It’s nearly 25 years since a harbinger of the BBS’s future made itself known. Time for a recap. I think there’s two levels to discussing something historical: compiling a general overview of an event that may have slipped by and is in need of attention, which is easier in today’s info-soaked world, and then a more in-depth research, which really does need more primary sources, interviews with people involved, and so on. So pardon me while I do the first level of research on this subject.
Throughout the 1980s, BBSes were, on the whole, single or dual-line affairs. Exceptions were definitely abounding, thanks to Tim Stryker’s Galacticomm MajorBBS software/hardware, Diversi-Dials, and similar super-multi-line situations. These multi-lines, however, were ghastly in their expense on the hardware and software side: you needed as many phone lines and modems as simultaneous users (not counting the local sysop who could use the machine) and you often had to have software that charged you something significant. Galacticomm’s MajorBBS could run you in the thousands, Diversi-dial needed a little chunk of change, and so on. In other words, these were the sorts of rare places, often requiring paid subscriptions, that thrived but even at the top of their game could service a few dozen people simultaneously. I think nothing illustrates this combination of cost and difficulty to breathe the rarefied air of multi-user computing for BBSes
Once you were online and could talk to others directly, you knew in your heart that you got things that way you didn’t get just reading the files and messages the last guy left. A BBS that could claim it had multi-line chat had a pretty strong reason for people to call it. Like many refrains from 25+ years ago, it is either a tired (but true) phrase or a new concept to those who haven’t heard it before, so it’s worth singing: the Internet was not always the Web. The idea of a client sitting with an all-you-can-eat connection and a all-we-can-suck-down approach to data was a early 1990s concept, and took years to truly ramp up into absorbing the vast majority of what people would consider the online experience. Communication and mores had existed for a decade beforehand among the relative hoi polloi of college students, and of course lurked in years previous to that in a miasma of scientists and engineers, cloaked in seriousness but prone to the occasional extensive play and entertainment as needed. The meat had a light coating of sauce, instead of the cooked sugar covered with gravy we now consider the status quo.
The two worlds of Internet and BBS overlapped, but not significantly. Access was of a certain strip and the BBS world was where all the exciting on-the-ground just-a-bunch-of-folks stuff was happening. Certainly people would use the Internet’s available functionality and then disconnect their modems and connect to the local BBSes. It was an odd world to look back on, but it was the case. technical details are not stories, they’re not memories and they certainly aren’t interviews. I wish someone had sat down and spoken with some of these people. It’s an important time, one more person should know about. It is this time that I would like to refer to as the "Golden age of the BBS." It wasn't as golden as you might think. Most Sysops would come home every evening from work to find that their BBS had crashed because of yet another bug. Even back then, user's logged in under false names and left obscene messages. The one point that made that age golden was the users. Without users, a BBS is just a program. With users, it gains a personality, and if I may be metaphysical, a soul. The users MAKE the BBS.
A Sysop may have the greatest BBS program in the world, but without active users, he just has a computer wasting line-current. There is one possible solution to this problem... the acceptance of children again. For too long we've been kicking off kids (both phyiscal and "kids at heart"). They've been disruptive, and caused fights galore. Many have even tried to crash the systems they used. Perhaps the thing to do is call a few local Commodore and Apple boards and let the users know that they're just as welcome on your super-fancy 100mb 2400 baud RCP/M system as any of your so- called "serious users" . . . "serious users" who can't even bring themselves to answer their own mail, Saddening. The website textfiles.com serves as an archive that documents the history of the BBS. The owner of textfiles.com, Jason Scott, also produced BBS: The Documentary, a DVD film that chronicles the history of the BBS and features interviews with well-known people (mostly from the United States) from the heyday BBS era.
What I found interesting about the video interviews was how passionate everyone was about their BBS’s – in some cases, people still had their original computing rigs, modems, and other gear from BBS’s long gone from the scene, and could recall details about their activities 20 and 30 years ago as if it were still fresh in their minds. In some cases, these were people who clearly had their creative peak in their early teens and twenties. But many of the people in the videos are just ordinary geeks, having fun the way geeks know: learning how to use a new computer system and telling people all about it.
What is amazing is how primitive these systems are by today’s standards: we are talking character-mode screens, 300 baud modems, and hardware that was measured in single-digit MHz and KB of RAM. Most of the people have terrifically bad haircuts and no fashion sense whatsoever. Even years later, and many of these people in are in their advanced years, they still proudly wear their outdated logo t-shirts and sit on furniture that could best be described as items that even the local Goodwill would turn down. One woman had a sofa with a pattern of repeating numbers 0 and 1 across it. Many of the people are filmed sitting next to their gear that they ran their BBS on, and these old relics of computers recall the dawn of the PC era, when the Commodore 64 and Apple II were new and novel.
The BBS was the precursor to many things that we take for granted now in the world of the Internet: world-wide nearly instantaneous communications, group discussion forums, instant messaging, multi-user games, online porn, and on and on. It was a culture into itself, and Scott does a terrific job of documenting this era. What makes for compelling film is that he is great at letting everyone tell their individual stories, and collectively it is a fascinating tour de force. One segment concerns the hacker BBS culture. As Scott says, “portraying a generation of BBS users as evil geniuses bent on destruction is an easy story to tell – but that isn’t the story told here.” Another is the story about ANSI or ASCII art, images that are entirely constructed out of characters meant to be printed on a typewriter, the beginnings of the modern era of computer generated art and the online porn industry.
The story about the phone phreaks is a good story about the lengths that people would go towards free long distance calls, back in the day when these calls were much more expensive than they are now. Again, this was something completely embraced by the mainstream with freebie IP voice software such as Skype. “People today get their noses pierced. We were anarchists back then.” For those of you that fondly remember the BBS era, this video is a must-have and recommended viewing. It is entertaining, it is informative, and it is exceptionally well done. For those of you too young to remember, it is a trip back in time to a part of our computing history that is well worth exploring.