An Historical Overview... In the last five years, I have tried hundreds of times to explain Plans to non-Grinnellians. I have never been successful. The only thing I can say conclusively is that my time at Grinnell College would have been significantly different without them.... This is just another attempt to explain Plans, not just to non-Grinnellians, but also to the younger Grinnellians, who may not know the history of Plans, and to the older Grinnellians, who were at Grinnell before anyone had email. And so I present...
A Long and Biased History of PLANS by Molly Backes, ‘02
In August of 1998, I arrived at Grinnell College as a freshman, and found that many aspects of my new life as a college student were going to be vastly different from my previous experiences. Like most college freshmen, I needed time to adjust. One major difference, for me, was the school’s email program, "Dreams Mail," commonly known by the name of the system itself, "The VAX."
Now, I’m old enough that I can remember a time when almost no one had email. When I was a sophomore in high school, one of the only people I knew with email was my boyfriend, and though we emailed one another frequently, it was a huge deal when one of our friends finally got online. I remember emailing notes to people with subjects like, “Welcome to Cyber-Space!” These notes contained instructions about how to be a good emailer: emphasize words with asteriks and caps (I am **SO EXCITED**), but don’t ever write in all-caps because it’s the same as shouting, and is considered rude. Express humor or appreciation with smilies: : ) or :-) That kind of thing. It was, after all, 1995.
Though I considered myself to be quite internet-savvy, when I went to Grinnell, I was shocked by the dinosaur of a system there. The VAX. It was a beast with a black screen and neon green text that only responded to commands. No user-friendly point’n’click system, the VAX terminals didn’t even have mice. At first, (as I suspect most freshman did) I hated the VAX, because I didn’t know how to manipulate it. Luckily, my roommate Ali and I quickly made friends with some sophomore boys across the hall who helped us navigate the VAX, and soon I found that I loved the VAX for all the reasons I initially hated it. (With the exception, that is, of the email program itself. I never stopped hating the fact that you couldn’t go back and change a word or letter once you had dropped down into the next line of text. It made for horribly illegible emails. Also, I hated the fact that if you saved an email, you’d have to scroll through it to get to your new emails every single time you checked your mail. For this reason, no one saved more than two or three emails at a time.)
One thing I really loved about the VAX was that you could go into the code of your own user account and change it to suit your preferences. You could change the command prompt – mine said, “Bite me, dog boy!” for years. My roommate, Ali Brown, somehow managed to get into the code of her user account and delete everything except “Log In” and “Log Out,” so that when she logged in to her VAX account, it immediately and automatically logged out. (I’m still laughing about that one.)
The VAX had a sense of humor. If you typed, “Who is number one?” the computer would respond, “You are number six.” It had a catalogue of quotations, and depending on how you logged out, it would give you the Douglas Adams quote of the day or the stupid professor quote of the day. It allowed you to “annoy” other users by filling their screens with dirty pictures (made up entirely of text symbols and often hard to decipher) or words.
The VAX was very good for stalkers. It allowed you to “spy” on other users, would tell you when certain users had logged in and logged out, would give you a list of users currently online, and would tell you where and when any user had last logged in. There were definitely times when, seeing that a friend of mine had JUST logged out of a computer in the Younker lab, I bolted out the door to catch him. The VAX also allowed you to send instant messages to other users online, and had a function that allowed the two of you to have an online chat in real time, where you could actually see each word appear on the screen as the other person typed it.
The best thing about VAX, though, was PLANS. Each user had a file in her VAX account which acted as a sort of online version of the whiteboards most of us had hanging outside our doors. It was a text-only file that could be accessed by any other VAX user (including people from off campus; I definitely had computer-geek friends from high school email me and say they had read my plan). The command “finger” allowed you to read another user’s plan (which sparked many common and popular jokes on campus, including Audrey Hendrickson’s famous “I finger myself most of all”). Each user could set her account to provide a list, called an “autofinger list,” of particular users who had recently updated their plans.
