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Baud Subjects

My love affair with my modem began in 1983, when I saw War Games for the first time.
Steven Rubio

Issue #12, March 1994

My love affair with my modem began in 1983, when I saw War Games for the first time. We had recently bought our first computer, a VIC-20 with 5k of RAM and no disk drive, that plugged into the teevee. In War Games, Matthew Broderick plays a geeky teenager who, while messing around with his home computer and modem, almost starts World War III when he hacks his way into the Defense Department computer system (the forerunner of today's Internet) and thinks he is playing a game called 'Thermonuclear War.'

Once I saw that movie, I knew I had to have a modem. As luck would have it, Commodore, the makers of the VIC-20, early on grasped the marketing potential of the online world. You could buy a cheap VIC-Modem and log onto a place called CompuServe and visit the Commodore Information Network. I bought, I logged on, I visited. The rest is history.

It is an understatement to claim that I made many friends over the following decade online. In fact, I made family: my wife and I became foster parents to a teenager we met over a local online bulletin board system (Small World Anecdote: that same teenager, now grown, is a member of the Bad Subjects Mailing List). My sister probably beats me in this regard, however; she met her future husband on CompuServe.

When the founders of Bad Subjects decided in the spring of 1993 that the publication could no longer continue without the added help of an expanded collective of workers, I added my name to the list of bad subjects who would attempt to carry badness into a second season. Given my background I felt I could best contribute to the future of Bad Subjects by attempting to establish an online presence for our publication. To this end, and with the help of some terrific people working in Cal's computer services departments, we put together a fledgling mailing list of a couple of dozen friends and went to work massaging files from the first year of Bad Subjects to make them usable online. With the publication of Issue 7 in September of 1993, we began including an info box with each copy of Bad Subjects mentioning our mailing list and our upcoming gopher service. I also posted messages in a few USENET newsgroups and net mailing lists announcing the presence of the Bad Subjects Mailing List.

Bad Readers from the online community can perhaps be forgiven if they are unable to realize what Bad Subjects was like in those days 'B.M.' (Before Mailinglist). Through the dedication of Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz, along with the hard work of Charlie Bertsch and others, Bad Subjects had grown from a small, little-known campus journal with a distribution of 250 to a small, more-than-a-little known campus journal with a distribution of about 500. It had been the object of a parody issue published by others, it had been publicly attacked at union meetings, it had drawn the ire of the occasional disgruntled academic. It had made an impression. But still, it was a small campus journal printed monthly when possible on real paper using real copiers and real print. It had a tangible, concrete presence; you could hold it in your hand.

Then came our online friends. In early September we announced the Bad Subjects Mailing List. By mid-September we had close to 200 members from eight countries. With the installation of our gopher service, all list members could access current and back issues of Bad Subjects. Suddenly we were no longer 'merely' a small campus journal; we were worldwide. I must admit, even I, who had spent more than a decade loving my modem, was taken aback by the instant and impressive response of the online world to our efforts. And I was used to the concept of making friends online. Many of the Bad Subjects Collective members were relative neophytes to the online world (in fact, to this day, not all collective members even own modems). Imagine our collective astonishment when we experienced the joys and travails of our new online community:

>Issue 8 included the first-ever Bad Subjects article written by an online contributor: Crystal Kile's piece on BH 90210.

>Over the course of our first six months online, we welcomed list members from, among other places, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Venezuela, Norway, Sweden and (in a roundabout way) even Antarctica.

>On the same night that Bad Subjects had their first public party (the 'Bad Fiesta'), our newly-crowned Bad Subjects East buddies at Bowling Green University held an Eastern front party of their own.

And still we didn't realize how wide the net could spread. In the late fall of '93, our gopher service, previously accessible only to those who knew the proper codes, was attached to the central gopher system at UC Berkeley. Immediately we started getting comments and feedback from net surfers who had just happened upon Bad Subjects while wandering around the Internet. A professor in Maryland asked if she could use some Bad Texts for a course reader she was preparing; a reader at Notre Dame wanted to forward articles to people in Antarctica; and we started receiving requests to submit articles from areas as far-flung as Moscow (as this issue demonstrates).

