Before the Internet was opened for commerce, hackers used to run Bulletin Board System software that let other people dial directly into their computers to leave messages and share files. BBSes grew in popularity from the early eighties to the mid nineties, then faded back into obscurity by the zeroes as the Internet became more popular.

These days, there are whole generations of hackers who have grown up with Internet access and haven't heard of BBSes, just as the BBS generation before them had grown up with home computers and never touched a mainframe.

To save this chapter of the history of hacker culture from the obscurity of a footnote in The Jargon File, digital archivist Jason Scott made a documentary in which various people from this community talk about how the BBS scene affected them.

Scott interviewed many prominent figures from the scene, including Ward Christensen, co-creator of the BBS, Tom Jennings, the founder of FidoNet, and Jack Rickard, the founder and editor of Boardwatch magazine. More surprising is the interview with Vint Cerf, co-creator of the Internet.

To call BBS: The Documentary a film is an understatement. It's essentially a TV series, with a different theme per episode, such as FidoNet, the art scene, and the commercialisation of BBSes. There are eight episodes in total, plus a plethora of bonus features. Although that may seem like a lot of ground to cover for such an already specific topic, you soon discover just how much there is to explore in what was a vibrant community.

Like his interviewee Jack Rickard, Scott does't just present the dry facts about a piece of technology, but instead shows how that technology affects people. BBSes are a form of communications technology. They let people talk to each other. Scott explores how they helped out people who were oppressed in totalitarian countries, people who were recovering from alcohol addiction, deaf people, and gay people who just needed to know they weren't alone.

Scott sheds a light on how hackers can and have helped people in general, and for that I think he's providing a valuable service. I thoroughly recommend BBS: The Documentary for anyone interested in hacker culture and the role of technology in bringing people together.

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