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History of The Mote

The Programmer's Tale

One crummy winter's day in Auckland (Thursday 12th August 1999), I checked out the Fray. Hadn't been there for a couple of weeks, I think. I wanted to check out what Spudboy had to say about a far-right nutjob from the North-West that had been on a shooting spree in California.

Well, nobody was talking about that. Everyone was talking about the imminent demise of the site. The Slate people had announced that they were pulling the plug on the Fray.

I had a very bad day. Low productivity. Feeling as if a close friend had died or something. Analysing my feelings, I realised there were equal parts of three things : sadness about losing the intellectual stimulation; mourning for the loss of the "virtual", but very real, community; and indignation for Irving.

For those who weren't there at the time : Irving had been a contributor to the Fray from the very beginning, three years (?) previously; and with no exaggeration, it was he who created and fostered that sense of community. Fittingly, he eventually had become the paid moderator of the site, and had worked tirelessly, and pretty much fruitlessly to promote the integration of the Fray with the rest of the Slate site.

It was a pretty surreal situation, to be sure : the Fray was supposed to be a forum where readers of Slate discussed the articles in the magazine. In fact, few people were interested in doing that : the forum had a rich intellectual, cultural and social life of its own, and didn't need no stinkin' magazine to feed off.

Which, of course, was why Slate pulled the plug. But I digress...

Friday 13th August was a good day. JJBiener and CalGal had raised the standard of revolt. Slate doesn't want us? Then let's do our own thing. I immediately volunteered as tech slave.
Various options were canvassed :
- Colonising another discussion site. This was in fact used as a stopgap measure;
- Finding a shareware package, or buying a commercial package, to run a discussion forum of our own, and renting server space. JJ started accepting donations (which are presumably still sitting in a bank account somewhere; or paying for his holiday air fares. Whatever.)
- Asking Slate for the Fray source code, and adapting and running it ourselves on rented server space.

I immediately vetoed the third option. The code was obviously riddled with bugs, there had been little or no maintenance done on it, and there was no way I was going to take on their crap!

The more I looked at the second option, the more I wondered what I was getting myself into. It was going to be complicated and time-consuming to evaluate, then configure and maintain one of those packages. And it would never look and feel as good as our beloved/hated Fray...

Then I thought : How complicated can it be to do it myself?

And when I thought it through, it was almost trivial : three database tables (user, thread, post) and a couple of hundred lines of code would be enough.

I spent Saturday 14th at the office, writing code and playing around with it until I had a web site which published threads and posts out of a database : i.e. a read-only version of the Mote. JJ mailed me a .GIF file he had created, the sci-fi thing which is the site's masthead; so I suppose we must have already decided on the name.

Digression : How the Mote nearly didn't come to be.
I rode my bicycle to the office that Saturday. Arriving at the back door, I have trouble opening it : my key is a bad copy, or someone's been messing with the lock. I'm holding my bike with one hand, and wrestling with the door with the other. I eventually get the door open, but now I can't get the key out. I take my bike inside, so I can use both hands, and start wrestling the door again. While doing so, I close it - and can't get it open again. The key is completely stuck, and I'm outside. Needless to say, my bag with money, house keys, phone card etc is attached to my bike... inside. There may well be someone at the office, but they'll be at the other end of the building, two floors up.

Abject defeat. In retrospect, about a 50-50 chance that the Mote will never get off the ground : time constraints, lack of gumption, etc. I'm about to walk home (hoping someone is there to let me in!).

Then I see... a pair of feet sticking out the first floor window. I yell at them, and it turns out that there's a head attached. Yes, the guy in the first floor office is happy to let me in. End of digression.

On Monday, I worked out how to make the "alpha" Mote site, which was on a development server at the office, accessible to the rest of the world... CalGal was the first alpha user.
Monday was a busy e-mail day... IrvingSnodgrass is now in the loop: I implore him to accept the position of Honorary Life President and Lord High Poobah. He's thinking about it. JayAckroyd offers hosting services!! We're in business; this solves our two major problems with one stone : he's liable to be much more co-operative technically than any commercial hosting outfit will be; and he doesn't want any money.

Wednesday, 18th August : I announce an "advanced alpha" version. I have created logins for Calgal, jjbiener and IrvingSnodgrass, so there are four of us posting now. Although that first thread no longer "exists", I invite you to take a look at those first posts through this link. (The first post by someone other than me is 24, by Calgal. Previous to that I'm trying out their logins.)

Note that your browser will probably show these posts dated 17th August. That's not a bug, that's a feature... my chronology is in New Zealand time, the world's most advanced.

You'll note that at this early stage, we've already worked out that we can do what we like with HTML. Is this due to extreme cleverness on my part? Not at all. It just happens that whatever you type (or paste) gets put in the database, then merged with the rest of the user-interface HTML when a page is displayed. So if some clever dick puts HTML tags in their post, they are interpreted by your browser and you see the end result. Corollary : if they forgot to put in the closing tag, then the effect stays turned on for the following posts, until someone inserts the appropriate end tag to turn it off.

The more I think about this "bug", the more I like it. Virtually everyone is telling me that I need to parse the HTML to permit a certain limited number of things, and forbid everything else; also to close any open tags. I resist this because I like the notion of collective responsibility and the fostering of community spirit that this entails there's a lot of programming involved, and I'm lazy.

Still Wednesday : Wabbit joins the party. I create logins for a bunch of people who we hope will agree to be beta testers. PelleNilsson immediately becomes an enthusiastic member of the team. ArkyMalarkey, TheDiva, PhillipDavid are the next to show up.

Friday 20th August : One week after the launching of the project. I hand over the new moderation features to Irving: he can create users and threads, and (shudder) delete posts.

Saturday 21st : more moderation features for Irving, and the self-registration is working. A lot of the hard-core Fray people are on board by now. Posting is as heavy as a peak day on the Fray!

Sunday 22nd : JayAckroyd and I finally get co-ordinated, and in a flurry of e-mails and FTP, we set up the Mote on his server in New York. I dump the data from my database and he loads it onto his server, so we even keep all the posts from that frantic first week... Some time after midnight, Monday morning (my time) we do the switch-over, and the Mote changes hemispheres.

I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Nobody at the office knew I was running a bulletin board on the test machine, and it was eating up a lot of bandwidth... and at any moment, somebody could have pulled the plug and used the machine for something else. Traffic during that first week was heavy, and I was amazed that the box, a Pentium 100, stood up to the strain so well. Response times were excellent at all times. I can't understand how Microsoft, creators of all this technology, made such a balls of the Fray - slow, unreliable and buggy.

Speaking of Microsoft... A concensus emerges to change the look and feel of the site. What I did was simply rip off the Fray, because I liked the setup a great deal. Although at the time I claimed to have "reverse engineered" the Fray user interface, in fact what I did was to save a page of the Fray to HTML, hack out the ads and the Slate table of contents (which were the main reasons the Fray pages were so slow to load and unreliable, by the way), and use this HTML as a template to insert the Mote data into. The resemblance to the original was uncanny; Irving thought it might be actionable. He was afraid that Microsoft might sue us if we went public in that form.

Monday 23rd August : Irving doesn't want to be moderator; he is understandably burned out after the Fray. Wabbit becomes the Mote's first (and so far, only) Virtual Irving.

Development work goes on during this, the second week of the project. Thread-level moderation, and a bunch of other stuff, means that we have now left the Fray far behind from a functional point of view. And Calgal is working on the user interface on the development machine (the Mote's first server).

On Friday 27th, I'm installing some changes to Jay's server and I inadvertently install Calgal's work-in-progress user interface. I like it so much that I decide to leave it. I can now reveal that Calgal was exceedingly pissed off with me... but everyone loved the new version so much that we couldn't back out.

And now, we were ready for the world. Just need the domain-name registration to come through, and we're open for business.

The Designer's Tale

The post appeared on August 9, just a bit after 5:00 in the afternoon.

Existing Fraygrants;

We would like to invite you to try the new Fray, currently available in beta here. You should notice some significant changes, and we encourage you to read the FAQ available in the Fray Beta thread, if you have any questions. Over the long-term, Slate is working to provide a way let our readers provide feedback to the editors, and to build more of a sense of community among our readers. We hope that the newly redesigned Fray is a step in that direction.

I clicked on the link with interest—Slate programmers had been promising enhancements to their existing forum software for some time, now, and it looked like they were finally unveiling it. I was a bit surprised, since Irving Snodgrass, the forum administrator, hadn´t given us any hint that it was coming and he´s not usually secretive. Still, there is no figuring out forum management and the politics involved, so I could gripe at him later, I thought, as the new software loaded onto my browser.

My first glimpse of the “new Fray” stilled any notion that Irving might have been aware of the upcoming changes.

The new software was…..a bulletin board. Ancient technology. No logins required. Only one post viewable at a time—and the post would take at least two minutes to appear. It was not possible that Slate programmers could have considered it as an enhancement—which meant that all the promises of the past year had been so much smoke.

Slate had decided to kill the Fray, a passionate, ferociously committed community of some 200 users, who weren´t particularly interested in the magazine, but had created an intelligent forum . It was fair enough. Slate owned the software, database, and network that made the community possible, and they were telling us, in a rather roundabout fashion, that our free ride was over. They didn´t want the hassle. They didn´t want the expense. And, frankly, they didn´t want us. They wanted a place where people who actually read the magazine would post comments about articles. An online “letters to the editors”, rather than a forum that discussed everything and everyone with vigor, intensity, and high levels of abuse. Oh, and by the way—Irv was fired.

The distress we all felt upon the elimination of our forum is probably hard to communicate to anyone who isn´t quite clear on the difference between a forum and a chatroom, and who is a bit confused by the willingness that a few people have to become engaged and involved in what is nothing more than a series of words on a screen.

Want an analogy? Think of a bar. No, better yet, think of a club. The clubs of the sort that gentlemen had back in England, maybe, but a bit more egalitarian. (only a bit, though). You visit it frequently—in fact, when you can, you work from there. You know the quality of conversation, the nature of discourse, the type of people who hang out there. You´re known, you have the routine down, you know the regulars—in fact, you are a regular. Some of the other members are your friends, some you can´t stand, but you wouldn´t want to do without most of them. In most cases, the only contact you have with these people is at the club.

Then your comfy cozy little club sells out to a conglomerate, and the conglomerate is converting the bar into a pro-wrestling video bar, and there isn´t a damn thing you can do about it.

If you are thinking to yourself, “Well, go out and find a real club, for heavens sakes, rather than looking for life online” you are missing the point. But I digress.

We were, as one poster put it, being downsized. Booted out. Our forum was about to be gunned down on the causeway, and it was just business. Nothing personal.

In the midst of all of our anger and frustration was a real sense of panic. It was our little community, and we did love it. Was it lost forever, or could we keep it intact?

The obvious, immediate act was to move to another forum. There are a number of them, with Salon´s Tabletalk the obvious place to investigate. Some folks thought that this would be enough—we all established “beachheads” (discussion threads) for people to check out, got to know the regulars.

Myself, I was very worried. I knew Tabletalk better than most, and I didn´t think it was best suited for our group. Besides, I had seen what happened when CNN closed its forum and they had all moved to Tabletalk. It wasn't pretty. Tabletalk administrators are far more active and intrusive than what we were used to, as well.

But more than that, I wasn't sure that moving to another forum and opening ourselves to the same risk again seemed like a bad idea. Slate's decision had really opened my eyes to the economics of forums in general, and it seemed to me eminently possible that over time, other magazines might make the same call. It seemed to me that we wouldn't want to expose ourselves to that again.

Obviously, the solution hovering in the back of my mind was to eliminate a magazine or any other backer from the picture. Build our own place.

I'm familiar enough with the costs of servers, networks, software, and databases. To say nothing of the difficulties of setting up a forum, creating policy without an impersonal magazine to back up the authority of the administrator. And then there was marketing. How would we get new people? How would we support the costs? Would there be enough enthusiasm to see us through, or would most people prefer to take the "safe" route of finding another forum and hope for the best? Besides, maybe that was the best. Was it a pipe dream to think we should try to remove our dependence on a 'zine forum? Should I even mention it, given how hard it would be to follow through?

And lo! like a voice in the darkness, someone echoed my thoughts, and had the chutzpah to say it out loud.

4054. JJBiener - Aug. 10, 1999 - 12:26 PM PT

OK Guys. The way I see it, we are The Fray (cue soundtrack "We are the Fray, we are the children. . ."). Where we go, the Fray goes with us. About a hundred of us have been paying $20 a year to Slate in order to post here. I did a little calculation and figure that we can create our own site for what we are paying here.

We can go to Mindspring or any one of a billion web hosting sites and get 50M of disk for about $50 a month. I believe we have enough technical expertise amongst our members to do the software.

I have found the Fray to be an real online community and I am not willing to give it up. The Fray exists wherever we as a group go. However, I am afraid that if we go to TT or suite 101 we will lose that which makes us unique.

Here is what I want to know. Would you pay $20 per year to see the Fray continue as an independent entity? Do you have skills that you could volunteer to the cause? If you don't want to reply here, send me an email at

The Fray Lives!

Well, hell, if he was going to be brave enough to mention it, the least I could do was jump right in and join him. JJ and I spoke on the phone that night, mapped out a gameplan, and despite all the difficulties that we agreed were out there waiting, we proposed to move forward. And asked for money.

I was incredibly heartened by the immediate and enthusiastic response. Once again, I am reminded that I am too much the pessimist.

We came up with the easy part first--a name. At the time, two members were running a small online magazine called "The Sun's Eye", and it seemed obvious that we should be The Mote. The magazine has since disappeared, but the name remains. JJ designed our logo and we amused ourselves by trying to think up names for our crew (Moties? Mote Members? Mo-telles?).

Still, JJ and I knew that the two most difficult barriers were also the most immediate: Where would we house our forum, and what software/database would we use to run it?

We were investigating pay sites, and were confident that we could make it work. The hack writers had it right: Time was our Enemy.

Slate had given the Fray only another two weeks before they pulled the plug on the access. Even though we had hit the ground running on the second day, that gave us only two weeks to find a new place, find software, customize it, and so on. That wasn't very much time, and we knew that there was a risk that people would get discouraged if the Fray disappeared and we didn't have our new digs.

But then we were handed two miracles:

JayAckroyd, owner of an NYC consulting company, readily volunteered to host our forum for free. Alistair Connor got involved, and built a replacement forum that was better than any other interface we'd ever seen.

It is impossible to overstate the impact that their generosity had on our ability to create this site with our membership nearly intact. Alistair turned it over to a few of us (while still on his own server) for initial testing, and we kept the diaspora (maintaining temporary digs at Tabletalk) abreast of developments.

Within a week, Irving Snodgrass--still in mourning over Slate's betrayal, but ready and willing to provide us with temporary guidance--was setting up userids for beta testers. It took a lot of time and energy, but he used his extensive address book and the reservoir of trust that he'd built up over the years to create ids and passwords for everyone he knew.

The beta period--from around August 16 through September 10--was one of true exhilaration. We'd done it! We'd created our own place! (Well, Alistair had created our own place, but we'd helped.) Animosities disappeared, intent discussions on policy initiated, and we quickly had what we felt was an excellent approach to a workable policy. Each thread would have a host, and the host would have absolute power to set the tone and discussion for the thread. Posts could be deleted if they were deemed inappropriate--and the host had full discretion.

But we also realized that fully decentralized power wouldn't work. We needed an authority figure--someone with complete control to enforce our minimal rules, to determine if a host was being abusive, and to make final determinations on policy issues.

So who would be our forum administrator? Irving had firmly declared that he wasn't interested. Fortunately, he had the ideal candidate in mind, and we got our third lucky break when Wabbit agreed to take on the job. (Job? Volunteer duty, and often thankless at that. But at least the hours are nonstop.)

One other concern that some of us had was the "look and feel" of the interface. Would Slate--or worse, Microsoft--be bothered by the fact that Alistair had just lifted the best bits of the Fray and made them work better? Some people poohpoohed this fear, others of us pointed to bored legal departments and discretion won out. I started playing with the user interface, ChristinO gave me a mockup that spurred my imagination and I designed the front page we have today. Installed a bit precipitously by Alistair, to my outraged indignation.

Further enhancements were made as I continued playing with it and users provided feedback. More changes were made as it became clear that the nervous nellies among us did indeed have the right of it--Slate staff were apparently monitoring the Fray for posts that mentioned The Mote and were deleting them. Several people were banned from the new Fray for mentioning it. Thus far we had kept the existence of our site a secret, and it became clear that we wanted to make sure that the look and feel was utterly different from Slate before we went "live".

So we had a server, software, a new look and feel, an administrator, and what we felt would be a working policy.

We were good to go.

Our unveiling on September 11 was expected to be a huge success. The goodwill and cooperation had been astounding, and we had no reason to expect that things would fall apart.

Hoooooo boy.

The next two weeks were a nightmare. Without going into specifics, it seemed clear that the policies that we thought would be accepted without question--well, they were questioned. And questioned. And questioned again.

But when the dust had settled, and the nerve endings had grown back, one thing was evident: our policies had stood up to the test. We didn't alter them in a hurry or change them for an emergency. We didn't need to. They had worked.

They continue to work to this day.

The Irving Snodgrass Tale

I'm amazed that, contrary to normal human behavior, Alistair's history and your history jibe with my own recollections perfectly. Usually people reform history in their minds over time. It doesn't appear to have happened here (unless we all share a mutual delusion).

I can recall those early days, when I was trying to cope with my betrayal by Slate, after having put in so much effort and so much of myself on their behalf. They gave me no advance warning... the change to the Fray was announced publicly before they ever got around to telling me. I was pretty upset, and then they threw some heavy-duty threats into the mix to shut me up. I haven't said it publicly before, but those people are the most ungrateful, self-serving, ignorant assholes I have ever had to deal with in my life. Yes, I was screwed, but worse, they tried to screw all of us. And we got the last laugh.

I spent the two weeks between learning of the fray's demise and the actual pulling of the plug doing what I could for the Mote. I sent out over 600 e-mails to active and not-so-active fraygrants, preparing each e-mail by hand -- typing in the addresses and pasting the text, since I didn't have an automated e-mail program which could handle passwords which I created individually for each user. Yes, I sent out 600 personal e-mails. Although I got a few nasty responses, the vast majority were supportive, and over 200 of those people joined up.

I also remember hour-long phone international phone calls about the appearance of the site and massive quantities of e-mails, as well as the heady, exciting times of testing the site and discovering our limits before we went public. We were like kids set free after the parents had left. And finding out we knew much more and did it better than the parents.

Above stories were culled from the First Anniversary Thread in the Mote archive. Thanks to AlistairConnor for The Programmer's Tale and to CalGal for The Designer's Tale.