Hotline revisited: The early internet

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For most people, the Internet is synonymous with the World Wide Web, which long ago became the most popular use of the global computer network. But many earlier Internet systems and services still lurk in places where few modern users visit. With a little patience, modern users can revisit them as if they were touring historical communities or isolated villages of the physical world.

2001: Version 1.8 of the Hotline client for Mac.

One such archaic Internet service is Hotline, a client/server bulletin board system (BBS) that runs over TCP/IP created by Hotline Communications. The software originally launched in 1996 and enjoyed a half decade of intense interest, especially from the Macintosh community (the platform on which it originated), before fans began to look elsewhere.

The Hotline system consists of three parts: servers, clients, and trackers. Anyone with an Internet connection can host a Hotline server for free; it’s software that provides for multi-user chat, message boards, and file transfers. Clients are special programs users run to connect to Hotline servers. And trackers are special servers that exist to facilitate connections between clients and servers; they keep an active list of available Hotline servers that wish to be listed on the tracker.

At the height of Hotline’s popularity in the late 1990s, users could connect to thousands of Hotline servers that suited every imaginable user interest. Many of them catered to underground tastes, providing pornography, MP3s, and warez (pirated software) with almost free reign, which attracted the lion’s share of media attention during Hotline’s heyday. But beneath the sensational headlines, strong communities formed through Hotline that led to lifelong friendships and emotional support groups.

As Hotline grew in popularity, the rest of the internet did too. The Web became a more robust medium that could encompass just about any form of online interaction without the need for application-specific client/server software. Meanwhile, robust P2P file sharing options (like Kazaa and Gnutella) appeared, taking away one of the biggest draws to Hotline. Around that same time, a bitter legal struggle among the company’s leadership soured many loyal fans on the software.

Due to diminished interest, most Hotline servers became ghost towns by the early 2000s. Over the next decade the number of servers dwindled down to nearly nothing; today, perhaps less than 20 English language Hotline servers remain worldwide.

The Hotline service in Japanese.

And you can connect to most of them. If you know how.

How to connect

Hotline Communications went out of business in 2001, so the last official versions of the Hotline applications do not run well on modern systems. In their place, Hotline fans have created their own Hotline client/server replacements that you can download and use for free.

For Mac OS X users, I recommend Nostalgia as your Hotline client of choice. Unlike many older clients written in the PowerPC era, Nostalgia supports OS X Lion and Intel Macs. It also supports multiple connections in a single application instance and has an intuitive Mac-like interface.

Download it, extract it, and run it. Nostalgia comes with a few working trackers installed, which will help you find some Hotline servers.

For Windows users, I recommend Underline, a client that works on Windows XP, Visa, and Windows 7. Its modular window layout channels the earliest Hotline clients.

Like any other server on the Internet, trackers come and go over time. Here is a very short list of some trackers that work at the time of this writing:

There’s no guarantee they’ll be around tomorrow, so connect to them while you still can. If you’re serious about joining the Hotline community, write down the remaining server IP addresses in case the trackers go offline.

Stranger in a strange land

So what do you do with Hotline? Chat, make friends, trade files. Set up your own server and operate a private oasis on the Internet.

As you visit other servers, keep in mind that each system represents an independently-operated playground with no oversight from higher authorities. You will very likely encounter pornography, warez, and representatives of alternative lifestyles of all flavors. But that’s a big part of its charm. Soak in the local flavor and culture; experience an authentic part of living internet history.

2013: The Nostalgia Hotline Client on Mountain Lion.

After talking with veteran Hotline users, you may notice that a sense of libertarian independence pervades the community. That’s a big part of Hotline’s remaining appeal. After all, Google will never be able to index servers that use the protocol, and server operators can easily erect layered security to keep access and private files among a circle of close friends. Many who still use Hotline take comfort in knowing that they are communicating on their own terms outside the purview of the Web and those who monitor it.

Until you familiarize yourself more intimately with the existing Hotline community, it’s useful to consider yourself a tourist in a virtual foreign country. Step lightly, follow the customs of the land, and most of all, be kind to the locals.

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