)

In his introductory notes on the development of the global computer games industry, Mark J. P. Wolf (Wolf 2015a) draws up three levels of preconditions for national game industries. Firstly, these are basic preconditions such as electrification, a high degree of alphabetisation, and the presence of lifestyles which involve significant amounts of leisure time. If these preconditions are in place, a second level involves the presence of technical know-how and access to international software distribution and marketing channels. The third level is the presence of a computer-related public sphere, including clubs, specialised press, and other communication channels and networks connecting users. The regions that are considered ‘peripheries’ in our case are those where the first level of preconditions is given, yet the second and third are present only partially.

The common traits of the regions in question, encompassing such diverse regions as the already disintegrating Eastern Bloc, Southern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, are the following: Firstly, it is the weak presence (or even the complete absence) of formalised production and distribution structures of hardware and particularly software.[4] Secondly, it is either the complete absence of software copyright, or the negligent enforcement of existing legislation. Both preconditions lead to the appearance of informal economies facilitating the dissemination of hardware and software, taking place through grey markets, unofficial imports, and barter.

One might assume at first glance that in these regions an objective demand for a subculture dealing with illegitimate dissemination of software would not exist – as the whole realm of software circulation was, one might say, a sort of informal culture. There was no industry which rebellious teenagers could have targeted as their opponent. Instead, young computer fans could easily get involved in the grey market, which was, in absence of software copyright and/or its enforcement, much more open and risk-free than in countries with a formalised software economy. In Poland, for example, the motivation of teenagers to get involved in selling software copies was often not driven by the desire to earn money, but rather by thirst for new software (Grabarczyk 2015; Wasiak 2016) – a motive which corresponds to the motivations of ‘computer kids’ in the countries of the ‘centre’ to join the cracking scene.

Nevertheless, the scene did establish itself in regions outside the ‘centre’ – and this is a fact in need of explanation.

Home computer usage in the ‘peripheries’

The conditions for computer usage differed significantly between the ‘peripheral’ regions, yet they bore some common traits as well. In the countries of the Eastern Bloc (as well as in non-aligned Yugoslavia) home computers were a scarce commodity. On the one hand, the regimes saw little priority in private computer usage, and, accordingly, invested very little (and very late) in home computer development.[5] As Švelch notes for the CSSR, home computers “were not part of the plan” and were being “left out of the state agenda and available for appropriation by prospective users.” (Švelch 2018: 34) On the other hand, the high-technology embargo imposed by the Western powers on the countries of the Warsaw Pact was in place until the second half of the 1980s and made official home computer imports impossible. (Danyel 2012, 204ff; Švelch 2018) Thus, Western home computers were mostly imported privately,[6] until the first models were offered in valuta stores (such as Pewex and Baltona in Poland or Tuzex in Czechoslovakia) at the end of the decade.[7] Without official distribution networks for hardware, it made little sense for foreign software producers to look at the Eastern Bloc as a key market.

Such constellations outside the ‘centre’ were, however, not always due to consequences of the Cold War. Certain countries in Southern Europe and Latin America simply did not appear attractive enough for the decision makers in the ‘centre’ to consider them potential markets. (Lekkas 2014; Frasca 2015) Furthermore, import restrictions imposed by the governments in some of these countries, like Peru in the 1980s, prevented official imports of foreign home computer models (Marisca Alvarez 2014, 54). In other countries, such as Italy or Turkey, the American and European hardware industry did set up official distribution channels. For software producers, however, the entry into the market was not profitable enough,[8] either because software copyright legislation was absent, as was the case in Turkey, or it had hardly ever been enforced, like in Italy (‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993; Lord Lotek 2003; Grussu 2012).

Thus, while citizens of the ‘peripheral’ regions had different levels of access to hardware, what they had in common was the lack of access to original software, while the demand for software was growing with the increasing number of home computers. This demand was met by informal economies. The concrete economic practices differed only slightly between both sides of the Iron Curtain. Whereas street markets dedicated to computer hard- and software, which thrived in the second half of the 1980s and were more or less tolerated by the authorities, were rather an East European phenomenon (Wasiak 2014b, 133ff; Beregi 2015; Polgár 2005, 59; Kiriya 2012), small shops selling unlicensed software copies were rather present in market economies such as Turkey, Greece, Italy or Argentina (Vigo 2016; ‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993; Lekkas 2014; the woz 2009; Grussu 2012). Selling software copies through classified ads was a quite common practice across the cold-war divide and also not unknown to the countries of the ‘centre’. However, in the ‘peripheries’, due to absence of persecution, this practice took a much more prominent form and has been documented across the world, from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia to Israel and Peru (Švelch 2010; Dr.J/The Force 2004; AJ and Nafcom 2014). Apart from these formalised practices one should not forget that the bulk of software exchange took place at a low-threshold level, by means of gifts, barter and low-scale trade among friends and colleagues. (Švelch 2018)

Those protagonists of the informal economy, however, who practiced software sales on a semi-professional level, did more than just copying disks. Not only did they create their own, often quite creative packaging for their goods, but they also added – not unlike cracking groups – intros to the software they imported and sold, with texts advertising their business.[9] These sellers did not only appropriate practices of the crackers, but also of the ‘other side’, of the software industry: They often built copy protection routines into their unlicensed copies in order to construct monopolies around software and to prevent both competitors and customers to copy their products (Schneider 1986; AJ and Nafcom 2014; ‘Perestroika Software’ n.d.).

Platform simultaneity

The question that necessarily arises before the reader at this point is where these sellers got their software from. As hinted earlier, ‘Western’ crackers were an important source for the software peddlers in the peripheries. However, if one looks at the national level, this was not always the case. For such transnational contacts and software transfers, there had to be one important precondition, namely the simultaneity of an active cracking scene on a particular computer platform in the ‘centre’ on the one hand, and the popularity of the same platform in the particular ‘periphery’ on the other hand.

Home computing in the 1980s was shaped by mutually incompatible computer platforms competing on an oversaturated market. The ZX Spectrum (1982), the Atari ST (1985), the Commodore 64 (C64, 1982) and the Commodore Amiga (1985) were merely the most popular ones, while dozens of more or less successful competitors were hitting the market each year. Those platforms, however, did not co-exist on the market throughout the whole decade. Home computer models grew old quickly, were replaced by more powerful machines, or disappeared from the market for other reasons such as mismanagement or bad marketing. The ‘peripheral’ regions, however, particularly the economically isolated Eastern Bloc, were cut off from this development until the second half of the 1980s. When computers started seeping in into these countries, the potential users often just strove to have a ‘proper’ computer at all, its market success notwithstanding (Kirkpatrick 2007). In this situation, platform loyalties, common to computer users in the ‘centre’ (Saarikoski and Reunanen 2014), did not play a role at first.

After the import embargo against the Eastern Bloc had been loosened by the mid-1980s, this situation was taken advantage of by ‘Western’ hardware companies, who used to opportunity to create “secondary markets” (Lobato and Thomas 2015, 98) for outdated computers. In cooperation with the local valuta store chains Pewex and Baltona, Atari exported their XL/XE model (1983/84), which had already lost the fight against the C64 on the market, into Poland in the second half of the 1980s (Wasiak 2014b, 134–35). In the Czechoslovak valuta store chain Tuzex, one could buy the obscure Sharp MZ 800 microcomputer (1985) which enjoyed little success anywhere else besides its native Japan (Švelch 2018: 50-52). Likewise, Commodore managed to sell significant numbers of their less successful C16 home computer (1985) to users in Hungary and Mexico in the course of the second half of the 1980s. The most prominent example, however, was the ZX Spectrum which gained a second life in the late 1980s all over Eastern Europe, particularly in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR (as well as its follow-up states after 1991) – a British 8-bit home computer, immensely popular at first, but by the mid-1980s swept away from the market by the C64. (Stachniak 2015; Švelch 2018)

The users may have been very happy with these machines – but they were confronted with the problem that, by the time these computers became popular in their countries, no commercial software was being produced for them anymore. Thus, there were also no more crackers left in the ‘centre’ that were active on these platforms. As the cracking scene was dependent on a steady flow of commercial software to be cracked, the commercial death of a platform caused scene activity on the platform to cease and its protagonists to move on to other computers. Consequently, software peddlers in the ‘peripheries’ could not count on the cracking scene as a software source for these platforms. Both the shadow economies and the subcultural communities that formed around such machines in the ‘peripheries’ did so rather independently from the ‘West’. Transnational contacts and software exchange between ‘peripheral’ regions – e.g. between Czechoslovak and Yugoslav, or between Polish and Soviet users and grey market protagonists – were more important for them than the contacts to (scarce) co-users of these platforms in the ‘centre’. (Švelch 2018, ch. 5; Stachniak 2015, 19; Wlodek Black, n.d.)

There were, however, platforms that were being actively used in the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’ at the same time. This was the case with the C64, which, despite having a hard time to prevail against its cheaper outdated competitors, still had significant user bases in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, as well as Latin America (thanks to the relative proximity to the USA and the resulting possibility of private imports through family members and migrant workers). This was even more the case with the Amiga, which came out only in mid-1985, and could thus develop its user base almost simultaneously in the ‘centre’ and in the ‘peripheries’. Hence, on these platforms there were possibilities for exchange and software transfer between crackers in the ‘centre’ on the one hand, and grey market software dealers and users in the ‘peripheries’ on the other hand.

Setting out for contacts

It is not completely clear how exactly the grey market protagonists in the ‘peripheries’ became aware of the cracking scene as a potential software source. Probably it was through software copies with crack intros that had come into the countries through private imports, or knowledge of the scene that derived from migrant labour networks between ‘peripheries’ and ‘centre’ – e.g. between Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Italy or Mexico on the one side, and Germany, Austria, or the United States on the other (Cervera and Quesnel 2015; Vigo 2016). Primary sources and recollections, however, attest to numerous contact attempts from the ‘peripheries’ directed at the cracking groups in the ‘central’ regions.

Not all those contact attempts were as spectacular as the one retold by a former scene protagonist from Cologne, Germany, a member of the Amiga cracking group Vision Factory: One day around 1989–1990, as his story goes, the group received a letter in their P.O. box, sent by a businessman from the United Arab Emirates asking them for a meeting. After their curiosity had won over their nervousness, the group members went to a high class restaurant where the meeting was to be held. There, the elegant businessman laid out his request: He wished to be supplied with cracked software on a regular basis in order to resell it in his chain of computer stores in Abu Dhabi. Moreover, he asked for exclusive copy protection to be added to the cracked programs to prevent them from being copied by his customers. After some hesitations, the crackers gave in, and from there on they received a monthly cheque worth 2000 German marks for a period of time – money which they would use to sustain their group’s operations. (Subzero 2016)

One could take this for a cock-and-bull story, common among software pirates just as much as among maritime ones – if only there were no mentions of dubious software dealers from the Arabian Peninsula in the contemporary computer press (Butscher 1990), and numerous primary sources hinting at similar, even if less spectacular, contacts.[10] The letter of a Yugloslav software dealer named Dragoslav to the Dutch cracking group 1001 Crew from December 1986 (fig. 1) can serve as an example of how such contacts would take place. The author of the letter, even while being a complete nobody in the eyes of the recipient – a crew that had a legendary standing in the scene and beyond –, emerges as a highly self-confident and determined business partner who knows exactly what he wants, namely “to make good and all-inclusive connection for buying all top new cracked programs”. And as if to make himself appear knowledgeable of scene-internal quality standards, he specifies that he wishes “no freez[e] frame, no icepick” – terms for inferior ways of cracking with the help of hardware tools. (Dragoslav V. 1986)

Figure 1. Letter from Dragoslav V. to Honey/1001 Crew, 15 December 1986.

The taboo surrounding such forms of monetary transactions is so powerful that it remains impossible to establish whether a business relation came out of this first encounter.[11] After all, the cracking ‘game’ was not ‘played’ to generate monetary income, and such practices were frowned upon in the scene’s internal media discourse, as they were considered to further the risk of persecution. At the same time, however, scene members in an underground magazine argued that selling cracked software was, ‘as long as it stays within limit, indispensible for the swappers’ (‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989), that is, for those members of a group whose job was to spread the cracked software via postal networks. This scene ‘job’ brought about rather high running costs – 200 to 300 German marks a month, according to the same authors. (‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’ 1989) The bigger the cracker group and the higher its position in the scene-internal hierarchy, the more were its running costs, even more so from the late 1980s onwards, when spreading software through the post made way for landline data transfers via modem, resulting in either high phone bills or the need to acquire stolen calling card numbers, not to forget the high prices of the appropriate hardware. The monthly sum of 2000 marks which the German crackers received from the Arabian businessman was mostly spent on acquiring modems and other hardware for the group members (Subzero 2016).

However, it was not just the money that made deals with ‘peripheral’ software salesmen attractive for crackers. It was also the appeal of transnational communication, which was not an everyday occurrence in the days before WWW and social media. As a scene veteran remembers, “with […] software we suddenly got a means into our hands […] to make contacts with people in other countries with whom we otherwise would have never gotten in touch.” (MWS 2015) The more far-away and ‘exotic’ such contacts were, the more fascinating they seemed to ‘Western’ teenagers. While top cracking scene members usually were quite picky when it came to software exchange partners in their own region, they were willing to drop their elitist attitude for the sake of an exotic contact. Irata, for example, a swapper from Düsseldorf and one of the most prominent figures of the 1980s German cracking scene, maintained an intensive floppy disk penpalship with a Japanese C64 user. (Irata 2015) From the point of the scene’s barter economy (and monetary economy, too), this contact was useless to Irata, since a contact from Japan, famous for arcades and video consoles but not for home computer games, could not provide him with any new or exclusive software, and, for that matter, did not offer him any money for cracked software from Germany either. It simply was considered ‘cool’ and interesting to be in touch with someone from a country that seemed exotic and far away.

From mimicry to transformation

The software peddlers from the ‘peripheries’, however, could not just rely on their partners’ goodwill and thirst for exotic contacts. They needed reliable sources for freshly cracked software, and thus had to pay for it. Gradually, however, they began to understand the economic principle of the cracking scene, by which outsiders had to pay for software, while members of the scene were able to partake in the internal barter economy. The Arab businessman with his full wallet was rather an exception among ‘peripheral’ grey market protagonists, many of which were teenagers and young adults who peddled software first and foremost because they wanted to have some fresh games for themselves.

Thus, eager to save money, many ‘peripheral’ protagonists attempted to become part of the scene’s internal barter economy by acting like scene members themselves. However, there was often more to it than just a performance of mimicry in order to get free software. Some of the software sellers fell prey to what Roger Caillois, in his writings on the roots of mimicry in nature, described as “temptation by space” (Caillois 1984, 28). Operating in the subcultural milieu and mimicking scene groups, they, in the end, really became scene members on their own right.

This subcultural mimicry took place on different levels – first of all, on the level of etymology. Software sellers began appearing under English names based on typical cracking groups names. In Yugoslavia, names like Yugoslav Cracking Service, North Slovene Cracking Service, Dubrava Cracking Service or Maribor Crackers emerged (see The C-64 Scene Database); in Turkey, as a contemporary computer journalist noted down, one could meet cliques of young software pirates operating under the guise of Istanbul Cracking Organisation or United Crackers of Turkey (‘Amiga Szene Türkei’ 1993). These individuals and collectives did hardly do any cracking in a meaningful sense – after all, there was no original software in these countries that needed to be cracked. The protagonists hiding behind such names were almost exclusively pirate software importers and resellers who obtained cracked programs from abroad and resold them locally. Like ‘real’ cracker groups, however, they added intros to the games they imported, in order to take credit for the import and local distribution of the piece of software, and to promote their business.

These mimetic gestures were aimed both at the local and the transnational audience. The appearance as a ‘real’ scene group was meant to enable the local pirates to enter the transnational networks of the scene and use them on equal terms with those in the ‘centre’. A Turkish contemporary witness describes the motivation for doing so as follows:

The Joker Crew was also running a computer shop called ‘Compushop’ […] Like, originally they are shop but they recognized that being a group has some advantages… […] If you run a computer shop in [these] days, you need software to sell. Where can you find software? There is no thing called ‘original software’. Shops must buy games from groups. Why pay to groups? If you become a group, you can swap and import games for free :) and sell them in your shop. (Vigo 2016)

Unlike the quote suggests, though, this was more than just a masquerade of a computer shop owner to obtain access to free software. The Joker Crew, active between 1989 and 1992, became known to their international partners not just as a software importer, but as a creative computer collective, producing their own software tools and computer-generated music.[13]

Figure 2. Classified ad by “Lonely Cracker Man”, 1987.

The appearance as a scene group was also attractive in the local context, as the customers of the local pirates had already been at least superficially familiar with the cracking scene through the crack intros which they could often see featured in the games they bought. By taking on the guise of a cracking group, the local pirates could provide their products with more credibility. A case in point is a classified ad from Moj Mikro, one of the leading Yugoslav home computer magazines, by a software seller from Zaječar which is now in Serbia (fig. 2). Here, one can observe mimicry going in two directions, mimicking both the professional industry and the cracking scene. On the one hand, the design of the advert is sober and professional, and the logo is clearly inspired by IBM. On the other hand, though, the seller calls himself ‘Lonely Cracker Man’ and advertises his services with the argument that he is “the only Yugoslav group [!] which cooperates with famous European groups” such as Triad or Hotline. (Lonely Cracker Man 1987) The latter sales pitch points to the fact that cracking groups from the ‘centre’ (and their crack intros) functioned as seals of quality – and by posing as contacts of these groups, the local commercial pirates could claim this level of quality for their goods.

Figure 3. Classified ad by “Eagle Soft”, 1989.

These mimetic practices could sometimes take rather excessive forms, such as a Yugoslav seller introducing their street address in their intro as a ‘PLK’ (Yugoslav Cracking Service, n.d.) – the acronym for ‘Postlagerkarte’, an anonymous P.O. box service offered by the German Post which was often used by crackers (Albert 2015), with PLK numbers frequently displayed in German crack intros as contact addresses for the cracking groups. Also, appropriations of groups’ ‘trademarks’ were common, such as in the case of another Yugoslav software vendor (Eagle Soft 1989) not only advertising under the name ‘Eagle Soft’ – the name of a famous US cracking group –, but also using Eagle Soft’s trademark intro, an eagle carrying a floppy disk in its beak, as their logo (fig. 3).

It can be safely assumed that the author of the advert did not ask the original Eagle Soft group for permission to use their logo. However, such appropriations became ‘legalised’ (and the borders between subculture and commercial piracy became even more blurred) in the early 1990s, when internationally operating cracking groups in the ‘centre’ began awarding software market protagonists in the ‘peripheries’ the privilege of being their official regional sections – a privilege paid for in cash. Such franchising practices, reported particularly from Italy and Latin America, were mentioned only as part of gossip and mutual accusations in the contemporary subcultural media (Red Sector 1990; Scorpie/F4CG 1992; DHS/IBB 1992; E$g 1990; ‘Pand(or)a’s Box & Gossips’ 1991), yet oral history interviews (Irata 2015; Subzero 2016) confirm the omnipresence of these practices. Both sides profited from such interactions. For the cracking groups in the ‘centre’ they meant, besides having an additional source of revenue, a growth of prestige: with ‘headquarters’ in regions beneath Western Europe and North America, they could stage themselves as true global players. For the ‘peripheral’ protagonists who resold the software gained through such franchising this meant a growth of prestige as well, which could be used both locally and transnationally: in their contacts to cracking groups abroad, they could act as members of an internationally well-respected group, while in the eyes of their local customers, they were representatives of a global ‘brand’ that stood for quality software.

New sceners

The availability of pirate software both in the Eastern Bloc and in the ‘Global South’ had far-reaching consequences which have already been highlighted in several case studies (Lekkas 2014, 2013; Wasiak 2014b; Marisca Alvarez 2014, 2013; generally: Castells and Cardoso 2012). Not only did the transnational activities of the cracking scene, which (either unknowingly or consciously) supplied the goods for this shadow economy, help advance software distribution to regions that were not covered by formalised commercial channels.[14] The fact that users who were cut off from the global software distribution networks were supplied with software by shadow economies also had long-term consequences: When economic globalisation reached its highest point and copyright laws were adjusted to digital content in the majority of countries by the mid-1990s, the ‘peripheries’ had noteworthy strata of computer-literate users and, thus, the preconditions for the emergence of national IT and entertainment software industries. (Wolf 2015b)

Moreover, informal markets tend to be a fertile ground for the emergence of cultural structures that surpass the actual economic activities (Mörtenböck and Mooshammer 2016, 182). This is the case with a less explored consequence of piracy in the ‘peripheries’: the territorial expansion of the cracking scene itself. In the ‘peripheral’ regions, more and more computer collectives surfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw themselves not as protagonists of the shadow economy, but as ‘scene groups’, i.e. as being part of the global scene networks and embodying the cracker scene’s barter-economic ethos.

Through the visual marks that crackers had been leaving behind in the software sold by ‘peripheral’ dealers, computer users became aware that besides the local pirates and the foreign software companies, there must be some other protagonists involved in the digital artefacts they were using. Many users were fascinated by the crack intros and indulged in speculations about their origins. As a teenage protagonist of the software street markets in Poland recalled, “I think that I thought of [crackers] as… well I think that I imagined them to be basically older than me. […] I was thinking about them as wizards.” (Grabarczyk 2015) While he never had dared to try and contact these mysterious crackers using the P.O. box addresses found in their intros because he did not consider his English to be good enough (Grabarczyk 2015), other users on the ‘peripheries’ were more courageous (Wasiak 2014b, 147). For the aforementioned Turkish contemporary witness, it was already his attempt to get new games as quickly as the shops that brought him in contact with foreign cracking groups:

I was in a shop and buying some games with my friend. I asked the shop owner ‘Hey Abi, how do you import games here?’ He said he was buying games from groups… What? What group? What is group? Where can I find a group? […] While we were talking, a guy entered the shop. Owner: ‘Look, he is one of them’ […] I asked him ‘Hey, I heard that it is possible to bring games to Istanbul via groups’. […] Guy asked if I could write a letter in English… He gave me a disk and [said:] ‘Look, there are some programs called disk-mags [i.e. disk magazines]… There is a corner in the mag called contacts… Look there…. Prepare a disk and copy the thing you like [on] that disk… And send that disk to those addresses you choose’. I went back home like light-speed. (Vigo 2016)[15]

Soon, this teenager would become an important protagonist of the scene in Turkey – a scene which brought forward many groups that didn’t regard themselves merely as local software distributors, but looked for (and found) connections to the international scene. Similar developments took place in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s onwards. The crackers in the ‘centre’ reacted to this at first with bewilderment, like the Austrian scene member who wrote in 1988 under the headline “The East is Coming”: “Have you ever heard of groups like ‘H.I.C.’ or ‘F.B.I.’? Well, these crews are from Hungary!” (Big Ben/Cosmos 1988) Soon, however, as the first Western European teenagers got to travel behind the Iron Curtain, they were excited to meet computer kids who were interested in the same machines like themselves.[16] Quickly, this transnational exchange became a normality, resulting in cooperation projects between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ groups – such as the Transcom & Victory Copyparty, which took place in August 1991, on the eve of the Yugoslav Wars, in the Serbian town of Subotica and was organised by the local group Victory and the Belgian group Transcom. While the former took care of the venue, the latter advertised the gathering in ‘Western’ cracker magazines and organised a trip of Belgian scene members to the event. In the end, the ‘Westerners’ could enjoy a summer vacation and software swapping without fear of persecution, while the locals had a chance to expand their international contacts and meet them in person.[17]

But before such personal encounters could take place, the new scene groups used the international scene diskmags (‘disk-magazines’, digital magazines on floppy disks), and particularly their classified ads sections, to make themselves heard and to obtain international contacts. At the end of the 1980s, one could find in them contact adverts from countries which were neither on the scene’s map nor on the map of home computing altogether in the previous years – like South Africa or Costa Rica (‘Advertisements’ 1989). These new scene protagonists did not only send in adverts. They also contributed opinion pieces and reports on their countries. In the latter, they frequently used the opportunity to write themselves into the scene discourse of barter economy, friendship and meritocracy – and they did so by rhetorically distancing themselves from the local practices of selling cracked software. (Luxury Boy 1990; E$g 1990)

Of course, these new scene groups were confronted with the dilemma that, due to the lack of software industries in their regions, they had nothing to contribute to the scene’s barter economy. As a Turkish scene member wrote in his diskmag article: “In Turkey SWAPPING software is not illegal. That is great. But you can’t find any original [software] here. So there is no chance for the cracking.” (Microchip/TACS 1989) Acting as crackers for foreign groups was not feasible either, as it would have taken too long for suppliers from the “centre” to send them any original software.

Many scene groups from the ‘peripheries’, however, were able to solve this problem: they began to create content that was acceptable as a currency in the scene’s barter economy besides cracked games (Vigo 2016): intros, compilations of self-produced computer music (‘musicdisks’), disk magazines, and, most importantly, demos – that is, programmed audiovisual demonstrations that were not put in front of a cracked game anymore, but were released as stand-alone productions. These new groups came just in time for the differentiation of the cracking scene that was happening at the same time, around 1989–1991, when more and more programmers, graphics artists and musicians who had previously created crack intros began to focus on producing audiovisual content in the aesthetic tradition of the intros. This process of differentiation resulted in a new digital subculture, the demoscene, which retained many of the cracking scene’s practices, aesthetical preferences and ethical traits, yet did not engage in the circulation of cracked software. (Botz 2011; Reunanen 2014; Hartmann 2017) Out of the need to have something to contribute, some of the groups from the ‘peripheral’ regions quickly came to prominence in this new environment as creative computer artists.

Between transnational and local piracy ethics

As mentioned above, many of those ‘new’ scene groups in the ‘peripheries’ used every opportunity to distance themselves from selling software. This made them attractive for those local computer users who felt being ripped off by commercial pirates. At the same time, those who were active in the informal software trade felt alienated and even intimidated by this new habitus: the derogatory diskmag articles against commercial pirates held back those teenagers who had been active as grey market salesmen on a small scale from joining the ‘new’ scene. (Grabarczyk 2015)

This conflict between different ethics of software circulation – the local informal markets and the new ‘imported’ subcultural ethics – can be illustrated using the example of Peru. During the 1980s, the Latin American country’s economy was in ruins and suffered from international isolation. (Oertzen and Goedeking 2004, 98–112) There were no official distribution networks for foreign hardware and software; Peruvians obtained their home computers from relatives in the USA or on trips abroad. In order to meet the demand for spare parts and software, small computer shops began to appear in Peru’s capital, Lima. Due to the lack of official software imports, the store keepers obtained cracked software, mostly from the USA, removed the crack intros, often implemented their own copy protection routines, and resold the software in their shops. (Marisca Alvarez 2013, 2014)

A Peruvian teenager, who later would assume the nickname Mr. Byte, moved to Lima with his parents in 1986 after having grown up in Italy. There he had bought his C64 and received a first glimpse of the European cracking scene. In Peru, he was bewildered at first by the way local entrepreneurs dealt with cracked and re-protected software, but then he reacted in a way he had learned in Europe: Together with some friends, he founded Peru’s first ‘real’ cracking group under the colourful name of Twin Eagles Group (TEG). Unlike other early ‘peripheral’ groups, they were indeed worth calling themselves a cracking group: they removed the copy protection routines from the Peruvian pirate copies, added their own intros to the software, and circulated the newly re-cracked programs widely, drawing the ire of shop owners, but at the same time earning a Robin-Hood-like reputation among local home computer users. Additionally, they were able to quickly establish contacts with cracking groups abroad, and thus often had new software before the local software peddlers had it. Soon, other groups inspired by TEG began to form in Lima, and in December 1991, the first ‘TEG Copy Party’ in the capital was able to attract over 60 participants (‘TEG Copyparty’ 1992). After the Peruvian copyright reform of 1996, which would outlaw the selling of pirate software and drive the local grey market sellers out of business (and, additionally, derive TEG of programs to crack), the group would move on to become a game development collective, releasing the first commercial Peruvian game in 1999.

With their self-confident path from cracking group to national games development pioneer, TEG succeeded in “negotiating their inclusion into global practices of software development and of gaming culture”, as concluded by Peruvian researcher Eduardo Marisca Alvarez (Marisca Alvarez 2013, 5). However, this success story, recently retold by Mr. Byte in a podcast episode (AJ and Nafcom 2014), leaves out one crucial detail that is exemplary of the crackers’ ambiguous relationship with monetary economy as well as the contradictions between the different ethics of software circulation in the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’. While TEG are retrospectively staging themselves as digital Robin Hoods, their own diskmag, released between 1990 and 1992, shows that they had to succumb, from time to time, to the monetary practices of the local software economy. In the interviews and individual portraits published in their periodical, they frankly admitted to selling their cracks for money sometimes. Otherwise, so their justification went, they would not have been able to afford the postal fees for software swapping with their international scene contacts. (‘Entrevista a Mr.ByteTEG’ 1991; ‘Entrevista a Overmind/TEG’ 1991; ‘Entrevista a Hawkins’ 1992) Thus, TEG took on the task of bringing scene ethics from the ‘centre’ into the local context as well as putting Peru on the international scene map. However, in order to achieve this, they had to partake in local grey market practices.


The processes of transformation, exchange and entanglement outlined here still require closer scrutiny. However, this outline already allows to draw some conclusions which embed the topic in wider historiography beyond the history of home computing.

Firstly, the combined study of informal economies and subcultural practices offers a new perspective on the processes of home computerisation, its dependence on political and social factors, and its transnational aspects. Home computerisation appears not as a process that unfolds only between development, research and marketing, but as a bundle of processes which are shaped by (mis-)use of technology and unintended consequences (cf. Söderberg 2010). Also, the findings provide a historical underpinning to Ramon Lobato’s and Julian Thomas’ deconstruction of the stereotype of ‘unproductive’ piracy. (Lobato and Thomas 2015, 59–60) This case study highlights the role software piracy played in the global triumphant march of the home computer – and said triumphant march cannot be reduced to a success story of invention, entrepreneurship and economic globalisation. Furthermore, the analysis of the interactions between the cracker subculture and commercial pirates as well as the consequences of these encounters allow for a history of new markets and industries beyond the narratives of innovation that are omnipresent in the historiography of the computer and IT industries. The new economies that surfaced through the interaction of subcultural and commercial piracy were not shaped by ‘disruptive innovation’, but by multilayered mimetic processes.

Secondly, the findings foreground the role of subcultures in the process of the creation of new markets. In supplying the ‘peripheries’ with software, shadow economy entrepreneurs were not the only protagonists: the contribution of teenagers in the ‘centres’, partaking in the process not primarily for money but for fun and competition, was just as crucial. At the same time, the fact that their subcultural activities had ‘entrepreneurial’ traits raises the question whether there can be observed a change in the character of youth cultures and subcultures corresponding with the appearance of early digital technologies as mass consumer commodities. (Albert 2017)

Furthermore, it is possible to embed the findings of this study into broader questions of contemporary history. It has been often pointed out that the period ‘after the boom’ (Doering-Manteuffel and Raphael 2012), the end of Fordism and the onset of neoliberal policies in the 1980s produced not only victims, but also significant strata of ‘winners’, particularly in connection with the new wave of globalisation (Bösch 2016; Wirsching 2006, 442). Computer kids expanding their subculture into new territories and even making some pocket money out of this can surely be considered a prime example of such ‘winner’ strata beyond the political and financial elites, benefitting from the structural interruptions of late-Cold War societies. Enterprising computer enthusiasts – both crackers and unofficial software vendors – were the ‘winners’ of both the Cold War and early neoliberalism, yet winners whose story still waits to be told and put in context.


All links verified 16.6.2020

Contemporary sources

NB: The cracker magazines mentioned here can be found and downloaded from http://www.demozoo.org.

‘Advertisements’. 1989. Bad Tongue, no. 5.

‘Amiga Szene Türkei’. 1993. Amiga Special, no. 2: 61–62.

Belgrade Software Dealer. 1993. BSD Intro. MS-DOS. https://demozoo.org/productions/111876/.

Big Ben/Cosmos. 1988. ‘The East Is Coming!’ Illegal, no. 31.

Butscher, Dieter. 1990. ‘Kein Kavaliersdelikt. Raubkopieren kann teuer zu stehen kommen’. c’t, no. 2: 64–72.

Commission of the European Communities. 1986. The Software Industry. Social Europe, Supplement 6/86. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

DHS/IBB. 1992. ‘E$G of Italian Bad Boys – Winterview!’ Bad Tongue, no. 11.

Dragoslav V. 1986. Letter to Honey/1001 Crew. 15 December. https://gotpapers.scene.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/dragoslav_v._to_honey_19861215.jpg.

E$g. 1990. ‘We Scream BBS, We Download to Survive’. Bad Tongue, no. 6.

Eagle Soft. 1989. ‘Eagle Soft [advert]’. Moj Mikro, no. 11: 44.

‘Entrevista a Hawkins’. 1992. Smiling Panda, no. 4.

‘Entrevista a Mr.ByteTEG’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 1. http://www.tegperu.org/tegperu/default.jsp?target=/teg1989/spanda/default.jsp.

‘Entrevista a Overmind/TEG’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 1. http://www.tegperu.org/tegperu/default.jsp?target=/teg1989/spanda/default.jsp.

‘Kawajoe & Geier Interview’. 1989. Cracker Journal, no. 17: 18.

LKJ/Transcom. 1990. ‘The Party in Yugoslavia’. CCCP, no. 9: 4.

Lonely Cracker Man. 1987. ‘Lonely Cracker Man [advert]’. Moj Mikro, no. 10: 63.

Lord Reagan. 1991. ‘Computers, Video Games, IBM’s Etc. in the Soviet Union’. The SCD Report, no. 9 (August).

Luxury Boy. 1990. ‘The Yugoslavian Scene’. CCCP, no. 7: 3.

Microchip/TACS. 1989. ‘A Reportage from Turkey’. Bad Tongue, no. 5.

‘Pand(or)a’s Box & Gossips’. 1991. Smiling Panda, no. 3.

Red Sector. 1990. ‘Red Sector Have a New Mission: To Kill Paranoimia!’ Criminal, no. 1.

Schneider, Boris. 1986. ‘Neues aus dem Sumpf’. 64’er, no. 8: 13–15.

Scorpie/F4CG. 1992. ‘Interview [with Derbyshire Ram]’. Pirates, no. 13: 31–34.

S.W.A.T./Bronx. [1990]. Letter to Jugger/Panic, https://gotpapers.scene.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/swat_to_jugger_199xxxxx.jpg.

Tai, Thomas. 1986. Cracker, Hacker, Datensammler. Softwarepiraterie unter der Lupe. Heidelberg: Hüthig.

‘TEG Copyparty’. 1992. Smiling Panda, no. 4.

‘Transcom Holidays Party’. 1990. CCCP, no. 8: 4.

‘Transcom Party in Yugoslavia!!!’ 1990. Gridpoint Observer, no. 1: 14.

‘World BBS List’. 1994. https://files.scene.org/view/resources/docs/wbl1.txt.

Yugoslav Cracking Service. n.d. 3D Construction Kit. Commodore 64. http://csdb.dk/release/?id=142663.


AJ, and Nafcom. 2014. ‘The Peruvian Scene’. Scene World Podcast. http://sceneworld.org/blog/2014/12/13/podcast-episode-3-the-peruvian-scene/.

Chucky. 2015. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Saarbrücken, 5 April, audio recording transcript.

Dr.J/The Force. 2004. ‘C64 Scene in Israel’. Attitude, no. 7. http://www.cactus.jawnet.pl/attitude/?action=readtext&issue=7&which=5.

Grabarczyk, Paweł. 2015. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Łódź, 24 March, audio recording transcript.

Irata. 2015. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Düsseldorf, 13 December, audio recording transcript.

Lord Lotek. 2003. ‘Ein schöner Traum. Interview mit Hades6510’. Lotek64, no. 7: 3–4.

MWS. 2015. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Heinsberg, 25 October, audio recording transcript.

Newscopy. 2006. ‘Scenetown. A Crash Course in Scene-Evolution’. Recollection, no. 1. http://www.atlantis-prophecy.org/recollection/?load=online_issues&issue=0&sub=article&id=2.

‘Perestroika Software’. n.d. Accessed 17 November 2014. https://zxaaa.untergrund.net/PERESTROIKA.html.

Saturnus the Invincible, and Smith the Software Pope. 2019. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Zurich, 11 April, audio recording transcript.

Subzero. 2016. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert in Cologne, 6 January, audio recording transcript.

the woz. 2009. ‘La escena cracker en Argentina’. Retrocomputación (blog). 4 September 2009. http://www.retrocomputacion.com/e107_plugins/content/content.php?content.15.

Vigo. 2016. Interviewed by Gleb J. Albert over IRC, 18 November, chat log.

Walleij, Linus. n.d. ‘A Comment on “Warez D00dz” Culture’. http://www.df.lth.se/~triad/papers/Raymond_D00dz.html.

Wlodek Black. n.d. ‘Obo mne’.


Albert, Gleb J. 2015. ‘The PLK: A Crucial Communication Tool’. Got Papers? (blog). 15 November 2015. http://gotpapers.untergrund.net/?p=849.

Albert, Gleb J. 2017. ‘Computerkids als mimetische Unternehmer. Die „Cracker-Szene“ der 1980er Jahre zwischen Subkultur und Ökonomie’. WerkstattGeschichte 25 (3): 49–68.

Alberts, Gerard, and Ruth Oldenziel, eds. 2014. Hacking Europe: From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes. London: Springer.

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[1] A legal history of home computing still remains to be written. For precursor debates from the mainframe age on software copyright, see Con Díaz 2016. For the connection between the appearance of new technical media and debates over intellectual property rights, see Dommann 2019. Particularly the debates around the Xerox machine (p. 161–163) are considered by her as predecessors of similar debates over computing.

An early version of this paper was published in German as: Subkultur, Piraterie und neue Märkte. Die transnationale Zirkulation von Heimcomputersoftware, 1986–1995. In Wege in die digitale Gesellschaft. Computernutzung in der Bundesrepublik 1955-1990, edited by Frank Bösch, 274–99. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018.

[2] For a contrarian retrospective view of a scene veteran on this question, see Walleij, n.d.

[3] Bulletin board systems (BBS, also colloquially known as ‘boards’ or ‘mailboxes’) were an early form of online communication which took place outside the Internet. The hubs of this decentralised network were home computers running special BBS software, allowing other users to log in using modems attached to landlines in order to exchange data and messages. BBSs became the most popular form of social networking and data exchange in the cracking scene from the late 1980s onwards, making obsolete the older tradition of ‘mailswapping’, i.e. exchanging disks by the post. On BBSs, see most recently, Driscoll 2014, as well as Driscoll’s contribution in the present volume.

[4] The case of Hungary, where professional game programmers existed already in the mid-1980s, is just an exception that proves the rule: These programmers functioned, with blessing of the authorities, as outsourced manpower for the British industry, and the games they created were not intended for the domestic market. See Beregi 2015.

[5] For some of the rather unsuccessful home computer models developed in the Eastern Bloc, see Malý 2014.

[6] These private imports could take on substantial dimensions: For 1987 alone, the number of home computers privately imported to Poland is estimated at 30.000 (Budziszweski 2015, 401). In Czechoslovakia, the number of ZX Spectrum machines for the same year is estimated to be between 80.000 and 100.000 (Švelch 2018: 52), a substantial number of them having entered the country as a result of private imports and smuggling.

[7] On Poland: Wasiak 2014b. On Czechoslovakia: Švelch 2018. On Hungary: Beregi 2015. Yugoslavia was a special case, as the domestic home computer assembly kit ‘Galaksija’ enjoyed a wide popularity and could, to a certain extend, meet the demand for home computers. See Jakic 2014.

[8] See for the case of Brazil as discussed by the US software industry: Executive Director’s Report, May 1988, in: Brøderbund Software, Inc. collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong (Rochester, NY), box 13, folder 9.

[9] On Polish grey market software dealers and their creativity, see Wasiak 2015. On Argentina: the woz 2009. For an example from Yugoslavia: Belgrade Software Dealer 1993.

[10] For examples from Israel, see Dr.J/The Force 2004.

[11] E-mail correspondence with recipient of the letter, January to March 2016.

[12] For the ambivalence between “groups” and “firms” in the Polish context of the 1980s, see Wasiak 2016, 162–64.

[13] See the group’s entry at the Commodore 64 Scene Database: http://csdb.dk/group/?id=1462.

[14] This effect of the cracking scene’s activity was also felt within the regions of the ‘centre’. See: Wade 2016, 56–57; Wasiak 2014a.

[15] For a similar contact letter from Turkey to a German scener, see S.W.A.T./Bronx 1990.

[16] See, for example, the detailed travel report by a US-American scene member to the Soviet Union in mid-1991: Lord Reagan 1991.

[17] Adverts for the party: ‘Transcom Holidays Party’ 1990; ‘Transcom Party in Yugoslavia!!!’ 1990; travel report: LKJ/Transcom 1990.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

The Rise and Fall of BBS Culture in Finland, 1982–2002

BBS, communication networks, digital culture, home computers

Petri Saarikoski
petsaari [a] utu.fi
PhD, senior lecturer
Digital Culture, University of Turku

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Saarikoski, Petri. 2020. ”The Rise and Fall of BBS Culture in Finland, 1982–2002”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/the-rise-and-fall-of-bbs-culture-in-finland-1982-2002/

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The purpose of this article is to provide a general picture on the significance of the BBS culture from a computer hobbyist perspective. The study will proceed in chronological order from the early stages in the 1980s to the events of the 1990s and early 2000s. The available data on experiences and memories related to BBSes is survey-based. Interviews and some of the original messages from discussion areas are also used. The data support the earlier observations regarding the diversity of BBS culture. The BBS hobby had its own rules, norms and courses of action, and this could also be seen in the playful, constantly changing use of language in the message areas. The data evokes an image of an entirely new type of hobby that was initially met with a great sense of wonder. The sources also talk about the slowdown period of BBS activity, and reminiscing about it has also brought up comments that refers to information network nostalgia. So far, the history of the BBS culture has not been extensively researched, especially in Finland. Therefore, this article is one of the first academic case studies from this subject.


“BBS systems were a window to the outside world and toward different areas of interest. Often, it was impressive simply to log in, or attempt to log in, to a system.” (Kotikone, M, 1979)

The citation above is from a survey (Kotikone) completed in 2013 that collected memories and experiences concerning the popularization of the home computer hobby in Finland. Many respondents who were born in the 1970s and 1980s brought up the fact that, before the internet broke through at the end of the 1990s, BBS (Bulletin Board System) was the first contact with information networks (Naskali & Silvast 2014, 33–34). In Finland, the BBS hobby was at the height of its popularity around the mid-1990s, and BBS systems have been classified particularly significant as regards the cultural adoption of information networks. (Saarikoski 2004, 380–384; Hirvonen 2010, 3–10). The purpose of this article is to provide a general picture on the significance of the Finnish BBS culture from a computer hobbyist perspective. How were users acquainted with the BBS and what kind of activities did they create around them? What memories and experiences have been associated with this activity?

The study will proceed in chronological order from the early stages in the 1980s to the events in the 1990s and early 2000s. I will focus on the adaption of the hobby, its development and the growth of user base and finally examine the rapid decline of BBSes. I also examine the heritage of BBS culture and its status and significance as a “pre-internet”. This case study is a continuation of the research in which we have looked at the life cycle of Finnish network services of the early 2000s. It appears that the infrastructure of Finnish-originated, Internet-related inventions and innovations, which were not strongly considered national, survived longer than individual local, national, or transnational services (Suominen et al. 2017). Finnish BBS culture was more local than global in nature, and it practically almost disappeared in late 1990s and early 2000s. Was this mainly due to the rise of the global internet? What lessons can we draw from its cultural history?

In Finland the hobbyists knew BBS-systems as “purkit” (pots) or “kannut” (cans). Etymology of these slang words is uncertain, but at least computer magazine Printti used the word “purkki” already in 1985 (Ks. Printti 9/1985). This was because the early version of BBS Vaxi, maintained by Printti, was sometimes called “Honey Pot” (with the picture of Winnie the Pooh), and “honey” referred to manufacturer of their BBS server (Honeywell). Supposedly, the hobbyists adopted this word and developed an alternative version of it (“kannu”) sometimes in early 1990s.

So far, the history of the BBS culture has not been extensively researched, especially in Finland. Out of the Finnish academic research on the topic, Mikko Hirvonen’s master’s thesis from the field of digital culture and his scholarly articles (Hirvonen 2007, 2010, and 2011) as well as the author’s own publications (2004, 2009, 2017) are noteworthy. Internationally, there has been research interest in the United States, BBS systems are also discussed in several national publications concerning the history and local adaptation of the internet and information networks. (E.g. Tobler 1995; Argyle & Shields 1996; Driscoll 2014; Morris 2004; Mailland & Driscoll 2017). BBS is also notified in demoscene research (Reunanen 2017; Silvast & Reunanen 2014).

The same applies to its media visibility: former and current computer hobbyists have written most of the history on BBS systems in Finland (See e.g. Skrolli 3/2014; Skrolli 1/2016). The most important reason for the lack of interest is obvious: the level of interest toward the internet and, later, social media, has marginalized the phenomenon. The second factor is the passage of time: over 20 years have passed since the peak of the BBS era, and the systems were a fairly marginal phenomenon in the eyes of the general public. Nowadays, BBS is a curiosity related to the history of information networks that the younger generation, in particular, has not even heard about. Kevin Driscoll has come up with similar observations. He writes about the forgotten history” of information network culture, which researchers have not been dealing with since the 1990s. (Driscoll 2014, 15-18) For these reasons, this article is a case study, focusing entirely on the general history of BBS culture in Finland.

Questionnaires, interviews, and thematic essays have been typical ways of collecting user experiences related to computing. The Kotikone survey mentioned above is an example of an available body of data. It is a continuation of a survey carried out in 2003 (Tiesu) that collected a more extensive amount of information on the memories related to the history of Finnish computing, the use of computers, and the attitudes toward different phenomena within the field of computing (Aaltonen 2004). The available data on experiences and memories related to BBSes received from both surveys was often short and fragmented. This was the main reason that I started a new survey (Komu), focusing solely on the BBS hobby, in the fall of 2016.[1] The purpose of the survey was to uncover qualitative data on the hobby, and, for this reason, most of the response fields were open. In addition to the basic information, the respondents were asked about the starting points of their hobby, its development, and the details of active use. Stories and memories related to the discussion areas were a dedicated section. At the end, the respondents were asked about their memories related to the final phases of the activity.

During the survey, I also completed interviews and gathered available and archived messages from former BBS systems.[2] The amount of collected messages is vast, containing some 12.000 different messages. At the time of writing, the analysis of this material is still in progress; partly due to this reason, this material will be mostly outside of the scope of this article. Still, I am going to use some of the messages as a supportive material and the preliminary analysis based on them in this study. [3] Messages of the BBS can be difficult to access for research purposes. A significant part of the data is still on the hard drives or floppy disks of private computers. Some may have been permanently lost, mainly because of the technical reasons. The disintegration of data began already in the 1980s and 1990s, when the hard drives were often wiped clean because there was not enough storage space. This problem is internationally well known. For example, Kevin Driscoll has noted that programs and files are quite well archived on the Internet, but messages and written text documents – especially from private BBSes – are often hard to find (Driscoll 2014, 22–24). Still, at least some message archives from Fidonet-network are available from Usenet-discussion groups, maintained by Google Groups.

Examining the messages specific research ethics plays an especially significant role. Researchers have also started to pay more attention to the issue in Finland. (Östman & Turtiainen 2016) First, BBS-messages were really not meant to be public and as sources they can be classified as private correspondence. Second, messages were usually written by adolescent hobbyists. Third, most of hobbyists still use the same nickname, so messages can still be linked to a particular user. Therefore, researches must be extra careful when using these messages as sources. At least the nicknames have to be anonymized and certain sensitive issues must be left outside of the research focus, or they must be referred in a very general way. As a method for analyzing the BBS discussions, I have taken advantage of empathic reading of the material (Järvinen-Tassopoulos 2011). In this way, I can protect the writers from any unfavorable publicity, and still concentrate on my original research focus.

Previously, I have interviewed the well-known system operators of large BBSes: Seppo Uusitupa (CBBS Helsinki), Teppo Oranne (Metropoli), Hannu Strang (Vaxi), and Jukka O. Kauppinen (MBnet, Neuvosto-Savo). In order to balance this, I have selected for this article one interview (Jenni Ikävalko) that both provides information on the lifecycle of a smaller BBS (BBS Atom Heart Mother and BBS Kukkaniittu) and describes the role of the female in a male-dominated hobbyist community. As regards theory, I am drawing on research that discusses the stages of cultural adoption of information networks and the cultural history of the computing hobby on a more general level. Especially I will use research done in academic field of digital culture (e.g. Saarikoski 2004; Saarikoski et al 2009; Suominen 2013).

There is a risk that the research will only confirm the information that has been brought up earlier and, unwillingly, create a nostalgic halo around the phenomenon. There is also large potential for errors in interpretation as well as factual errors. The researcher must analyze the responses with critical accuracy and be well aware of the general history of the BBS culture. This problem is very well known within the field of computing history research, and it poses additional challenges, in particular, for researchers who lack personal experience in the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, the collection of survey data may be justified by a second obvious purpose: the survey allowed for reaching the old modem hobbyists and creating a basis for more extensive research. The second justification was the obvious scarcity of surveys that solely focus on BBS activities, especially in Finland.

Adoption of the Hobby

“Experiences and culture from the BBS era, which predated the internet, should be collected. The systems have already disappeared and the people will soon be suffering from dementia.”
(Kotikone, M, 1974)

The enclosed response is very descriptive of the developing age profile of the former modem enthusiasts, which can also be seen in the Komu survey from the fall of 2016. Most of the respondents were over 40 years old or approaching this age. The largest group (79%) consisted of people born between 1973 and 1980, who mostly had their first contact with BBS systems in the 1990s. This result is well aligned with the studies on 1990s BBS history, which state that the height of popularity was in the mid-1990s (Hirvonen 2010; Saarikoski 2004).

Figure 1. Age range and distribution for the hobbyists. The oldest respondent was 59 years old, the youngest was 31. There were a total of 124 respondents. The references are coded this way: 1) acronym of the survey, 2) sex (if mentioned), 3) year of birth and 4) answer order.

Males made up most of the respondents (94.4%), and many of them (38 respondents) had lived in the Helsinki region (Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and the region also includes big cities like Espoo and Vantaa) during their BBS hobby. The respondents were highly educated and a large number of them worked in the IT sector. The respondents born between 1957 and 1972 (24 people) formed a separate group that had had their first contact with BBSes in the 1980s. Respondents born in 1973 or thereafter mostly stated that their first BBS experiences took place in the 1990s. What was this group’s first contact with BBSes like and how did they define their activities?

The generally accepted understanding is that BBS activities in Finland started in the summer of 1982, when Seppo Uusitupa’s CBBS Helsinki was connected to the telephone network (Prosessori 6-7/1982; Uusitupa 1993). The significance of this event may even have been overemphasized in studies and memoirs (Interview: Seppo Uusitupa October 22, 2001 and August 25, 2007. See also Saarikoski et al 2009, 50). On the other hand, this is the earliest known example of an experiment that brought the BBS-hobby to Finland from the United States, where it had started in 1978 (Driscoll 2014; BBS The Documentary Part 1/8: Baud). The history of Finnish information networks had started with the installation of the first commercial modems in 1964, but until the mid-1990s, the government and private sector mainly maintained basic services. There was never any serious attempt to create an ambitious national information network, like the French Minitel, although some projects were launched under the umbrella of information society programs. (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 27, 44–51. See also Mailland & Driscoll 2017) Therefore, BBS hobbyists can be classified as “early adopters” of modems in private use.

Still, Finland had a fairly large number of BBS systems per capita at the end of the 1980s (about 150 systems in total) (Saarikoski 2004, 161). Finnish BBS culture developed in the field of operation of certain telephone companies. One of the main reasons for this was the costly long-distance charges. This is also the main reason why most of the BBSes were located in big cities (like Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo, Turku and Tampere). This was also the case in other European countries (Rheingold 1993; Mailland & Driscoll 2017). According to earlier research, between 1982 and 1985, a large part of the hobbyists were men over 20 years old who either worked for the telephone companies or in the IT business or studied these subjects. Many early BBSes were run by companies in this field, or associations and clubs associated with them (Saarikoski 2004, 39, 41, 44–45). This gradually spread the modem hobby to computer clubs and educational institutions. The phenomenon was widely popularized by the computing press. According to the survey, individual first contacts with BBSes were already made in 1982–1983. But 78% of the “early adopters” date the events “at the end of the 1980s”.

“In 1985. After upper secondary school ended, I was working in my first job in the IT business, and my employer at that time became interested in the possibilities of BBSes for marketing and communications” (Komu, M, 1966 [I])

“I met Jussi Pulkkinen (Sysop for SuoKUG BBS) when doing other business. This may have been in ’83 or ’84. […] This activity was very rare and exotic, and only those who were interested in computers were involved in it.” (Komu, M, 1957)

The responses also show that new technology was exciting and people actively studied it during their free time. It is important to note that the respondents emphasized the significance of BBS use as a tool for expertise and networking. The viewpoints concerning the professionalism that the early adopters brought up are fairly common in the history of computing. On the other hand, the playful and experimental nature of the activities could be seen in the mentions concerning early hacking attempts, where young people had accessed online systems without authorization and set traps for the other users (Komu, M, 1967 [I]. See also Suominen 1997; Saarikoski et al. 2009, 55–56).

The role of BBSes as an exclusive hobby for experts and professionals started to gradually change toward the end of the 1980s. A period of rapid internationalization also started. Based on the data, the popularization of the BBS was significantly affected by the BBS Vaxi (1985–1991) maintained by Printti computer magazine. Vaxi was obviously the most popular BBS in 1980s, gathering several thousand subscribers yearly. (Saarikoski et al 2009, 52–54; Interview: Hannu Strang 11.2.2002). Of course, the professional computer press and club magazines (Prosessori 6-7/1982; Vikki 8/1983) had already covered modems, but the introduction of the home computing press significantly broadened their target audience (MikroBitti 11/1985; 5/1986. See also Saarikoski et al. 2009, 57). According to the responses, many early experiments were made on the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of its time.

“I was reading Printti magazine, published by A-Lehdet, and walked into HPY’s office in order to rent my first 300 bps modem that I connected to a Commodore 64” (Komu, F, 1967 [II])

The response is also indicative of the practical difficulties that new hobbyists encountered. A modem was an expensive piece of hardware. The telephone companies supported hobbyists to an extent, particularly through the computer clubs. The responses include memories related to experimentation with the first modems.

“You called a BBS by using a landline phone: you dialed in the number and listened for the carrier tone. After this, you pressed a button on the modem that took over the line and connected to the remote system.” (Komu, M, 1970, [V])

Nokia modem  VB 312
Picture 1. Nokia started to manufacture modems in the late 1980s. In the picture, VB 312 -modem from 1987, which supported dual speed mode (300 b/s and 1200 b/s). VB 312 was advertised with a slogan ”For hackers and other professionals”. (MikroBitti 4/1987).
Source: Salo Museum of Electronics.

Many young hobbyists first encountered BBSes through a friend or acquaintance before purchasing a modem for their own use.

“The first time I witnessed using a BBS was at a friend’s house in the fall of 1987. His father worked at the local telephone company. [-] We visited some discussion boards, but I have no other memories. It all felt very futuristic – information networks, I mean. Full-on science fiction.” (Komu, M, 1972 [I])

The early experiments in the 1980s were often random by nature. The memories are often vague, and the above response describes this very well. The younger generation, in particular, experimented with BBSes in the late 1980s and only actively started the hobby in the early 1990s.

“In 1988, my father had bought a PC with a 1,200 baud card modem. We used it a few times, mainly to call BBSes that were listed in the magazines (I can remember at least two by name: Kopel Fido and JKL Fido). Both of us were mostly interested in BBSes as sources of files, and my access to the modem was very limited at the time.” (Komu, M, 1977, [I])

The response refers to the Amstrad PC model, introduced in 1987, that had a built-in 1,200 baud card modem. This computer model is an interesting byway in the development that preceded the hobbyist adoption of PC computers, previously intended for professional use. The turn of the 1990s can also be seen in the data as an increase in the significance of the Amiga computer. In Finland, the Amiga 500 model that was introduced as a continuation of the Commodore 64 started gaining popularity in the late 1980s. Based on the responses, the Amiga was fairly commonly used alongside the PC in the BBS circles of the 1990s. During these years, the Amiga was very popular in other European countries too. For example, in both the UK and Germany about 1.5 million were sold, and sales reached hundreds of thousands in other European nations. (e.g. Reunanen 2014; Bagnall 2005; Knight 2018).

“[In 1990, I purchased] an Amiga 500 computer that many of my friends already had. Two of them also had modems that we used to call several BBSes. The ones I remember the clearest are Neuvosto-Savo and Metropoli. There were others, of course, but these were the most popular ones.” (Komu, M, 1972 [IV])

Chanting and Leeching

In the BBS circles, discussions and messaging can be considered the foundations of the hobby from the 1980s onwards. They can be divided into three parts: private messages, chats between two or more people and the actual messages on the discussion boards. File transfers and games, for example, became more important later in the 1990s (Naskali & Silvast 2014). In this respect, the Finnish BBS culture did not differ much in international comparison. (e.g Driscoll 2014, 164–165; Tobler 1995). Many of the terms used in the discussions were English-based, but some of them were only used in Finland. In some cases, hobbyists were known as “kusoilijat”, which was a reference to code QSO (more commonly referred to as simply a “contact”) used by radio amateurs. Still, in Finnish BBS culture the most common slang word for online discussions were “messuilut” (eng. “chants”), and therefore hobbyists were usually called “messuilijat” (eng. “chanters”).[4] This is an example of a slang word which is not used anyone.

“The discussion boards were so full of inside jokes that outsiders were unavoidably left out. However, I have a lot of memories of threads that made me laugh out loud (at least during a suitable sugar rush).” (Koku, M, 1975 [I])

The popular BBSes, in particular, were often full and required constant queuing. Furthermore, different time limits significantly slowed down their use. The technology in use and the high cost of telephone calls also affected the nature of the discussions, in particular at the early stages. Therefore, discussions were a combination of synchronous and asynchronous messaging. The habit of downloading all of the messages at once became more common in the 1990s. The messages were only read once the connection had been closed, and the users wrote their messages offline and uploaded them during the next connection. So-called offline reader software was used for reading and writing messages; the most popular message package format used was QWK. This reader format, originally developed in 1987, was especially popular among the users of Fidonet. The other, also internationally well-known reader format was BlueWave. (Hargadon 2011, 70-71; Driscoll 2014, 224; “What are QWK and BlueWave?”, alt.usenet.offline-reader 2014). There are plenty of references to its use in research data, especially in the 1990s, when material originally published on the internet was transferred to BBSes running on PC and Amiga home computers.

“Since phone calls were fairly expensive, I only spent about an hour a day online; however, reading and replying to the QWK packages could take up to 6 hours or even entire days, if a serious debate was in progress and I had to go to the library or consult my own bookshelves in order to look for facts.” (Komu, M, 1970, [IV])

Picture 2. Main menu of BBS Metropoli (c. 1993). Scandinavian letters (like Ä and Ö) are not working and instead system is placing them with characters | and [.To improve readability, the users are instructed to use letters A and O instead. On the last line, the system is asking the user’s name, a mandatory task before he or she could proceed.

The data contains mentions of hundreds of different BBSes that the respondents had used. The most mentions went to MBnet (49 pcs), Vaxi (31 pcs), Metropoli (15 pcs), Pelit-BBS (9 pcs), Neuvosto-Savo (7 pcs), and Amiga Zone (6 pcs). The reasons for this emphasis are undoubtedly that these BBSes were also among the most popular ones (Saarikoski 2004, 380–381). Otherwise, the data contains plenty of individual mentions of BBSes. The names that hobbyists invented for their BBSes make for fascinating reading and indicate an in-depth knowledge of fantasy and horror literature, or were otherwise quite innovative: Shadow Gate, Shoggoth’s Nest/Protoplasma, Dragon’s Nest, Chicken’s World, Snowfall, Gaia, Underworld Fortress, and Turbohyttynen (translated as “Turbomosquito”, a clear reference to whimpering sound of a modem).

Picture 3. Main menu of BBS BCG-Box. “Yleiset komennot” (main commands) were usually a combination of Finnish and English. For example, <COM>: send message to Sysop, <CHAT>: real time discussion tool, <WHO>, who is online and <G> quit and go offline. Source: Ville-Matias Heikkilä / Skrolli.

The data supports the earlier observations concerning the important role of the message and discussion areas in BBSes (Hirvonen 2010, 24). Based on word searches, 54% of the respondents emphasized the importance of message and discussion areas. On the other hand, the responses also indicate how the hobbyists’ interests started to diverge during the first half of the 1990s the latest. 58% of all the respondents emphasized that files were the primary motive for calling BBSes. Out of the other available activities, only 15% of the responses emphasized the importance of online games. However, for some users, participating in the discussions was not at all important or they have no memories of it. Active participation in the discussions was widely respected, and BBS system operators commonly requested it. Simply downloading files without much message activity (so called “leeching”) was even frowned upon, and Sysops limited passive users’ access to the file areas. These rules were usually written on the index-pages of BBSes. (Kauppinen 2008, www.byterapers.scene.org). Based on the data, downloading files was especially popular among respondents born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the responses discuss software piracy in a fairly indirect manner. “Beautiful warez memories of downloading games all night with the modem.” (Komu, M, 1978 [VII])

The term “piracy” is only directly used in four responses. As a social activity, piracy in the BBS world was a significant shift from the earlier means of copying and trading software that made use of letter correspondence and meet-ups in person. Copies of commercial software could spread quickly from one BBS to another inside Finland, and as international connections developed, international software trading also started to increase. In countries like United States BBS-piracy was already common in early 1980s. (Sterling 1993, 84; Bennahum 1998, 3–6, 82–84). This kind of activity first emerged in Finnish BBSes during the late 1980s, and the activity was already well established in the early 1990s. It is noteworthy that, at this time, the Finnish police first became interested and the first seizure of a pirate BBS happened in 1991 (Saarikoski 2004, 329–332). Based on previous research, copies of commercial software – games in particular – were commonly distributed in the BBS world, but there were specific rules and limitations concerning their availability (Saarikoski 2017; Reunanen 2014). The same limitations also concerned the downloading of files in general, regardless of whether they were games, music files, comics, online novels or pornographic images.

However, Mikko Hirvonen has argued in his own study that the division between discussion-oriented BBSes and software-oriented BBSes was artificial, since practically all BBSes engaged in both activities (Hirvonen 2010, 26-27). Software was a type of added value related to the operation of the BBSes. The same BBSs that hosted illegal games were also a platform for active discussions. Similar observations have also emerged in studies on the pirate scene (Reunanen, Wasiak & Botz 2015). Software trading (simply known as “treidaus”) was an important factor regulating file downloads; if you downloaded files from the BBS, you also had to upload new ones. This is generally referred to as the upload/download ratio (or u/d ratio). Later on, this was also a common solution for FTP sites on the internet, but in BBSes, it was more common for the downloaders and the system operator to know each other. Files were commonly zipped, or archived in order to save space, and appended with all of the necessary information.

“Upload/download ratios, zipping all files and including the file_id.diz inside the package, checking in advance that the same file is not already available, and saying hi to the Sysop during your first call to a new BBS.” (Komu, M, 1978 [IV])

In many BBSes, pirated software and piracy in general were nearly taboo subjects, and even talking about them was forbidden. For example, the rules of the BBS could state that “Discussions on piracy, copying or cracking are NOT allowed.” (Komu, M, 1977 [III]) In commercial BBSes, such as MBnet maintained by the MikroBitti magazine, it was natural for the rules on piracy to be strict, but the data does not clearly indicate why piracy gave rise to censorship even in hobbyist BBSes. One potential reason might be the profiling of BBSes; certain systems wanted to develop according to a specific set of rules and norms. According to my personal interpretation, as well as previous research, software piracy was – at least partly – considered “mass culture”; it attracted a large number of young, fairly inexperienced users who concentrated on downloading software and were, in a way, also seen as a nuisance.

“The BBSes that you used for downloading files were a different category. They did not invoke a personal relationship. However, the other BBSes created a rather lively, small social world where members got together during meet-ups.” (Komu, M, 1979 [IV])

“In a way, we made fun of the trading culture. It was sort of a counter-reaction to it. It was a time of elitism; we were young and unconditional, as you often are at that age.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

The attitudes toward pirated software, in particular, divided the computer hobbyists, and emotional discussions on the topic could be seen even in the mail columns of computer game magazines (Saarikoski 2012). In this respect, the BBS piracy of the 1990s was more of an insider activity that had fairly little to do with the current anonymous online file sharing culture (Saarikoski 2004, 331–333).

BBSes were considered to be important electronic meeting points where visitors were expected to interact. When user logged in he or she was supposed to give their full name to Sysop (if calling for the first time) and use that name as a sign of identification, or use a handle (nick name) instead. The most active BBSes could receive thousands of connections per month (Kauppinen 2008). A wide selection of experiences and memories is available concerning the rapid spread and increase in popularity of the 1990s BBS hobby, which lasted until around 1996. The first contact was made at their place of residence, where the hobbyists spent their childhood and youth. Users read about BBSes in computer magazines, then learned about the hobby from their friends and, later, decided to join in themselves. Nearly systematically, the stories bring up the effect of friends, which is also linked to the need for social networking.

“Social interaction and the exchange of information, games, etc. were the most important. The BBS physically bound me to people in my home region; it created virtual groups of friends.” (Komu, M, 1978 [V])

The other feature is that the hobbyists have met on a BBS first and then face to face.

“Finally, the system (Atom Heart Mother, later Kukkaniittu) came to life in December; before that, I had been compiling a group of friends. Some were from the Kuopio scene, and some from Helsinki. The first time we met at a party with a larger crowd was in December ’95.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

The networking occurred between young people living in the same town or neighborhood; later on, contacts were sought from elsewhere in Finland as well as from abroad. The BBSes had a clearly socializing role when young teenagers were looking for a reference group they could not find at school, for example. Jenni Ikävalko, the Sysop of BBS Atom Heart Mother[5] and BBS Kukkaniittu[6], who started her familiarization with BBSes at the age of 14, has provided an apt description of this stage:

“My interests were completely different from those of my peers at school. For example, I was interested in sci-fi and already liked Star Trek and games back then. […] I thought it would be nice to have a place where you could talk and write about sci-fi, exchange short stories, and do other fun things.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

Another emerging characteristic is that networking and finding “similarly minded” friends was a nice surprise for many hobbyists.

“My circle of friends included a lot of people who were interested in computers, so we also used BBSes quite a lot. Most of my friends used BBSes at some point, at least.” (Komu, M, 1975, [II])

“In my circle of friends, this was quite common, since some people had joined our circle from the BBS scene. Of course, they were not in the mainstream; just something a small group of nerds did.” (Komu, M, 1977 [VI])

“A lot; nearly my entire circle of friends outside of school consisted of BBS users.” (Komu, 1980, [X])

The data also contains mentions of long, ongoing friendships that started from the BBS hobby.

“Many of my acquaintances, who work in different fields, are people who I originally met in BBSes.” (Komu, M, 1978, [XI])

“When I became acquainted with the BBS scene, I was a teenager with absolutely no technical knowledge. Through MBnet, I met dozens of new people, and we used to meet up in the Helsinki region and at the Assembly festivals.” (Komu, M, 1982 [VI])

Of course, setting up your own BBS and acting as its Sysop was considered to be the pinnacle of the hobby. Out of the respondents, 48 reported that they were the Sysop or co-Sysop of a BBS. The most commonly mentioned BBS software were the Finnish SuperBBS and BBBBS and the American PCBoard. The lifetime of hobbyist BBSes could vary from a few months to several years; sometimes, the BBS was kept online for up to ten years. The core community within one BBS could be fairly small:

“The core group, I believe, was around ten people. And then there were about twenty or thirty who sort of hung around. There were also lots of callers who only called once or twice.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

At the start of the 1990s, the average age of the users had fallen clearly below twenty years. In this way, discussion areas of BBSes worked as virtual youth clubs. Discussions were moved to specific areas, named by Sysops or co-Sysops. Usually naming policy varied greatly, but there were some common themes. For example “pelit” (games), “skene” (demoscene), “ohjelmointi” (programming), “viihde ja media” (entertainment and media), “koneet” (hardware) and “myytävänä” (“for sale”). Typical problem in discussion areas were that messages started to go “off topic” if Sysop did not modify the thread or was otherwise passive. Therefore, the most common (and usually the most popular) areas were simply classified as “sekalaista” (miscellaneous messages). Often, in these areas the conversation was often quite unrestricted and even confusing, because treads were filled with insider jokes and meta-text (discussions referring to some other discussions or events somewhere else). It was typical that these kind of areas were humorously named “kiipunkakkaa” or “paskanjauhanta” (roughly translated as “cesspool” or “bullshit talk”). Many of these messages contained foul languages and usually “cesspools” were the birthplaces for flame wars and trolling. Sometimes tangled discussion threads aroused frustration:

U1>These chants belong to everyone, so you don’t have to read, just press enter if you are not interested.

U2> Yeah, sure… but this really start to piss me off when 60% of these chants are just shoddy bullshit and nothing serious. Yeah, THINK ABOUT IT. (BBS Atom Heart Mother 14.2.1996)

Furthermore, sources indicate that majority of discussions can be classified as “social interaction”; young people talked about any matter related to their daily lives. The social nature of the BBS hobby could also be concretely seen in the formation of different free-form communities. For many, hanging around BBSes was an important way of spending time that bound like-minded people together and offered young people the chance to meet each other in an unofficial or even entertaining setting.

“BBSes were not a separate hobby. It was a large part of my life in my teens. It connected with everything else that happened back then, such as alcohol, house parties, meeting girls (or dreaming about them!) and the rest of the “weekend culture”. We often started Friday nights at my friend’s house. We would talk about BBSes and “go online” while drinking cheap white wine or something like that and listening to music or the radio.” (Komu, M, 1978 [VI])

The data contains a number of other similar memories, even though the details provided are often scarce. Still, sources contain reports from different parties and meetings, and discussion threads include references to the use of alcohol.

Despite this, the hobbyists used discussion areas to handle serious issues. For example, BBSes were important channels for peer support, and discussion areas contains lots of material where users shared their fears and frustrations:

U1> How in hell I can get so awful result from the math test? b, just b. I’ve never got such a bad result :( All this happened because I accidently read the wrong chapter. Oh, dear… I’m so depressed. Well, luckily it’s time to get some sleep (BBS Atom Heart Mother 7.2.1996)

If someone was sad and depressed, other users could quickly respond: “I hope we can give you some support when you come to meeting today.” (BBS Kukkaniittu 18.6.1999). There are also very serious stories present. For example, one high school student reported that his mate from school had been killed in car accident. He had just come home feeling very confused and shocked. Other users immediately began to give him crisis support via discussion area. (BBS Kukkaniittu 1.10.1997)

The hobbyist groups were male-dominated, and the girls who joined the activities would sometimes gather attention. The women who responded to the survey (8 people) apparently did not consider the gender question to be problematic, and the girls who were accepted into the groups were – at least for the most part – treated in an equal manner. Jenni Ikävalko has stated in an interview that, sometimes, the other users could not believe that she was a girl and suspected that she might be a “fake” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko September 15, 2016). The attitudes could have been influenced by a case that shook the BBS world in the late 1990s where a boy had used a girl’s name, and assumed the role of a girl in discussion boards. This case was infamous and is still remember as a classic example of “role trolling”. This incident also indicates that real names or handles were almost always used in BBSes and fake names were frowned upon. This was also a sign that usually anonymous discussions were not allowed by the Sysops or they were discouraged. (Hirvonen 2010, 90). There are several international comparisons to make. Researchers have pointed out that users had a tendency for this kind of role-playing and if you even changed your gender role, this was usually a very effective, though risky behavior (Baym 1998, 13–15; Blanchard & Horan 1998, 293–307).

From Playful Arguments to Trolling

In the 1990s, as the number of users grew significantly and the average age fell, arguments between users also became more common. Earlier research and interviews have brought up that, in the 1990s, “BBSes became kindergartens” (Saarikoski 2004; Interview: Teppo Oranne, February 6, 2002). The fights, arguments, flaming, and trolling were also familiar phenomena on the BBS side; on the other hand, as the interaction between BBSes and the internet increased from the mid-1990s onward, the arguments also spread from one system to another. In the interviews and surveys, former hobbyists have stressed that flaming and trolling was more common on the internet. This is not necessarily entirely true.

Research suggests that arguments and flame wars were a normal phenomenon related to the popularization of the computer hobby that had already started in the 1980s. Respondents have simple forgotten many negative phenomena related to BBS-hobby. (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014; Hirvonen 2010, 86–87; Saarikoski 2017). In the survey, 75 respondents indicated that they had encountered the phenomenon in one form or another. 38 respondents stated that there were no arguments or that there were “very few” of them.

“Sometimes, the arguments would be very fierce. Those who were most critical in arguments and questioned everything were not generally very well liked.” (Komu, M, 1979 [XII])

“You would constantly see arguments and attempts to determine the pecking order, although this would occur less in BBSes where you had a stronger inner circle and feeling of community. I was fairly active at trolling beginners or people who appeared too formal/conservative; I would use sarcasm, for example.” (Komu, M, 1977 [I])

The existence of different distractions is undeniable, but the attitude toward them seems to indicate a generation gap – for example, older and more experienced users often found that younger users’ behavior was tasteless. The arguments also included a degree of playfulness that outsiders could not always understand.

“There was always some flaming, and trolls as well. When I started the hobby, it took a while to understand their deeper meaning. Many scientific discussions could be led astray, and users who approached the matter in a less logical way often encountered such a degree of hostility that moderators were definitely required.” (Komu, M, 1976 [V])

The role of the Sysop was to act like a referee. If arguments started go beyond certain boundaries, the Sysop could write a warning message to calm down participants. “Stop that bullying right now! It’s not fair, because at least I want to read his chants on my BBS and it’s not nice if you drive him out!” (BBS Kukkaniittu 22.4.1998)

The term “flaming” was clearly imported from Usenet (See more e.g. ”The Jargon File, version 4.4.7”, Usenet), and was far more common than “trolling” in the Finnish BBS-scene. According to my observations, “trolling” become more common as late as 1997. The survey data supports the understanding that, in particular, language that could be classified as flaming was fairly common, but overly provocative arguments were effectively controlled by the principles and rules that the hobbyists had assumed. In concrete terms, this meant that if a hobbyist wanted to be part of a community, they had to act according to its norms. On the other hand, cursing and usage of foul language was also very common.

Furthermore, the majority of off-topic discussions included some sort of teasing. For example, in September 1997, the users of BBS Kukkaniittu had a lively discussion about different music tastes. When one user listed dozens of heavy metal bands among his favorites, his friend said cleverly: “Well, buddy. You are one true HeAVy MeTAL MaNIAc!! :P”. The other user replied quickly: “I listen to some mod and chip music too. Amiga stuff is pretty cool”. His friend continued: “Oh, yeah? What kind of mods? DanCE eUrO PoP? |-(:Θ)”. This kind of writing also show typical linguistic play, and the use of emoticons is was also a good example of how international influences spread from internet to BBS. In Finland, emoticons were apparently introduced in early 1985, three years after they were first used in Usenet. (Fitzpatrick 2003; Saarikoski et al 2009, 218–219).

BBS Kukkaniittu
Picture 4. Example of a discussion thread from BBS Kukkaniittu (24.9.1997). You can see the usage of “chants”-word (“messut”) which was basically the synonym of “discussions”. Area is a new one so users ponder how the discussions should go on, what kind of rules you should follow, and then the Sysop writes: “Rules of Laudat-discussion area are: 1. Do not use capital letters, 2. Do not write flaming messages about Windows, Quake and do not criticize me. If you do not follow these rules: 1. I will first give you a private warning message, 2. then I will give you a public warning, and 3. finally (if even this doesn´t work) I will tell your mommy”.

BBS administrators, or Sysops (sometimes helped by co-Sysops), could easily remove, or ban, a troublemaking user from the BBS. However, it was far more common for the Sysops to moderate the discussion threads. The most typical target for slander and sarcasm was a young, inexperienced hobbyist who would be “asking stupid questions” on the discussion boards. Another typical scenario was one where someone was being “too smart” and aggressively questioning the views presented by others.

Usually in computer subcultures, users were divided into “outsiders” and “insiders”. Subcultures were often very competitive, which is marked by the distinction between “elites” and “lamers”, actively used in subcultures like the demoscene (Reunanen 2017; Reunanen & Silvast 2009). Archived messages from BBSes are literally filled with this kind of discussions. Synonyms for lamer were “laama” (lama) and “luuseri” (loser) which were also frequently used. Normally, if you were a new user and you were not familiar with the rules of BBSes, there was a good chance that older users labeled you as a “lamer”. The growing number of hobbyists online also fueled this kind of behavior. For example, computer magazine MikroBitti had launched the subscribers’ MBnet service in 1994 and the BBS had become very popular, gathering thousands of new users. In February 1995 – only a few months after the opening of the MBnet – the userbase had already reached 5000. At the end of the year, the number had increased to 15,000 users. At the top of its popularity in the late 1990s, the service had over 32,000 registered users. While operating at full capacity, the service had 250 nodes in use. (Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Hirvonen 2010)

Older hobbyists constantly mocked the new and usually inexperienced users of MBnet. In some BBSes there where even discussion areas where this kind of activity was very common. One good example is from BBS Atom Heart Mother, where one area was simply named “fukken lamerz” (fucking lamers).

U1> “Some lamers from MBnet are sending me messages and asking “how have you created that fucking awesome ansi-animation??” Pah, just stupid” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 27.6.1997)

One interesting, national feature was the usage of term “peelo”, which became common from 1995 onwards. Based on some sources (PeeloFAQ 1998; Pelupaketti 2008), the term emerged in Freenet Finland during 1995. Freenet was a state-funded internet service aimed at teachers, schoolchildren and their parents. The operating model was mainly copied from the USA and Canada. In both countries, a large number of free services (Free-Net) was created alongside commercial services for various communities (Järvinen 1994). Some educational professionals were remarkably active online. One of them (with a user account “peelo”) had written long and critical comments on the grammar errors of certain discussions, but being apparently inexperienced as a computer user, his own writings were full of errors and technically weird formatting. Other users were very annoyed by this kind of behavior. BBS users quickly adopted the term, even though its original meaning was blurred and partly forgotten. At the same time, it was adapted in IRC channels, too. Typically, “peelo” was used to mock users who wrote most of their text in capital, added many exclamation marks, emoticons or used a lot of color in text. This kind of behavior broke several unwritten rules and it was classified as “stupid shouting”. For example, if your starting line was “IT WAS VERY VERY NICE TO CALL HERE… jAm!!! jAm!!”, Sysop could sarcastically comment: “NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE!!!!!!!!!!!! PEEELOOO!!!” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 25.6.1996)

Sometimes hobbyists took still pictures or copied texts as an evidence of “lame activity” and posted them to certain discussion areas. This kind of evidence was called “lame capture”. Discussion areas devoted to this kind of mocking can be clearly today compared to certain discussion groups of social media, where still pictures of humorous, annoying or otherwise “stupid” activity is presented as a joke for others.

Angry discussions emerged also when hobbyists thought that certain Sysops had “too strict” moderation policy. For example, discussion areas of MBnet were constantly monitored by moderators, which were called “sheriffs”. The task was mainly voluntary, so the only benefit the “sheriffs” got was the opportunity to use the biggest BBS system of that time. The magazine did not allow discussions that had any connection with the illegal activities (normally this meant the distribution of pirated software or mp3-audio files). “Sheriffs” also easily moderated discussions if foul language or ongoing flame wars were discovered, and users were frequently kicked out of MBnet. “Banning” (the termination of access rights for a fixed period) was a very effective weapon, because every user had only one hour usage time per day. Many hobbyists were accustomed to flaming discussions and some of them were very critical of “censorship policy” maintained by sheriffs. (Saarikoski 2017)

However, Sysops usually understood that some sort of control was indispensable: “Of course, they want you to behave nicely, and they have the power to draw the limits!! Remember that!” (BBS Kukkaniittu 26.11.1997) Jouni Heikniemi, who worked as “sheriff” for MBnet, remembers that some of the discussions were very naïve and vulgar. Their job was to intervene if the discussions went too personal. (HS 2.2.2017) According to my observations, the term “cybersheriff” was sometimes used in other countries too. In any case, studies refer to the fact that there was a clear need for these official or semi-official moderators (Dean 1997; Post 1995). “Cybersheriff” is a fitting reference to the mythic American West, and how information networks were seen as the new “Electronic Frontier” by writers like Howard Rheingold (e.g Rheingold 1993; McLure 2000).

Although the respondents have tried to downplay the flaming arguments and the effects of sarcastic language, BBSes were sometimes also home to actual bullying, which undoubtedly hurt several younger users. The use of the offensive language was just one way of action. Identity thefts, message flooding and deliberate release of computer viruses were common and often effective methods of bullying. (Saarikoski 2004, 381; Saarikoski 2017).

The user could have been mocked by just what computer or hardware he or she was using. The arguments between Amiga and PC users over the superiority of their computers’ technology received a lot of attention. These arguments, also known as the machine wars or computer wars, had started already in the 1980s and transferred into the BBS world from the letter columns in magazines and circles of friends (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014). Significant changes in hardware ownership also affected the arguments. Low-cost PCs had filled the home computer market after the early 1990s, and statistically speaking, the PC was the most common home computer by 1994 the latest (Suominen, Silvast & Harviainen 2018). Correspondingly, the Amiga lost its share of the home computer market during the latter half of the 1990s, in particular. Based on the survey data, however, the machine wars were significantly toned down by the fact that Amiga and PC users often frequented different BBSes (Saarikoski & Reunanen 2014).

Coexistence of Network Systems and the Final Period

By comparing the data to the statistics concerning the topic and other research material, one can clearly see how in Finland the number of online BBSes grew and, at the same time, the hobby started to divide into dozens and hundreds of different communities. A relatively good overall picture can be gained by looking at the list files that gathered basic information on BBSes, such as their contact information and the services available (Figure 2). The peak years of BBS activity were 1995 and 1996. When looking at the numbers, we should take into account that the survey data includes plenty of mentions of BBSes that are not on these lists. This absence is due to the fact that Finland had a lot of BBSes that had a relatively short life cycle and some that were only available during a specific time of day. One can only try to guess the number of such BBSes, but it is very likely that they do not cause a major deviation in terms of the statistics. The heavy expansion of the hobby was also noticed by the commercial sector. For example, the computer game magazine Pelit started its own BBS in 1993, and the computer magazine MikroBitti launched its MBnet service, mentioned in the previous section, in 1994 (Interview, Jukka O. Kauppinen August 13, 1999; Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Hirvonen 2010).

 Statistics on the total number of 24h BBSes in Finland based on the BBS lists.
Figure 2. Statistics on the total number of 24h BBSes in Finland based on the BBS lists. It clearly shows the rising trend that continued until around 1996 and the dramatic collapse in the latter part of the 1990s. Source: “Elektroniset 24h postilaatikot Suomessa” (Electronic 24h BBSes in Finland) (1990–2004).

Earlier research may have been a bit too quick to conclude that Finnish BBS activities developed mainly on computer hobbyists’ terms. The most stereotypical view is to classify the entire BBS culture as an activity for “nerds” (Saarikoski 2004; Driscoll 2014). The people who have been the most vocal in presenting their memories on the subject have been very active computer hobbyists. As shown above, the survey data seems to support, at least in part, the generalizing narrative of BBSes as the realm of small “geek circles” and technology enthusiasts and, therefore, creates interpretations that are at least partially disconnected from the reality of the BBS field.

BBS lists and other documents suggest that, in the 1990s in particular, there was a wide variety of users who frequented BBSes. In addition to those interested in computing, BBSes also attracted movie enthusiasts, role-players, fans of science fiction and fantasy literature, demoscene activists, music consumers, electronics hobbyists, and computer gamers. It should also be emphasized that BBSes offered a very effective social platform for representatives of different minorities, who were very active to take advantage of this opportunity. For sexual minorities, for example, BBSes were a fairly useful networking tool. Seta ry (LGBTI Rights in Finland) operated a BBS in the 1990s and later moved its activities to the internet. The presence of subcultures and marginal groups proves that BBSes were by no means solely a realm of active and highly competent computer hobbyists (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 102–104; Böök 1989). In this context, it is noteworthy that internationally HIV/AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s made up a significant cohort of early computer network users who used Bulletin Board Systems (McKinney 2018).

Tomi Jaskari (chairman of the Finnish Amiga Users Group) in front of BBS Amiga Zone (June 1993).
Picture 5. Tomi Jaskari (chairman of the Finnish Amiga Users Group) in front of BBS Amiga Zone (June 1993). Picture: Esa Heikkinen.

During the 1990s, the connections between the internet and BBS systems started to tighten, and in practical terms, they coexisted for several years. It is indicative of this that research concerning the global information network culture of the 1990s practically views BBSes as an important area of information networks. Furthermore, during these years many researchers noticed how BBS systems, together with the emergence of internet services, created lively network communities in different countries. There are several case studies published from 1995 onwards (Baym 1998, 12–13, 19; Tobler 1995; Argyle & Shields 1996, 58–60. See also Driscoll 2014, 367). At the same time, there were very few studies investigating the phenomenon in Finland, although the BBS is mentioned as an important example in some publications. (Böök 1989; Järvinen 1994; Uusitupa 1993).

The larger BBSes, of which we should at least mention Metropoli and MBnet, also offered the opportunity to access internet services like email and newsgroups. According to Mikko Hirvonen, the coexistence also benefited BBSes, which were able to “filter” the material available on the internet and offer the best parts to the BBS hobbyists (Hirvonen 2010, 68–69; Interview: Teppo Oranne, February 6, 2002). During the early stages of the popularization of the internet (1993–1996), this also undoubtedly increased the popularity of BBSes.

USRobotics Courier Dual Standard from the mid-1990s
Picture 6. US-based modems of USRobotics (Finnish hobbyists commonly used the acronym ”USR”) were very popular in Finland in the 1990s. Above a USRobotics Courier Dual Standard from the mid-1990s. Source: Creative Commons, Erkaha. In March 1997, a sales announcement of Courier was published in the BBS Atom Heart Mother with an advertising slogan “A perfect modem for BBS-junkies – and even more” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 10.3.1997).

Some of the BBS users initially met the internet with suspicion. “We don’t want any internet around here! Internet is a bad place for chanting, you just can’t be sure who is reading your messages”, was an example of typical critical user comment (BBS Atom Heart Mother 17.1.1996). “Well, reading of usenet news is just fine… But nevertheless, the same kind of community [that we have here in the BBS] cannot be formed on the internet” (BBS SDi 26.8.1998).

Still, popular services like MBnet and Metropoli strongly promoted the co-existence of the BBS and internet, and slowly the attitudes started to change. For example, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was a very popular internet service in late 1990s and it started to attract BBS hobbyists. Real time chatting was so attractive that active BBSes created their own private IRC-channels:

U1> Hey, everyone. Let’s create kukkaniittu-channel for irc! I’m gonna do it tomorrow if I remember. Please, join in! Everyone! #kukkaniittu! =)

U2> Create also a bot, then that channel simply rocks! (BBS Kukkaniittu 16.9.1997)

In any case, the popularity of IRC took place at the same time when the Finnish BBS culture began to internationalize at a rapid pace. It is important to note that international connections had existed for a long time, but the arrival of the internet only made the development more effective.

“The first half of the 1990s was an interesting time for me and my buddies. We traveled to party meetings (Sweden, Denmark, Germany). Fidonet was, of course, important in those days. Telnet was used for downloading latest software abroad – we didn’t have to pay long distance charges. Anyway, in those party meetings, we began to exchange email-addresses and little later started chatting on IRC channels.” (Komu, M, 1973 [X])

The rise of the internet has often been seen as the initiator of the quick decline of the entire Finnish BBS culture (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 68). In reality, the network cultures of both systems coexisted for a fairly long time, and the change was not as significant during the transition phase. Since the 1980s, BBSes had formed local networks or they had been connected to larger, international networks like Fidonet (Driscol 2014, 7, 23–24; BBS: The Documentary Part 4/8: FidoNet). Continuous development of the software used for BBSes also assisted in networking and internationalization (Hirvonen 2010, 32–33). Mikko Hirvonen has referred to this and emphasized that the cultural adoption of the network was, therefore, a process consisting of several parallel events (Hirvonen 2011, 57–58). My own studies support this claim (Saarikoski 2017). Still, in the late 1990s BBSes with their phoneline connections, text, and character graphics started to look antiquated when compared to the real-time, global and graphical internet.

“In the end, the unavoidable situation was that when people moved out of their homes and started their studies, they no longer had phone lines; they could sometimes call the BBS at their parents during the weekends. But they went on the internet, since student apartments had cable modems, ADSLs and so on. That was the death blow.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

Picture 7. Coexistence of the BBS and internet in MBnet, as presented on the international brochure (1999) of the MikroBitti computer magazine. The editorial board picked ideas and thoughts from the discussion boards, and used them as reference material for future issues of the magazine. The number of daily users of the BBS mentioned here is obviously outdated, because the fast decline of popularity had already started in 1998. Source: The Computer Magazine with Attitude 1999.

After the peak year of 1996, BBSes started to disappear. First signs of decline were noticed on BBSes in autumn 1996. “Oh, dear… BADCOPS has ceased its activity, this is very, very sad news… there was so much good chanting going on there” (BBS Atom Heart Mother 22.11.1996)

Statistically, the largest collapse occurred in 1998–1999 (Figure 2. See also Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net). Nevertheless, the most loyal users continued their activities. Still, most of them realized that the marginalization of their hobby was inevitable:

U1> I cannot believe this… even these BBSes have vanished from our area. They were so active before the decline. Where is everybody going? Scene is turning to dead zone.

U2> Yeah, this is it. BBS is a dying folk tradition. You just have to transfer the discussion areas to internet, there is no other alternative (BBS G-point 27.9.1999)

Even the users of Amiga home computers, who traditionally were keen supporters of the BBS culture, moved their activities to the internet. Relationships with international Amiga users were at that stage already very close. Hobbyists actively used IRC, Web sites and email, and the popular BBS Amiga Zone (maintained by the Finnish Amiga Users Group) was connected to the internet. The tone of the discussions was very pragmatic already in 2001. Users were also discussing what kind of net connections were available and how they could improve their activity. “At least my [inter]net connection functions so well, that I have no reason to use a modem anymore ;)”, said one user (BBS Amiga Zone 12.8.2001).

The disappearance of BBSes was strongly affected by a change of pricing by the major telephone companies, Helsingin Puhelin in particular; the new prices were unfavorable to BBS hobbyists who had used the lower local rates at night. As a researcher in this field, Mikko Hirvonen has emphasized that this was a particularly important reason for the demise of the BBS (Hirvonen 2007, 60–61; Hirvonen 2010, 38–39; Saarikoski et al. 2009, 69–70). By the early 2000s, BBSes were practically a marginal phenomenon. Relative changes in the numbers of users could be significant. For example, Pelit-BBS maintained by the Pelit computer game magazine had over 8,000 registered users in the mid-1990s, but by December 1999 – briefly before the system was closed – there were only a handful of users. MBnet – the biggest BBS service ever operating in Finland – was closed in June 2002, when the user base was already virtually non-existent. Still, an official closing ceremony was arranged, and a group of former moderators and active users were present when the red power switch was finally turned off (Ruhanen 2002, bittivuoto.net; Saarikoski 2012, 26).

When comparing the situation internationally, the decline in BBS activity seems to have occurred in roughly the same way and at the same time. For example, the use of the internationally networked Fidonet declined strongly after peaking in 1996, but it was still popular in the mid-2000s. Obviously, the adaption of telnet technology extended the use of BBSes (BBS: The Documentary Part 4/8: FidoNet). National differences were, of course, considerable. For example, the French Minitel was shut down in 2012, after three decades of continuous service (Mailland & Driscoll 2017, 1–4).

My understanding is that the decline of BBS activity in Finland was the sum of many components. The popularization of the internet and the changes in phone call prices were important practical reasons, but it was also a question of changes in use culture and the decline of hobbyist networks. This development occurred over a period of over five years, but after gaining momentum, the process started to accelerate itself. On the other hand, studies indicate the continuity of the BBS culture. For example, IRC channels clearly attracted BBS hobbyists, and many of them continued their activities without major problems. Therefore, it is a simplification to talk about the fall of the BBS culture. New network technology was adopted and the main activities continued. (Saarikoski 2017) This was also seen when new discussion boards (the most prominent one was MuroBBS) and “pre-social media” services like IRC-Gallery and Habbo Hotel emerged in the early 2000s (Suominen et al. 2017).

It is clear that for the BBS communities, which were often born around small circles, the decline in activity was an unpleasant and unwanted surprise. The last messages of BBSes clearly reflected strong emotions like sadness and feeling of loss. One good example is the final message from the Sysop of BBS Kukkaniittu:

> Subj:kukkis R.I.P.

U1> for all those few who can still read these lines. This is the end. Kukkaniittu closes its operations on 30. June. Thanks, it’s been fun… I hope that BBS-scene will continue somewhere, somehow.

/signoff (BBS Kukkaniittu 24.6.2000)

The responses from the survey also contain opinions that repeat the rhetoric of “Eternal September”, which has been brought up in research as well. Originally, this Usenet slang word was used for a period beginning in September 1993, when America Online began offering Usenet access to its users. Interestingly, at the same time, Eunet Finland started its commercial internet services (Saarikoski et al. 2009, 318–319). According to this view, the internet brought the anonymous masses online, sending the network culture into a state of regression or ruining it.

“The internet brought with it the regular people and users who behaved badly in the eyes of those familiar with the old netiquette” (Komu, M, 1973 I])

It is interesting to note that similar opinions had been seen in the BBS world in the 1990s, when the hobby was becoming significantly more popular. When compared to earlier surveys, the tone of these comments has remained surprisingly similar (Aaltonen 2004). This kind of opinions have later recurred on the discussion boards and forums of internet (Arpo 2005). The responses also indicate a clear nostalgia for the BBS, which has also been discussed in other research (Hirvonen 2011, 56–57).

“It was somewhat sad. I can clearly remember when CIA BBBS, a local system in my village, closed down. The Sysop was studying at the University of Technology in Vaasa. The studies took up so much of his time that he decided to close the BBS. Locally, it was a big deal. The end of an era.” (Komu, M, 1980, [XIX])

“Both [BBSes that I used] closed in early 2000, and afterwards, when I got to read some of the final messages in these BBSes, it did bring about feelings of nostalgia…” (Komu, M, 1977, [I])

Many of the responses are bittersweet, and they convey emotions that many people also connect with the end of a specific stage in life. This is strengthened by the fact that many memories related to the BBS hobby are very warm.

“The BBS world was a way to reach out your hand and find out that there is actually someone who grabs it, and there they are, your own people; it felt great to be able to do that.” (Interview: Jenni Ikävalko, September 15, 2016)

But you can also find several pragmatic views (61 pcs.) concerning the end of the activity; there was no time left for the hobby, the equipment became obsolete and the activity had switched to the internet. Mikko Hirvonen has stated that nostalgia regarding information networks always tends to include characteristics that can be considered favorable (Hirvonen 2011, 53). The responses that deal with continuity and progress are clearly a part of this.

“The feeling was nostalgic, since BBSes had been active communities with a strong sense of belonging. However, this was largely replaced by the IRCnet channels where this feeling has been maintained to this day among specific groups of people.” (Komu, M, 1984 [I])

The BBS nostalgia seen today is a part of a larger field of retro culture. Even in Finland, the roots of retro culture, which links with the computer hobby, reach all the way to the 1980s. The aesthetics of old computer games have already been utilized for decades (Suominen 2008). Contrary to retro games, for example, BBS nostalgia has not created an extensive range of new media productions – ANSI and ASCII graphics might be a sideline in this respect (Albert 2017). The restarting of BBSes and the demonstration of operating BBSes at exhibitions are concrete examples of this type of retro culture (Kirschenbaum 2016, 1–2). A handful of Finnish BBSes is still operating via a telnet connection, some of them using original hardware (Telnet BBS Guide 2018, http://www.telnetbbsguide.com/bbs/). Meetings of former hobbyists are common. In addition, former hobbyists are frequently discussing BBS-related topics on the internet. The services preserving the Finnish BBS culture are mainly reflective websites that archive users’ personal memories; some of them contains lots of jokes and humor (e.g. PC-lamerit, http://www.pelulamu.net/cwu/). Skrolli, the mainly volunteer-based computer culture magazine founded in 2012, has published articles dealing with the culture and history of BBSes (Skrolli.fi; Skrolli 3/2014; Skrolli 1/2016; skrolli.fi. See also the international edition of Skrolli).

Neuvosto-Savo BBS
Picture 8. There is some archived BBS-related material available on the internet. Sources consists mainly of contact lists, file areas or screenshots of user interfaces, and some short stories about the history of certain popular BBSes. Above is an advertisement of the BBS Neuvosto-Savo (“Soviet-Savo”), based in Iisalmi and maintained by the famous demoscene group Byterapers during the 1990s. The first lines are slogans: “The last fort of the world revolution. Marxist propaganda at speeds of 300 to 14,400”. This is a typical example of the humorous and sarcastic writing style of the hobbyists. Source: Kauppinen, Jukka O.: Neuvosto-Savon historia (2008).

When discussing the history of the BBS culture, we should also bring out the intimate and personal nature of BBS activity that many respondents felt had vanished due to the popularization of the internet. From a research perspective, the BBS culture appears to be a partly independent and original phenomenon in the history of information networks. To me, this is the most fascinating conflict in the BBS world: at the same time, it was open and aimed at networking, but also closed and private.


It is very difficult – practically impossible – to achieve an overall image of the time period when the BBS culture landed in Finland and developed into a significant field of activity that attracted young people. The sources are dispersed, some have disappeared, and users’ memories have changed over time. However, something can be done; the purpose of this paper was to compile flashbacks of the transformation of the Finnish BBS culture.

Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine a time without the internet: no email, no Websites, and no social media. In this narrative, the BBS falls under the radar of modern network culture: its status and significance as a “pre-internet” must neither be overemphasized nor underemphasized. The development of the BBS culture can be divided into the early period of the 1980s, characterized by the expert nature of the activity and professional improvement, and the 1990s, which can be described as the stage of popularization and diversification of the activities. One could also add the late period that started at the turn of the 21st century and which is still ongoing. The most significant feature is the ways in which young users became familiar with BBS systems and shaped their own use culture on their basis. Thus, it cannot be argued that the BBS culture disappeared in the early 2000s. Instead, it evolved into something else, and the IRC and other internet services like Freenet Finland provided platforms for this transition. The same thing happened in other countries too, but despite this, national differences can be seen. For example, one international comparison point is the French Minitel – except that Finland did not ever have such a strong national network service. Instead, there was MBnet, Vaxi and hundreds of other services available.

The data evokes an image of an entirely new type of hobby that was initially met with a great sense of wonder. The most significant feature related to experiences and memories concerns the socializing role of BBSes: in the 1990s, in particular, young people discovered BBSes on their own or were inspired by a friend, after which those interested in the same hobby gathered together and continued in a larger crowd. BBSes were used to find new friends and acquaintances whom you could also meet personally. Some friendships became permanent. At the same time, connections were opened to elsewhere in Finland and abroad. On the other hand, in the 1990s – even at the peak of their popularity – BBSes were still an activity for specific groups of hobbyists. BBSes were – depending on who defines them – a subculture or a partial culture within the home computer hobby, and above all, BBSes were a network of communities.

The data suggests that communications and the acquisition of files were the two most important means of activity. This has also been emphasized in earlier research. The attitudes toward downloading files were clearly a divisive factor among the hobbyists. Files were exchanged in practically every group, but the most active hobbyists, in particular, looked down upon those who mostly focused on downloading files and did not participate in anything else. The significance of files also brings up the division of hobbyists into different generations; to adults over 20 years old, the activities of teenagers in the BBSes might have appeared to be childish and inexperienced.

The BBS hobby had its own rules, norms and courses of action, and this could also be seen in the playful, constantly changing use of language of the message areas. The hobbyists were arguing and fighting constantly, often in a stinging and hurtful way, but there was also a sense of playfulness involved that reduced the significance of the online insults. Some of the discussion material collected during the research also seems to support this: the nuances of the messaging are hard to decipher for a modern reader if they are not aware of the exact context of the dialogue. For the most part, hobbyists also used their real name or nickname (more common term was “handle”) in the BBSes, which directly affected the conversational habits, since, especially in smaller BBSes, the users knew each other personally.

The data from the BBS lists and the survey support the earlier observations regarding the diversity of the BBS culture. It should also be emphasized that, for many minorities, BBSes offered an excellent communication channel and created a sense of community that was undoubtedly in high demand. This aspect has rarely been discussed in studies, and it would be good to look into this matter further in the future.

The strong male dominance of BBS activity undoubtedly created friction for the few women and girls who were online. Despite this, the data does not present situations where the role of women and girls would have been questioned; apparently, they were welcomed – at least for the most part. Still, this topic remains an interesting but incomplete theme that should be analyzed in much more detail.

The sources also talk about the slowdown period of BBS activity, and reminiscing about it has also brought up comments that fall within the realm of information network nostalgia. For some hobbyists, the advent of the internet and the downfall of the BBS caused unpleasant sentiments. Despite this, I feel that the nostalgic and bittersweet messages are more indicative of changes in life than changes in technology. Young people grew up, became adults, moved away from home, started studying or went to work. The old social circles had disbanded, but users could still meet face to face or on the internet. However, the old BBS magic seemed to have been lost, even though you could still encounter it in newsgroups or on IRC channels and, much later, on social media. For most hobbyists, however, this change did not cause major problems; when purchasing a new computer, they simply disconnected the old server from the phone line and BBS activity just stopped.

Studying the history of the Finnish BBS culture is both a challenge and an opportunity: on the one hand, the research may uncover new information on how modern network culture was born in Finland, but, on the other hand, the research may become so extensive that forming an overall picture becomes impossible. These challenges are also very visible in this article. However, it is the duty of a researcher to compile the results and move forward.


I would like to thank Skrolli magazine, and especially Ville-Matias Heikkilä, for all the assistance they provided. This study is a part of the consortium project Citizen Mindscapes: Detecting Social, Emotional and National Dynamics in Social Media funded by the Finnish Academy (funding decision: #293460).


Archived material is in the possession of the researcher.

All links verified 15.6.2020

Research Material

“BBS: The Documentary”, YouTube 20 Nov 2013. Released by Jason Scott under Creative Commons BY-SA. Original release May 2005. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgE-9Sxs2IBVgJkY-1ZMj0tIFxsJ-vOkv.

Archived material

BBS lists: “Elektroniset 24h postilaatikot Suomessa” [Electronic 24 h BBSes in Finland] (1990–2004).

PeeloFAQ, BBS Finbox, 1998.

Discussion messages (BBS Atom Heart Mother, BBS Kukkaniittu, BBS G-point, BBS Amiga Zone, BBS SDi), 1996–2001.


Jukka O. Kauppinen 13.8.1999.

Hannu Strang 11.2.2002.

Teppo Oranne, 6.2.2002.

Jenni Ikävalko 15.9.2016.

Jouni Heikniemi interview, bittivuoto.net (2002). Retrieved (Internet Archive) http://web.archive.org/web/20030706140915/http://www.bittivuoto.net/artikkelit.php4?kat=haastattelut&id=1. (interviewer: Pasi Ruhanen)


Kokemuksia ja muistoja kotimaisen BBS-harrastuksen valtakaudelta [Experiences and memories from the golden age of Finnish BBSes], 11.8.2016–31.10.2016 (Komu).


Skrolli 3/2014; 1/2016

Prosessori 6–7/1982

MikroBitti 11/1985, 5/1986, 4/1987

Vikki 8/1983

Printti 9/1985


“The Computer Magazine with Attitude” MikroBitti, Sanoma Magazines Finland 1999.


PC-Lamerit, http://www.pelulamu.net/cwu/.

”Mistä peelo-sana todellisuudessa syntyi?”, http://www.pelulamu.net/peelo/, 2008.

Telnet BBS Guide 2018, http://www.telnetbbsguide.com/bbs/.

Kauppinen, Jukka: Neuvosto-Savon historia (2002-2008). http://www.byterapers.scene.org/museum/neuvosto-savo-bbs/index.html.

“What are QWK and BlueWave?”, alt.usenet.offline-reader. March 2014, http://www.faqs.org/faqs/off-line-readers/usenet/intro/section-10.html.

Knight, Gareth Commodore-Amiga Sales Figures”. Amiga history guide. Archived from the original on 2018-09-27. Retrieved 2019-01-20.

”The Jargon File, version 4.4.7”, Usenet, http://catb.org/jargon/html/U/Usenet.html.


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[1] The survey Kokemuksia ja muistoja kotimaisen BBS-harrastuksen valtakaudelta (Experiences and memories from the golden age of Finnish BBSs) (Komu) was open from August 11 to October 31, 2016. There were a total of 124 responses. The survey was promoted through social media, especially important were the Facebook group of the Skrolli magazine and the v2.fi website.

[2] Messages are from the following BBS systems: BBS Atom Heart Mother, BBS Kukkaniittu, BBS Finbox, BBS G-point, BBS Sdi and BBS Abomination. These systems were local, containing some 10–30 core users. On the other hand, data also consisted copied messages from bigger systems, like MBnet ja Amiga Zone. Messages were provided by former hobbyists.

[3] A comprehensive study of these messages was be published in 2019 (Suominen, Saaarikoski & Vaahensalo 2019).

[4] The slang word is a little difficult to translate, because in Finnish “messuta” also includes a reference to “loud talking”. Therefore a person who is “chanting“ is talking continuously and loudly and tries to attract the attention of the public.

[5] The name is a direct reference to studio album (released 1970) by the English progressive rock band Pink Floyd. “Perhaps, the best band, ever”, stated the Sysop in December 1995.

[6] Eng. ”Flower meadow“. “Niittu“ is an old Finnish word, used in Häme region (Tavastia Proper).

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Hobbyist and Entrepreneurs: A Study of the Interplay Between the Game Industry and the Demoscene

demoscene, digital culture, game industry, hobbyists, innovations and development blocks, Sweden

Ulf Sandqvist
ulf.sandqvist [a] umu.se
Umeå University

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Sandqvist, Ulf. 2020. ”Hobbyist and Entrepreneurs: A Study of the Interplay Between the Game Industry and the Demoscene”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/hobbyist-and-entrepreneurs-a-study-of-the-interplay-between-the-game-industry-and-the-demoscene/

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This article investigates the Swedish demoscene in the 1980s and 1990s. The aim is to explore the relationship between the scene and the formation of the Swedish game industry. The scene had a large presence in Northern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, and these are also important years for the formation of the game industry. The scene has a connection to the development block linked to the major innovations in microelectronics and particularly the home computer. This article argues that through a generational effect the individuals born in the 1970s became an important base in the computer hobbyist scene and eventually the game industry. The spirit of collaboration, networking and friendly competition in the scene were likely a main motivator for the young enthusiasts but when they transitioned into commercial production, they would sometimes have to negotiate with the scene to try to avoid its effective non-commercial distribution capacity. Many of the game developers did not pursue longer university education, but it was likely not necessary in the 1990s if you had good computer skills and built a broad network within the scene in your spare time.


It is hard to escape the enormous cultural and societal changes that have followed in the footsteps of recent advances in digital technology. Since their introduction into homes in the 1980s, digital technologies have evolved into an essential part of many people’s lives. Most of us today are continuously consuming and creating digital material via the different devices we use. Games in particular have successfully migrated to new accessible platforms, making digital games ever-present in people’s lives. Hence, their cultural and economic importance has increased. Games are even becoming an important driving force in the development of significant new media phenomena like VoD and streaming.

Among the different kinds of software, digital games are some of the most multidimensional and complex. By pushing the boundaries and utilizing the very latest digital technology, games can encompass a large array of cultural expressions. Game developers will also push and create a need for the development of future digital technologies. Gaming software is more demanding on hardware than many other types of software. Games are often at the digital audio-visual frontier and in a sense the evolution of games is an excellent visual example of Moore’s Law (Moore 1965). However, the game industry has not always been at the very audio-visual frontier. In the 1980s and 1990s, the boundaries of digital technology were also successfully explored by non-commercial groups connected to the demoscene. The scene consisted mainly of computer-interested young men that developed audio-visual artworks at the intersection between digital art, software hacking, piracy and computer games. Over time, some of these individuals moved their focus and attempts to make a livelihood into game development. Thus, in the Swedish case, they contributed to the establishment of the Swedish game development industry (Sandqvist 2012; Maher 2012, 201).

There is a small emergent sphere of research about the demoscene. However, few have focused on the connections between the scene and game development. Hence this article aims to investigate the Swedish demoscene and especially explore the relationship between the scene and the formation of the Swedish game industry. The demoscene had a large presence in Northern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s and these are also important years for the early formation of the game industry and its especially formative years for the global dispersion of game development outside the core production centres in the USA and Japan. This article is therefore a contribution to the understanding of the history of the digital game industry particularly in Europe.

Previous literature and research

The interest in the history of the digital game industry has increased in the last decade and many new projects, books and articles have been dedicated to documenting and describing different aspects of the industry. Even though games and game developers have received a lot of attention, the demoscene is still sparsely investigated. Little has been written about the Swedish part of the scene, which is regrettable as it was likely one of the main hubs of worldwide demoscene activity (Borzyskowski 1996; Reunanen 2010). It seems safe to say that Sweden had a culturally expansive scene with many demo groups, numerous local demo parties and, as a youth culture phenomenon, had at the time a presence in Swedish media.

An interesting historical aspect, especially in relation to the European case, is that the nations that historically have dominated the gaming industry, the United States and Japan, had less lively scenes. The explanation for the division is not clearly technical or economic. Both Japan and the United States had the same if not better conditions than several of the countries in northern Europe. These countries had prominent computer hobbyist cultures, but they were focused on other aspects like the free software movement in the USA (Reunanen 2010, 25).

In the Nordic context, the demoscene played a role in the early development of the computer gaming industry in the 1990s (Sandqvist 2010; Wolf 2015). Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa (2017) have specifically discussed the links and connections in a comparative case study focusing on the Nordic scene and industry. Ernkvist (2007) has documented digital game development in Sweden from the 1960s in a contemporary witness seminar which also included representatives active in the demoscene. However, a broader and more overarching national approach has not yet been utilized.

In recent years there has also been a small upsurge of books about different hobbyist subcultures in Sweden (Goldberg and Larsson 2011; Linder Krauklis and Linder Krauklis 2015; Säfström and Wilhelmsson 2017). They are written by enthusiasts and none have directly described the demoscene, but they are insightful because of the descriptions of hobbyist culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and adjacent phenomena like hacker or gaming cultures.

Even though historical accounts about the demoscene are scarce, in the literature about the Swedish and Nordic game industry there is a strong narrative about the demoscene heritage. Many accounts describe the developers’ background in the demoscene. Typically, the story would be linked to a few currently successful companies and their roots in different demo groups. Goldberg and Larsson (2013, 76–7) write about the Scandinavian scene and the connections to the industry:

Several Scandinavian groups became famous through demoparties – Hackerence and Dreamhack in Sweden; The Gathering in Norway; Assembly in Finland. These events established networks and began collaborations giving rise to the largest export giants of the Swedish game industry. DICE has its roots in a demogroup called The Silents; Starbreeze, who developed the acclaimed games The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness was from the group Triton; and the Finnish group Remedy, known mostly for the Alan Wake and Max Payne, has its origin in the demogroup Future Crew.

These accounts are also frequently chronological and linear in their description of historical events. The developers started out in the demoscene where they learnt several skills that they later transferred over to their successful game development endeavours. Wong (2016) writes about the history of the Swedish game development industry:

From the demoscene days, when hobbyists got together to show how they could do amazing things, developers have always been keen to challenge the limits of hardware and software. Now they are doing the same on the triple-A, casual and indie scenes.

However, many of the reports and stories about the Swedish game industry seem to be trapped in what Huhtamo (2005) calls the “chronicle era”. Most narratives are descriptive, sensationalist and focus exclusively on successful individuals or companies. The game industry in Sweden is also often framed as exceptional and leading. The idiom “The Swedish game wonder” is often used in Sweden, indicating that the development industry is a sensation and presumably unexplainable (Sandqvist 2010). One explanation might be that many historical accounts are written by enthusiasts and journalists who have a direct incentive to present an exciting and selling narrative. They lack a critical distance, analytic depth and do not frame the development within a broader context. This is also a recurring pattern within game and computer history (Fogelberg 2011, 31–2; Guins 2014).

In a broader historical context of game development, the influence of enthusiasts is not a unique phenomenon. The first computer games developed during the 1950s and 1960s were created without commercial interests on the mainframe computers available at different universities (Kline et al. 2003). European gaming development has often grown out of hobbyist and non-commercial contexts where individual enthusiasts have played a role (Izushi and Aoyama, 2006; Saarikoski and Suominen, 2009).

Aim and method

The specific object of investigation in this article is the demoscene and early game industry in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s. The overarching purpose is to investigate more closely the emergence of the demoscene in Sweden as well as the intersection of commercial forces and user-driven cultural production. The main research question directing this research is: how did the hobbyist from the demoscene transition into the early game industry in Sweden? In a broad sense, looking at the demoscene and the game industry enables an empirical study of the socio-cultural and economic processes in the borderland between “independent culture” and commercialism. This can add to the knowledge about the conditions for the development of digital cultures and the relation between user-driven cultural production and commercial forces within the formation of a culture industry. With the increased interest in the game industry this study can also contribute to the understanding of cultural production in relation to the development of the computer gaming industry in a broad European context.

A problem when studying the history of the game industry is that reliable data about the industry is scarce (White and Searle 2013, 34). Few scholars have made comprehensive and reliable data available. This study will utilize a mixed methodological approach, which makes it possible to combine both quantitative (closed-ended) and qualitative (open-ended) material. This article is based on several different data sources: secondary sources, a longitudinal database and interviews with people active at the intersection between the demoscene and the game industry in Sweden. The descriptive macro perspective can be complemented with the more individual and personal stories.

The longitudinal database contains individual data on every employee that have worked at a Swedish game developing company 1997 to 2010. The data is collected by the Swedish statistical agency, Statistics Sweden and originates from several different Swedish agencies (SCB 2016). Researchers can apply for access to this data and the application process involves an ethical evaluation of the different variables to which the researcher requests access.

The interviews collected for this study were made in an oral history tradition (Thompson 2000). The demoscene did not leave much of a presence in any formal documents or public archives, so interviews are one of the few ways to approach this subject. By utilizing open ended semi-structured interviews and a life story approach, the researcher can engage in a dialogue with the source. The interviewee’s story is structured chronologically by the researcher, but the parts collected in this case were focused on the intersection and the transition between the two analytical spheres, the independent user-driven demo development and the commercial game development. The selection of interviewees was made so that it covers both successful game developer entrepreneurs and some that struggled along the way with their first game development endeavours. This choice was a way to circumvent or balance the more common linear hero narrative connected to the history of game developers.

Framing the demoscene and game industry

From a structural analysis perspective, the period from the end of the 1970s to 1990s constitutes a transformation period in a new longer macroeconomic cycle (Schön 2013; Taalbi 2014, 81–5; Sjöö 2014, 97; Sandqvist 2015). These periods arise from new development blocks connected to radical technological innovations, which are often general-purpose technologies. The new technologies are used to create new opportunities in a transformation process that creates many different new products and subsequently new industries will emerge. Such a process ultimately transforms large parts of the economy and reshapes society. An example from the 20th century would be the revolutionary effects generated by electrification (Taalbi 2017, 1442). The 1970s saw the origin of a new cycle and it was largely based on major innovations in microelectronics. This shift is more commonly referred to as the third industrial revolution (Sjöö 2014, 43–4).

For the broader public this meant that new digital innovations became accessible. Smaller and cheaper computers with microprocessors became available during the 1970s and a generation of more user-friendly computers targeting households were introduced during the early 1980s (Ceruzzi 2000, 263; Foster 2005, 18). Reunanen and Silvast (2009, 290) have pointed out that the home computer revolution was a core necessary for the development of demoscene. Particularly the introduction of the Commodore 64 microcomputer in 1982 became of central importance, as it was a machine that the scene essentially formed around.

From a Swedish perspective the 1970s marks the end of an era with exceptional economic growth after WWII, sometimes referred to as the golden age of economic growth (Schön 2010, 321). Sweden had emerged from the global turmoil undamaged and large investments into the industry meant that Swedish companies could produce for the large demand on the European market. Sweden transformed into one of the richer industry nations in the world.

The 1970s and 1980s also mark the height of the politics surrounding the Swedish welfare state. These policies were connected to the long-lasting influence and power of the Swedish democratic left. On an overarching level the Social Democratic Party manoeuvred to find a third way between state socialism and Western capitalism during the Cold War era. The core goal was to create efficient capitalist markets, but through wide-ranging state investments and wide-ranging regulations (Schön 2010, 312). The state came to be involved in many parts of society, from an expansive industry policy to culture and media policies (Syvertsen et al. 2014). However, the ideology of the Swedish Social Democrats was not oriented towards entrepreneurs and small businesses. Well into the 1990s their policies were instead primarily leaning towards expanding the state-owned service sector and supporting the private manufacturing industries, especially the large companies. Smaller firms were not seen as an important factor in economic development and occasionally even discussed as a problem. Therefore, the Swedish economy was regulated to promote the large national companies (Henrekson 2000; Andersson-Skog 2007, 458).

A consequence of the political development and the extensive welfare policies is that Sweden tends to stand out as an extreme in many international comparisons (Rothstein 2001). Sweden had a comparably even income distribution and would score at the very top in comparisons related to social factors/welfare measurements, gender equality, social capital and innovations (UNDP 2013).

The intersection between enthusiasts and commercialism

In the research about digital cultural production, it has been stated that the boundaries between those who create content and those who consume it are being erased (Varnelis 2008; Haggren et al. 2008). There are examples in many different areas such as the myriad of open source projects, the expansion of streaming sites like Twitch or global information gathering projects such as Wikipedia. The thresholds for participating and creating new content have also become lower (Jenkins et al. 2009). As digital technology has shown itself to promote user-driven production, the previously dominant ideas of production and consumption are being eroded as a clear two-sided process (Hardt and Negri 2000; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter 2009, 23; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). This, in favour of new notions of how the roles previously categorized in terms of consumers and producers flow together and interact. These processes encompass both the cultural and the economic spheres (Jenkins 2006; Fuchs 2008).

However, digital technology tends to have two opposite sides: the collaboration-oriented (open-source projects, community production etc.) and the profit-oriented, characterized by major companies like Facebook, Nintendo and Activision. It has been claimed that “colonies of enthusiasts”, rather than large companies, drive creative development forward, and that the new creative cultures can transform capitalism (Rheingold 1994, xxi; Mason, 2008). The demoscene, which could be seen as such a colony, was one part of the larger computer culture, consisted of a loosely assembled network of independent enthusiasts tinkering with hardware and developing new applications. The scene gained a firmer and more stable form through computer magazine, computer gatherings and demo competitions. Its organizational form could potentially also be described as an ”innovation community” (von Hippel 2005).

Within the enthusiast computer culture, many creative groups have not only had different values than those in the capitalist market economy, but also directly argued and acted against making profit of their creations (Levy 2002; Stallman 2002; Kaarto and Fleischer 2005). Nevertheless, there are many examples of commercial incorporation of the ideas, goods and services. In practice, it is often difficult to maintain an absolute distinction between commercialism on the one hand and genuine creativity on the other (Hebdige 1979).

Exploring the demoscene and the game industry

As far as at the historical chronology of the demoscene and the game industry goes it does not materialize in a vacuum. The scene and the industry were parts of a longer evolution connected to the diffusion of computers into different parts of Swedish society. There was for example a digital art scene from the early days of computers and computer production. Svensson (2000) writes that it is possible to define a scene of Swedish computer artists (Swedish: datorkonstnärer) from the mid-1960s. These early forerunners were often born in the 1930s and 1940s and had encounters with the very early computers at the universities or research departments at larger companies and started exploring and exhibiting digital graphics and music from the 1960s (Svensson 2000, 45f). Digital game production has a similar history. Computer games were being developed since the 1950s and 1960s at universities and companies that developed computers, often as showcases for the capabilities of the new machines (Saarikoski and Suominen 2009; Sandqvist 2012). Commercial game development started immediately when the first home computers like the VIC-20, ZX Spectrum and Commodore PET were introduced (Ernkvist 2007; Sandqvist 2012; Sunhede and Lindell 2016).

Growing up with home computers

The Swedish demoscene emerged as a phenomenon during the second half of the 1980s. Renowned groups with Swedish members, like Triad, Fairlight, The Silents, CCS and Phenomena all started out during this era. Some of these demogroups also ultimately started organizing their own demoparties during the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. Recurrent annual and influential demoparties like Birdie, Hackerence and Dreamhack also started during this period and flourished during the early 1990s (Konzak 2015, 460).

The scene was in many ways a new youth movement. In the open Swedish economy digital technology had quickly become accessible for the larger masses and the scene was a way for youths to organize activity around the new home computers. This could be seen as a response to the economic realities of the new machines. New games and other forms of software were expensive and could also be hard to acquire from the commercial marketplace. Simultaneously the new technology was extremely suited for replication and distribution. It is possible to see how it would be appealing to engage in the culture to get hold of games and other forms of software. However, there was also a collective attempt to develop and improve software for the new open hardware. Håkan Sundell (nickname PHS), who became a member of the group CCS (Computerbrains Cracking Service), talks about how he got into the hobbyist culture in the 1980s and the importance of the user community to develop software for the Commodore 64:

The machine [The Commodore 64] that was quite open. Maybe that’s why the machine was so unique. It was possible to expand the functionality. It came with an operating system that was not that good. It was hastily done, so there were always opportunities for improvements. Being able to release improvements made me feel that I have control and you could exchange experience and programs with others and see who could make the best improvements and improve the machine. It was the users who built the application base for that machine. That is quite unique. Today, a PC is delivered with ready to use software. For the [Commodore] 64, it was simply the user who built it. A whole community was built with what they created among themselves. I was into this, you thought it was slow. I wrote a cassette turbo myself. Obviously, I called it PHS turbo. (Ernkvist 2007, 19)

International studies have indicated that most of the participants in the scene were born in the 1970s and early 1980s (Reunanen 2010, 26). Even if the picture is not clear in Sweden, this seems to be in line with the interviews and secondary sources from Sweden. The different demoparties or copyparties in the end of the 1980s and early 1990s were also often held at schools (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 91), indicating that the participants were likely still attending them and thus probably not older than 18–19 years old.

The pattern is the same with the game developing industry, which shows a large dominance by individuals born in the 1970s (see Diagram 1). In other words, the founders of the many companies that emerged in the 1990s were very young when they started out. The average age of the employees was 27 in 1997 and had increased to around 32 by 2010. The pattern that a specific generation can be important to the diffusion of different radical innovations has been described as a “generational effect” in the structural analysis literature (Schön 2013, 103). When new radical innovations are introduced there is a knowledge deficit, since the workforce is locked in the old paradigm. This creates inertia due to a potentially very expensive mismatch in the human capital stock. A new generation that has been growing up with the new technology can possibly mitigate this situation. They can take advantage and even develop the innovations further. In this case the generation born in the 1970s was such an important generation related to software connected to the microcomputer.

Diagram 1. The generations employed in the Swedish game industry 1997–2010.

Parents and computer education

Microcomputers were new and still rare in the early 1980s and the possible benefits and effects of computer usage were not always obvious. A report for the Swedish Commission for Informatics Policy (Swedish: Datadelegationen) in 1984 shows a tentative and ambivalent position towards digital games and their very immersive effect on children (Datadelegationen 1984, 19–20). This ambivalence was likely also true for many parents who were unaware of the future impact and importance of computers. This could even generate tension surrounding the time-consuming computer hobby. The parents of Oskar Stål (nickname Flamingo), a member of the demo group Triad, had concerns regarding the hobby:

My programming was probably not very popular with my mom and dad. They saw me sitting in the basement all the time, even in the summer. They were simply afraid that I would throw away my youth and that it would never lead anywhere. They also became suspicious and wondered if someone was taking advantage of youths by making them struggle with programming all day long. (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 95)

Young computer enthusiasts could have a difficult time negotiating access to the computer. A new opportunity arose for some young hobbyist when the state invested in computer education. The Swedish government decided to make computer science compulsory in the primary school curriculum beginning in the early 1980s. Kaiserfeld (1996, 252) writes, regarding the school initiative:

This change in curriculum was consistent with an ideal of popular education that developed under Sweden’s Social Democrats, who held political power in Sweden from World War II until the late 1970s. Part of this ideal was the belief that education across a wider social spectrum would lead to a democratization of society. Class differences could be eliminated by education, and more knowledge was generally seen as necessary if members of the lower classes were to gain more control of their own destinies.

The generations born in late 1960s and 1970s were benefiting from many of the welfare policies and specifically these investments and a large number of people involved in game development in the 1980s and 1990s would have been enrolled in the new computer courses. Christoffer Nilsson was part of the hobbyist scene and would later start the game development company Atod. He had the opportunity to pass the computer course by doing a special assignment, something that had positive side effects at home:

My mother asked the teacher about the result of the assignment. He said, well there will be no problem for Christoffer to get a job as a programmer with all the knowledge he has. Then my parents understood that it was an occupation, even if it was not a common one. Then the mood changed. Someone with authority had said that this could actually be a job and it was not a waste of time. (Nilsson, Interview 2015)

Håkan Sundell took advantage of the computer courses that were part of his technical upper secondary school education (Swedish: gymnasium). Sundell used a special assignment to develop and maximise an application to compress data:

I studied four years technical [an extended technical program at upper secondary school level], and I did special work just to focus on these principles. There were many who did this, for example, Mr. Z did it. We competed on who could do the fastest and best routines. This competition was really fun. You figured out if you have a 64-code game and pack it, how long did it take to unpack it again? Was it half a second? You sat with a watch and clocked it. Then you felt worried, well yeah Mr. Z has managed to do it a bit faster. Then you had to go back and optimize and count cycles. Could I tweak it a bit more until it got even faster? (Ernkvist 2007, 19)

During the mid-1990s a few upper secondary schools started new niche computer educations. Jens Andersson, was a member in the demo groups Yodel and The Black Lotus (TBL) and worked at Starbreeze, went to one of these first programs and talks about the connecting effect these educations had:

There were only two places in the country, Uddevalla and Forsmark, that offered a computer specialization. […] It was fun, and I met people that today are active in the gaming industry […] there were so few programs available, so those who were driven and most interested came together there just like in the demoscene. (Andersson, Interview 2015)

Looking at the data from the game industry the lack of longer educations is telling of the structure (see Diagram 2). The hobbyist roots are likely in effect here when the early game developers had few formal credentials when working at these new tech companies. In the 1990s roughly less than 10 percent of the employees had a university degree and about 50 percent of the employees were fundamentally autodidacts. Over time the proportion of the autodidacts has decreased and with many new game specific degrees being established at Swedish universities most new employees have degrees.

Diagram 2. Education levels, Swedish game industry 1997–2010.

Conflicts and tensions

The tension between the scene and games has historically been multidimensional. Most young people in the scene were interested in games, but the attitudes were not always overwhelmingly positive, and could even be hostile (Reunanen 2017, 46). Groups would crack games and distribute them so there was a clear material conflict and tension. The Swedish Commission for Informatics Policy discussed the prolific copying of software and its possible negative effect on the availability and quality of commercial software (Datadelegationen 1984, 18–20). For the demo scene cracked games were a major medium for distributing demos and copying games at parties was a common practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Reunanen (2010, 23) has questioned the notion that demo making and game cracking were separated activities. He writes “groups continued the legal and illegal activities in parallel, cracking games and making legal demos at the same time”. There might not have been a clear distinction between a legal demoscene absorbed in digital art production and a shadier cracking scene freely distributing commercial games. Large groups like Fairlight and Triad would have different sections involved in both activities. There was also over time a commodification of cracking and distribution activities via more organised illegal sales of cracked games. Håkan Sundell talks about this development in relation to the Swedish case:

The Swedish [groups] did not deal with that kind of illegal activity, that money business was not present in Sweden. It was abroad, mainly in Holland [The Netherlands], as it was like that, often in combination with the fact that they were dealing drugs and such as well. (Ernkvist 2007, 22–23)

How widespread and organised the market for cracked games was in Sweden is difficult to assess, but it is safe to assume that cracked games were bought and sold by at least some unscrupulous individuals (Wilhelmsson and Grönwall 2014, 85). Whether there was a commercial interest or not, Swedish game developers came up with strategies to possibly negotiate with the crackers and pirates. At Digital Illusions they did not write a strong copy protection for their first game because they figured that it would be cracked anyway. They instead wrote a message in the code pleading to the anyone reading it not to crack the game (Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). When the renowned Swedish group Fairlight cracked the game anyway, they in turn wrote in the intro text that the game was programmed by The Silents:

We are indeed proud to present the AWESOME game to you! This game was programmed by a group of Swedes, better known as THE SILENTS! We strongly encourage you to purchase the ORIGINAL of this game and please do NOT spread the game to any lamers! We are proud to have such talents in our country and we STRONGLY encourage people to BUY THE GAME! (Pouet.net 2019)

This could possibly be described as a “code of honour” within the scene in relation to some of the releases. However, the Fairlight members could not honestly believe that the game would not be distributed among the community of Amiga users. Håkan Sundell talks about how they would receive games from old friends in the scene and how they then acted: “we got originals sent to us when someone who had started out in a cracking group had developed a game. In such cases you simply waited or did not crack it at all.” (Ernkvist 2007, 25).

The tension with the commercial sphere could also by itself lead to unexpected connections and endeavours into the market space. Håkan Sundell was contacted by a Swedish game distribution company that had somehow connected them to the different scene releases of their games. Sundell talks about how the group were asked to make a commercial game for the company:

In fact, in 1985, we did a commercial game, it was for a company called CBI (Computer Boss International), located in Eskilstuna. Christer Nydell [who owned CBI], was at the time engaged in distributing games. When he distributed games, he obviously noticed that there were people who bought games and then released copies. He contacted us and told us that I will sponsor you and make sure you do some more sensible things. (Ernkvist 2007, 21)

Starting a business

In the late 1980s and 1990s game development was still not very professionalized, and games could still be developed by smaller teams. Several demo groups and former members of demo groups transitioned over to game development during this period. For example, Atod, Digital Illusions, Starbreeze, UDS, O3 games and South End Interactive had their roots in groups like Northstar, The Silents, The Black Lotus, Triton, Cryonics and Limited Edition (Sandqvist 2012; Burman 2016; Sunhede and Lindell 2016; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). However, it was not necessarily their first game development endeavours since many members of the demoscene had started out tinkering with games and game development (Ernqvist 2007, 21; Burman 2016, 8). Oskar Burman (nickname OB), member of the demo group Anatomica and later at the company UDS, talks about his first connections with computers and his passion for game creation:

I made games in STOS, a lot of games. I made games all day, or as soon as I got home from school. Some games I developed for a couple of weeks and made them pretty good and some games I only worked on for a day and then I got tired of it. I tried to bundle games that became a bit bigger, so tried to release them somehow. Eventually I tried to sell them. I released three or four compilations with two, three or four games on a floppy disk and there was a menu where you could choose the games. I advertised in Swedish and maybe some international computer magazine. (Burman, Interview 2015)

The young hobbyists that stated to transition into game production had the necessary computer knowledge and had likely fiddled around with game development before. However, they lacked knowledge in other areas and had for example not necessarily acquired business and management skills. Consequently, the young entrepreneurs did not always run their companies as traditional businesses, and some had unorthodox structures. A company like Digital Illusions was organized more like a collective without a clear ownership (Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). At the game developing firm UDS the developers lived and worked as a collective. They rented a small apartment that simultaneously functioned as the company office and living quarters. Oskar Burman talks about the early days of the company:

It was five people who lived in an apartment in Norrköping […] Some of us had unemployment benefits so we got a bit of money that we shared. Someone else had some money which they invested in the company. We had few means, but everyone chipped in and did their part. (Burman, Interview 2015)

The young entrepreneurs also had to link up to the global game market. The lack of domestic publishers has always forced Swedish game developers to connect with international publishers and especially the more established UK industry. Christoffer Nilsson talks about the early experiences as young entrepreneurs in the commercial sphere:

We were inexperienced regarding the language and the business. […] It was a hassle for us when we had to send an invoice in English. It was actually so unpleasant that we only sent one out of two of the instalments. (Nilsson, Interview 2015)

When starting companies, the background in the demoscene had some benefits. One indication of this is that the scene became an important recruiting network for new companies (Tyni and Sotamaa 2014; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). The competition for talented people with computer skills was fierce during the 1990s from companies outside game development (Sandqvist 2012). The development and professionalization of the game industry was also rapid, and the material conditions were changing. Håkan Sundell talks about working with games for many years and how many eventually ended up on different career paths:

We also made games that were almost complete that we never sold, so we continued with the Amiga and the [Commodore] 64 and developed our own tools. We made design for levels and graphics. We built the entire development kit both on the 64 and the Amiga, but we did not have time or money to continue. We made it half way but never finished. […] Most went to upper secondary school and then after school most got something real to do. Then you got work at a company, Ericsson, Volvo or SAAB, and so did you do other things and you no longer had time for it. (Ernkvist 2007, 26)


This article has focused on the hobbyist Swedish demoscene and the interplay between this scene and the commercial forces in the game industry. Everyone born in the 1970s in Sweden with an interest in computers and games was highly likely to encounter the scene. This was also a generation who were born when the Swedish welfare system was at its pinnacle and who could benefit from the high economic development but also from the public sector with extensive social policies like a free education system. However, the state investments into a new primary school curriculum was probably never the large motivating factor or even the primary source of knowledge for young computer hobbyists, particularly not in comparison to the opportunities to socialise, collaborate, network with like minded peers and take part in friendly competition that the different groups and the scene at large offered. However, Swedish teachers might have helped them to envision a future where it would be possible to make a living from what they already did in their spare time. The computer hobby was also a way for young Swedish computer enthusiasts to approach and negotiate a path into adulthood (Nissen 1993, 318). They were young and possessed advanced knowledge that could grant them work and consequently a bridge into the adult world. In the case of game development, some would carve their own path as entrepreneurs and business owners.

Looking back at this part of history, we need to remember that these were teenagers and young adults. As ex post observers it can be beneficial to try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment without idealizing them or their achievements. Though some of the hobbyist were very young they possessed the right computer knowledge and a broad network of like minded people. They therefore had a small window of opportunity to transmission into game business and made use of the chance they got. The sometimes unorthodox and ad hoc business practice could possibly be influenced by their background in the non-commercial demoscene, but could just as well be connected to a level of youthful inexperience. Several of the early companies with ties to the demoscene would struggle or disappear (Burman 2016). However, a few developers, like Digital Illusions and Starbreeze, managed to connect to other more stable and established companies and eventually reached success in the new millennium (Sandqvist 2012; Jørgensen, Sandqvist and Sotamaa 2017). On a general theoretical level, we may refer to this as a successful incorporation into capitalism, but this process required some trial and error.

The data indicates that a large portion of the young computer enthusiasts that went into the game industry did not pursue a university level education. This can possibly be explained by the generational effect connected to the new development block surrounding digital technology. Many Swedish sceners will be found within the game industry but also at other information and communication technology companies. The mismatch in the human capital stock was likely large enough that a formal education or diploma was of little use to the individual at the time. Such a situation probably only arises in a transformation period. The young computer hobbyists could use these circumstances to turn their hobby into companies, professions and careers.

