Remembering the BBS ‘Culture’

December 3, 2007

by Mark Ollig

Last weeks column found me nostalgically recalling the time I started a “hobbyist” dial-up computer Bulletin Board Service or “BBS.”

Before web browsers redefined the Internet, computer hobbyists using their own money spent many hours connecting their home computers to software, modems and phone lines.

At that time, installing and programming the BBS hardware and software was not a “plug and play” process.

In 1993, Howard Rheingold published his book “The Virtual Community.” He is credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” He wrote about the potential of the BBS culture and the new “electronic villages” being created.

I was both fascinated and motivated by Rheingold’s enthusiasm and passion of the independent dial-up BBS culture.

To access my BBS from your computer you needed a 19.2 kbps modem and a regular telephone line.

A dial-up communications program made by DataStorm called “ProComm” was commonly used to access a BBS.

I called my BBS “WBBS OnLine!”

The “W” stood for “Winsted.” It had the call letters of a radio or TV station…plus “WBBS” sounded cool.

I created paper flyers to advertise WBBS, and posted them all over town and in the local newspaper.

I was so excited about starting a local BBS in Winsted that I even changed the license plates on my car to WBBS... which caused a few second glances as I drove down the street.

Many folks caught the BBS “bug” and were buying a modem and going online.

People plugged a telephone line into their computer modem, “dialed-up” the local phone number of WBBS and “logged on” to the BBS software program I ran. It was called “The Major BBS” made by a company called Galacticom.

Computer users would create their own online user names, leave e-mail messages, chat in virtual conference rooms, play simple online games and send and receive software files.

Being a BBS System Operator or “SysOp” and running a BBS was like operating your own AOL, Prodigy or CompuServe (what’s that Grandpa?).

A BBS is like a small island community. Only a few people could be connected at one time, depending on the number of modems the BBS had. I had five telephone lines connected to five modems, so five users (including your humble SysOp) could be online at the same time.

WBBS had discussion forums, simple text-chat rooms, a few games, and the ability to send e-mail messages to other registered BBS members. Users were mostly from the local area where the BBS telephone number was a free call.

I was able to update WBBS and install a Graphical User Interface or “GUI.” This required the user calling into the BBS to download a “client” software program. The next time they dialed in using the BBS client GUI software, they could point and click on the new BBS graphical menu. They could play some of the new games using a colorful graphical interface! It was just like what AOL had.

As I learned about new computer hardware, software and the information and resources the Internet was starting to offer, I looked for a venue where I could share this information with others. So began the column “Bits & Bytes.”

In 1994, I gave a presentation of my BBS at the local Civic and Commerce lunch-in below the American Legion Club in Winsted.

Your humble columnist and former SysOp brought his trustworthy 1993 Omni-Book laptop, BBS “tower” computer, bulky monitor and many cords.

I set up the BBS and connected the whole thing to two phone lines.

In front of the local business folks, I demonstrated how a person at home could use their computer to dial-up into another computer and use that computers BBS software.

I explained that the business could set up their own BBS with a menu tree and use it as a means to communicate and provide information to their customers.

The BBS brought people together online and provided a venue for discussions about current and popular issues in real-time. Sometimes users logged on just to play online games, check for messages from other users and share “free-ware” software, which included many DOS utilities and games.

Many BBS users were not only learning about the potential use of this new online technology, but were also finding mutual camaraderie in the world of the BBS community.

The BBS’s potential to change how we communicated and obtained information was one of the driving forces which inspired me to start and maintain WBBS.

By the late 1990’s, BBS users wanted Internet access. Some BBS’s obtained direct access to the “Internet-backbone” (usually via a telephone companies dedicated T-1) and then allowed BBS users access to it, using the BBS computer as the gateway.

These BBS’s were becoming Internet Service Providers and needed to charge its users a fee in order to pay for the expensive direct Internet connections.

Many of the smaller local hobbyist BBS’s including sadly, WBBS OnLine! that were not supported by paid subscribers – shut down and went offline.

I found an informative new website which provides an in-depth documentary about the entire BBS culture.

This website includes video trailers of Vinton Cerf and Ward Christensen (who is credited with the first practical working BBS) talking about their experiences surrounding the BBS culture.

Check out http://www.bbsdocumentary.com/.