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Gavin's Underground

Lower Lights

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2008-03-27 -

The current generation of internet users have dozens upon dozens of options in front of them for conversations and associating with the world beyond their desk. Everything from chat rooms and forums, all the way up to online communities where you can create a character to look however you wish. Pretty amazing when if you go back just a decade ago, chatrooms were here and there and messenger services were still being developed with an update every week. But for many people who had the early connections systems here in Utah, there was only one chat service for them. Lower Lights. In February the site turned 19 and is still kicking to this day as an active forum system and one of the few local chat-related sites left standing that hasn't fully died off or been bought out by a major source. I got a chance to talk to the original creator, owner and moderator (who chose to keep his identity hidden) known as the Light Keeper. As well as the current owner and moderator of Lower Lights, Shawn Heisey, about the chat service and where it's headed.

http://www.lowerlights.com/

Gavin: Who are you and what do you do?

Shawn: My name is Shawn Heisey, known as elyograg in the online world. I am a network engineer, husband, father, and general geek.

Light Keeper: At the time the Lower Lights was started, the Lightkeeper was a stock broker with a fascination for computers. Now he is working part time in a local company accounting department. Just another LL loser looking for work.

Gavin: Tell us how Lower Lights began.

LK: I was intrigued by the openness of anonymous on-line communications, what we now call "chatting." And wanted to start a local Utah Chat BBS system. My first software was called DLX but was limited in what it could do, we switched to an different software platform (TBBS) as we expanded to become one of the nation’s largest chat systems.

Gavin: What separated L.L. from other BBS servers at the time?

LK: It was before the internet was available to the general public, so the only public BBS system were usually single phone line systems or at the most dual line systems. The Lower Lights was the first multi-line system of its kind in Utah. It allowed multiple users to chat together and privately all at the same time.

Gavin: Do you believe the major attraction was that it was a local service, or do you believe it had much more to provide.

LK: The local aspect made it possible for users to eventually meet each other and connect a real person with the identity on line, but I believe the real attraction was the ability to expand your "friendships" beyond your local school, neighborhood and church community. Users from all along the Wasatch front could come together in a safe and anonymous online community.

Shawn: Lower Lights was open to everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, geekieness, or any other characteristic that people use to exclude others. People felt free to express themselves. They might get slapped down by other users, but it was rare for Light Keeper to censor anyone, which resulted in a mostly welcoming environment. For many of the members, it was the only way they could be social creatures, because in real life they did not fit in and could not reach out.

Gavin: As the net was growing, what were some of the upgrades that went into Lower Lights?

LK: The first big upgrade was the changing from the DLX chat software to the TBBS chat platform. In addition, the system was moved twice, once when we purchased a new house, and then again when Lower Lights moved into a commercial building.

Shawn: At its height, there were 64 phone lines and 32 telnet lines. The telnet lines were brought in through Western Online Services (Wolsi), the ISP that grew out of the BBS business.

Gavin: How did Steve Sawaya and Mike Biesele get involved, and why did they depart?

LK: Steve and Mike were users who expressed some interest in helping the system grow. As it became larger it required more time than one person could devote as a hobby. Steve was the first Assistant Sysop (System Operator) and later Mike began helping out also. After the move to the commercial building Mike Biesele actually lived on the premises for a while supervising the operation of the system.

Shawn: I can't speak for them, but I believe they left because they grew up, got real jobs, and found that Lower Lights was taking a significant amount of work. Because that work wasn't bringing them much in the way of emotional and financial reward, they drifted to other things.
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Gavin: What started the conversations with The Light Keeper?

LK: For the most part, I was much older than most of the users and it became an opportunity for me to share some life experiences in hopes I could help them "navigate" their lives. Many of the Lower Lights users would be classified as "geeks" and were perhaps not the most popular kids in school, or part of the "in" crowd. The Lower Lights provided a community where they could have adult interaction and be accepted for their online persona rather than what they looked like in real life.

Shawn: I was an early member of the system (1992) and was very active on the system's chatrooms. I had switched my ISP to Wolsi, the ISP that grew out of the BBS, because that subscription included one to Lower Lights as well. In September of 1998, I had lost my job and consequently was hanging around on Lower Lights quite a lot. Light Keeper had fired The Joker and was looking for someone to manage the ISP and the BBS. From my perspective, the offer to manage the ISP and BBS was out of the blue, but I jumped on it. It offered a free place to live, all the Internet bandwidth I could ever want, and a small monthly income.

Gavin: What were the circumstances behind Light Keeper's initial lost interest?

LK: My "loss of interest" is a complex and multi-faceted set of issues. Basically the Lower Lights was initially killed by the internet. At first we tried to adapt the BBS as a gateway to the internet, but that was less successful and trying to stay on the edge of technology as the internet expanded was more than I could afford and required much more time than I could devote. As I mentioned there are some other personal factors, it is not one issue or one event, but a group of problems which finally ended the Lower Lights as a chat BBS.