It was that simple – just that every single person who had email also had a little page with which they could do as they liked – and yet it changed the way the students of Grinnell College interacted with one another. (And it wasn’t only students who had plans; because the plan file was automatically included with every email account, professors and staff had plans as well, and some of them even updated their plans from time to time – Jared Gardener comes to mind as an example of this.)
Every plan was unique. Some people posted quotations and song lyrics, some posted messages to their friends, some posted journal entries. Some people actually posted their plans for the future. Plans were where the members of the Grinnell College community aired their thoughts and feelings, passive-aggressively fought with one another, kept tabs on one another, peeked into the inner worlds of their fellow classmates, and discussed issues. Some plans had little quizzes on them, some had pictures made of text, some had poetry, some had little recorded conversations.
Plans was like a little subculture unto itself, and it had certain unwritten rules. You generally were not supposed to bring up anything you’d read on plans when you were in real life. It was totally acceptable to read the plans of total strangers, as long as you never acknowledged to them that you read their plans. I remember one time freshman year when a girl I had never met emailed a friend of mine to tell him I said I hated him on my plan, and then when I posted something on my plan about certain scary stalkers, she emailed me, too. Her behavior was a text-book example of what not to do in Plan-Land.
Webmail, or The Death of Plans
Near the beginning of my sophomore year (the fall of 1999), the college switched its email from the VAX system to a web-based email program called Webmail. Even though webmail matched what high-school me thought an email system should look like, by the time it showed up I was used to the VAX, and mourned the loss of the freedom and wide array of functions VAX had offered. Webmail did not allow you to see what other users were online, did not allow you to instant-message other users, did not allow you to see the last time a user had logged on... and webmail didn’t have Plans.
ITS announced that it would be shutting down the VAX system in October, and many of the people who still maintained their plans despite the advent of Webmail mourned the imminent death of Plans. Many people speculated about how my class, the class of ‘02, would be the last class who knew what Plans were. People waxed nostalgic on their plans, and many wrote about how Grinnell was going to hell in a handbasket, how the freshman class was full of freaky preppies who would never understand the true spirit of Grinnell, etc – the same rant seniors and juniors had always given in response to the new freshman class.
Fall break came and went, the alleged Death Date of Plans came and went – and people soon discovered that though the VAX was mostly disabled, you could still access & change Plans. Though many people stopped updating their plans after the “death of plans,” a fair number of people stayed on, and the VAX Plans world stayed alive for the entirety of that year. It finally shut down for good sometime during that summer (2000).
Around that time, a kid named Morgan Sherwood wrote and maintained a little Plans program called the “VAXination,” which was a sad little web-based version of Plans. Though some old VAX users got on board, the program never really caught on.
Then, in the fall of 2000, word spread that Rachel Heck ‘01 had written a web-based Plans program, and over the course of that semester, Grinnellians jumped back on the Plans Wagon. In its earliest days, Rachel’s Plans program had some cute little quirks. For example, it provided the option of an autofinger list, but it was a list of elimination, so that every time a new user was added to the system, her name would show up in your autofinger list until you manually deleted her name from your list. This system was nice at first, because it allowed you to see which of your old VAX friends had gotten themselves a brand new plan, but Rachel’s Plans program became so popular so quickly that the autofinger elimination soon became an irritation.
In spite of its bugs and quirks, Rachel’s web-based Plans program grew until it was at least as active as the VAX system had been. The program ran from a Grinnell College server, in connection with the college’s math department. Everyone who had speculated about the class of 2002 being the last class who knew what Plans were was proved wrong, and the classes of ‘03 and ‘04 quickly learned the unwritten rules of Plan Land (which had been faithfully carried over to the new system by the VAX oldsters).