And there was more. For, once our gopher was accessible to all net surfers, we were ripe for the picking, one might say. Net denizens who liked Bad Subjects and ran online services of their own started attaching the Bad Gopher to their own systems, where we were discovered by still more people, who attached us to THEIR systems. We were attached to the English Server at Carnegie Mellon, one of the best and most popular of Internet resources, thanks to the work and kindness of Le'a Kent, Geoff Sauer and others. (Geoff later became the first online member to join the Bad Subjects Collective.)

There was a pleasant irony to this net expansion of our reach. The very first issue of Bad Subjects contained the following plea: 'We'd like you to HELP US OUT BY XEROXING copies for anyone else you know who is interested.' A similar message has appeared in all hard copy editions of Bad Subjects since that first issue. Little did anyone realize what the 'virtual' equivalent of 'Xeroxing copies' would mean!

In the meantime, the Bad Subjects Mailing List had developed a distinct personality of its own. We first started noticing this when list members would describe something they had said or done as being 'badsubjectian.' Once we got past the delight over the presence of such a term, we realized that if something could be so defined, it must on some level actually exist. And there is no denying that there is something about the 'badsubjectian' world; without being able to say what it is, we seem to be figuring out what it isn't, and so on occasion someone on the mailing list will be gently chided for discussing matters that are 'not about Bad Subjects.' Indeed, a new thread has begun as I write this essay, revolving around the Bad Subjects Manifesto and the proper uses of a Bad mailing list towards accomplishing the goals of that manifesto. The crux of the discussion is essentially an attempt to define the badsubjectian position relative to politics and popular culture, which is certainly something that Bad Subjects is 'about.' What the net does, though, is move the discussion from Joe and Annalee, or those two and the new, improved collective, into a wide-ranging public sphere where all list members can feel a part of the badsubjectian experience and attempt to redefine it in their own terms. In this way, the mailing list is distinct from the actual publication and the collective members who produce it, even as it is influenced by the publication (the discussion begins with the Manifesto) and even as the publication is influenced by the list (as this essay and others in this issue demonstrate).

And so gradually, without anyone really noticing it as it happened, there have come to be more than one Bad Subjects Worlds. Most of our many online friends have never seen a 'real' copy of Bad Subjects (although thanks to the great work from Geoff Sauer, you can now see a virtual approximation of a 'real' copy through the English Server at Carnegie Mellon). Many of our local Berkeley readers have never seen an online copy of Bad Subjects. It is difficult to pin down exactly what is different about the 'two Bad Subjects,' but the difference exists.

For one thing, the local readers respond to the articles that appear in each issue. This kind of feedback hasn't really changed since the beginning. Someone will read an article, like it, take offense at it, or whatever, and contact us to tell us what they think, at times corralling an author in the hallowed UC Berkeley halls to pass on their responses. The issues are grabbed at various distribution points on campus, read at leisure, thought about, and ignored or contested or appreciated as time allows. I myself enjoy having someone stop me on campus to comment on an essay I have written; it's great to realize someone actually reads the damn thing, even if they didn't like it. The focus here, though, is generally on the essays themselves.

The Bad Mailing List has a different focus, however. We know that many list members read the issues, because reference will be made to this or that essay in the midst of other conversations, as is the case with our recent thread on the Manifesto. But most of the time the subjects discussed on the mailing list come under the general heading of 'badsubjectian' subjects. A few days ago, my wife and I ran into a couple of friends leaving a movie theatre as we were coming in. The movie was Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground. Both friends, Anders and Nathan, are also members of the Bad mailing list, and they were both convinced that the movie they had just seen, which we were about to see, was a perfect movie to discuss on the Bad list. Sure enough, the next time I logged on, Anders had posted a message to the list encouraging all bad subjects to check out On Deadly Ground, which he felt had definite badsubjectian possibilities. (And, it must be added, the thread still continues, spawning discussion of Seagal's seeming promotion of left-wing terrorism as a viable political act, the ultimate ineptitude of Seagal as a director, the possibility of making a statement and making money simultaneously, and even a fleeting reference to Billy Jack, all in less than a week. The net is nothing if not fast.)

