2014 / 8月
點開台灣最大BBS（電子布告欄，Bulletin Board System）站「PTT」，自稱「鄉民」的學生、上班族，以代號活躍其間，就連五月天主唱阿信、熱血棒球主播徐展元和網路作家九把刀都是「PTT的資深鄉民」。
Liu Yingfeng /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Established in 1994, PTT, a highly popular Bulletin Board System with a lively and varied user base, has attracted more than 2 million users to its discussions.
This network space, which bridges the gap between the virtual and real worlds, has given birth to a “villager culture” distinctive to Taiwan. It has also helped to push users in various locations toward collective political action, accomplishing a feat that’s rare internationally.
Visit PTT, Taiwan’s largest bulletin board system (BBS), and you’ll discover a lively assortment of “villagers,” which is what its users, whether students or working people, call themselves. Among their ranks are luminaries such as Mayday’s lead singer Ashin, the animated baseball announcer Hsu Chan-yuan, and the Internet writer Giddens Ko.
Especially during the peak wee hours of the morning, there can be tens of thousands of users on at once, searching for information and engaging in vigorous debate on boards of a variety of topics, including those devoted to overseas students, travel and gossip.
In 2012 the director Hero Lin drew material directly from PTT for his film Silent Code. Describing relationships between members of a virtual community that closely resembles PTT, it became the first dramatic feature film, domestic or foreign, to focus on a BBS.
PTT’s original simple, easy-to-read interface has survived to the present day, and the BBS has become a highly popular networked platform for exchange of opinion. Huang Hou-ming, an associate professor of sociology at National Chengchi University who has studied Internet communities, says, “It’s a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world.”
In 1984, when Taiwan’s Ministry of Education began to promote online academic networks, it assisted National Chiao Tong University and National Sun Yat-sen University in each setting up a BBS. Although not selected by the MOE, National Taiwan University set up one on its own called “Coconut Grove.” Joining NCTU’s “Phoenix City” and NSYSU’s “Formosa,” it became one of the island’s three large academic BBS systems.
As a result of controversies connected to control over the content of posts, BBS systems had strained relationships with campus authorities. In 1995, National Chengchi University decided to shut down its BBS when defamatory remarks about faculty were posted. In 2000, due to use of the site for cyber love and one-night stands, NTU’s Coconut Grove BBS stopped allowing visitors the freedom to pick anonymous user names. With stricter monitoring, its users fled.
At the same time, the costs of setting up a BBS were dropping dramatically, so students started to pool money to establish BBS systems of their own that used academic bandwidth. In 1996 Yeats Luo, an electrical engineering student at NTU, established his private “Sun of Beach” BBS and released information and technology to encourage others to found BBS systems for themselves.
Most users left the original academic BBS systems, establishing several dozen independent systems, including the gaming-oriented “Bahamut,” the feminist “Room of Her Own,” the film-oriented “CIA,” and PTT. It was the beginning of the golden era of BBS systems in Taiwan. “In the wee hours there would always be upward of around 10,000 online,” recalls Huang of those heady days.
The popularity of BBS systems prompted Internet entrepreneurs to experiment. In 1999 Bahamut left the academic network to become what is today Taiwan’s largest gaming discussion site: gamer.com.tw. In 2000 Stanford University alumni and students from NTU’s Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering founded the BBS KKcity. For a period it was all the rage. The highly popular Wretch BBS at NCTU, which offered photo storage and which became a private company in 2005, helped to stir up the craze for blogging in Taiwan.
At a time when other non-profit BBS systems often found themselves unable to fill key management positions and went under, PTT, which had been constructed by the NTU computer science student Tu Yi-chin in 1994 and took a team-oriented approach to management, survived into the “post-BBS era” and was even able to acquire two other large BBS systems: Sun of Beach and Fish’s Purple Garden. It became Taiwan’s sole remaining large BBS.
PTT public relations chief Chen Huanyu notes that when Tu had just founded the BBS, he actively promoted a division of labor within the management team. While many of the BBS systems had founders that handled both management and technical development, PTT had separate departments for managing accounts, public relations and promotional activities, legal affairs and so forth. It employed graduates of law, political science and other non-engineering departments in its management team.
