a trip down bbs lane

July 23, 2015

The internet we know today used to look a lot different. Before there was social media, blogging, or the world wide web, there was the almighty Bulletin Board System. Its heyday was in the 80s and early 90s, long before most of us discovered the internet, yet the BBS party rages on in 2015. Fascinated by all things underground and DIY, I fired up a telnet terminal and called some boards.

My first experiences on the internet were in the mid-90s, when websites and chat rooms were becoming popular, therefore I had never logged on to a BBS prior to my recent trip. I've read nostalgic articles about them over the years on computer tech sites and even heard there was a documentary made on the topic, but my interest in bulletin boards didn't go further.

Old school boards were typically run by hobbyists out of their own home. Unlike modern web servers that handle multiple simultaneous users, a BBS was dialed into directly, and may only be able to handle one or two connections at a time. Users could play games, download software, read text files, chat with others, and send messages. This was the dawn of the information age, a proto social media network.

A few of these BBSes have survived despite significantly waning interest. I learned that many of them could be accessed via telnet, another archaic internet technology. I came across this telnet bbs list and made my first attempts to call a board with mixed success. I was telnetting from an OS X terminal, which provides telnet capabilities but isn't suited by default for displaying ANSI graphics in all their glory. So I did a little research and installed SyncTERM, a pretty easy to use BBS terminal.

Surfing the boards was way more fun than I expected and reminded me of my first times dialing into the internet as a teenager. At first, I was somewhat confused and unsure how to navigate the various text prompts, and a couple of times I got so stuck I had to disconnect and start over, but in a weird way this made it more enjoyable. I wouldn't say it was nostalgia that I was experiencing since this was my first time dialing into a BBS. Maybe it's that Google wasn't tracking every click, calculating how best to sell my eyeball views to advertisers. Maybe it's because I wasn't bombarded with notifications, status updates, and likes. I was forced to slow down to the speed of a text-only display. One feature that is common across boards is a time restriction on how long you can stay logged in. I believe this is a holdover from the days when SysOps (system operators) were most likely running their service off a personal phone line. Before call waiting was ubiquitous, you didn't want a tied up phone, and users were restricted at the sysop's discretion. This time restriction forced me to do what I wanted to do and then get out. Strangely freeing.

Running a BBS looks like a fun hobby and a rad way to use retro technology. It's also a dying breed on the verge of extinction. I'm not sure on the numbers, but I assume there are only a few hundred of these systems still running, versus the near uncountable millions of websites currently in existence. BBSes are a part of our shared computing history, one I hope doesn't go away.


Image courtesy of Armageddon BBS