bulletin board systems: the secret history of the original online communities
Each and every day on the internet, billions of devices–phones, computers, servers, even fridges–exchange petabytes of data. But, not that long ago, being “online” meant single computers connecting to each other via phone lines and modems.
These connections, known as bulletin board systems or BBSs, are the precursors of online chat and social media. When BBSs began to appear in the 1970s and ’80s, the internet was for researchers only. BBSs provided a way for ordinary people to connect 👋, interact 👏, and share 🙏.
Read on to learn the (very brief) history of BBSs–as well as their link to the internet of the present day.
How did BBSs work?
Bulletin board systems were pretty simple by today’s computing standards, even if they weren’t cheap. To get one working, you needed a personal computer running a host program, a modem, and a landline.
When someone wanted to connect to your BBS, their modem would dial your phone number 📞. They’d then see the BBS menu rendered in ASCII. They could interact with the BBS, via single-letter commands (because data is precious over dial-up), to post and reply to messages, share files, or browse what others had posted.
What did BBSs let people do?
The very first BBSs were created by computer hobbyists, back in the days when personal computers were extremely DIY. They worked like neighborhood bulletin boards.
As the BBS community matured, the boards branched out into more and more specific topics: from discussing antiques 🕰 to playing games 🕹 to sharing software 💾. Eventually, using host software called Fido, BBSs could message each other automatically–the very first instance of web chat.
But it wasn’t like today’s illumy chat, or even email. Landline phone calls were much more expensive in the ’80s and ’90s, so FidoNet (as the network of Fido BBSs was known) would only exchange messages in batches once or twice a day. Users would “chat” to their contacts, log off, then check back a day or so later.
How many BBSs were there?
BBS historian Jason Scott estimates that more than 100,000 BBSs were created in the decades after 1978. At its peak, FidoNet had more than 20,000 nodes: essentially offering a “people’s internet” long before the capital-I internet was commercialized 🤑.
Do people still use BBSs?
Incredibly, some BBSs are still in operation. The Telnet BBS directory lists 982 active BBSs as of this writing–with 3 created in the last month.
Most BBSs are being kept alive by hobbyists, just like in their very earliest days. They’re a throwback to a time when social networking 🤝 was actually social–even if the “network” meant just two computers.
Was illumy inspired by BBSs?
Yes! illumy’s founder, Matt McGinnis, was a huge BBS enthusiast in middle and high school.
In his words:
“You could chat with people – it was the precursor of persistent messaging. FidoNet was also the precursor to email, which, at the time, was only used by universities. And BBSs really opened the door to file sharing, too.
“In middle school, my best friend and I decided to start a BBS. We figured out how to put more than 1 modem in – my parents were paying for 4 phone lines at one point.
“Around 1994, the internet was starting to take off, and it looked like BBSs were dying out. But then they reinvented themselves. Someone would connect to a BBS, which in turn would connect to the internet … turning the BBS into an ISP that got people online. My very first job, in fact, was helping ISPs figure out how to generate revenue.
“BBSs were the collaboration/entertainment/communication medium that took hold before the internet. Then they helped the internet commercialize.”
BBSs, in other words, helped the internet really take off in the ’90s. That makes them an essential chapter of communication (and illumy) history … even if it’s a history that not too many people know about. Now, you’re one of the lucky few 🤓.