Monday, November 7, 2016

The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

[ed. I remember the first time I logged onto a BBS back in the late 80's (with a 1200 baud modem) I was confused. Then transfixed. Then awestruck. I wasn't completely sure how a modem worked, but there I was, suddenly connected, and it felt like sneaking around in someone's house. It wasn't just me and a box anymore. There were message boards and files you could download (pirated games, and utilities, and pictures (nudes!)]. And the weirdest thing of all - the first time the sysop texted me to chat and a little window opened up - I could actually talk to someone else. On my computer! Scary and exhilarating. Ahh, good times. Then the internet came along and....]

I have a vivid, recurring dream. I climb the stairs in my parents’ house to see my old bedroom. In the back corner, I hear a faint humming.

It’s my old computer, still running my 1990s-era bulletin board system (BBS, for short), “The Cave.” I thought I had shut it down ages ago, but it’s been chugging away this whole time without me realizing it—people continued calling my BBS to play games, post messages, and upload files. To my astonishment, it never shut down after all.

BBSes once numbered in the tens of thousands in North America. These mostly text-based, hobbyist-run services played a huge part in the online landscape of the 1980s and ‘90s. Anyone with a modem and a home computer could dial-in, often for free, and interact with other callers in their area code.

Then the internet came along in the mid-1990s. Like a comet to the dinosaurs, it upended the natural order of things and wiped BBSes out. My system was one of the casualties, a victim of the desire to devote all my online time to the internet. The same scenario repeated itself on thousands of computers across the country until, one by one, the brightest lights of the BBS world blinked out of existence.

In 1991, my dad brought home a small black plastic box from work. He was an electronics engineer and regularly swapped state-of-the-art tech with his coworkers.

“This is a modem,” my dad said. “You can connect to other computers over the telephone with it.”

At the time, dad didn’t mean the internet, which we’d never heard of (it was mostly used by universities and government institutions at the time). No, he was referring to BBSes.

The first BBS came to life in 1978 during a particularly bad Chicago blizzard. Its inventors, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, wanted a way to keep up with their computer club without having to gather together in person. So they figured out a way to do it with computers.

The resulting software, called CBBS, allowed personal-computer owners with modems to dial-in to a dedicated system and leave messages that others would see later, when they, in turn, dialed up the BBS. People could, in theory, call BBSes anywhere, but since they'd have to pay for long-distance, they tended to stay local. The BBS concept was a digital version of a push-pin bulletin board that might flank a grocery store entrance or a college student union hallway.

By the time dad brought home the modem, BBSes had grown dramatically in scope. They facilitated file transfers, inter-BBS messaging networks, multi-node chat, and popular text-based games.

My 15-year-old brother began BBSing. He visited five or six local boards, with names like “Octopus’s Garden,” “Southern Pride,” and “Online's Place.” I followed in his footsteps the next summer, spending hundreds of glorious hours online.

Dialing into a BBS felt like whole-body teleportation. It was the intimacy of direct, computer-to-computer connection that did it. To call a BBS was to visit the private residence of a fellow computer fan electronically. BBS hosts had converted a PC—often their only PC—into a digital playground for strangers’ amusement.

For an 11-year-old exploring online spaces for the first time, my mental model for these electronic connections was physical. Although every BBS displayed walls of text—menus, options, and prompts—those characters somehow translated, in my brain, into a casual walk through a cozy living room or a stroll in a grassy yard.

Maybe it was because the system operators (sysops) that ran each BBS were always watching. Everything users did scrolled by on their screen, and they soaked in the joy of someone else using their computer. It was a gentle, pleasant form of surveillance.

The sysops might initiate one-on-one chat at any time. Long before texting and Slacking and Facebook messaging became the norm for interchange, BBS chats felt like being with someone in person. Sometimes strong personal relationships were built. My best friend is someone I first met when he called my BBS in 1993.

That personal connection was sorely missing on big-name online subscription services of the time—Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL. Even today, the internet is so overwhelmingly intertwined that it doesn't have the same intimate feel. Once the web arrived in the mid-1990s, it seemed inevitable that the BBS would die off.

But every mass extinction has its holdouts. Even today, a small community of people still run and call BBSes. Many seek the digital intimacy they lost years ago; 373 BBSes still operate, according to the Telnet BBS Guide, mostly in the United States. Many are set up to be accessible via internet-connected tools like Telnet, a text-based remote-login protocol originally designed for mainframes.

Did any direct-access, telephone-dial-up BBSes survive the internet’s proverbial asteroid? Sure enough, there are about 20 known dial-up BBSes in North America. And of those, only a handful have been running non-stop since the mid-1990s. These are the true dinosaurs walking among us. Who dares to run such antique systems, and why? Have any of them been left running by accident like the BBS in my dream? I had to find out.

by Benj Edwards, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Benj Edwards