In the literature there are some debates about the social functions of games and the computer culture. Games became a tool to introduce the broader strata and the working class to computers and information technology, henceforth preparing them for the new digital demands of the labour market (Datadelegationen 1984, 19; Arvidsson 2002, 28; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter 2009, 28). Even though the collaboration-oriented scene partly worked against the industry, the scene helped to create and distribute games to the broader masses. Nissen (1993, 332) states that the youth computer subculture in a way also proved to the general population that it is possible to understand computers and master coding and therefore helped creating an interest in computers among the population in general. In this way the demoscene as a colony of enthusiasts might have been less of a counter culture and more of an actor in the creation of the first generation of digitally literate Swedes.

Moving forward there is a need for a more extensive mapping of the scene in Sweden. The historical development, the scale and scope of the scene ought to be studied and analysed more comprehensively. It would also be beneficial to do future inquiries regarding the ideology within the different hobbyist groups and the overall doxa of the scene. This would add to the understanding of the scene in general but also the transition into commercial activities as well as the broader zeitgeist in the 1990s with the transformation of the welfare state. The political context could also make Sweden a relevant case in a broader comparative research effort. The evolution of the Swedish scene and connections with the game industry could be explored and contrasted with dissimilar countries like Germany, Netherlands and Australia. The network structure and the acquired skills were likely similar, but the national contexts could have influenced other aspects like the societal framing and opportunities for the hobbyist moving into commercial game development.


All links verified 16.6.2020


Christoffer Nilsson, October 1, 2015, Interview done via Skype.

Jens Andersson, November 5, 2015, Interview done via Skype.

Oskar Burman, May 25, 2015, Interview done via Skype.


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2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

BBS Worlds. Looking Back at the Swiss BBS Scene of the 1990s

BBS, cyberspace, feminism, modem, Switzerland, virtual communities

Beatrice Tobler
beatrice.tobler [a] ballenberg.ch
Lic. phil.
Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg

(Translation: Julia Gül Erdogan and Gleb J. Albert)

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Tobler, Beatrice. 2020. ”BBS Worlds. Looking Back at the Swiss BBS Scene of the 1990s”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/bbs-worlds-looking-back-at-the-swiss-bbs-scene-of-the-1990s/

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In this contribution, I summarise and reflect on my field research as an ethnologist on Swiss bulletin board systems. Back in 1994-1995, I conducted participant observation in three BBSes during a time when BBS culture was already in decline, yet there was hardly any research done and the topic was novel. My observations differed a lot from the dematerialised, abstract discourse of “cyberspace” that was omnipresent in the mass media of that time.

In this paper, a 50-year-old European Ethnologist is looking back on her 1995 licentiate thesis (Tobler 1995) about computer bulletin board systems (BBSes).

In retrospect I realised that although my topic was new back then, I still stood in the tradition of European Ethnology (Volkskunde) and Ethnology (Völkerkunde). In the 20th century, European Ethnology was often concerned with disappearing cultural practices, while Ethnology was usually dealing with foreign cultures. In 1994/95, BBS culture was both: exotic and about to disappear. The graphical user interface of the Internet, the World Wide Web, already existed since 1991. However, the latter had its breakthrough shortly after my study: Only through the introduction of the Windows 95 operating system did the idea of a graphical user interface – and thus of the World Wide Web – achieve broad public acceptance.

Shortly before these developments, I wrote my licentiate thesis in European Ethnology at the University of Basel about bulletin board systems. I investigated three thematically different BBS and compared their culture of communication.

Why this subject?

I wanted to break new ground with this topic – there was only little research on new media in the humanities at that time. I did not know of any in Switzerland. But part of my motivation behind choosing this topic was to please my father – a programmer who spent most of his working and leisure time in front of the computer screen since the early 1970s. In 1993, he gave me an Apple Powerbook 180 with a monochrome monitor. My twin brother already owned home computers in the 1980s – first a Sinclair ZX81, then an Atari 1040ST, for which he downloaded software from various BBSes. He belonged to the first generation of teenagers who grew up with affordable home computers: They used to code the software they used themselves, swapped software on floppy disks and developed a playful approach to this technology. My brother gave me the impulse to do research on BBSes. I was the typical female counterpart: I only found access to computers through my studies and used my Powerbook as a tool to write my papers. I played in a band that plastered the city with concert posters at night and met my friends in local pubs. We made appointments by calling each other at home and leaving messages on the tapes of our answering machines.

Who used computers for communication before the WWW?

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Internet in Switzerland was still reserved to academic elites, primarily natural scientists. For my field research on BBSes (December 1994 to May 1995), I received access to the university server at the University of Basel. However, I only got access to Gopher and e-mail services, not to the World Wide Web. Also in the following years, the World Wide Web was used only sparsely. In 1997, our European Ethnology institute was one of the first in the humanities to have its own website. At that time, we only had one telephone line. While we were checking our e-mail, we could not use the phone.

Besides the Internet, there have been BBSes in the USA since the early 1980s, which allowed many-to-many communication besides the universities’ networks. In Germany and Switzerland, BBSes were able to gain ground only from the mid-1980s onwards, when there were enough owners of home computers. With Atari, Commodore, Amstrad etc. and DOS computers, the access to BBSes, however, was not a simple task. The early BBS users were mostly young men with an affinity for technology – even in Switzerland. In France, there was the Minitel videotext system, introduced by the French PTT in 1982, which not only replaced the telephone book but also included a lot of information and booking services as well as chat systems (messageries). The terminal was delivered to all households. Therefore, France was probably the first country in Europe where online communication became a mass phenomenon.

I lived only five kilometres from the French border. In Switzerland, however, online communication was hardly part of everyday life in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, the topic was present in the newspapers and magazines at the time.

What shaped the public and academic discourse on the Internet and BBSes at that time?

In the mid-1990s, the media reported a lot about the Internet and computer communication. The picture drawn by the new emerging magazines differed greatly from the experiences I made in the examined BBSes. The German magazine Pl@net titled: “Endlich unsterblich! Avatare und andere Lebensformen im Netz” (“Finally, Immortal! Avatars and Other Life Forms on the Net”) in 1996, WIRED carried essays on “The Ultimate Man-Machine Interface” and “Superhumanism” in 1995, to name only a few examples. The buzzwords “cyberspace”, “virtual reality” or “cybersex” were on everyone’s lips and in the daily newspapers. While talking about it was trendy, most people had no idea and no personal experience with it.

The titles of the academic literature on the subject revealed fears and fascination regarding the imagined new possibilities. Both the media and the academic discourse were fed by the idea of cyberspace as a second world. It was imagined as an immaterial space that promised escape from the materiality of the body and thus from gender, too. This idea originated in science fiction and was adopted by computer geeks who identified themselves as “cyberpunks”, a genre within science fiction. Both fiction and cyberspace provided a space for negotiating hopes and fears of the present.

Confused by the contradiction between what I read about computer communication and what I experienced myself in the BBSes, I dedicated a chapter of my thesis to the “myth of cyberspace.”

How widespread were BBSes in mid-1990s Switzerland?

While the BBSes of the 1980s focused mainly on discussing computer-related topics and downloading software and other files, in the 1990s virtual communities emerged around different topics. According to unofficial BBS listings, there were between 400 and 500 BBSes in Switzerland in 1994.[1]

Most of them were located in the German-speaking cities and in Geneva. The names often revealed the intention or topic of the particular BBS. In Basel, for example, there was a gay BBS as well as one specialised in astronomy, while in Zurich there were BBSes for teachers and boy scouts as well as a “Sexy BBS”. Beside the thematic bulletin board systems, there were many commercial BBSes operated by shops and companies which offered software and files for download. The number of BBSes not featured in these listings and acting underground remains beyond my knowledge.

Like local radio stations, BBS were of short range. (Rheingold 1994: 21) This was due to the telephone charges. In Switzerland, there were local and long-distance tariffs, as well as day and night tariffs. In each of the BBSes I examined, there were a few hundred registered users . A few dozen of them regularly contributed to the message boards. Some BBSes connected to BBS networks. They exchanged their data with other BBSes at night, which made it possible to access discussion boards abroad. The range in Europe was certainly smaller than in the USA due to language barriers within the continent and the higher phone tariffs compared to the United States.

The three case studies

I investigated the following BBSes:

  1. A Christian BBS: the “Life-BBS” in Zurich, which at that time was the only one in Switzerland connected to the “LifeNet”, a German-speaking network of the “Verbund Christlicher Mailboxen” (“Association of Christian BBSes”).
  2. The first German women-only BBS “FEMAIL” in Frankfurt am Main (Germany), which was maintained by the “Softwarehaus von Frauen für Frauen und Mädchen e.V.” (“Women’s Software House for Women and Girls”, a non-profit association) in Frankfurt, as well as the network of women’s BBSes, “FemNet e.V.”, which was founded by the same women. All BBSes which were part of this network granted access to women only, but received additional information from other mixed-gender networks.
  3. The “Chaos-Box” in Liestal (Switzerland), a fun- and leisure-focused BBS with an emphasis on entertainment and computer topics, in which pseudonyms were allowed. It was not connected to any network.

Regarding the religious BBS I conducted my research purely online, as a spectator from the outside. This was partly because my contact with the system operator (sysop) failed, partly because I had little personal relation to the topic. I analysed the discussion boards and evaluated the discussions from November 1994 to January 1995.

In the women’s BBS, the very fact that I am a woman allowed me to be a part of it. Since I had dealt with women’s studies and feminism during my studies, the feminist orientation of FEMAIL and FemNet was familiar to me. In January 1995 I took part in a user meeting and was in contact with the system operators of both FEMAIL and FemNet. I dialled in every two days and wrote my own contributions. Here the sysops and the users knew that I was doing research about BBSes.

The “Chaos-Box” appealed to the more playful side in me, so that I felt quite comfortable there, although I was far from being interested in everything that the BBS had on offer. I participated in a poetry game for a while, chatted with other users and occasionally wrote private and public messages. I also took part in a user meeting. I did undercover research and participant observation under the nickname “Laura Mars”.


Figure 1. Login Screen of LIFE BBS, 26 November 1994.

The two system operators of “LIFE BBS” were programmers. Nicknames were not allowed. The serious tonality of the BBS became obvious already in the regulations:

“Users who deliberately damage LIFE in any way (e.g. viruses, abusive letters, slander, etc.) shall be named in public and banned from the System.

In LIFE BBS, the general rule is ’openness and decency’; anyone may express himself on any subject if he respects the rules of decency. The sysop has the right to inspect the conversations and to intervene if necessary.”

Membership fees were 40 Swiss Francs per year. Once logged in, one could access 46 “conferences” (discussion boards) of the German-speaking religious BBS network LifeNet as well as the general Swiss network SwissLink with 61 conferences. At that time, 35 BBSes were connected to LifeNet among which LIFE BBS was the only one from Switzerland. LIFE BBS also had eight local discussion boards of which users only regularly frequented the main conference. In addition to the conferences, the file area was an important part of the BBS. Software for the operating systems DOS, OS2 and Windows were offered there, but also Bible translations, Bible software, sermons or games such as a Bible crossword puzzle or a game in which one had to tidy up a virtual church. Software for parish administration was offered, too. I analyzed two LifeNet discussion boards: a general discussion board and the “Jokes” board.

In the discussion board, 101 messages were written during the time of investigation, that is approximately 6 messages per day. They were written by 28 different users, including two women. The contributions were all Christian in content. The most common topics were “Jews and Christians” and “Homosexuality”. “Jews and Christians” dealt with the question of whether Jesus was a rabbi, the authenticity of the Bible tradition (question of verbal inspiration), and the question of whether God and the Son of God were one. The discussion on “Homosexuality” dealt with the position of the Bible on this topic. Three men wrote almost half of the posts on this board.

In the “Jokes” discussion board, 68 messages were written in 79 days. Here there were no frequent writers and the messages were also shorter. A total of 25 messages actually contained jokes on biblical and Christian topics, the other contributions debated these jokes, sometimes quite heatedly.

In summary, there were deliberate discussions on both boards, not just quickly written snippets. They were written in a good linguistic style with few spelling mistakes. The goal was not to entertain, but to spread Christian ideas and exchange among like-minded people. On religious boards in general BBS networks such as the German Zerberus network, users didn’t discuss how strictly the Bible should be interpreted. Instead, atheists and Christians wrote about basic questions such as “Does God exist?” or “Will animals go to heaven?”

The Women’s BBS

Figure 2. Login Screen of FEMAIL, 30th December 1994.

FEMAIL – the first German women’s BBS – was founded in 1993 in Frankfurt by two women from an association for women’s computer training. After less than a year, the two separated from FEMAIL and founded the FemNet network. Several BBSes were part of that network. Some of them split off again and founded the WOMAN network together with FEMAIL. This brief outline reveals an internal fragmentation despite the common goal. Women’s BBSes were not about entertainment, but about content and had a socio-political goal: to promote women’s access to new technologies. Both FEMAIL and FemNet were maintained by associations. Already this fact distinguishes them from the private BBSes run by male system operators as well as from commercial bulletin board systems. In women’s BBSes, men were excluded from becoming users. The authenticity of the gender was checked by calling each new member on the telephone after registration. Membership in “FEMAIL” cost 180 German Marks per year, while FemNet charged 150 German Marks.

The users in FEMAIL didn’t write a lot. In the period examined (10th December 1994 to 24th April 1995), there was only one message written on a daily average. The messages were spread over 31 discussion boards. The list of participants included 152 names. Nicknames were not allowed here either.

The BBS network FemNet, which reached more women, was more active, with four to five messages a day. On both FEMAIL and FemNet, the most active writers were the system operators themselves.

The discossion boards of women’s BBSes differed from conventional electronic bulletin boards by containing hardly any discussions, hosting large amounts of information instead. The FEMAIL boards almost exclusively consisted of event announcements such as meetings, readings, lectures, courses or book publications. There was no lengthy discussion in the period observed. There were never more than three replies to a message. According to a system operator of FEMAIL, users were more likely to write private mails than public contributions. According to the aforementioned female sysop, women would only discuss if they knew each other. In the early days of FEMAIL, there was a group of women who knew each other and used the BBS regularly. Men in contrast didn’t need to know each other to hold discussions on public boards. “Men…” the sysop said, “… sometimes write such nonsense and also private things on public boards!”

In the women’s BBSs the contributions were in a written language style. The serious tone was sometimes lightened a bit by adding German feminine endings to all kind of words in a funny way. One board, for example, was called “Compute” instead of “Computer”.

The Chaos Box Liestal

Chaos Box
Figure 3. Message from user “Megaflonz” in the Chaos Box, 26th February 1995.

The Chaos Box was founded in 1991. The users – named Chaoten (chaotic persons) – were mostly students or apprentices under the age of 20, who enjoyed programming or chatting with other Chaoten in their spare time. In May 1995 there were 483 active users registered. Overall, there were 100–200 connections of users to the BBS per day. The Chaos Box could be used free of charge, and nicknames were allowed. Aliases like Technofreak, Cyberpunk, Chaotic or Hacki hint to an identification with the Cyberpunk movement. In addition to the ten discussion boards, the BBS had a chat function as well as a database and a file area where the users offered their self-made ANSI graphics for download showing race cars, advertisements for other BBSes, or topless women. The file library contained various programs for DOS and Windows, including games, tools and learning software.

Chaos Box
Figure 4. The board directory of the Chaos Box.

The BBS maintained a user levelling system not unlike in computer games. New users were called Frischling (newbie), after 30 calls one became a Halbchaot (semi chaotic person). Further levels could be achieved by filling out a questionnaire, by contributing to discussions or by moderating boards. In addition, there were different titles which were awarded due to the activity or by vote, such as Kpt./Käptin (captain, male or female), Meischter/Meischterin (master), Newcomer/Rookie, Pflock/Pflöckin (literally “plug”, meaning a rogue), Mr. Login, Mr. Online or Mr. Average. The usage of the feminine form is remarkable. There were few women in the box, but they were highly appreciated. Even couples found each other through the BBS. Weddings and engagements were communicated and led to many congratulatory messages. There were also fictitious users, for example the agony aunt Eusebia who joined controversial discussions now and then.

The users of the Chaos Box cultivated a kind of insider language with special terms and salutations. Swiss German idioms found their way into the spelling, such as “beschter” instead of “bester” (“best”). In general, the style was mostly spoken language. The content of the messages was casual, entertaining, sometimes a little trivial or even absurd. It was in the Chaos Box that I experienced my first chat. I remember that it was a special moment and I was very excited – even though I cannot reconstruct anymore what exactly was so special about it, as real-time communication has become too normal in my life.


The BBS culture I described in 1995 was about to disappear. At that time, the technology was still complicated to use, including cable clutter and high telephone bills. Nevertheless, the BBS culture still had a bit of pioneering spirit and the Chaos Box still had a touch of cyberpunk. At the time of my research in 1995, the first pocket-sized computers such as the Apple Newton or the Palm already existed, and the fusion of microcomputer and telephone was imminent: the Nokia Communicator, the first smartphone, appeared in 1996, followed by wireless technology in 1997. All these technologies and their combination really brought us into the digital age, where we are connected, always and everywhere.

However, soon after having disappeared, BBSes experienced a revival as a retro culture. In 2001, I organized a retro computing meeting at the Museum of Communication in Berne, in which the hard core of Chaoten and the sysop, Chefchaot Frosch, took part with their BBS. It ran its own terminal software FrogyComm. Even today, one can download the discussion boards of the former Chaos Box and the terminal software from Frosch’s “Chaos Entertainment Communication GmbH” website.

Figure 5. Former Chaoten at the retro computing meeting on 3rd November 2001 at the Museum of Communication in Berne. Photo: Museum of Communication, Berne


All links verified 10.6.2020

Gallagher, Brian. 1994. ‘Swiss List’. Boardwatch 8(3): 108–112.

Rheingold, Howard. 1994. Virtuelle Gemeinschaften. Soziale Beziehungen im Zeitalter des Computers. Bonn: Addison-Wesley.

Tobler, Beatrice. 1995. ‘Mailboxwelten. Zur unterschiedlichen Nutzung des Mediums Computermailbox.’ Licentiate thesis, University of Basel, 1995. http://www.btobler.ch/Mailboxwelten.pdf.


[1] Another Swiss BBS list, not known to me at the time and listing 390 BBSes, was published in the US magazine Boardwatch (Gallagher 1994). I thank Kevin Driscoll for providing this source.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

Demography and Decentralization: Measuring the Bulletin Board Systems of North America

BBS, Bulletin Board Systems, community, demography, history, internet

Kevin Driscoll
kdriscoll [a] virginia.edu
Department of Media Studies
University of Virginia

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Driscoll, Kevin. 2020. ”Demography and Decentralization: Measuring the Bulletin Board Systems of North America”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/demography-and-decentralization-measuring-the-bulletin-board-systems-of-north-america/

Printable PDF version

For many home computer enthusiasts of the 1980s and 1990s, a local dial-up bulletin board system, or BBS, provided the first opportunity to get online, chat with strangers, share files, and play games. But how many is “many”? Was BBSing limited to a few elite geeks, or did it reach broader populations? Lacking any central record-keeping authority, the demography of dial-up BBSs is difficult to ascertain. To estimate the number of systems and the size of the user population, this study draws on a mix of incomplete sources. Regional lists of bulletin board systems indicate the geographic growth of the decentralized BBS network; a questionnaire circulated by the U.S. Census reveals a partial snapshot of the user population; and market statistics published in the trade press reflect its commercial expansion. In spite of their limitations, a statistical analysis of these data provides a first-order approximation of North American BBS demographics, suggesting a scale comparable to better-known contemporary systems such as ARPANET or CompuServe. Further development of this methodology will enable the production of historical demography across networks, regions, platforms, and language groups.

Scale is both a conceptual and methodological challenge for historians of computer networks. Networks with human users are dynamic assemblages of social and technological relationships; uncertain systems living at particular historical conjunctures. We name them and write them into the singular—The WELL, FidoNet, IRC—but these networks are, by definition, multiple. Each network is composed of nodes and subnetworks, communities, clusters, channels and cliques. In order to compare the size, spread, and influence of various networks over time and space, we need common techniques of measurement. But networks of the past were diverse and their platform characteristics resist easy quantification. So, if we want to know how many people were online in the past, where do we begin to count?

For many users today, the experience of getting online is seamless and ubiquitous. Yet, the historical diffusion of networked personal computing was anything but seamless. In the US, adoption of data communications spread inconsistently across social groups and geographic regions. By early 2000, the “information superhighway” had been a matter of public concern—discussed by state leaders and featured on the covers of popular magazines—for nearly seven years but fewer than half of all American adults reported ever accessing the Internet for any reason.[1] Paradoxically, a majority of the active users (61.3%) had been online for two years or longer, reflecting the unequal distribution of access across society. Furthermore, the technical apparatus connecting personal computing devices to one another changed dramatically with the transition from dial-up to broadband networking.

This paper focuses on a period of computer networking history from roughly 1978 to 1998 (Driscoll and Paloque-Berges 2017). Archival sources refer to this period by several different names. In the late 1980s, some bulletin-board system (BBS) enthusiasts used “modem world” to describe the distributed social computing networks they had created atop the publicly switched telephone network (PSTN).[2] In the 1990s, industry researchers, policy makers, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to use the term “dial-up” to distinguish PSTN access from other network media including DSL, cable, and satellite (Delfino 1994). Finally, early representations of the Internet in popular culture used vernacular terms such as “Grid,” “Matrix,” “Metaverse,” and “Net” to evoke a sense of the global information infrastructure as an uncertain assemblage of new and old media technologies.[3]

To home computer owners of this period, the Net was an archipelago; a metanetwork of diverse systems joined by improvised gateways of uncertain reliability.[4] Depending on a user’s social and geographic position relative to institutions of power, densely settled metropoles, and material resources, the Net appeared quite differently. To some users, the Net was a dial-up BBS, perhaps hosted by an acquaintance, hobby shop, or user group (Delwiche 2018; Driscoll 2016). To others, the Net was a commercial information service such as CompuServe, providing access to a rotating menu of databases, games, and communication channels. To still others, the Net was a State-run platform like Minitel, providing access to a variety of third-party services from the familiar to the mysterious (Schafer and Thierry 2012; Mailland and Driscoll 2017). Taken in aggregate, the Net was a decentralized socio-technical phenomenon, unfolding along the diverse telecom infrastructures linking cities and towns across the globe.

Decentralized networks present peculiar challenges for historical demography. Without a single point of entry, nor clear boundaries, nor overarching authority, there were no official record-keeping apparatuses for the Net. Today, there are no institutional archives to explore the vernacular Net, no single set of server logs to parse. Instead, measuring the Net is an ecological problem. Like a naturalist tagging a small number of birds to measure the migration of a flock, we must extrapolate outward from the few lingering slices and snapshots.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a partial solution to the demography challenge posed by decentralized computer networks. In particular, I propose to answer a deceptively simple question: Approximately how many people in the United States accessed a dial-up BBS between 1978 and 1998? This central research question invites a number of compelling and related questions. How were users and BBSs distributed geographically during this period? How did the population of dial-up BBSs reflect the larger population of the US in terms of age, gender, race, class, and education? Finally, this work provides a foundation for a demography of the modem world extending beyond the hobbyist communities of North America, enabling us to trace more precisely the influence of these early communities on the mass-scale systems of the broadband era.

Sources of demographic data from the early Net

There is no comprehensive source of historical information about modem owners or BBS users. Whereas commercial online services such as CompuServe kept a single database of all of their users, every dial-up BBS maintained its own database, resulting in redundant records spread across the network. In spite of this fragmentation, the overall size and character of the BBS user population is evident in a handful of surveys published by government researchers, trade organizations, and the BBS community itself. In aggregate, these sources portray BBSing as a widespread form of networking, reaching millions of personal computer owners throughout the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau, 1984–1997

For the first ten years of the BBS phenomenon, from the late 1970s until the late 1980s, there appear to have been no nationwide surveys taken of bulletin board system users or operators in the United States. Beginning in 1984, the Bureau of the Census began to administer “sporadically” a supplemental questionnaire about personal computing sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Initially, the questionnaire did not ask about going online, but was revised in 1989 to include a set of questions about networking at home and in the workplace. In 1989 and 1993, the Census specifically asked respondents about their use of “bulletin boards,” but in 1997, the Bureau removed the question about bulletin boards and replaced it with a question about “internet” access.

The results of the Census questionnaire illustrate the relatively small scale of the early Net. In 1989, fewer than one-in-ten adults reported using a computer at home (9.3%), and among those home computer users, going online was quite uncommon (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991: Table 5). Of the 16.8 million American adults who reported using a computer at home, approximately 5.7% reported accessing a bulletin board and 5.3% reported using electronic mail. The only specific activity to rank lower than BBSing and e-mail was “Telemarketing” (1.5%). The proportion of BBS users was relatively stable across age groups, with little variance among respondents aged 22-54 years old (5.7-6.6%) and income groups (respondents with family incomes ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 reported between 5.7-6.3%). Counter to a common sense assumption, perhaps, BBS use fell off among the highest income earners. Of those households earning $75,000 per year or more, 4.8% reported accessing bulletin boards.

Sharper demographic differences in the 1989 Census data emerge, however, when we examine BBS use by race and gender. Relatively few Black home computer owners reported using bulletin boards (3.5%) or electronic mail (3.1%). Black users were, however, somewhat more likely than their White counterparts to use their computers for home businesses (12%), programming (22.4%), and video games (46.7%). Similarly, male users of all racial categories reported using bulletin boards at nearly twice the rate of female users (7.1% and 3.9%, respectively). Across the survey, the respondents reporting the greatest use of bulletin boards were single men living alone (9.2%).

Experience may have been a key factor in the reported use of bulletin boards by American adults in 1989. Between the 1984 and 1989 reports, the overall proportion of households that reported owning a PC jumped from 8.2% to 15%. Similarly, about one in five respondents indicated that they were still “learning to use” their machines, a proportion that grew inversely with the rate of bulletin board system use. It may be the case that modeming was practiced primarily among long-time PC owners. Indeed, a much greater number of respondents reported owning a modem (23%) than reported ever accessing an online service. Most modems, it seems, remained quiet.

By 1993, the prevalence of home computers and the visibility of the “information superhighway” seemed to have drawn a greater number of American adults into the online world. The number of households with a computer had grown to 16.1% and many had owned a home computer for five years or longer.[5] Additionally, the proportion of home computer owners who reported going online rose dramatically. While bulletin boards grew slightly from 5.7% to 8.7%, electronic mail grew sixfold from 5.3% to 32.2%. These trends were consistent across race and gender groups as well. Black and white computer owners now reported similar rates of bulletin board use (approximately 8.7-8.8%) and a higher than average number of Black users reported using their computers for electronic mail (35.21%). This parity was not evident across gender groups, however. Female-identified users were still nearly half as likely to report using a bulletin board (6.07%) as their male-identified peers (10.93%), a disparity reflected in the first-hand accounts of women from the period (see Horn 1998).

All computers13,683100.0
Floppy disk drive10,13774.1
Dot matrix printer7,81257.1
Color monitor6,96250.9
Joystick/mouse control6,68148.8
Hard disk drive5,61341.0
Telephone modem3,14923.0
Laser printer1,57111.5
Don’t know1,1278.2

Optimistic statistics and the trade press

Toward the end of the 1980s, as online services attracted growing visibility and attention from home computer owners, publishers of technical books began to commission how-to guides for BBS users and administrators. The typical how-to book began with a wide-eyed overview of the modem world, highlighting the many joys and curiosities to be found in the electronic realm. A standard feature of this genre was to offer rough estimates of the number of bulletin boards in operation and the population of users one might meet online. As one author put it, “No one knows quite how many bulletin boards exist. The number involved is elusive.” (Dewey 1998) Elusive, maybe, but it did not stop him from throwing out a few numbers of his own (See: Table 2).

