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[Comments] (2) Prodigy Undergrounds: I just wrote about Prodigy for The Future: A Retrospective and was reminded of a cool hack from my youth, possibly the first computer-related hack I participated in. TF:AR writing takes up most of my spare writing time, so a lot of my recent weblog entries flow ultimately from the trains of thought it christens and sends chugging off on poorly-subsidized rails.

I couldn't find this mentioned anywhere except Prodigy's Wikipedia page, and there not in much detail and anything on Wikipedia is written on water anyway. So here's a permanent description of Prodigy Undergrounds.

Once you passed a certain monthly threshold, Prodigy charged 25 cents to deliver a private email. This is especially onerous when you're a kid in 1991 and an unexpected $10 expense is cause for panic. But you can't have random chat in a public forum because 1) random people can see you chatting, and 2) it takes a long time for a message to show up in the forum. Because every message must be scoured by purple-lipped censors. Not only do messages take a long time to go through the queue, they're often rejected for arbitrary reasons. Like being random chatter instead of being directly related to the topic of the forum. What to do?

When you signed up with Prodigy you got, I believe, 5 accounts. Idea being that you could give one out to each family member. But someone had the idea of emailing their friends the password to one of the accounts and forming a private chat room. You'd go into the private email composition screen, write a message, and save it as a draft instead of sending it. (Wikipedia article says you "[sent] messages back to the same account", but I think the messages were never sent at all.) Once you were done on the UG (oh-so-hip slang for "Underground") you'd log off and someone else could have a turn, prepending (I think that was the convention) their reply to your draft. This way you could run AD&D games or write mushy notes to each other or just talk in private about being kids.

I picked up the UG idea from the AD&D boards and brought it over to the Hitchhiker's Guide boards. It was annoying but exciting to try to log into an UG and see that someone else was using it--it probably meant fresh messages when you managed to get on.

This was all unauthorized, of course. Person-to-person communication was a big cost sink for Prodigy as I found out reading Future Stuff, which focuses entirely on the online shopping aspect. Thus the 25 cent email charge in the first place. This left you with no recourse when—as happened in one high-profile incident[0]—a notorious villain befriended people under an alter-ego, gained access to several UGs, then hijacked the accounts to send a huge number of private emails. I was one of the hijacked and I think the charge was like $10, but see earlier note w/r/t $10 charges. These things loom larger when you're very young.

Some people I met through Prodigy I still talk to occasionally (Sara Geer) or frequently (Andy Schile). I occasionally search for people I knew back then, and sometimes I find something (one of my AD&D UG companions worked at a company designing role-playing games for a while), but other people don't show up anywhere; maybe they got married and changed their names, or they weren't using their real names to begin with (as if "Linnette the Psycho Elf" wasn't enough of an alias).

Recently I read a story about some extremists who'd reinvented the technique, using Hotmail or some other service as a dropbox to avoid sending mail through the SMTP forest. I don't think it ever made much sense from a security standpoint; HTTPS is surely more secure than email at the typical extremist level of expertise, but you're still storing the messages on someone's server. But it sure is good for saving money on email.

[0] By "high-profile incident" I mean "everyone on the AD&D Prodigy board at the time knew about this." Also, a few months later he tried it again with another alter-ego, but by this time I had sussed out his writing style and I didn't fall for it again.


Posted by Rachel at Sun Dec 09 2007 19:17

this is actually really interesting... is that what you were doing in that dark room all those years.

Posted by Leonard at Sun Dec 09 2007 19:44

Not all those years, but 1990-1993. After that it was mostly the BBS.

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