BBS And The Genesis Of Our Online Lives

By Don Kelly

In January 1978, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess wanted to connect to the world differently.  They were both computer hobbyists and enthusiasts assembling their hardware through computer clubs, technology conventions, and Radio Shack.  Historically, they reflected the amateur radio enthusiasts from prior decades, who assembled homemade sets to send messages into the ether and (hopefully) receive responses (Hilmes, 2007).  Like their predecessors, they stood at the edge of a virtual void holding messages for invisible, likeminded strangers.  All they had to do was design the necessary bottle as a means to make deliveries.  It was from this motivation the first bulletin board system, or BBS, CBBS, was created.

It may be hard to imagine a world without virtual contact like Facebook, Twitter, MMOG’s, or even the simplicity of a web browser or email, but these tools of common online usage are predated by the BBS.  In many ways it is online social networking in its essential and slowest form.  Initially, there was no graphical component.  It was virtual reality based in text.

The procedures of a BBS won’t sound alien.  It pioneered the protocols of our online lives.  To enter required the now familiar necessity of a username and password, but connecting to the Internet required the greatest of niche items advertised in the magazines of the day with titles like Byte, the Hayes modem.  It was dial-up, but not quite the dial-up we all remember.  Users were calling a remote computer that housed the BBS software.  Often the machine could handle only one call at a time.  The users tended to be local because long distance rates did apply, and it took a long time for the simple text messages to load to the bulletin boards (Zetter, 2005).

The users profiled toward computer people, as well.  This was not an enterprise for the casual user due to the economics of computer ownership.  In the late 70’s and throughout the 1980’s, the cost of a PC ran into the thousands of dollars.  Due to this factor, in 1984 it was estimated that the market penetration rate for personal computers had reached 14% of households (Garramone, et al, 1986).   It was a growing market, but one with technophiles at its core, and it was they who used the BBS.

It cannot be overstated that the process of posting messages to a BBS was extremely slow.  Weeks or months often passed between visits to the board.  This would allow a conversation to develop around multiple posts.  And, those conversations reputably pertained to each users favorite hardware, software, video game, or aspect of science fiction culture.  Eventually, boards appeared that encompassed all manner of lifestyles, interests, sexual orientations, and belief systems (Zetter, 2005).  This phenomena is certainly reflective in the modern Web we use today, where every aspect of humanity has a home, no matter how beautiful or vile it may seem.

Another facet of the modern web birthed in the era of BBS pertains to identity.  Some used their real names, others created online handles.  Many remained anonymous.  In their paper “Uses Of Political Bulletin Boards,” authors Gina M. Garramone, Allen C. Harris, and Ronald Anderson describe three aspects of a BBS that appealed to its users.  The first is interactivity, the sense of being heard by one’s peers, and, in this case, a politician.  The two remaining aspects pertain to features that were unique to a BBS that allowed for greater satisfaction of personal identity needs beyond interpersonal communication:

“First, the BBS user is physically alone with the terminal attached to a telephone. The idea of being alone with one’s terminal may lead to a letting down of barriers and face-maintaining behaviors (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978). Second, BBS entries may be anonymous, as users may choose not to use their real names during interactions. Even if they do reveal their real names, users still may feel anonymous in the sense that they might pass their computer-conversation partners on the street without being recognized. The chance to speak anonymously can lead to the expression of honest opinions (Phillips, 1983). The aloneness and anonymity features of BBSs, therefore, may lead the user to open up, connecting him or her even more intimately to others in society” (p. 329).

It speaks to the infancy of the medium that the freedom from social constraint endowed upon an Internet citizen by anonymous commenting could be described so optimistically.  For those of us with blogs, where our words wait for public consumption and comment, experiencing the nastier aspects of this freedom is as common as daily web use.  Perhaps a smaller cohort of users hindered by their plodding modems took greater care in the messages they posted online.  Though then, as now, a simple sentence like “You sux” takes comparatively little time to load.

However, history shows that as technology advanced, allowing for faster connection speeds, the ability to post on multiple boards, and file sharing, the boards had to deal with the vice, crime, and vitriol that have come to haunt the world wide web.  Pornography and software piracy became consistent problems, and the battles on the boards included subjects outside everyone’s favorite hardware.  Obscurity consumed all these issues.  The popularity and speed of the Web supplanted bulletin boards by the mid 1990’s (Zetter, 2005).

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess created a platform to connect to the world that has been evolving both technologically and socially for four decades.  Search engines and hash tags have helped realize their dream of a global, connected conversation.  The building of virtual communities has moved beyond novelty to an essential aspect of our lives.  We visit advanced bulletin boards like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Tumblr all day long.  There’s more glitter and flash, but the basic components remain the same.  All one needs is a computer, a connection, a username, a password, and, of course, something to say.

 

Sources

  1. Hilmes, Michele, Only Connect: A Cultural History Of Broadcasting In The United States (California: Thomson Higher Education, 2007), 28
  2. Kim Zetter, “How Humble BBS Begat Wired World,” Wired, June 8, 2005, http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2005/06/67776?currentPage=all
  3. Gina M. Garramone, Allen C. Harris, and Ronald Anderson, “Uses Of Political Computer Bulletin Boards,” Journal Of Broadcasting And Electronic Media 3 (1986): 325 – 339.

 

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