1,500–2,0001987The Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems (Dewey 1987)
500,0001990Using Computer Bulletin Boards (Hedtke 1990)
20,000,00060,0001994Running a Perfect BBS (Chambers 1994)
15,000,000150,0001994Creating Successful Bulletin Board Systems (Bryant 1994)
“Several million”60,000–200,0001998The Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems, 2nd ed. (Dewey 1998)

Although the authors of these books rarely cited a source for their statistics, their crude estimates are nonetheless valuable. As cheerleaders for the BBS community, these authors were motivated to exaggerate its size but their estimates needed to fall within a plausible range in order to maintain good faith with their readers. As a result, though the numbers themselves are hardly reliable as precise measures of the burgeoning BBS scene, we should assume that they reflect an upper bound of plausibility for the time of their publication. The numbers are surely inflated but not outrageously so.

In their discussions of BBS statistics, the authors of how-to books often reveal intriguing details about their perception of growth. In 1990, author John Hedtke suggested that BBSing was a particularly urban phenomenon, musing that the user population was expanding “particularly in metropolitan areas.” (Hedtke 1990, 3) Later, in 1994, Alan Bryant, author of multiple BBS books, positioned BBSs within the broader economy of online services: “one of the fastest-growing segments of the computer industry.” (Bryant 1994, xiii) Bryant also portrayed the BBS as a point of entry into a kind of secret society, “[a] huge audience of computer-smart, modem-using individuals.” (ibid.)

Consistent with the global imaginary that accompanied popular articulations of the early Net, many authors gestured at a transnational diffusion of dial-up BBSs by using ambiguous geospatial phrases like “around the world.” The authors of a characteristically giant tome from tech publisher Que suggested that going online was “one of the primary uses for the PC [practiced by] over 20 million BBS users worldwide.” (Chambers 1994: 3) Similarly, Bryant implied that the use of BBSs in the US represented just a fraction of the overall growth, “It is estimated that more than 15 million people call BBSs each day in the United States alone” (Bryant 1994, xiii, emphasis mine).[6]

In the December 1995 issue of Boardwatch magazine, editor Jack Rickard set out to correct these overly-optimistic estimates with his own numbers (Rickard 1995). By this point in his career, Rickard had long promoted an integrated view of the modem world, casually slipping between “Internet” and “the Net” in his editorials, and sub-titling his magazine: “Guide to the Internet, World Wide Web and BBS.” He prefaced his quantification effort with an admonition of his industry peers: “The online community in general, and most wantonly the Internet portion of it, has a history of inflating virtually all measures of usage sufficiently to qualify as a case of ‘liar, liar, pants on fire.’” (Rickard 1995, 8) As a booster for the entrepreneurial BBS sysop, Rickard argued that accurate statistics were essential to establishing sustainable business plans and reasonable expectations among investors.

Rickard’s editorial included a useful round-up of market research statistics in circulation during the mid-1990s. First, Rickard detailed the “host count” approach to measuring internet use, highlighting a recent estimate from Mark Lottor of Network Wizards.[7] Lottor estimated that 6.64 million unique computers were connected to the Internet in July 1995, of which 4.25 million (64%) were located in the United States (Rickard 1995, 8-9). Rickard rejected any effort to extrapolate a human user population from Lottor’s host count on the basis that there was no reliable way to determine the number of humans per host computer. To illustrate this problem, he suggested that some estimates were based on an assumption that a single host computer might represent any number of users from 1 to 250,000.[8] Beyond this statistical assumption, however, the “host count” approach also failed to represent the practices of microcomputer enthusiasts who might own two or more active machines. Rickard noted, for example, that the Boardwatch offices were populated by 14 employees and 25 computers, a human-per-computer factor of 0.56.

Instead of host count, Rickard preferred an estimate based on a nationwide telephone survey commissioned by O’Reilly and Associates and conducted by Trish Information Systems (O’Reilly et al. 1995). The O’Reilly/Trish survey determined that 5.8 million adults in the US accessed the Internet “directly” from home, work, or school.[9] Of the internet users in their sample, approximately one-half were aged 18-44 years old, one-half earned between $35,000-$75,000 per year, and two-thirds identified as male. By dividing the O’Reilly/Trish user population by Lottor’s count of hosts in the US, Rickard argued that a reliable human-per-computer factor was likely closer to 1.37174. This line of reasoning lead him to conclude that the internet of 1995 was populated by 9,111,096 individual human beings (Rickard 1995, 64-65).

Despite the title of his magazine, Rickard did not attempt to break out the number of BBS users from the overall estimate of Internet users.[10] Instead, he turned his attention to the equally tricky category of commercial online services (Table 3). By comparing the marketing materials from various services to the survey results from O’Reilly/Trish, Rickard argues that the subscribership claims made by commercial online services were inflated. These numbers are additionally difficult to interpret because of how different platforms defined an “account.” On Prodigy, for example, a single account might have been shared by multiple users. Conversely, highly-engaged users might have been counted more than once because of the likelihood that they subscribed to more than one service.

American Online3800.038.65%
Microsoft Network200.02.03%
Mnematics Videotex65.00.66%
ImagiNation Network62.00.63%
Reuters Money Net33.00.34%
AT&T Interchange25.00.25%
Interactive Visual25.00.25%
Digital Nation15.00.15%
The Well12.00.12%
Computer Sports World10.20.10%
Multiplayer Games Network10.00.10%

Neither the nationwide surveys conducted by the Census, nor the BBS trade press provided a clear sense of the size of the BBS user population in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, each source offers some clues as to how we might proceed. While Rickard was correct to critique the “host count” method used by over-eager readers of Lottor, the BBS network represents a unique case. Nodes in the BBS network were functionally different from hosts on the Internet. Whereas internet users might jump from host to host via remote logins or Gopher, BBS users tended to stick to a few nearby systems. Therefore, the statistical relationship between BBS users and hosts should have been closer than on the internet at large.

Modeling the BBS user population

To estimate the population of BBS users, we will analyze a database of BBS hosts. The best source of data for the population of dial-up BBSs is The TEXTFILES.COM Historical BBS List, an archive of BBS dial-in numbers compiled and maintained by Jason Scott since 2001. Scott originally drew these data from hundreds of BBS lists compiled by BBS enthusiasts during the 1980s and 1990s (see: http://bbslist.textfiles.com/usbbs.html). In the absence of central directories or search engines, BBS lists were a primary means of discovering new systems for BBS enthusiasts. Circulated in both print and electronic forms, BBS lists could be found at computer shops and swap meets, as well as online in both nationwide online services like CompuServe and on BBSs themselves. Many lists, such as Clark Gilbo’s “Westcoast 813 BBS Directory,” Gerry George’s “Caribbean BBS List,” and Charles R. Grosvener Jr.’s “Worcester Area BBS List,” were organized by geographic region, reflecting the structuring force of long-distance dialing fees on North American BBS culture (George 1994; Grosvenor Jr. 1995; Ziegler 1993). Other list-makers took a thematic approach, such as Tom Brown’s “Ham Radio Phone BBS List” or the collectively-authored “Gay and Lesbian BBS List” (Brown 1988; Miller 1992). While BBS lists cannot provide a comprehensive account of every BBS in a region, the decentralized manner of their production reflects the decentralized structure of the BBS phenomenon, a similarity that suggests greater reliability than the centralized directories sold in bookstores (e.g. Cane 1983; Cane 1986).

According to my independent analysis,[11] the Textfiles archive includes 106,438 distinct BBSs grouped into 264 area codes.[12] This quantity represents BBSs that operated anywhere in North America for any length of time between 1978 and 2001. Informally, this number conforms to the anecdotal estimates published in journalistic accounts of the period. In a trade book published in 1994, for example, technical writer Markus W. Pope wrote evocatively of “tens of thousands of creative souls—BBS operators—who act as hubs, succumbing to the supply and demand of an information-hungry culture.” (Pope 1994, 1) Similarly, in 1995, Gary Wolf and Michael Stein published Aether Madness, an irreverent “travel guide” featuring a curated sample of the “more than 50,000 BBS” dotting in the modem world (Wolf and Stein 1995, 4). And, also in 1995, San Jose Mercury News writer Mark Shapiro suggested that there were “over 100,000” BBSs active in the US (as quoted in Dewey 1998).

Each BBS in the archive represents an unknown number of individual users. To model this decentralized network, we need to set upper and lower bounds on the possible size of each node. At lower end of the scale, each BBS had, at minimum, one user—its sysop. It is difficult to imagine such a system staying online long enough to be added to a BBS list, however, so we might reasonably set our minimum somewhat higher than one. A plausible minimum number of users might be in the range of five to ten users—imagine a group of friends sharing software on local BBS.

For an upper bound, however, we need to return to our historical sources. Arguably the most well-documented and widely-publicized BBS in North America was The WELL in Sausalito, CA.[13] In Katie Hafner’s popular biography of the system, she reports a peak user population in the range of 10,000 subscribers (Hafner 2001, 164). Boardwatch, meanwhile, published a somewhat greater estimate of 12,000 “WELLians” (Rickard 1995, 65). For our purposes, we might take the mean of these two ballpark figures and set our maximum subscriber number at 11,000.

For the present exercise, I assume a highly-skewed distribution of users among BBS.[14] This assumption is supported by the first-hand accounts of former users as well as the anecdotal evidence of many other social computing systems. The limitation of Rickard’s approach to estimation was that he assumed a normal distribution of users among host computers. By seeking a single human-per-computer factor, he ignored the “rich-get-richer” phenomenon that often characterizes the distribution of resources and attention in information systems.[15] Instead, we should assume that a small number of BBSs attracted a massive number of users while the vast majority of systems got by with just a few regular callers.

Based on these assumptions, I estimate that approximately 2.5 million users accessed the dial-up BBSs listed in the Textfiles archive. I arrived at this number by modeling the entire network using a power-law distribution with a lower bound of 5 and an upper bound of 11,000. I then used a computer program to take a random sample of 106,438 values from this distribution; the simulated population of each BBS. Next, I ranked these simulated BBSs and summed their values. Finally, I repeated this simulation, resulting in a sampling distribution with a mean of 2,505,694 (SD=43,417.86). This mean represents the estimated population of North American BBS users.

The challenges of Net demography

The statistical model detailed above is admittedly incomplete. In the absence of ground truth, I present the estimated population of 2.5 million BBS users as a methodological provocation, an oblique strategy for thinking creatively about network demography. If we are to write persuasively about the history of personal computer networking, we need techniques that allow us to assess the scope and scale of the phenomenon. A richer, more nuanced census of the modem world would address the limitations of this first-order approximation, taking into account addition information about the social and technical characteristics of dial-up BBSing.

First, the geographic locations of each bulletin board system should play a role in any population estimate. It may be possible to use government census data about the surrounding population to estimate the number of likely callers to nearby systems. Second, in many cases, we know which BBSs were multi-line or featured high-speed modems. These platform features would have accommodated a greater number of users in a given time period, suggesting a greater overall base of subscribers. Third, we must contend with the obvious redundancies in the BBS user population. From numerous memoirs and first-hand accounts of the period, we know that only a very few BBS users dialed into just one system. Indeed, in densely populated regions, users might be active on a dozen or more systems simultaneously. How should we measure these overlapping accounts? Is it necessary to collapse them into one? Or, might an argument be made for counting each account individually?

Finally, the pursuit of precision and scale may simply be a quixotic exercise, a pleasurable diversion from the hard, messy work of oral history and archival research. The decentralized structure of the modem world may prove sufficiently resistant to population statistics that we must abandon the epistemology of macro-scale quantification altogether. Indeed, although there is a utility in knowing how many thousands or millions of people accessed BBSs at a given time and place, these statistics should support and provide context to detailed case studies of specific users and systems.

The critical outcome of this demographic work is that many—perhaps most—of the systems that populate the “long tail” of the modem world were operated and populated exclusively by white, middle-class, American men. Like the previous generation of ham radio operators, they built their systems for the intrinsic pleasure of technical mastery and a fraternal intimacy sustained by technologically-mediated communication.[16] But, as FidoNet creator Tom Jennings cried out 1985, “Enough tech boards already!” (Jennings 1985) The overwhelming homogeneity of the majority of BBS culture should push us to pursue the stories of systems that represent alternative glimpses of futures from the past: queer, women-only, and Black-owned board; boards aimed at connecting rural communities together; boards founded by religious sects; boards for the elderly; and boards on which people wrote in languages other than English.[17]

With over 100,000 bulletin board systems in the Textfiles archive alone, the work of net histories is only just beginning. As we explore the islands of this network archipelago, we will need to develop new techniques for shifting between micro- and macro-scale perspectives. In doing so, however, we should endeavor to represent the period with fairness and justice, acknowledging the overwhelming homogeneity while at the same time celebrating the pockets of difference, resistance, creativity, and utopian possibility.


All links verified 16.6.2020.


Brown KA2UGQ, Tom. 1988. ‘Ham Radio Phone BBS List March 1988’. http://textfiles.com/bbs/BBSLISTS/hamradio8803.txt.

Chris. 1991 ‘The Fall of the Modem World,’ August 1. http://textfiles.com/bbs/fotmw.txt.

Dame-Griff, Avery. 2018. ‘TGNet Map.’ Mapping TGNet. http://queerdigital.com/tgnmap/index.html.

George, Gerry. 1994. ‘Gerry George’s Caribbean BBS List,’ February 22. http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~benedett/trinidad/bbs.html. Accessed 2018.

Grosvenor Jr., Charles R.. 1995. ‘Worcester Area BBS List’. http://www.inthe80s.com/july1995/bbs/worcbbs.html.

Hobbs, Charles P. 2000. ‘The Modem World,’ http://textfiles.com/history/modemwld.txt.

Miller, Leedell J. 1992. ‘The Gay & Lesbian BBS List.’ Soc.Motss, November 2. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!original/soc.motss/mdXaPe3cw2k/NWGHeaoz0KkJ.


Alstott, Jeff, Ed Bullmore, and Dietmar Plenz. 2014. ‘Powerlaw: A Python Package for Analysis of Heavy-Tailed Distributions.’ PLoS ONE 9 (1): e85777. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0085777.

Bryant, Alan D. 1994. Creating Successful Bulletin Board Systems. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Cane, Mike. 1983. The Computer Phone Book. 1st ed. New York: New American Library.

Cane, Mike. 1986. Computer Phone Book: Directory of Online Systems. 2nd ed. New York: New American Library.

Chambers, Mark L. 1994. Running a Perfect BBS. Indianapolis: Que.

Delfino, Erik. 1994. ‘Dial-up Access: The Bike Lanes of the Information Superhighway.’ Online 18 (1): 97.

Delwiche, Aaron. 2018. ‘Early Social Computing: The Rise and Fall of the BBS Scene (1977–1995).’ In The SAGE Handbook of Social Media, 35–52. London: SAGE.

Dewey, Patrick R. 1987. Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems. Westport, Conn.: Meckler.

Dewey, Patrick R. 1998. The Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Douglas, Susan J. 1987. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Driscoll, Kevin. 2014. ‘Hobbyist Inter-Networking and the Popular Internet Imaginary: Forgotten Histories of Networked Personal Computing, 1978-1998.’ Dissertation, University of Southern California.

Driscoll, Kevin. 2016. ‘Social Media’s Dial-up Roots.’ IEEE Spectrum 53 (11): 54–60. https://doi.org/10.1109/MSPEC.2016.7607028.

Driscoll, Kevin, and Camille Paloque-Berges. 2017. ‘Searching for Missing “Net Histories.”’ Internet Histories 1 (1–2) (2017): 47–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2017.1307541.

Easley, David, and Jon Kleinberg. 2010. Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Claire Lisa. 2018. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio/Penguin.

Hafner, Katie. 2011. The Well: A Story of Love, Death, and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community. New York: Carroll & Graf.

Haring, Kristen. 2003. ‘The “Freer Men” of Ham Radio: How a Technical Hobby Provided Social and Spatial Distance.’ Technology and Culture 44 (4): 734–61. https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2003.0164.

Haring, Kristen. 2008. Ham Radio’s Technical Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hedtke, John V. 1990. Using Computer Bulletin Boards. New York: MIS Press.

Held, Gilbert. 1994. The Complete Cyberspace Reference and Directory: An Addressing and Utilization Guide to the Internet, Electronic Mail Systems, and Bulletin Board Systems. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Horn, Stacy. 1998. Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town. New York: Warner Books.

Jennings, Tom. 1985. ‘BULLETIN BOARD ETTIQUETTE FOR NEW USERS AND OLD TIMERS,’ August 12. http://winramturbo.com/fnsp/doc/1985/1985-08-12-tj-bbs-etiquette.txt. Accessed 2018.

Mailland, Julien, and Kevin Driscoll. 2017. Minitel: Welcome to the Internet. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Markham, Annette N. 1998. Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

McKinney, Cait. 2018. ‘Printing the Network: AIDS Activism and Online Access in the 1980s.’ Continuum 32 (1): 7–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2018.1404670.

O’Reilly & Associates, and Trish Information Services, eds. 1995. Defining the Internet Opportunity: Phase [II-III]. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates : Trish Information Services.

Pope, Markus W. 1994. Que’s BBS Directory. Indianapolis: Que.

Quarterman, John S. 1990. The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide. Bedford, Mass.: Digital Press.

Rankin, Joy Lisi. 2018. A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rickard, Jack. 1995. ‘Editor’s Notes.’ Boardwatch, December.

Schafer, Valérie, and Benjamin G Thierry. 2012. Le Minitel: l’enfance numérique de la France. Paris: Nuvis.

Shirley, John. 2012. A Song Called Youth. Gaithersburg, MD: Prime Books.

Stephenson, Neal. 1992. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books.

Sterling, Bruce. 1988. Islands in the Net. New York, N.Y: Arbor House.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1991. ‘Computer Use in the United States: 1989.’ Current Population Reports. Series P-23. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wolf, Gary, and Michael Stein. 1995. Aether Madness: An Offbeat Guide to the Online World. Berkeley, Calif.: Peachpit Press.

Ziegler, Richard A. 1993. ‘Westcoast 813 BBS Directory Feature.’ Pasco BBS Magazine, February.


[1] The statistical claims in this section are based on data published by the Pew Research Center, specifically the “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet,” “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet,” and the March 2000 survey, available for download here: http://www.pewinternet.org/datasets/march-2000-survey-data/

[2] Across a number of sources, I found the term “modem” being adapted to serve new discursive purposes: as a verb (“modeming”), an adjective (“modem scene”), and a noun (“modemer”). This symbolic use of the modem reflected a growing orientation toward computer-mediated communication that Annette Markham described as a “way of being.” See: Chris 1991; Driscoll 2014; Hobbs 2000; Markham 1998.

[3] Cyberpunk author John Shirley’s articulation of “the Grid” offers one of the clearest examples of the popular understanding of the internet as a collection of multiple co-joined systems rather than a single, coherent platform. Shirley’s Grid is a massive infrastructure, always changing and frequently breaking down, that includes every sort of data transmission from financial transactions and television news, to military operations and corporate espionage. See also: Shirley 2012; Stephenson 1992; Sterling 1988.

[4] For examples of cyberspace as an archipelago, see: Held 1994; Quarterman 1990.

[5] The statistics in this paragraph are based on an independent analysis of data published as “Computer Use in the United States October 1993” and available from the US Census FTP site.

[6] Bryant, Creating Successful Bulletin Board Systems, xiii.

[7] Lottor repeated the host count for nearly two decades. See: “ISC Domain Survey,” archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20150524091949/http://www.isc.org:80/services/survey/

[8] According to Rickard, the number 250,000 was based on a possibly apocryphal story about a server at IBM with one IP address and 250,000 active user accounts. See Rickard 1995: 9.

[9] The discrepancy between this figure and the results of the Center for the People and the Press survey seems to lie in the definition of “Internet.” Without access to the original report, it is difficult to discern from Rickard’s summary alone.

[10] Indeed, to do so would undermine Rickard’s assertion that the popularized/privatized Internet was the result of a widespread BBS metamorphosis.

[11] Shared with and verified by Scott.

[12] Area codes are three-digit dialing prefixes defined by the North American Numbering Plan (NANP). The Numbering Plan went into effect in 1947 and has been continuously updated by the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA). Initially, area codes referred to specific geographic regions. Following the break-up of AT&T, the deregulation of telephony in the 1980s, and the growth of telematics devices such as fax machines and modems, demand for telephone numbers rose dramatically. To meet the demand, area code “splits” and “overlays” were introduced to densely-settled areas such as Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. With the emergence of mobile telephony and “number portability,” the geographic meaning of area codes is largely symbolic. See: “NANPA : North American Numbering Plan Administration – About Us,” accessed May 2, 2016, https://www.nationalnanpa.com/about_us/index.html.

[13] One might argue that the WELL is more accurately compared to nationwide services like CompuServe but it serves our immediate purposes to place it in the BBS category.

[14] The analysis in this section uses the powerlaw Python module. See: Alstott et al. 2014.

[15] For a more detailed discussion of these phenomena from a computer science perspective, see: Easley and Kleinberg 2010.

[16] For this point, I am indebted to the histories of radio written by Susan Douglas and Kristen Haring, specifically: Douglas 1987; Haring 2003; Haring 2008.

[17] For exemplary work in this area, see: Dame-Griff 2018; Evans 2018; McKinney 2018; Rankin 2018.

2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

West and East German Hackers from a Comparative Perspective

culture, Federal Republic of Germany, German Democratic Republic, hacking, home computers, practices

Julia Gül Erdogan
julia-guel.erdogan [a] hi.uni-stuttgart.de
Institute of History, Department History of the Effects of Technology
University of Stuttgart

Viittaaminen / How to cite: Gül Erdogan, Julia. 2020. ”West and East German Hackers from a Comparative Perspective”. WiderScreen 23 (2-3). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2020-2-3/west-and-east-german-hackers-from-a-comparative-perspective/

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This overview deals with the advantages and problems of comparing hacker cultures in the liberal Federal Republic of Germany and in the socialist German Democratic Republic. The history of the divided Germany in the 1980s is thus used to compare the influence of state frameworks and technologies, arguing for more comparative and entangled perspectives in the research of sub- and countercultural computer usage. By looking at cultural practices, the complexity of hacker cultures will be highlighted and thus will show that hacking neither was just a Western phenomenon, nor that a technical retardation of the East covers the whole history of computerization.


Hackers are an international phenomenon. Beginning with the “first hackers” in the 1950s at the MIT in the USA, one can observe that everywhere where computer technologies arose, hacker cultures emerged. Hacking is, broadly understood, the practice of playing with and exploring computer technologies. It can be either breaking codes like the software crackers, or creative programming like practiced in the demoscene, or hardware tinkering (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014, 4; see also Raymond 2003).

For quite a while now the history of different hacker cultures has been explored far away from the American master narratives. Local contexts of sub- and countercultural computer use were the main focus of the contributions in the anthology “Hacking Europe” (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014). The book offers a multitude of pioneering studies on home computer usage in national and regional contexts, which focus not only on Western industrial nations. It does not surprise that the history of hackers in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), not least because of the prominence of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), is one of these contributions (Denker 2014). In addition to the history of the CCC, which, despite initial works (Denker 2014; Kasper 2014; Röhr 2012; 2018), still requires in-depth investigation, the history of German hackers beyond this prominent institution is also relevant. And this applies not only for the West German context, but also for the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The comparison of West and East Germany and the study of those two states’ entanglement is a recent, yet well-established approach in contemporary history (Bösch 2015). Some studies have also been published on media and technology use in both states, which have highlighted numerous similarities and differences (e.g. Schildt 1998; Dussel 2004; Bösch and Classen 2015). An entangled and comparative history of the computerization of the two German states is, however, a new approach (Danyel and Schuhmann 2015) and needs further investigation.[1]

In my contribution I want to highlight why hacker cultures are worth studying from a West and East German perspective. I will argue why there should be more comparisons and cross border investigations for the history of home computing in general – even beyond the focus on the regime competition between capitalism and socialism.

Home- and microcomputers moved into German households in the 1980s. Computerization in the private sphere thus began in the last decade of a divided Germany. In this respect, the history of computerization of the divided German states also offers the opportunity to not only present a comparative study, but also to examine the merging of more or less separated entities.

My paper aims to highlight different problems which result from a comparative and entangled history of the FRG and the GDR regarding private computer usage in the 1980s. A study on the sub- and countercultural use of computer technology thereby has to take the broader social, political, economic and cultural levels into consideration. The term “hacker”, the question of the availability of resources, and the different and asymmetrical infrastructures must therefore be elaborated. These problematic areas also provide chances, as I will show inter alia by emphasizing the findings that have resulted from my research on German hackers’ history. It will show that despite different conditions, numerous similarities existed between the hackers of the FRG and the GDR, even though famous hacker clubs like the CCC did not cultivate contact with their equivalents on the other side of the Wall until the opening of the inner-German border in November 1989.

In fact, such exchanges took place only after this crucial event in German history. Since 1984 the CCC had annually hosted the Chaos Communication Congress in December, where hackers and activists of various kinds would come together. Just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the motto of that congress was dedicated to the East German computer hobbyists: “Offene Grenzen: Cocomed zuhauf” (“Open borders: Cocome in droves”). This referred to the restraints of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Exports Controls (CoCom) that banned or restricted the export of certain trade goods, including high-tech, to the countries of the Eastern bloc from 1950 onwards. CoCom also influenced the naming of the first West and East German Computer amateur meeting in February 1990 in Berlin called “KoKon”. This was the short form for “Kommunikation Kongress” – which also referred to the annual hacker meetings in Hamburg, organized by the CCC. Despite the missing interaction of popular West and East German hacker clubs before the autumn of 1989, the inner German border was permeable with a clear tendency of goods and ideas being transferred from the West to the East, and less in the other direction.

In the following I will address the question of what a hacker is in regards to the case of a divided Germany, as well as from an international perspective. I will also discuss the problem of an imbalance of sources for studying West and East German history. In the second part of this article I will outline the usage and access to computers in the two German states. Then I will stress the role of computer clubs in respect to education and community formation.

I. Terms, practices and resources

Of course, an advantage in the history of a divided Germany lies on a linguistic level, since the researcher only needs to be familiar with the German language for working with sources. Despite the fact that the two German states spoke the same language, some kind of translating efforts must still be done, as we are dealing with a liberal-capitalist Germany in the West and a state socialist Germany in the East. The language is thus influenced by the political situation. Especially in the history of hackers and computers, it is apparent that although German was spoken in both countries, it was not always the same vocabulary that was used. Hence the term “hacker” was not used in the GDR, except when magazines or state authorities talked about a Western phenomenon.[2]

Even terms for technical devices such as “joystick” were not universal, the latter sometimes having been called “Spielehebel” (“game lever”) in East Germany, as the socialist state wanted to prevent English vocabulary due to the antagonism of the two competing systems. Curiously enough, we still find English terms here, but these are mostly collective terms such as “computer fans” and seldom “computer freaks” (Gießler 2018). However, this should not prevent us from assuming a similar phenomenon of exploring computer technology in private, despite different designations for those enthusiasts. In researching hacker cultures we are confronted with a lot of synonyms everywhere: “hobbyists” or “computer wizards” in the USA (Levy 2010, ix), while in the Netherlands, hacking could be called “computerkraken” (based on the Dutch term for squatters, Nevejan and Badenoch 2016, 202) and also in the FRG, synonyms and broader terms were used to name these kind of computer fans, for example “frieks”, which is simply a German notation for “freaks” (see also Erdogan 2018, 228).

