That which is dead, can not eternal lie. For in strange aeons, even death may die
- H.P. Lovecraft

BBSs (an acronym for Bulletin Board System) were once the center of "online community". They were basically just programs that allowed people to dial in, participate in localized conversations on message boards, exchange software in file bases, play games, and so forth. Most BBSs had a theme, which would draw like-minded users together. There were literature boards, star trek boards, hacking boards, pretty much anything you can imagine.

I had been calling BBSs since the mid-80's, and in 1993, BBSing seemed to be at its apex, with more people than ever owning computers with modems, both putting up their own boards and participating as users. Who would have thought that in a couple of years the dial-up BBS scene would be all but dead? Certainly not me. At that time, I could count the people other than myself who knew anything about the internet on my hands.

But slowly, BBSs began to drop off, as people decided that putting up a web site, or a similar activity precluded them from participating in the BBS world. I hardly noticed, since I was guilty of the same thing. As the internet steadily grew to offer more and more, I too spent my time online on the internet.

It was only a couple of years ago... 1999 to be exact, that I realized what had happened. While there was so much more at my fingertips on the internet, something small but critical had been lost. Those little boards with their small user bases of typically like-minded people had given birth to one thing that the internet could not replace. A sense of community. The internet had vast resources, but it was huge and unwieldy and the people scattered and random. People could still gather, but it had lost that "town meeting" feel, and seemed more like a gathering at an international airport. We had sold the exchange of pure idea for a stack of banner ads and commercial spam mail.

In early January 2000, I had a fit of nostalgia, so I called the local BBS list keeper's board in the futile hope that there had been some miraculous re-birth of BBSing. He had stopped maintaining the list a few months prior, and on his sign-off screen blinked a terrible, yet fitting message: "Will the last BBS in Denver please turn off the lights?"

When I discovered Everything a month or so ago (on the suggestion of a friend), I thought it had some great ideas. By far one of the best things I had found on the net. I did not realize that it could, if not fully replace, at least substitute for that lost sense of community. I found the same joy in reading nodes and writing my own, that I had experienced on the BBSs of yesteryear. I began to read homenodes and piles of writeups from people that had styles that I enjoyed. I began to feel connected with a community again.

I would like to thank you, Everything. From the lowest newbie to the highest pedant, I feel a welling of appreciation. This wanderer has found a home.

I do not believe the growth of the Internet has been the cause of the decline of the BBS. On the contrary, Internet technology could have boosted the world of the BBS. Unfortunately, the BBS world was in serious decline since about 1990, several years before the Internet explosion began.

I used to run Astral Board a popular BBS in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1980's and early 1990's. I started it with a 1200 bps modem, a Tandy 1000 computer and the Collie BBS software. That despite the fact that all the other BBS's in Pittsburgh used Fido, which, somehow, I never cared for.

I later switched to Opus, even created the Avatar protocol for it (which allowed screen control much faster and more powerful than ANSI sequences). I actually took over the development of Opus from the original author for a while, and postponed becoming a US citizen for a year, so busy was I working on Opus.

Originally, each BBS was unique. It reflected the interests of each individual sysop. Most major US cities had several BBS, each quite different. Their sysops were usually quite friendly with each other. Well, at least in Pittsburgh we were, I cannot speak for other communities.

This gave BBS users a choice. Ironically, most chose to visit most BBS's, not just one or two.

Most BBS's were members of Fidonet, which allowed them to exchange messages, just as in present-day email, except they usually exchanged them for only one hour at night when long distance charges were lower: It was the sysop who had to pay for it (and, for that reason, many did not allow it, or only used it for themselves).

Then, someone came up with the idea of echos. A typical pre-echo BBS had several different message areas, each dedicated to a specific topic. Of course, there was some overlap: Different BBS's may have had message areas dedicated to the same topic. The idea behind the echo was that friendly sysops could exchange the messages of compatible message areas.

This was great, especially since it allowed users of a message area in one city to discuss their ideas with users from another city, soon to be several cities, soon to be all over the world.

Through various collaborative efforts it became possible for the various BBS's to participate in an unlimited number of echos at minimal or no cost to the sysop.

Then something strange happened. Many new BBS's started popping up. To attract users, their sysops started participating in almost every echo there existed. Suddenly, the traditional sysops started losing users to these new all-echo message boards. To keep up, most BBS's started carrying most echos.

And suddenly...

All BBS's suddenly were the same. They lost their individuality. Users no longer called all BBS's in town. What for? Just call one, about once a day, and you have seen it all.

Furthermore, someone came up with the idea, and the software, that it was no longer necessary to log into a BBS to read messages and reply to them. Instead, the software logged in automatically, pretending to be the user, and downloaded all new messages in the echos the user was interested in.

