Learn more about how information technology is changing
our lives and our world. PLUS NEWS + EVENTS

Lamenting the Loss of the BBS

I’ve posted to three blogs today so far (including this one), and commented on two. Slowly but surely I’m becoming a part of these online communities and feeling more comfortable in my own blogging skin. Eventually perhaps I’ll come to match usernames with personalities and develop online relationships. Perhaps.

It wasn’t always this way. In a former life, I was part of a very special online community. Back in the day (“the day” being 1987), I wandered onto my first BBS. Bulletin Board Systems were to the late 80’s what web sites are today. Discussion groups were the precursors to blogs. I was one of approx. 40 people in Kansas City who were a part of the BBS community and we had a lot of fun together. We visited each other’s BBS’s, posted in discussions, chatted with each other, and occasionally gathered in person. Some of those people – you know who you are – I still consider close friends. Others disappeared into the ether (and are probably somewhere on the net), never to be seen or heard from again.

Ah the innocent days of youth, staring without a care in the world at my Amiga monitor writing about Nietzsche to some guy I’d never met. As a fourteen year-old, my parents were scared stiff of my meeting nameless, faceless people from the other side of town. My dad insisted upon accompanying me on my first physical outing to meet the people with whom I’d conversed to the wee hours on my computer. Once he saw how harmless and geeky they were, he decided to stay at home the next time. (Don’t get me wrong – there were a couple of sleazy people in the group – but it became a fun sport to avoid them rather than a daunting chore (i.e. spam).)

My BBS had a theme, like most, and nearly everyone who visited became a role player within the theme. Each new visitor-caller I greeted with a chat invitation and a kind word. We discussed technology, art and science. We weren’t all tech-savvy; some people just happened to own computers with modems.

Running a BBS taught me many things. It taught me how to meet new people. It taught me that the digital environment is a great equalizer. It taught me to be responsible for an online system and it taught me how to design a site. I learned how to write, and I learned that text can be easily misconstrued.

Now that I’m a new parent, as I think of my daughter’s future I can’t help but wonder: what will online life be like for her? I shudder to think. Will I be downloading new anti-spam software on a weekly basis? Will I be demanding an AIM chat with every new “guy” she meets? Installing keystroke logging devices to track her conversations just in case? At least she won’t always be meeting these people in person, but is that a good thing?

I miss the days of the BBS. I miss the innocence and the wonder of it all. Even when I was a system administrator with root access to major government networks, it didn’t have the same thrill. I miss walking past my desk at night, seeing the flashing lights on the modem and wondering who I might meet in chat mode. Each day brought a new surprise. Now as I surf the web for some sense of geography for mapping out the places I want to see, I still picture each site in my mind the way I formerly visualized BBS’s – a living, breathing matrix of intelligent creatures trying to connect. I crave that close sense of community. Blogging in Silicon Valley has provided some of it, but there’s no going back to the days of youth. Long live the 64th Dimension!


  1. >I mostly missed the BBS days. What replaced them (around the same time) were a peculiarly Ann Arbor version of online conferences, akin to what the Well is still running. That filled up the hours in college.My world is still organized very geographically – for the longest time I was filing my email by the origin city of the writer.

  2. >Your experience with BBSes sounds almost exactly identical to mine, sans parental chaparone to in-person coffee shop meetups. However, I *did* have a C64 (300 baud!) and later an Amiga (2400 baud!) with which to dial up the local boards.But, the BBSes are pretty much what drew me out of my small town shell and taught me a way to become more social that worked with my particular nerdy temperment. It’s not stopped since then, and computer mediated communications are the thing to which I turn when I want to meet people.

  3. >Oh, and the other thing I miss from BBSes is in fact the locality. After awhile, when I got to late high school and early college, you could get to the internet from some of the BBSes in my area. But, you always had to go through the local layers of community to get out to the wider world first.Now, it’s like you get dropped into the middle of an undifferentiated sea, and you have to find your way back to your own shores if you want anything local.

  4. >One antidote for the loss of geography is a technique I’ve used a few times to create online spaces that overlap a lot with particular places. We created a little Yahoo group for the folks on our block, and publish a neighborhood directory & swap news about the neighborhood and offers to borrow tools. That creates some sense of “local” space that’s a one to one mapping with somewhere, which is nice.Keith Hampton has a whole “i-neighbors” project that hosts these neighborhood bulletin boards all over the country.To get my fix of talk-about-town online discussion, I started a lunch series and a mailing list (and wiki, woot) to go with it. We regularly have a dozen people talking around the table on Thursdays at the same restaurant every week.The Michigan techie experience of course is the expat one, kind of like fleeing Ireland during the potato famine, so it’s pretty easy to find Michiganders everywhere.

  5. >I still own the (fully tricked-out) TI-99/4A I ran my BBS on and my wife still owns the C-64 she used to call it ;)Those days still come rushing back to me when I drive down Shawnee Mission Parkway near Quivira and pass what used to be the Burger King there.

  6. >I found you via Nancy White! Great to read your blog. I used BBS about the same time as you and I miss them. However, I sort of feel like blogs or rather the blogosphere offers that sense of community.

  7. >I remember the first time, in the mid 80s, I successfully got onto a local BBS. I posted that I needed a mouse; a guy said he’d swap me a mouse for a keyboard and 30 minutes later he appeared at my house and we made the trade. I was hooked. Later I belonged to a very robust BBS that used a First Class GUI. Five of us who met on that BBS collaborated to compete for a design contract with the regional transportation agency — and won! I met my husband through that BBS…

  8. >These are great stories, thanks!