Whereas Bahamut and Wretch transformed into commercial sites (Wretch closed down a couple of years ago), PTT kept to its non-profit principles, and established much greater levels of trust: “Lacking a commercial character not only raises the credibility of the site’s information,” says Chen. “It also creates room for a variety of free discussions.”
So far PTT has more than 3,000 topical boards. These include sparsely visited boards such as one devoted to Barbie dolls, as well as the rowdy and well-visited gossip board. “Because there is no pressure to turn a profit,” explains Chen, “there is space at PTT for topics attracting small followings that might be eliminated on commercially run boards.”
Conveying mostly exchanges of text, PTT is currently the only Internet site with over a million users that doesn’t sometimes have bandwidth and speed issues. Those features have also made it attractive to netizens.
In the 20 years of its existence, PTT has continually absorbed innovative functions from other sites. For instance, the P currency, which PTT users use to send each other song lyrics, was modeled on the “garden currency” of the Purple Garden. Just as Facebook uses the widely popular “Like” button, PTT early on adopted similar “Approval” and “Hiss” keystrokes. What’s more, notes Huang Hou-ming, PTT offers anonymity with user names, meeting the conflicting psychological desires of contemporary people to congregate in groups but also to preserve individual autonomy. “The anonymity demonstrates the conflicted love–hate relationships that individuals have with society,” says Huang.
He explains that PTT users, by connecting anonymously, are able to use the Internet to get to know each other but also able to screen out the pressures that people deal with interacting in the real world. Huang has coined the term “mob-ility” to describe the interactions of Internet friends on PTT and elsewhere.
From 2005, PTT’s size gradually began to snowball, creating a “critical mass” culture that has kept its popularity from ever flagging. Huang notes that the front page to the BBS has a counter displaying the number of people currently using it. Purple explosions indicate that individual boards have more than 100,000 users on at once. These design features are all aimed at encouraging villagers to join in the fun. Quite a few users log on to PTT when they are watching sporting events or broadcasts of popular television shows so as to offer live commentary. This is one of the best examples of its “critical mass” culture.
PTT’s boards are also known for humorous coinages, often involving Mandarin characters that sound somewhat similar to Taiwanese expressions or English words such as “loser.”
As for the term “villagers,” which is how PTT users refer to themselves, it originally came from the Hong Kong film Hail the Judge, directed by Stephen Chow. In 2004 a moderator made an appeal on a board experiencing a flame war: “Move along, villagers. There’s nothing to see here.” Though the word originally carried with it a somewhat derogatory meaning that implied a certain level of provincialism, it was embraced by PTT users as a badge of identity. New terms invented on PTT have ended up being much more than just an online phenomenon. They have been quickly picked up by the news media to create a “villager culture wave” that is unique to Taiwan.
Because they identify with PTT and its villager culture, posters with high levels of expertise in certain areas can make impressively in-depth posts on PTT. For instance, the film board, which is one of the ten most highly populated on PTT, has regulars whose posts can have a big impact on a film’s success or failure at the box office. In 2007 Cape No. 7 was not at first enthusiastically reviewed in mainstream media, but after a series of strong reviews on PTT’s film board, it rebounded to set an all-time Taiwan box-office record for a Taiwanese-made film.
Huang Hou-ming points out that in the early days PTT users showed great individuality in their accounts, nicknames, and signatures, but today’s users are more inclined to go about their activities in the guise of anonymous “villagers.”
When Typhoon Morakot wreaked devastation in 2009, PTT villagers answered an appeal first made on the gossip board and quickly formed a PTT Disaster Relief Squad with more than 30 villagers. They created a platform for rapidly conveying information about the disaster zones and for bringing donations south to those in need. Over the last two years the Wild Strawberries Movement, the protests in response to the death of Corporal Hung Chung-chiu, and the Sunflower Student Movement have further borne witness to the mobilizing capacities of PTT villagers.
Free of dazzling special effects and thus requiring little bandwidth, PTT has for two decades given the famous a safe and anonymous space to vent their opinions and given average Johns and Janes a chance to make a difference. Demonstrating their collective power, PTT villagers all over Taiwan have proven they can have a meaningful impact on the world.