Just thinking about Bulletin Board Systems fills me with nostalgia. They were computer systems that you dialed into with a modem to leave messages, exchange files, play games, and (if the board had more than one line) chat with other users - like the Internet, only on a much smaller scale, and without the rampant commercialization or hype. Usually small and local, they typically fostered a strong sense of community among their members.

I honestly believe that BBS's will make a comeback in a few years...

Why?

Corporatization and Capitalism is taking over the internet and changing the standard paradigm from "putting information out there for everyone for free" to "I put it out there, now pay me to see it". The fact that the government is now trying to make the internet into a kinder, gentler place is just fucking thigs up even more.

Internet2 most likely won't solve this problem, but enough pissed-off intelligent sysops that are careful who they let in to their own network will.

BBS's are NOT coming back, at least not in their former form. There were only a few BBS's that ever got really big in the old days (Mindvox and The Well come to mind). This was mainly due to the high infrastructure costs. Since most BBS's were run by amateurs they could hardly afford racks of modems and servers. The availability of high-bandwith net connections and the near ubiquity of the net has killed almost all of the old school BBS's.

However, one of the really nice things about BBS's were that they tended to be local (to avoid high telco charges), and formed tight little communities. This could certainly be duplicated on the net, and has been. If you look at all of the club sites on the net; Yahoo Clubs, Ecircles, etc. you will see that they reproduce almost of the features of a BBS. Namely: forums, chat, file archives, news of the day. BBS's also provided email, but that has been replaced by internet mail which obviously has a much greater reach.

I do miss all the boards though, ascii art and all.

bboard = B = BCPL

BBS /B-B-S/ n.

[common; abbreviation, `Bulletin Board System'] An electronic bulletin board system; that is, a message database where people can log in and leave broadcast messages for others grouped (typically) into topic groups. The term was especially applied to the thousands of local BBS systems that operated during the pre-Internet microcomputer era of roughly 1980 to 1995, typically run by amateurs for fun out of their homes on MS-DOS boxes with a single modem line each. Fans of Usenet and Internet or the big commercial timesharing bboards such as CompuServe and GEnie tended to consider local BBSes the low-rent district of the hacker culture, but they served a valuable function by knitting together lots of hackers and users in the personal-micro world who would otherwise have been unable to exchange code at all. Post-Internet, BBSs are likely to be local newsgroups on an ISP; efficiency has increased but a certain flavor has been lost. See also bboard.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, BBSes were ran utilizing phone lines and usually DOS based software applications. To achieve multi-user capabilities, one would have to install multiple phone lines and have a semi-decent computer to provide the users with what they wanted, which was usually door games and files.

These days, though, BBSes can be run on anything from Linux to Windows, and they can have servers for FTP, HTTP, and other internet protocols installed. Mutli-node / multi-user mode is already there since modern BBSes use the telnet protocol. There are still a few BBSes that are in the stone age and are using phone lines for communication. They are few and far between, however.

Fidonet still exists, although it is not the network it was 10 years ago. Fidonet was the largest, and is the oldest BBS network in existance. There were many other networks that have come and gone, but Fidonet is still hanging around.

There are now people old enough to read this who have only ever known a world where Internet access is just as taken for granted as electricity and tapwater. This wasn't always the case, even as recently as the nineteen nineties.

When the Internet was first opened up for commerce by the US government in nineteen ninety-two, the only way most people could access it was over the phone line. The phone line, being designed to let two people talk to one another, was ill equipped to carry digital information, so connections were very slow. Websites of the time largely consisted of text. Seldom even including their own styling information, most were just black serifed text set against the default light grey background of Mosaic and Netscape, with very few images. Even then, downloading a Web page took several seconds.

The device that hooked up your computer to the phone line, turning data into audible beeps and hisses, was called a modem. Going even further back to the eighties, most hackers hadn't yet heard of the Internet -- at the time, it was only used by the government and, reluctantly, universities. Hackers bought modems just to get their computers to directly talk to each other in their own neighbourhood.

Oblivious to what was becoming a global network of computers, there was a parallel community of tens of thousands of people who let others dial into their computers. These people were known as system operators, or sysops for short. Each ran software on his or her machine that turned it into a bulletin board system, or BBS for short, and each BBS had its own distinct community of dozens of local users who would leave messages for each other and share small files. Very small files.

Although most simply catered to their local town, some served a specific community. The Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau in Virginia, GLIB for short, helped gay and bisexual people realise they weren't alone, while Promises and The Homestead in Brentwood and Nashville, Tennessee, helped people recover from alcohol addiction.

Eventually, just as all communities generally tend to make the shift from chaos to order, BBSes started to phone each other up late at night when calls were cheap in order to swap their messages, forming FidoNet. This enabled people from all over America, and later the world, to exchange e-mails and public messages together as long as they didn't mind waiting for a few days while each BBS passed on its own messages to its neighbours, slowly pushing them outwards.

Anyone old enough to remember these BBSes probably cringes a little bit when someone too young to remember them refers to a forum on a website as a bulletin board system. Many hackers who were at least adolescents in the eighties remember how amazing it seemed to be able to share messages and files with a bunch of people in their area using just their computer, a modem and their phone line.

In technical terms, BBSes resembled the command prompt more than a website. They generally showed 80 columns by 25 rows of text, and primitive, blocky graphics using the ANSI X3.64 standard. They resembled teletext more than anything else.

In personal terms, they were a way for hackers to talk to each other, in much the same way as a tangible bulletin board in a town square lets people leave messages for all to see. BBSes were social places, much like modern web forums with the exception that you could hop on your bike and meet the people you were talking to because they generally lived in the same town.

It's kind of sad to realise just how few people these days even realise that these things ever existed.

Thankfully, Jason Scott maintains a website preserving the text files that were shared on BBSes, over at textfiles.com. While it is sort of interesting to browse, however, it doesn't get across the emotional investment people had in the various BBS communities that sprang up.

For just this reason, Scott also made a documentary about BBSes, called, appropriately enough, BBS: The Documentary. It explores many aspects of these communities, and the emotional impact they had on their participants. Anyone interested in this chapter of the history of hacker culture should check it out, as it covers this social phenomenon in commendable detail.

References

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