No essay that ever appeared in Bad Subjects has mentioned Steven Seagal, to the best of my knowledge. The most recent film-oriented article to appear in Bad Subjects discussed the works of Frank Capra. Yet Anders knew that what he had just seen was something that offered interesting possibilities for the Bad list. This is the crucial difference between the 'real' Bad Subjects and the mailing list version, I think: the Bad List assumes the existence of a Bad point of view and examines whatever comes to mind from that point of view. To write an article for Bad Subjects you need to commit yourself to the writing, to being focused, to meeting deadlines. To write a message for the Bad List, you only need a modem, an attitude, and a feeling that something deserves examination from a Bad point of view. (It must be repeated, as I mentioned in my earlier Bad essay 'The Internet, the AGSE Strike, and Me,' that though an attitude can be found anywhere you find people, and though thoughtful people can be found anywhere you find attitudes, nevertheless to access the Internet you still need to have either money or connections; it is still much easier for a graduate student to join the Bad mailing list than it is for a non-student trying to scrape by from day to day.)

We could overemphasize the differences between the two Bad worlds. At a recent Bad party, two attendees demonstrated how no matter what version of Bad Subjects you are consuming, what matters most is that it reaches you. One person was a student at Cal who had been reading Bad Subjects since the very first issue. She was very kind with her praise for the publication, which was much appreciated. She was not a part of the Bad online world, but she was a committed reader of Bad Subjects and she had come to our party to meet some of the people she had read over the past two years. Another visitor was a member of the Bad list, a former Cal student who now works in nearby Oakland. He had found us in our online version, and had come to our party to meet some of the people he had read over the past few months. He stood in for all of our friends across the globe who do so much to make Bad Subjects a valuable net presence; though he lived close enough to attend our party, he had experienced us much as our friends in Bowling Green must experience us, as an online community. Both of these fellow partiers, though, are responding to something in Bad Subjects that matters to them.

There are, of course, staggering implications to be discovered in the growth of the Bad online experience. In many ways, Bad Subjects represents a reaching out, first by Joe and Annalee and later by the collective members, an attempt to find out if there really were kindred souls out there. And 'out there' in the beginning may have only meant the Berkeley campus. Now, though, 'out there' includes Antarctica, and the realization that there are indeed kindred souls and they reach across the globe is touching and invigorating. The speed with which information is shared is also startling; more than startling, it is just plain fun to experience the rapid exchange of ideas, and we bad subjects have always liked our fun. That speed may at times be counterproductive, though. It is too easy to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, too enticing knowing that you can grab the attention of a mini-world with a few keystrokes and have that world respond in a flash. If the post-modern world places too much emphasis on the new and the faux-new, then the rapid exchange of ideas on a net mailing list may fall victim too easily to the desire for new topics to devour. There is something to be said for the studied consideration of ideas over time, as well. Perhaps the monthly issues of Bad Subjects can provide the focus for such consideration, even as the mailing list members gleefully attack the latest movie or book or teevee show.

In the spring of 1993, Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz asked for the help needed to keep Bad Subjects afloat. They had succeeded beyond expectations, and could no longer carry on the entire burden by themselves. The Bad Subjects Collective was the result. Now, as the spring again approaches, the Bad Subjects Collective, recognizing that we are still succeeding beyond expectations, once again appeals to all the many people who have enriched our Bad lives, and ask for their help. The future of Bad Subjects will likely be different than anything we can presently imagine, just as it looked different to Joe and Annalee after one year, and as it looks different to all of us after two years. Our online friends will most certainly be an important part of the future of Bad Subjects. I hope this essay has given a sense of what the online community is like, for our friends who are not on the net. For those net friends, I'd like to leave you with the image of Joe and Annalee and Charlie cranking out the early issues of a 'small campus journal,' for despite the online growth of Bad Subjects, it remains, among others things, just such a publication, assembled on an old Macintosh and a cheap laser printer thanks to the real work of actual human beings, as I like to remind people when they join our mailing list. Whatever the future holds for Bad Subjects, I hope people always remember that it exists only because of the work of those actual human beings.

Steven Rubio is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He is an award-winning fantasy baseball writer and an all-around raconteur. He can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved.