This blog post is published on spacehey, a social media site that reflects the experience of early Web 2.0 in the 2000s. Lots of people on here also have their own Neocities sites that are mostly inspired by the aesthetic of Web 1.0, the way it looked in the 90s. But what if we go even further back in history?
Networks for the few
The World Wide Web itself was invented in 1991 and became popular by 1995, but the story of what we now call the Internet started way earlier. Computer networks were first designed decades earlier in the US (and other countries). They connected big and expensive computers operated by researchers, the military and specialized companies like IBM. The average person wasn't welcome in these networks, and the general public largely wasn’t aware of their existence.
However, the era of personal computing has already started by the early 80s, with manufacturers like Apple Computer, Commodore and Sinclair Research selling millions of affordable home computers. Many of them also offered modems – devices that enabled users to connect to other computers via phone lines (no broadband back then). With government and corporate networks being inaccessible to the growing number of computer geeks, they had to come up with something of their own – bulletin board systems, thousands of which were in operation by the late 1980s.
Bulletins… on paper
A BBS is simply someone’s (usually) home computer with a modem and some specialized software, allowing callers to access information on that computer or upload something to it. The first such system was set up in 1978 in Chicago as a way for the local computer club members to share news, announcements, and thoughts by reading and posting bulletins. The interface was not really unlike the spacehey bulletins, but the significant difference is that some early users accessed the CBBS with a teleprinter, not a computer, so the output was printed out on actual paper. We’re all lucky to have displays now, aren’t we?
The CBBS soon became well-known in tech enthusiast circles, many hobbyists started to create similar services, broadening their capabilities and reach.
Local digital spaces
Before long, there were hundreds of BBS offering a multitude of options for their users, such as sharing files, chatting with the system’s operator (sysop), playing mostly text-based games online (which were called door games), participating in forums and exchanging messages with other users. In short, doing a lot of the same stuff we still do online. However, some limitations of 80s tech influenced the user experience.
Firstly, most BBS operators had only
one phone line, so only one caller could use the system at a given
time. Speaking of time, for that reason sysops often limited the time
one user could be logged on for, so you could only be allowed to
occupy the line for an hour a day or so, and then vacate it for
Secondly, long-distance calls were
expensive, so most people could only call BBS physically located in
their city or town without running into huge phone bills. As a
result, the users of a small local system often knew each other in
real life, making online privacy a rather theoretical concept. Even
at bigger BBS it was customary to provide real name, place of
social security number
Finally, the incredible speed of modem connections at the time (about 1200 to 9600 bit per second) meant that transferring large files was all but impossible. Well, you wouldn’t have had that much space on your storage device anyway.
Despite these peculiarities, BBS were quite popular with a growing number of computer users. A lot of people annoyed their families by taking over the landline phone to call the number of a local BBS. They played (or downloaded) games, wrote e-mails to friends, participated in discussions via FidoNet, read bulletins and, of course, admired ASCII art on welcome screens. In big cities, the systems grew specialized, focusing on a topic or targeting a particular user base, be it gamers or the LGBTQ community.
Commercialization and decline
Over time, some big BBS started to introduce membership fees for access to files. Besides, commercial online services like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online developed their own standards for chat, e-mail and file-sharing, earning money on subscriptions. Later these companies would become internet service providers. By the late 90s, with the growing availability of the internet, the era of BBS was over, at least in the US and Europe.
The present state
These days most working BBS are available through the internet, mostly using the telnet protocol (although there is still a number of dial-up systems running). Telnet BBS Guide does a good job of keeping track of them. You can visit these BBS by typing telnet [address] [port] in your computer terminal or command prompt. However, expect invasive registration questionnaires and general lack of life on there (sigh)
Corrections and additions are most welcome, I haven’t really experienced the described times, so I may be wrong in my interpretation. I’m also planning to write about FidoNet, with which I had a bit more personal experience