Gavin: Tell us about "The Joker".

LK: The Joker, was the name of a user who was assistant Sysop.  In my opinion, he ‘oversold’ his abilities, and our relationship was rather short lived.

Shawn: I never knew him, but my experience with cleaning up the ISP systems after he left forces me to agree with Light Keeper about his abilities.

Gavin: Tell us about what many users call the "Crash Of '01".

LK: By 2001, the internet was in full bloom and the number of users on Lower Lights had dropped dramatically. Subscribing users (users willing to help support the BBS) had almost evaporated, and the costs to provide 64 individual telephone lines was eating us alive. The decision was complex, but the pure economics of keeping the system running did not support the BBS culture.

Gavin: What was the fallout from the crash?

LK: The crash was a turning point. It was a single event that forced a hard decision about whether to try to resurrect the system or pull the plug. The costs to replace the equipment, the time to restore the incomplete back-ups didn’t justify the expense to maintain the system.

Shawn: We had a lot going on at the time of the crash, building a co-location facility that required a lot of attention. We couldn't spend the time or money to bring the system back.

Gavin: Do you feel like the crash or the pulling of the plug killed the community?

LK: To the extent there was a specific Lower Lights community, then of course the crash killed that community. However the seeds of online communications had been sown and the rapid growth of internet chatting and blogging provided a fertile ground for the participation of the Lower Lights users in a much larger community.

Gavin: How did the conversation come up for Shawn to take it over?

Shawn: Financial realities a year or so after the crash forced Light Keeper to sell Wolsi, the ISP. At the end of that saga, he asked me if I wanted the Lower Lights name. I said that I did, and I took over the domain name.

Gavin: What brought about the decision to bring it back?

Shawn: When I first took over the domain, I put up a
page asking for feedback about whether people wanted the community back.  I got a lot of positive response, but never could find good chat software that wouldn't cost a bunch of money. Someone suggested a forum, which is what I ultimately did

Gavin: What was it like managing it at first, and what was the reception to it coming back?

Shawn: I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of registrations and posts that came flooding in. It was enormous fun to reconnect with people I hadn't talked to in a few years. In the beginning of Lower Lights' new life, I tried to use it to make a little money, but it quickly became apparent that I didn't have anything to offer that people were actually willing to pay for. I'm okay with that, because the server in my basement and the Internet bandwidth that house Lower Lights exist to host my own personal domains and I would maintain them whether it was there or not.

Gavin: I understand keeping it simple with a forum system, but why not add a chat room after all these years?

Shawn: I do want to bring chat back. Before the latest forum software upgrade, which was done to combat spam registrations, we did have a mostly functional chat system, but it had some behind-the-scenes limitations that I'm not happy about. I have done a little poking around to find a chat system that will do what I need, and plan to put more time into that search.

Gavin: How did it feel reaching 19 Years?

LK: It feels old for me knowing the Lower Lights is 19 years old this year. The first two line system went up from my garage in 1989.

Shawn: It reminds me of how old I am, almost as much as my 16 year old child. It's been a long, mostly fun ride. If there's still a community around in another 15-20 years, I will be happy to be a part of it.

Gavin: Do you two still keep in contact?

LK: We try to avoid any contact with the original Light Keeper, he is an old pervert and not worth associating with.

Shawn:
I hear from him occasionally on the BBS. He's got an account, but which user belongs to him is not public knowledge. Having the forum system allows him to keep in touch with poeple that he enjoyed talking to while the old system was up. He very much would like to see a chat system come back.

Gavin: What's your thoughts on the current community, both good and bad?

Shawn: Once again, the community is dying. One big factor to that is the lack of live chat, but even with that I'm not sure it'll ever recover. There are far too many easier ways to keep in touch with people. Another problem is that I don't have a lot of free time to dedicate to the website. Without input from the operator, you can't really expect any community to thrive.

Gavin: What kind of impact do you believe Lower Lights has had on the internet culture of Utah?

Shawn: I believe that if you meet someone who was actively involved in the Internet during the late 80s and early 90s in Utah, there's a good chance that saying the words "Lower Lights" will open a conversation. Because those people are starting to die off these days and younger people are unlikely to have ever heard of it, it will one day be forgotten by everyone except the Internet Archive.

Gavin: What in Lower Light's future?

Shawn: As already said, I have been thinking about ways to bring live chat back. I have some other unrelated ideas that might make a tiny bit of money from the domain name. I have a hard time viewing the community as a source of income, so I don't know where that will go. As long as I can keep it up, the domain will continue to exist and always have something on it. Maybe one day it will be something truly awesome.

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