The new web-based Plans program went through a great many changes, and each new version offered a new option to Plans users. One major change from the VAX was that on the new system, people could link their plans together by putting fellow users names in brackets: fi [browna]. The brackets and “fi” command were leftovers from the days of VAX, but in the new system a user’s name between brackets became an actual link to their plan. This feature led to the invention of such frivolities as the Plan Love counter, which would list all usernames in order of who had gotten the most to the least plan love (aka had their bracketed username show up most often in Plans – including their own).
When Rachel graduated, people worried that the new plans system she had so generously maintained would disappear. However, three boys named Jonathan took over the maintenance of the system, and the college allowed the system to stay on the same server, so all was well in the Plan World. One interesting thing about the web-based version of plans was that it allowed alumni to keep their plans long after graduation, even when they lost their access to the college webmail system. Plans became a community of students and alums both, and served as a way of keeping alums linked to one another and to Grinnell as they each moved out into the “Real World.”
Around this time, professors began to keep plans of their own, and so joined the community’s dialogue. As always, people used their Plans to hash out ideas, hold debates and arguments, bitch about how much work they had to do, post significant quotations to subtly announce veiled emotions, and talk about how drunk they had been on the weekend. However, a few notable events pointed to the underlying instabilities of the whole system.
In the first incident, one student was concerned about what another student was posting on his plan, considering it to be threatening, and went to the college administration with these concerns. The administration temporarily deleted his plan, and insisted that administrators should have plans of their own in order to keep tabs on the Plans community. Many members of the Plans community were upset about this, and felt that administrators had no right to have plans or to spy on the plans of other people. The Plans system, they argued, is built on a delicate trust and based on the idea that everyone is sharing plans with everyone else, and including people who had a plan for the sole purpose of being able to enter the system and read other plans threw off that careful balance. Others, however, argued that administrators had had plans under the VAX system, and saw no reason why they shouldn’t have plans under the new system.
The next year, the Plans community was shocked when one Plans user wrote a program that allowed people to see other users’ autofinger lists. Though the program was only available for a few hours one night, many people were upset by the idea that other people had had even brief access to their autofinger lists, which are generally regarded as the one sacred and private aspect of PlanLand.
In another notable incident, one student hacked into the plan of another student and maliciously changed it. The action in itself was not new to the Plan World; even under the VAX system people hacked other plans and changed them (a certain unnamed group of boys did this to my roommate’s plan weekly, until she had changed her own password so many times she couldn’t remember it), and sometimes people walked away from public computers without closing out their Plans account, thereby allowing the next person at the computer to change their plan (often that next person would post a message like, “Don’t forget to log-out of Plans when you leave a computer!”). What made this situation unique was the mean-spirited nature of the prank, but also the involvement (again) of the administration.
The Death and Rebirth of Plans, Part II
And so it went, until the summer of 2003, when the college administration decided that it was tired of the risks the Plans program posed to the college. The college worried that it was in danger of being sued for libel, as the Plans program was still living on the college’s server, and therefore the college was technically responsible for anything written in any of the hundreds of plans. In the words of President Russell Osgood, “over the past two years we have
experienced (and talked about publicly without avail) a series of incidents
involving posting on PLANs of materials claimed to be false, defamatory and/or
illegal which if true would open up the College to liability. We can't police
this and don't want too [sic].”
With something like five hours of warning, the college shut down the Plans system. The members of the Plans community rallied in true Grinnell fashion, and wrote angry letters to administrators, swore they’d never give money to the college, started an online petition, and so forth. The college offered a new system, based on the trendy “blogs” model, called “P-logs,” but the majority of the Plans community rejected it because it didn’t allow for the inclusion of alumni. The web-based version of Plans finally moved to a new site, and though it maintained the name “Grinnell Plans,” it was not officially affiliated with the college in any way.
Today the P-logs vs. Plans debate continues on campus, while creaky old alums search for new ways to relate funny anecdotes from the “Real World” on their plans and new professors show up in Plan Land daily.
Have I forgotten something? Left something out? Made a grievous error? Let me know.