The user now could read the messages offline. The user could also compose replies offline, and just have the same software "upload" the replies back to the BBS.

The typical BBS suddenly became nothing more than a mail-list download/upload center. No longer was there the thrill of the sysop sitting in front of his/her computer all day long and getting excited whenever someone logged in, watching the user's every move, even chatting in real time. All that was gone.

With the excitement gone, many sysops lost interest. Why pay for a separate phone line and dedicate a computer to being nothing more than a free ISP of sorts?

And that is why traditional BBS's have all but vanished from the face of the Earth.

I also was a member of a large number of local BBS systems in the 80's. I also remember that flavor that whizkid mentioned. Also, there was the flavor of the software--systems such as tbbs (breadboard), rbbs (compiled basic, ick), several custom systems, and later, the color ANSI that was popular later. (I quit the BBS scene before the more advanced systems started up.)

Part of the fun of the BBS was chatting with local people, exchanging software, jokes, files, etc., much as you do now on internet, except that these were local people. Once a week or once a month, we'd all meet face to face at a user group meeting.

The biggest difference between the local BBS scene and today's usenet is the number of people participating. In the early days, downloading files was very slow, and thus somewhat restricted. Also, there were not very many things to upload, so some BBS's only let you download if you had a good upload/download ratio. This is a far cry from today, where there is so much to download. Likewise, it was a struggle to keep enough traffic in the message groups to keep things interesting. Because there was so little, it was actually possible to read every message, and the personalities of everyone on the bbs was a larger part of the flavor of the system.

About five years before the internet explosion, all of my favorite BBS's converted to unix within about a year's time. (Fido happened about 6 months later, but none of the systems I frequented converted to it. I did work with some fido systems later, however.) Along with unix, came netnews newsgroups using software such as c-news and rn. (inn came much later.)

For gitm and whizkid, the local bbs flavor died somewhere around here, I think. For me, it lasted at least another three or four years. All the BBS's were now uucp nodes, and by then, I had enough money to set up my own system, and become a uucp node. The old BBS discussion groups became local news groups, and still had all the same personalities, now distributed between systems.

This lasted for quite a while, but as the members of the once tight community moved away, grew up, died, etc., we became scattered, and were no longer all local. Also, as internet was commercialised, some of the community members started reading the local groups at their local ISP instead on smaller uucp nodes. We opened up our local news groups so that all these people could read the discussions--both those at ISP's and those no longer local.

Because people now had a larger set of things to read, the local groups were shrinking. Then there was the green card lawyers which IMHO were the real cause of the final death. Once unscrupulous idiots realized that they could get free advertising via spam, our local groups were flooded with crap, and the signal to noise ratio went through the floor. We tried putting in filters, and used the cancel bots, everything short of moderation but it didn't really help. (We were never organized enough to set up any kind of useful automatic moderation.)

Eventually, the number of people with uucp still set up on their systems shrank to the point where there weren't enough of them still exchanging local news to keep the usenet channels going.

We still have our uucp network, but it is pretty much just used for e-mail now. (It was gatewayed to internet very early on.) Why exchange e-mail over phone lines in these days of internet? Well, if you're running a unix machine at home anyway, it's kinda fun to have your e-mail delivered direct. I know immediately when I get e-mail, and I don't have to dial out to an ISP to check it.

However, even this is dying slowly, as broadband is becoming more available and affordable. Broadband lets you be constantly connected, so you could potentially just leave a pop client always running, checking your mail, etc.

Yes, I think that Everything and sites like it have recovered some of the old local BBS flavor. My feeling is that today's usenet newsgroups just have too many people on them to have a sane discussion. It all gets lost in the noise. Even moderated groups just have too much going on in them. Mailing lists are somewhat better, but most of any value are still too large. I think Everything's node system helps focus the discussions. The distributed voting and moderating also help.

Imminent death of the net predicted! Film at 11!


Update:

Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying the internet and usenet is useless or that there is no community. The utility of hoards of people all speaking inteligably at once is in itself very interesting, and is a new experience I look forward to every day.

What I am saying is that the personality of the BBS has been more or less lost by internet, probably much like the flavor of the small town. You don't get it in global mailing lists or usenet for the most part. Perhaps this is a good thing, I don't know. I just miss it. Some of the smaller local mailing lists might be that way still--but it use to be that *every* message area was like that.

