TOTSE: Teenage Rebel Haven or Homegrown Terror Cell

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Before the internet became widely available at around 1994, many computer users were already sharing files, messaging each other, and sharing ideas. BBSs allowed people to connect like never before. Not every BBS was peachy clean, though; some BBSs were a bit edgier and dealt with controversial topics. One such BBS is TOTSE, short for The Temple of The Screaming Electron, a BBS located in the San Francisco Bay area. TOTSE was part of a bigger BBS network called NIRVANAnet, which included interestingly named BBSs such as “My Dog Bit Jesus” and “Burn This Flag”. It may be no surprise that these BBSs are centralized to the Bay Area, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement’s birthplace, no doubt ready to offend and discuss edgy topics that would make any parent faint.

The Average TOTSE user. Image taken from sadanduseless.com

“… the rebel network distributing criminal expertise is open to everyone, free of charge.”

Michael Liedtke, Contra Costa Times 1993

When you first log into TOTSE, you are introduced to a flashing screen with the name TOTSE and the slogan for the BBS, “Raw data for Raw Nerves.” TOTSE and its owner Jeff Hunter made it clear from the start that this isn’t some regular local BBS where a person goes to discuss the weather or bird watching. TOTSE and the rest of the BBSs in the groups caused enough controversy where they caught the attention of the local paper, The Contra Costa Times, and the reporter Michael Liedtke. Lidekt wrote the article, “MODEM OPERANDI: Tips on crime go on-line” on July 28, 1993, where he described TOTSE and the other networks as training camps where users can find files to teach them how to commit crimes from fraud to mass murder. Liedtke continued with his article, stating that TOTSE and other BBSs like it are protected by the First Amendment as long as they don’t encourage any crime. Liedtke ends the article with a quote from an FBI spokesman, where he states that the FBI is aware of these types of BBSs and regularly monitor them. If this were your only source of information for TOTSE and the rest of the NIRVANAnet, you would think that these BBSs are used by tech-savvy criminal masterminds to turn impressionable young teenagers into homegrown terrorists, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This sentiment was also shared by Dick Adler, writer for the Chicago Tribune.

TOTSE welcome screen variant. Image taken from totseans.com

“ …some so-called “underground” bulletin board, which in fact lists its telephone number in every single free magazine and newspaper in town.”

Dick Adler, Chicago Tribune 1993

Adler wrote the article, “DON’T THROW OUT THE COMPUTER WITH THE CRIME” on September 10, 1993, where he politely dismissed Liedtke’s article implying Liedtke was more motivated by pushing out an interesting story rather than reporting the facts. Adler does state that computer crimes do exist, particularly in the distribution of pornography to minors. Still, he tries his best to demystify the new and exciting at the time world of BBSs to no doubt his older readers. Adler defends TOTSE and the other networks stating that their instructions to commit crimes are not original and come from materials such as “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” which could be found in any public library. Adler certainly has a different view on edgy BBSs than Liedtke. Adler did not think of much TOTSE, and the rest of the networks even less thought them as hotbeds for criminal activity. Adler found that it is rather easy to poke fun at the BBSs and their users in NIRVANAnet. I don’t think I would be that far from the truth if I said Adler’s and Liedtke’s views on edgy BBSs were the most predominant ones at the time.

The actual average TOTSE user image taken from grandideastudio.com

Judging from the lack of articles about young criminals committing heinous crimes radicalized by TOTSE, it would be fair to say that TOTSE and the other BBSs are not the danger that Liedtke described in his article. To be fair to Liedtke, though, TOTSE did host those files, which is a valid source of concern for anybody. Hosting files containing instructions to commit crimes is not normal and especially not something that would be openly discussed at the dinner table. If files like those were hosted on those BBSs, a person would wonder what type of person would be ok with viewing those files and not being shocked enough by it to run away from the BBS. There would be two possible types of person criminals and edgy teenagers. The average user for the BBSs like TOTSE would be relatively normal rebellious male teenagers and young adults. One variant of the logo for TOTSE included the slogan, “Specializing in conversations, obscure information, high explosives, arcane knowledge, political extremism, diversive sexuality, insane speculation, and wild rumors.” This slogan encapsulates what TOTSE deals in, controversial and edgy topics that people really cannot discuss in public. Engaging in discussions in BBSs is rather anonymous to a degree, allowing users to discuss whatever is in their mind motivated by the power of the freedom of speech. I doubt, though, that most users are social outcasts who wear all black every day, the vast majority of users are just normal young adults who are not afraid of going against society. These users may talk about edgy topics such as where to find recreational drugs and learn edgy information that would give their parents heart attacks. Still, due to the no hold barred freedom of discussion, users are encouraged to have deep and interesting discussions about politics, sexuality, and society in general. This freedom of information was in doubt, amplified by Jeff Hunter’s choice to allow connection to TOTSE free of charge, which allowed even more diverse information to be spread in the BBS. The spread of ideas and information was encouraged in TOTSE. Society was very conservative back in the ’90s, the Satanic Panic was still in full swing at the time, and young adults were not able to freely speak their mind in the real world. Online in BBSs like TOTSE, they gained the ability to say what’s on their mind and found freedom of information that was not available to them. It’s not all an emancipation from society though or the persecuted intellectual’s haven. It was apparent that the main users were young adults who are still growing and discovering themselves. There is no doubt that there would be users who would seek to abuse that. Even today, in edgy forums such as 4chan and Reddit’s dark side, it can be difficult to differentiate from the edgy jokesters and the actual bad actors. Some bad actors on TOTSE could lead young users into dark corners of radicalization and other dark paths, but I’m sure that those cases are very few with proper moderation. To be realistic, the average user of TOTSE is just a typical teenager who would get his laughs and be entertained by the edgy humor and discussion and would just them move on with his day.

The spirit of TOTSE and NIRVANAnet is still well alive today in various websites, most notably 4chan and other corners of the internet. The edgy teenager is far from extinction, the freedom of information has never been more robust, and the First Amendment limits are still being pushed to its limits.

Featured Image taken from securitonlinux.com

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