To explore the connections and similarities, it is therefore necessary to employ a stronger focus on the level of cultural practices. It is with a focus on practices and values of subcultural computer groups that a study on hackers from a comparative East-West-perspective becomes possible. This approach also enables us to investigate the phenomenon of hackers in all its broadness, thus diminishing the two dominant narratives of political and social activists on the one hand, and of wild intruders into computer networks on the other. Too often the hackers are only seen in their relation to online systems. This disregards the fact that hacking could also involve soldering or offline programming.

Also, the image of the hackers changed in the course of the 1980s. In the FRG, hackers had been first regarded as ‘excessive programmers’ (Weizenbaum 1976; von Randow 1978; 1982) until hacking activists entered the public stage in the mid-1980s. Clubs like the CCC or people around the hacker zine Bayrische Hackerpost (BHP) managed to establish a rather positive public image of hackers as specialists in the course of home computerization. In the second half of the 1980s, this image was challenged as more and more hacking was done to intrude computer networks. Furthermore, developing and changing laws concerning computer usage influenced this transformation (Denker 2014).

Already in the first half of the 1980s, the increasingly unruly activities of hackers in data networks caught media attention in the USA. In 1981, a hacker broke into a Norwegian system that monitored Soviet atomic bomb tests („Schweifende Rebellen“ 1983). In addition, a group of six teenagers operating under the name “The 414s” – Milwaukee’s telephone area code – hacked into computers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which inter alia developed atomic and hydrogen bombs. The so called “good” hackers tried to defend themselves against the increasing equation of what they were doing with data theft and what hackers in turn perceived as “crashers” – the destroying of code and databases. It was at this point that a separation of different hacker cultures began (see also Hartmann 2017, 86).

Steven Levy’s book Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which he wrote in the first half of the 1980s, is witness to this differentiation. He actually provided more than just a story and a documentation of the history of hackers. First of all, in his book he put up an ethic (Levy 2010, 27–38) that still represents an important foundation of many hacker cultures today:

  1. Access to computers – and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust Authority – Promote Decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

It should be pointed out that this code of values was not written down by hackers themselves. On the contrary, it was a kind of silent agreement and shared convictions which were expressed in hackers’ practices, which were, in turn, examined and summarized by Levy. This ethic thus did not presuppose hacking practices, but was a result of Levi’s observation of hackers from which he derived these maxims. Moreover, he summed up various groups as “hackers” which explored and played with computer technology and acted under different synonyms from the late 1950s to the 1980s. Levy’s codification of hacker ethic, in turn, influenced the practices of computer enthusiasts and, through the publication of the book, promoted the prevalence of these hacker values. Computer users recognized themselves in Levy’s narrative, creating a sense of affiliation and a philosophy. As the media scholar Claus Pias stresses, there was a certain necessity for the hackers to separate the “bad part” of hacking from the hackers, and for this purpose, Levy’s ethic came just in time (Pias 2002, 268).

The hacker ethic and popularity of the hacker phenomenon in media, as well as the divergence of their culture, had an influence on West German hackers. The code of values was translated, published and even extended by the CCC (Schrutzki 1988, 172–74). First of all, the version that the CCC put up included “sex” or rather “gender” – as the German language makes no distinction in this respect – in point four of the hacker ethic which specified that hackers should be judged by their skills and actions and not by other criteria. As the hacker movement in the FRG emerged above all as a watch group for data security and the protection of the private sphere, this aspect was also included in the German version of the ethic. Last but not least, the database break-ins previously mentioned and the case of Karl Koch from the West German city of Hannover, who was paid for hacking by the Soviet secret service, led to a modified version. The version of the CCC, which developed into the voice of many German hackers in the 1980s, has eight instead of six points. It also contains points dealing with the maxim of hackers’ behavior in databases: “Do not litter in other people’s data” and “Make public data available, protect private data”.[3] Thus, we see that West-German hackers not only adopted the hacker ethic, but also extended and specified it for their own beliefs and aims. The computer enthusiasts of the GDR did not have this fixed code of values. Nevertheless, their practices of computing as well as the interaction within their peer-group was quite similar.

It is here that another problem of a West and East German history of hackers becomes apparent. The West German hackers were highly vocal participants in the discussion about computerization, and, as a result, produced a lot of documents. For example, they made their own newsletters such as the CCC periodical Die Datenschleuder, while Munich hackers published Die Bayrische Hackerpost. In their statements they offended and mocked authorities, and this peer feeling of “we against those up there” became an integrative motive next to their interest in technology. They were able to create a specific public image of themselves and to present hacking as an instance of bottom-up control against the state. These kinds of documents are mostly lacking for the GDR, where freedom of expression and criticism of the state were much more limited and repressed. The descriptions of hacker practices that are available to historians are therefore mainly produced from the state’s point of view. There are some letters to the editor and several magazine articles of the 1980s which deal with computer experiences and the everyday life within the computer clubs. But these are very different from their Western pedants, because the subversive element is missing. At least there are some retrospective views that show the computer hobbyists’ perspective in the GDR (Pritlove, 2010; Schweska 2015; Strugalla 2017; Schweska 2017).

A source imbalance also exists due to the availability of access to files of the Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (the Ministry of State Security, also known as Stasi), while documents of the West German intelligence services are not accessible to researchers. Other West German state documents are becoming accessible only now, as the record retention period amounts to 30 years. At the same time, however, the collapse of the GDR and the associated processing of Stasi documents offers an extraordinary opportunity for research in contemporary history. Yet we have to keep in mind that in the case of the FRG there is an abundance of documents presenting the hackers’ perspective, while documents on hackers from the state’s security point of view are mostly missing – while it is the other way around when it comes to the GDR.

II. Consumption of computer technology

The 1970s and 1980s in the GDR were strongly influenced by Western lifestyles, protest and social movements (Gehrke 2008). Still, a comparison of consumption and its practices in the two German states can only be asymmetrical due to the different availability of goods and different economic concepts. The GDR ran a planned economy and was primarily oriented towards providing everyday goods instead of catering to conspicuous consumption, contrary to the social-liberal market economy in the FRG. Changing consumer practices can still be determined in the GDR from the 1970s onwards. Researchers speak of a “consumer culture” in relation to the GDR as opposed to a “consumer society” in the Federal Republic to focus on the consuming practices, which were, in fact, quite similar (Neumeier and Ludwig 2015, 240f).

The GDR was able to record a certain boom in computer technology in the 1950s and 1960s (Danyel 2012, 204) and computerization was formulated and promoted as a central task by the political leadership from the end of the 1970s again.[4] In 1988, GDR engineers managed to construct a 1 megabit chip (Danyel 2012, 205), but the planned economy of the socialist state could not achieve the same supply of consumer goods as the West German market. Nevertheless, several computer clubs emerged as results of private initiatives, as well as so called „Computerkabinette” or “Computerzirkel” (“computer cabinets” and “computer circles”) which were sustained by the state authorities. Many of these facilities, which provided computer workstations, were directly connected to the communist youth organization Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ), schools or universities (Weise 2005). Some microcomputer models were developed in East Germany, for example by the state-owned company Robotron, which were primarily provided to enterprises and educational institutions.

These models remained rare consumer goods in private household. On the one hand, the GDR was only able to achieve low production rates: The production of a 8-bit microcomputers series called KC (Kleincomputer) began in 1984 and until the opening of the inner-German border in 1989, only 30,000 units of this computer series were produced (Weise 2005, 13). On the other hand they were therefore hardly realistic purchases for private households. For example, the KC 85/1.10, which was sold from 1986 onwards, costed 1550 East German Marks, while an average monthly income of that time amounted to 1179 East German Marks (Arbeitseinkommen 1987, 129).

Yet, Western home computers were used in the GDR, too. Most of them were obtained by East German citizens through relatives living in the FRG, but also, from 1985 onwards, microcomputers could be bought for high prices at the so called Intershops which offered goods from the West in exchange for Western currency. Also, computer smuggling was widespread: In 1987 alone, 188 cases of speculation with and smuggling of computer technology were recorded, with a value of 45 million East German marks.[5] Western microcomputers were profitable speculation objects: The black market price of a microcomputer from the West German company Schneider, for example, could be 22 times higher in the GDR than its original retail price. In the course of the regime competition, the leadership of the GDR tried to satisfy the desires of the population and at the same time promote the socialist system. With the increasing tendency towards a consumer goods market in the second half of the 1980s, the political leadership of the GDR also increased consumers’ desires. The state leadership could not completely resist international changes in consumer behaviour, even though the Western model of possession was opposed to the goals of the socialist idea (Merkel 2009).

The asymmetry between the FRG and the GDR can be relativized with regard to actual consumer practices, as similar ways of dealing with the new medium emerged. These similar consumption practices are particularly reflected in the distribution and use of numerous computer games. In a list from 1987, the State Security registered 253 computer games, mostly with English titles, which were shown and exchanged among the participants at the computer club in the Haus der jungen Talente (“House of Young Talents”, HdjT) in East Berlin. This list illustrates the popularity and distribution of computer technology goods in the socialist state.[6] The role of computer technology in the GDR can also be demonstrated by the advent of computer magazines. In spite of a lack of paper, which in the GDR did indeed lead to a restriction in the range of print media (Meyen and Fiedler 2010), the subject of computers was not only dealt with in more general technical journals such as Jugend+Technik (ju+te) and Der Funkamateur. From 1987 onwards, the journals Mikroprozessortechnik and from 1988 onwards, Bit Power, provided further public platforms to promote and discuss computer technology or, in the latter case, computer games.

In the 1980s, prompted in part by a nationwide lack of supplies, there was an abundance of DIY practices in the GDR, including the soldering of circuit boards in order to build computers, as had already been done by hackers in the USA in the 1970s. A case in point is the Amateur Computer (AC 1), which could be built with the help of a manual distributed by the magazine Der Funkamateur (Der Funkamateur 12/1983). However, this practice of tinkering had its limits. As the magazine Jugend + Technik, which published the construction plan for a home computer in 1987, noted with regard to a kit called Z1013, the components for this 8-bit microprocessor were rarely available on the market (Jugend + Technik 5/1987, 322).

The impression of scarcity which results from the stories of tinkering and soldering in the East must not obscure the fact that computer technology was not necessarily common in West German teenagers’ rooms either. Also, prices could be quite high, especially if peripheral devices such as floppy disk drives or printers were added to the home computer. Furthermore, DIY practices remained part of computing activities in both German states, especially among hackers, because they could adapt the computer technology to their own needs or overclock it with the aim to achieve a higher computing power. While the DIY practices of the GDR were more a necessity than part of a subcultural ethos, the hackers’ tinkering and programming were part of wider DIY movements in West Germany. It was a reaction to and rejection of a consumers’ market, especially in regards to the commercialization of the software market (for the change in the software market see Ensmenger 2012, ch. 7.). Meanwhile, this comparison highlights the “contemporaneousness of the non-contemporaneous” (Bloch 1973, 104), which is immanent in the history of the use of technology, as historian of technology David Edgerton has notably pointed out in his groundbreaking book The Shock of The Old (Edgerton (2006) 2019, xii ff.).

In general, while comparing the hacker cultures of these two states one has to deal with an unequal infrastructure and different state-of-the-art of technology. While hackers from the FRG not only promoted bulletin board systems (BBSs) but could use them widely, hacking in the GDR did not include this particular practice. This was not only due to the fear of uncontrolled flow of information by the states leaders that prevented the private usage of online communication. The telephone network was in bad condition and poorly maintained, and its development lagged behind, thus telephone mainlines often had to be shared by multiple households. When telephone calls were necessary, one used the telephone of a neighbour or friend. Owning a telephone was rare, and such luxury in private households was often reserved for supporters of the regime. Still, there were some attempts by users either to produce home-built modems or to use modems imported from the West to connect one’s computer to the telephone network. One GDR citizen, for example, used information from West German magazines to build an acoustic coupler.[7] The Ministry of State Security even recorded a case of a private connection being set up within the GDR using an acoustic coupler, and referred to a case where a connection was established from Poland to the Netherlands.[8]

In the FRG, one of the main goals of different hacker clubs and groups was to promote BBSs not only as a way of communicate with people worldwide, but also as a participative medium. The BHP, for example, stated: “We’re here because there’s DFUE [remote data transmission, J.G.E.]. Our engagement is the pleasure of going for a stroll in public and other data networks” (Die Bayrische Hackerpost 1984). One aim of the hackers of the Association to Promote Public Mobile and Immobile Data Traffic (Verein zur Förderung des öffentlichen bewegten und unbewegten Datenverkehrs, FoeBuD e.V.) from Bielefeld in North-Rhine-Westphalia was to develop their own BBS system called BIONIC. The club aimed at promoting computer communication networks among social movements and non-governmental organizations and in doing so, it focused in its work on making technology accessible to non-technophile persons and groups. This meant, among other things, providing manuals and striving to avoid the technical jargon that was quite common in other hacker groups. The club’s BBS was also supposed to contain less exchange about technology itself than about political, cultural and social matters (Pritlove 2009).

But even though the FRG was a liberal nation, hackers here still had to deal with restrictions. While in the USA for example, the choice of a modem for computer networking was free and consequently, there was an open market where computer users could choose the model according to price and function, this was not permitted in the Federal Republic of Germany due to the postal monopoly. Based on the Telecommunications Ordinance of 1971 (§8(a) Fernmeldeordnung, 1971), the Federal Post Office was able to determine which devices would be allowed to be connected to the telephone network. Liberalisation, as in the USA, progressed slowly in the Federal Republic, but was already decided upon in 1982. It was not until 1996 that the monopoly fell entirely (Trute, Spoerr, and Bosch 2001, 4). Therefore, the networking of computer systems in the FRG coincided with a phase in which the Post Ministry had to fulfill its role as a monopolist, but at the same time to execute a certain opening towards a deregulated market. As the historian Matthias Röhr pointed out, digital technology increasingly weakened the basis of the legitimacy of the state monopoly (Röhr 2018, 269), which also manifested itself in numerous conflicts with hackers. Distributing and producing instructions “for cheap and universal modems” (Die Datenschleuder 1984) was one of the central concerns of these hackers due to their antagonism against the Post Ministry.

This emphasizes the fact that in both countries hackers had to deal with restriction, even if they were of different severity, and that hackers had to cross legal boundaries: The West German hackers used self-made modems, which – at least in theory – could at worst lead to a five-year prison sentence (Röhr 2018, 252), while the East German computer freaks tried to dial into international networks and thus were prone to being accused of contacts to the “enemy”. After the opening of the border and even before the reunification in autumn 1990, hackers from the FRG helped to set up BBSs in the East, as GDR activists saw an urgent need to be able to use this way of networking (“Nun sind die Haecksen auf dem Vormarsch” 1990). In the first half of 1990, already five BBSs were running in East Berlin. Here, the computer amateurs also used self-made acoustic couplers to dial in.

III. The integrative and educational role of computer clubs

The sub- and countercultural appropriation of computer technology was often a social, interpersonal activity in both countries (Erdogan 2018). Aside from financial reasons, the practices of exchange among each other – including knowledge as well as software – and of showcasing one’s own skills led to collective computer usage and the formation of clubs. In 1986, the East German State Security stated that “as a rule, owners of computer technology are continuously interested in establishing and expanding contacts with their peers”.[9] Beyond that, some of the East German computer fans even became members of clubs in West Germany.[10] This membership worked on the basis of exchange of programs and printed information.

Documents from the State Security show that not only various Western computer brands were used in the GDR, but also that there existed a substantial number of private computer users in general, of which 1200 were under observation in 1988.[11] Despite this surveillance, which was mainly motivated by the state’s distrust of private associations and possible relationships to countries abroad, computer users remained largely untroubled. They were even given a great deal of freedom, because they participated in the promotion of computer technology. With regard to the computer games mentioned above, of which many were even explicitly banned in the GDR, no punitive consequences are known from the available sources. Furthermore, the club of the HdjT did not carry out any attendance control, neither did it register what the participants, who occasionally brought their own computer to the meetings, actually did during their attendance at the club premises.[12] This was actually a thorn in the side of the authorities, but did not challenge the club’s continued existence. In fact, the club leader set up regulations himself: He did not prohibit the exchange of software entirely, but he threatened to denounce those who sold games and software in the club, regardless of whether they were self-programmed or copied. The computer club in the HdjT was not to be used for individual enrichment. Instead, the focus was on exchange and learning from each other.

The maxim of freedom of information can thus also be found among active computer users in the GDR. With a code of values that prohibited the theft and alteration of data, the West German CCC attempted to steer these practices, too. Thus, the Club declared: “We are the opposite of computer criminals who, for their own financial advantage, penetrate computer systems and sell data, just as we clearly dissociate ourselves from people who copy software and then resell it” (Chaos Computer Club 1985). Financial enrichment by selling information was thus frowned upon in computer clubs on both sides of the Wall. Also, at the first West and East German KoKon meeting in February 1990, one of the most intensely discussed issues was the question of the free exchange of information and the idea of freely accessible software (Tolksdorf 1990). The CCC also set up a copy centre at this congress, which enabled GDR citizens to obtain copies of hacker magazines and other Western computer magazines free of charge. The possession of a copier had been forbidden in the GDR until the fall of the Wall, and printers could only be obtained with a registration (Wolle 2013, 231).

In the FRG, especially since the 1970s, the membership numbers in citizens’ clubs and associations rose sharply. Thereby hobby clubs had gained importance. There was an increase in the number of associations characterized by political and social commitment as well as those which provided consultative services to citizens (Werner and Zimmermann 2002, 11). Most hacker associations combined all these purposes: On the one hand, they served as organizations where the hobby of computing could be practiced, but on the other hand they formed counter- and subcultural spaces. In contrast to given structures such as families, clubs and associations represent an alternative form of community (Zimmer 1996, 11). Ulrich Beck discovered in the declining significance of classical communities, such as family or class, a loss of security that accompanied this process (Beck 1986, 206). The social movements, clubs and associations addressed these insecurities and created spaces of community, which nevertheless satisfied the demands of the individuals for their own performance and the pursuit of special interests (Effinger 2013, 338). The statement of the West-German hacker and virus expert Bernd Fix in an oral history interview about the moment when he heard of the CCC for the first time stands for both this communal and individual aspects in particular: “But I didn’t know that what I was doing was called hacking. Or that there are also people who do the same, or who even join together to form such a group. That was a real revelation for me – to know that I am not crazy. That there are others who do the same.”[13]

Besides pointing out the variety of hacker cultures in different national or regional contexts, it can also be useful to put the different computer subcultures into close comparison. The recent works on different computer subcultures show numerous similarities despite the differences in actors and contexts. Jaroslav Švlech, for example, points out that gamers in Czechoslovakia also used techniques of bricolage similar to hackers (Švelch 2018, xxxvi. and ch. 6). Numerous works also show the role and importance of clubs additionally to that of private initiatives during the computerization of the private sphere (see e.g. Jakic 2014; Wasiak 2014; Švelch 2018, 95ff; Veraart 2014; Lekkas 2014).

Apart from developing pioneering technical solutions, hackers took on an important role on the social and cultural level. In my research I therefore stress the role of hacker cultures as space-creating instances. The hacker clubs enabled both contact zones with the new technology and designed spaces for computer use. By physical spaces I primarily mean club and association rooms. In addition, through conferences and congresses on both sides of the Wall, they created temporary places for exchange and socializing. But not only did the peer group benefit from the meetings, they also offered opportunities to get to know an almost unknown medium – far away from the opportunities provided by the state or the market. The club in the HdjT did not explicitly see itself as an institution for educational training, but as an opportunity for living and learning from a hobby („Haus der jungen Talente hat jetzt Computerklub“, Berliner Zeitung, 23.1.1986). The interest of the participants in the Computer Club of the HdjT laid in graphics programs, computer games, creating music, or simply calculating and text production (Ibid.). The hackers from the CCC saw the club as an opportunity to learn critical and creative computer usage, too: “The Chaos Computer Club is a galactic association without fixed structures. After us the future: diverse and varied through training and practice in the correct use of computers, often referred to as ‘hacking’” (Die Datenschleuder 1984). This was accompanied by the fact that the approach to computers in these spaces was more open, and new possibilities of application and even ways of a counterculture developed through playful exploration in these spaces.

Jaroslav Švelch, who also argues for more comparative perspectives (Švelch 2018, 221), comes to a similar conclusion in his study of the gaming communities in Czechoslovakia. He emphasizes the role of computer clubs in training in the early period of home computing. In this case “the state itself did not claim the territory of home computers, its socialist organizations granted patronage to clubs. […] Clubs in turn offered services that were otherwise (in the capitalist contexts) mostly performed by commercial companies.” (Švelch 2018, 215) The East-West-German comparison provides a more nuanced picture concerning the role of capitalist and communist systems’ impact on home computing.

In the case of the GDR, the state leadership was strongly involved in home computerization. Reports to the Ministry of Higher Education and Technical Education testify that microelectronics had gained in importance in the school and extracurricular youth institutions at the end of the 1980s.[14] A report criticized, however, that above all the lack of equipment and access restrictions prevent the exploratory appropriation of the new technology. This illustrates that in the GDR the use of computers was not only to be promoted, but that playful learning was also of interest. And this function of clubs also applied to the capitalist West. A lot of letters addressed to the CCC around the year 1984 show that computer users saw the club as an important source of information on computing. The hacker club provided more of what state or business organizations offered less. For example, one letter said that “conventional clubs” did not provide the necessary information about security or networks for an experienced computer amateur.[15] Another student wrote that it would be boring to do only reasonable things with a computer,[16] and that is why he made contact with the hacker club.

Computers and computing practices were intrinsically linked to processes of identity formation. Computer enthusiasts in both countries were interested in more than simply having the latest and best computer model. At least since the opening of the borders, their own cultural practices became threatened by an uncertain future, also in computer usage. The KoKon meeting showed that it was not only the pure performance of the devices which was a decisive criterion for the potential users. Some GDR computer fans warned that the Western technological advantage should not lead to the total exclusion of devices and especially user practices from the GDR. While East German users could be content with computer technology being delivered from the West, they still wanted to determine the modes of usage themselves. Under no circumstances did they see themselves as beggars.[17] Some GDR citizens, despite the unquestionably more advanced technology in the West, took a critical stance towards Western computers and did refer to their own technologies and practices with pride. From their point of view, the computer dominated in the West as a consumer good. This was a development they wanted to avoid by all means for the GDR.[18] However, similar concerns had already been expressed by the West German CCC in 1981, which warned against considering computers as pure consumer goods. In the announcement for their first meeting it criticised “that ‘the personal computer’ in Germany is now to be sold to the video-saturated BMW driver” and pointed out that a “useful” computer approach should be followed instead (Twiddlebit et al 1981). For both states, it can be said that hobbyists came together and wanted to use computer technology far aside from a purely rationalist or consumerist approach. Creativity and fun were particularly in the focus of these enthusiasts, and this way of exploring and using computer technology was mainly realized in clubs which offered free spaces.


Of course one can question the usefulness of a comparison between West and East Germany. Would it not make more sense to compare the FRG with other liberal states or the GDR with other countries of the Eastern Bloc, where access to consumer goods or the possibilities of the expression of opinion would be more alike? And these concerns have their legitimacy, as such studies are also needed. After numerous case studies, there is a lack of comparisons to emphasize commonalities as well as differences, and thus the diversity of computer subcultures. How, for example, to explain the difference between the FRG, where hackers were able to establish a very positive image of themselves and follow their practices quite freely, and its similarly liberal and democratic neighbor, France, where hackers went underground because they were severely persecuted and punished harshly since the 1980s (Ankara 2007; „Manifeste pour la création d’une organisation hacker en France“ 2009)? Socialist countries of the Soviet bloc also display interesting differences, as the results from Jaroslav Švelch concerning the state’s involvement in private computer usage show in contrast to the GDR.

But it is precisely in these differences, in the comparison of different political and cultural frameworks, that such an approach is beneficial. It may show us what role the technology itself plays in its use and how, on the other hand, national political, cultural and economic frameworks influenced computer practices, or how similar practices were pursued across borders. Since the GDR was lagging behind Western standards on the technical level of production and supply of computer technology, a comparison between East and West is able to avoid the common mistakes of writing the history of technology as a history of progress. This history, on the contrary, emphasizes that the use of technologies can be marked by particular identities and apparently intersecting practices in technology use and consumption. Soldering one’s own circuit boards, which has become increasingly obsolete due to the establishment of a market for computers and computer parts, remained for instances. Through this approach it becomes more apparent that practices of computing are temporally overlapping and not only superseding. And this does not only apply to the GDR or less developed countries, but is also reflected, for example, in the emergence of hacker cultures in the FRG in contrast to the USA. In this case, it can also be seen that hackers in West Germany developed their own values, which not only adapted the original hacker ethic, but extended it from the outset. The approach also helps to understand that hacking is not only a Western phenomenon, as well as to emphasize the offline aspects of this computer culture. The comparison of different countries also stresses the role of communities in the course of private computerization, and allows us to write a history of home computing from the bottom up. Last but not least, comparing subcultural computer usage in different contexts not only generates new insights on computing history, but also on social and cultural history.


All links verified 16.6.2020

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[1] At the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam a project started in 2014 researching exactly the entanglement, parallelism and similarities of computerization in the two German states. It deals with the computerization of the police and intelligence services, the banking system, the pension planning, the military and my own project on the sub- and countercultural use of computers by hackers: https://zzf-potsdam.de/en/forschung/linien/departure-towards-digital-society-computerisation-and-social-regimes-west-and-east.

[2] E.g. Ulbrich, Dr. Reinhard. Undated. „Code-Knacker“. In BStU BV Berlin XX 3118, 4.

[3] “Mülle nicht in den Daten anderer Leute“, „Öffentliche Daten nützen, private Daten schützen“

[4] „Unterrichtsmittel und Schulversorgung; Beschleunigung der Informatikausbildung im Bildungswesen“, 1986–1987. In German Federal Archives, Berlin-Lichterfelde (in the following: BArch Lichterfelde) DR/2/14059.

[5] „Information zu Problemen des Schmuggels und der Spekulation mit Erzeugnissen der Computerindustrie“, 1988. In Stasi Records Agency, Berlin (in the following: BStU) MfS-ZAIG 20262.

[6] „Operative Information HdjT Computerclub“, 1988, BStU BV Berlin XX 4334, p.7.

[7] E.g. Hinweis zu einem DDR-Bürger, der private Kontakte zu einem Verlag nach München unterhält“. 1984. In BStU, MfS HA II 1713.

[8] Fetsch. 1988. „Information zu vorliegenden ersten Erkenntnissen im Zusammenhang der Nutzung privater Rechentechnik“. In BStU MfS-ZOS 1510.

[9] Ibid., p. 74

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] „Operative Information HdjT Computerclub“, 1988, BStU BV Berlin XX 4334, p. 23.

[13] Fix, Bernd. 2015. Interview mit Bernd Fix – Virenexperte (BRD) Interviewed by Julia Gül Erdogan.

[14] “Ausbildung im Fach Mathematik/Informatik; Stand der EDV”, 1988. In BArch Lichterfelde DR/2/11708.

[15] Letter from Bad Aibling. Undated. In CCC Archiv Berlin, Folder 28.

[16] Letter from Stuttgart. Undated. In CCC Archiv Berlin, Folder 28.

[17] KOKON 004 msc/fr .1990. In Wau Holland Archiv Box I, Berlin.

[18] Ibid.