Online Communities Argument

Every day all over the world, people log onto instant messaging programs to chat with people, interact within an online forum, or log onto computer gaming servers to battle in virtual competitions. People today are starving for human interaction, and a quick and easy fix is an electronic network, instantly interconnecting people, allowing them to exchange ideas and thoughts freely. The virtual online communities of today have become a common place among many in society. It has become a way of life, just as the television has in the last half century. Virtual communities provide an easy outlet for entertaining, socializing, and discussing from the comfort of ones own home. Some people are becoming dependent on these networks to satisfy the human desire to want interaction and to build relationships. Why are mobile phone companies now incorporating instant messaging software on cellular phones? What is so wrong with a normal conversation? Is this the human interaction that we need? People want real conversations and interactions, and they turn to virtual communities for gratification. When viewed as an alternate way of life, virtual communities remove people from real emotional human relationships, remove a sense of the real, and are a negative technological fix to fulfill the need for human interaction.

The other day a couple friends of mine were joking around with each other on an instant messaging program. After exchanging a few offensive comments, my friend stated, “I can never tell if people are being serious”. How can we tell if people are being serious in a conversation? Body language and tone of voice are key factors when communicating with someone. These traits tell a lot about what a person is saying because they are a direct correlation of what they are feeling. Emotions are a very important factor in the interaction among humans, and they are lost in the virtual community. It is very difficult to comprehend someone’s true thoughts by just reading text on a screen. Virtual communities today even incorporate visual symbols to help emulate peoples feelings, such as smilies and emoticons. These are used to help reinforce ones feelings that cannot be effectively displayed through a computer screen. Interpreting and displaying emotions is an important part of human relationships and communication. People that become overly attached to virtual communities may develop problems with real human interaction. They seem to have no control of their lives, and so they turn to virtual communities called MUDs for a sense of self. These people display signs of depression in their lives. Some say that virtual communities may be a form of Prozac, or therapy, for depression and for people searching for their true self.

These people that are emotional dependent on cyber worlds turn to these virtual communities for acceptance, when the best cure for their depression would be to get out and focus on real life, and to make relationships with real people. With the increasing of number of computers and easy access to the internet, peoples interactions with virtual communities will only increase in the years to come. Children now are being exposed to the internet and virtual communities before they even reach adolescence. They will soon grow up being dependent on the internet as a source of human interaction. People can become addicted to online gaming which in turn ruins relationships. The fixation of interacting through cyberspace will only worsen in the years to come and more people will sit at home, stranded in cyberspace, separating themselves from real human relationships.

A rapidly growing virtual community today is online gaming. Personal computers and video game consoles can be connected to the internet, allowing users to compete against each other as if they were right next to each other. This adds a whole new dimension to gaming, providing a challenge to users, and bonding people with common interests in a virtual community of gaming. Many popular online games are violently realistic, placing the player in a world of combat and destruction. These games are mainly focused on killing and death. Points are often time scored by how many “kills” a player can achieve. Some of these games that people obsess with are actually modeled after military training tools used by the United States military. The military uses them to prepare soldiers for war and combat, where real people die. Many individuals in the online gaming world lose respect for death and war. Death becomes a game to them; they lose a sense of reality. While online gaming is a source of entertainment, it can be numbing to what is real in life, as with virtual communities like MUDs. People who spend their time connected to MUDs, chat rooms, forums, online gaming and other cyberspace communities often live two lives. One in cyberspace and one in reality. These people are focused on a simulation of life that is powered by imagination and computers, and nothing more. Their obsession causes them to lose perspective and what is real in life.

Some may oppose and claim that virtual communities are a simulation of life that could help improve life outside of cyberspace. They are an efficient source of expressing new ideas, broadening horizons, and encouraging communication between people. These communities in a sense could be a type of practice for interaction in the real world, as airline pilots train in a flight simulator. Virtual communities pose no harm to society, and in no way should be denied, as long as they are not used as a substitute for real life. The fact is humans are not meant to be emotionaly dependent on a simulation of interactions. Often when this occurs people stop interacting in reality, and become dependent on these communities for happiness. For individuals to improve their lives outside of cyberspace, real human relationships need to be formed. Relationships within a cyber world are a form of simulated interaction, and are nothing in comparison to real human affairs.

If viewed and treated as an alternative to the life a person has, virtual communities divide people from real human relationships, numb them from reality, and have a negative effect on their lives. Because it is so easy now to become attached and accepted in cyberspace by individuals who cannot see each other, and do not have judgment upon each other, people turn to these communities for relationships. Virtual communities need to be kept in perspective, and in moderation. They should not be abused or relied upon. What ever happened to town gatherings and social events? “ is it really sensible to suggest that the way to revitalize community is to sit alone in our rooms, typing at our networked computers and filling our lives with virtual friends” (Sherry Turkle)? The answer is no.

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