Who's Debbie home > backlash

A question I've been pondering for years...
WARNING - this is a rambling collection of memories, not for the weak hearted!

Kids today... they don't know they're born! I've been feeling my age, you see. Although I discovered that I'm a little younger than the CD (or is it the technique for producing laser discs in general?), I'm starting to realise that there are fully-fledged people out there who were born after key events in my life. Noticing that the top models, actors and other random celebrities are, on the whole, either my age or younger also makes me think. If I'd taken a few different turns in my life, would I be doing Robbie Williams's stint in the Royal Albert Hall? (he's my age...)

I don't want to sound unhappy with my lot, because I'm not. I've always had a tendency for nostalgia, and I'm feeling nostalgic now. Perhaps the number of years I've clocked up so far is simply good nostalgia fuel!

I think that it was the back end of September that I was sitting on a coach, chatting to two of my fellow passengers. We were bound for York, from Leeds, in order to make a connection to the Newcastle train, that Leeds station had decided not to allow through their tracks (Sunday service is clearly more Sunday than service there, then!). Most of the talking in this conversation was done by a precocious 8 year old lad. His intelligence and enthusiasm for subjects close to my own heart was entertaining and it was an enjoyable conversation. However, when we got on to the subject of his website, I realised, with a start, that I set up my first web home page around the time that the lad was born. Outrageous! Then, I realised that I've been online for nearly fifteen years in some form or other. These facts don't seem to tally with my recollection of how time has passed...

However, it's all true. My first website was in 1993 or 1994, and I was online first in about 1986. In those days, being online was a whole different animal. We easily forget that the modern day ISP did not really start trading until the mid 1990's. Before then, there were academics, the military and a few civilians allowed on the internet (Janet/ARPAnet etc), everyone else used something very different.

There were two sorts of service I remember using from both my trusty BBC Micro computer and various friends' computers. Both services ran on Viewdata terminals (essentially a more interactive version of Teletext). You had the choice of the commercial service - Micronet or Prestel, where you paid for the phone call (I think they had local numbers to call), online time AND also certain pages (each page's price was in the top right hand corner). Or, there was the amateur bulletin board. These amateur BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) had to be dialled at the host's home telephone number (usually a national call away) and ran using software that was usually home-made by their Sysop (SYStem OPerator), but which could also be bought. Names like Oscar Brumwell mean nothing to the majority people today, but meant the world to his customers.

As a sad techie (even from early teenage), I became involved in the Viewdata world, mainly as a user of certain BBSes, but also as a contributor to three software projects. Primarily, I'd like to claim involvement in CARBBS - which was written by Christopher Andrew Royle (hence the CAR bit) and was sold to a number of budding Sysops. I wrote the file transfer hosts for this system, along with the page editor. I also contributed software to CCl4, which is one of the few viewdata services that are still running. There was one other system that I contributed to, but I've no idea what it was called; strange how you forget these things. It's a shame that I've forgotten, since their system relied entirely on the little widget I wrote, which allowed their software to be able to present pages to their users (fairly fundamental then!).

So, back in the mid eighties, I was emailing, downloading files, doing online chats, admittedly only with the Sysop, since these systems could only handle one user at a time, alongside the Sysop who could use it from the keyboard of the host computer (usually on a table in his bedroom). It was around that time that the mysterious and enigmatic Debbie Dane appeared on the scene. Various bulletin boards found her as a registered user and found that the tone of her emails was somewhat provocative. In a world populated almost exclusively by teenage boys, an email user with a girl's name, who writes in the style of top-shelf-men's magazine dirty stories... well, let's just say it caused serious consternation. Obviously, we all researched the aforementioned magazines, just to make sure. Interestingly enough, such periodicals are among the hardest to borrow from your local library.

Debbie Dane was clearly a man winding everyone up, though if you're reading this Ms Dane and you were a girl, then please get in touch. It seems fairly certain that the reason that Ms Dane was shrouded in mystery was not only that she was pretty much the only female name on the users list, but also because nobody ever managed to get past first base with her on an interactive chat. There were three sorts of interactive chat - such chats, as I've said, being held exclusively between the Sysop and the user.

  1. You type on the screen and the Sysop waits for you to finish and types his bit and so on...
  2. The ultimate: Sysop or user suggests "why don't we go to voice?" and both people lift telephones and speak, rather than waste a national phone call on watching someone type badly.
  3. The Sysop installs some software like Eliza (the original pseudo psycho-analyst) which appears to chat to you when you press the link to chat to the Sysop. This can be made more convincing with software to simulate the typing and typing errors a Sysop would make in his part of the chat.

It was rare that you were faced with an Autosysop, though some people were fooled by them!

So, Ms Debbie Dane refused to go to voice. Why? Because a woman would not have a male voice, probably. Oh, she gave some good excuses:

Looking back, it was fairly pathetic, but we were young and enjoyed the is-she, isn't-she thing.

It seems that, even in those days, when a fast connection was 1.2kbps (compared with 56kbps now on a modem and 512kbps on a broadband!), the model for being a surfer was well established. When I think now how close I came to inventing the World Wide Web, I silently kick myself.

Should anyone find out the true identity of Ms Dane, then let me know. However, these days there are probably 1000's of other Debbies, winding people up in chat rooms and emails... but I remember the original one!

06 December 2001
Ashley Frieze