The History of the Student Conferencing Project

The History of the Student Conferencing Project


In the beginning, there was nothing. Well, nothing except for a computer system called the Michigan Terminal System (MTS). Bob Parnes looked upon MTS and saw it was void.

Pre-Natal History

Two engineering students, James Heaton and David Zanella, got hooked on Confer after using CRLT:MICROS and USER:FORUM for a few years. They decided to create an experimental conference for friends and themselves to learn to use Confer. The conference quickly turned to focus on Monty Python trivia, so Jim depermitted the conference files. But some student issues had come up, so Dave and Jim started discussing the possibility of a conference by and for students.


Dave and Jim entered an item in USER:FORUM, the forum for exchanging information of general interest to the MTS user community. It generated much interest, thus they cleaned up the original conference and reopened it with student conferencing as the main topic of discussion. They approached Jeff Ogden of the Computing Center whose advice was to create a strong group of informal supporters. The group then received permission to make the planning more formal, and to house the conference on the USER: id as USER:UB. USER:UB grew. Request accounts looked more and more like a reality. The UB machine was up and running in the summer of '85. USER:UB was moved to the UB machine and discussion continued over the summer. The first USER:UB in-person gathering was held on July 2, 1985. Most of us had never met before, and a lot of preconceived notions about what everyone looked like were dispelled. A tradition of gatherings such as this is now in place, and such get-togethers are known as FTFs (for Face-To-Face). (The minutes of that meeting are in Item 27 of the original MEET:PLANNERS.)

The Formative Period

In August they decided to have two conferences, modeled after the USER:FORUM/USER:PLANNING scheme of UM. Administrative decisions would be handled in the planning conference and the main conference would go on separately. Eight "informal organizers" who were active in the planning all along oversaw the project behind the scenes with two of the eight being the "formal" organizers with their names on the banner. The name (especially the CCID) was chosen after a long involved process--a combination of brainstorming, poll voting, Dynamic Value Voting, getting our first choice rejected by the Computing Center, and then deciding on MEET:STUDENTS and MEET:PLANNERS. Some of the rejected possibilities were STUD:FORUM (that didn't last too long!), SOAP:BOX, OPEN:FORUM, LETS:TALK MICH:STUDENTS, and UOFM:STUDENTS. UOFM was rejected by the Computing Center because it sounded too "officially University sponsored;" MICH was already taken.

The Period of Concrete Operations a.k.a. The Acquisition of Strategies

The conferences opened to the public September 9, 1985 with Maya Bernstein and Suprijanto Rijadi as organizers of MEET:STUDENTS, and Kathy Aupperle and Ed Vielmetti as MEET:PLANNERS organizers. It was a time of lots of publicity, handouts, talking to people, and worrying. The conference was a quick success, almost overwhelmingly so, especially for its organizers. It quickly became obvious that restarting every semester would be necessary. At the end of the first successful semester, David Zanella and Ed Vielmetti became organizers of the second volume of the conference, and Jimi Lee Haswell and Kraig Meyer were selected to organize MEET:PLANNERS.


The second conference grew at a near geometric rate, much faster than the first. There were new items and tons of new responses every day, and a real core of "Confer junkies" began to be identified. At the same time, the conference experienced some growing pains. For the first time, students were denied access to the conference because of their behavior. Writing obscenities and electronic bells all over the conference was just not acceptable behavior among a group of people forced to read the "graffiti" with quite limited computing resources. However, the decision was not arrived at easily. Strong disagreements emerged among the PLANNERS about how to resolve various administrative questions. The organizers came to see this as the result of the large and diverse group of people involved in the project, and after a few boisterous face to face meetings, things calmed down considerably. In the midst of all this controversy, two successful offshoot conferences were born: MEET:NYBBLERS, a forum for computerphiles, and MEET:OURSELVES, a forum for discussion of physical and mental health issues. In the fall of 1986 MEET:UM began as a forum for discussion of campus organizations and activities. In its first year, the project had grown considerably. The summer of '86 was a reasonably quiet, mellowing volume of MEET:STUDENTS and MEET:PLANNERS. We even had a little trouble finding *enough* organizers to take over afterwards, to the PLANNERS surprise. But just when we thought every thing had quited down for good. . .

Young Adulthood -- Grappling with Moral Issues

Things seemed relatively quiet in the Winter 1987 edition of MEET:STUDENTS (Volume 5) until about three quarters of the way through the semester when a heated debate began in an item entitled "Bad Jokes." The item invited "jokes that show relatively bad taste," including those with "moderate racial overtones."

While there were no racist jokes in item 118, there were derogatory jokes about Poles, Jews, women, homosexuals, and the late Regent Sarah Goddard Power. Because of the racial unrest on campus that semester, within 24 hours, a heated debate was raging in item 118 which continued in other items when that one was frozen.

The story appeared in The Michigan Daily, and then in the Detroit Free Press, the Ann Arbor News, The University (of Michigan) Record, The New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education in the following weeks. It went out over the Associated Press wire and appeared in a number of papers across the country, even as far as San Jose, California.

During this time, Douglas E. Van Houweling, the Vice Provost for Information Technology, issued a "University Policy on Conferencing" which can be found in item 198 of the original MEET:PLANNERS. Meetings between administrators and the planners were held, and policies concerning appropriate use of computers on campus were eventually developed. Another goal which emerged in the process is to increase the diversity of people involved in computer conferencing. In the past, the project had worked hard to get a variety of disciplines represented to avoid having engineers and computer scientists overrepresented. However the conferences are still largely white and male although this is changing. It was decided in early fall of 1988 to restart Meet:Planners. This decision was made for several reasons, which can be found in item one.

The Restart of Meet:Planners

For three years, organizers and other parties concerned with the Meet project fought long and hard reaching consensus on "policy" issues. The debates have been hashed and rehashed many times over. In late Winter of 1987, we heard from the Computing Center that they would like to see a set of ground rules under which the SCP operates. At the Spring face-to-face, members of Planners volunteered to reread the items pertaining to "policy issues" (see items three through nine). After some debate, their conclusions, under the overall title of "Meet.Wisdom," were accepted. The former Meet:Planners is still on-line and immediately accessible in Meet:Planners1.

Change Hits UB

In 1991, UB ceased to exist and all users moved to the UM system. The SCP moved also. In the next few years, interest in Meet:Nybblers and Meet:UM could not be found to support them, and they faded away. A new conference, Meet:Consumers, was proposed and accepted, but never brought to life.

Change Strikes Again

In 1994, the UM system was in decline. Costs were rising, and the push was on to move the campus off of the mainframe and into a distributed environment. Fortunately, CONFER-II, the program that we use, had been upgraded for a Unix environment, under the name CONFER-U. In the summer of 1994, we started a conference called Meet-You as a bridge to Unix for those who weren't comfortable yet with the new computer environment. At the beginning of the fall semester, we moved off of MTS and onto the Unix system. Three conferences came with us: Meet-Planners, Meet-Students, and Meet-Ourselves. In addition, Meet-Planners1 came along, and the MTS version of Meet:Planners was moved into Meet-Planners2. These conferences will always remain available. Meet.Wisdom was updated to become Meet-Wisdom as well.