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Digital Man's blog

Why BBS?

In the title, “Why BBS?”, I'm using “BBS” as a verb, as in “Don't anybody pick up the phone, I'm BBSing!” Or in other words: Why should anyone do anything with BBSes today?

Of course, the plural noun “BBSes” I'm referring to here are the arcane systems you can run (as a sysop) or connect to (as a user) today which emulate or replicate the old dial-up bulletin board systems of the late 1970's through the 1990's. These BBS connections are typically over the Internet using terminal protocols like Telnet or SSH, but may also include traditional dial-up modem connections over the “plain-old telephone service” or even over amateur-licensed radio frequencies. But since you're here reading this, you probably already knew that.

BBS users or sysops that are either new to the scene or returning after a long absence often offer their observations about the state of BBSing and their recommendations to restore or at least increase the popularity of BBSes beyond the niche they serve today. But not everyone has the same intentions or goals when it comes to this hobby, so while some may think relatively low usership or participation indicates something is wrong, others might not see that as a problem. If you want content consumption or participation from thousands of daily users, maybe a BBS isn't the right thing for you. There are certainly plenty of other interactive platforms and technologies that may be more accessible or attractive to your target audience or user group.

I'm not trying to talk you out of using or running a BBS; I just think you should have realistic expectations. If *you* like using or running a BBS, that should be all that matters. You can't force that enjoyment or desire on others. If you can't find the content or participation level you'd like to see in BBSes, it's doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with BBSes.

If the BBS users and sysops of the 1980's and 90's were asked to describe their dream online system of the future, they probably would describe something similar to the AOL/CompuServe/Prodigy online services of early 90's or, if they were true visionaries, the modern social media Internet services of today, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, etc. I doubt very much they would envision a modal 80 x 25 ANSI terminal interface as the ideal online user experience of the future! Facebook and the like are kind of the natural evolution of the large-scale BBS and they will continue to evolve and look and feel less and less like the BBSes we knew “back in the day”.

I still endeavor to improve the content availability and user experience of today's BBSes, but I'm under no delusion that any BBS is about to supplant the behemoth social media services that have been and continue to be created and cultivated by mega-corporations.

However, that doesn't mean that BBSes can't remain fascinating and captivating to those who are inclined to be fascinated and captivated by them. *My* first fascination with BBSes was because they were obscure and arcane: very few people at the time were online and here was this secret world I had discovered. I had similar discoveries later with MUDs, IRC, CU-SeeMe and amateur radio. I'm attracted to these obscure hobbies and enjoy the comradery I find in others with the same interests.

Today, my interest with BBSes is more in the technical challenge of marrying old technologies with new and creating bug-free software while also trying to inspire BBS content creators and participation among the BBS users we do have. I don't necessarily think we need more BBSes or even more BBS users: if all of today's BBS users just used one BBS, that'd probably provide the BBS experience that a lot of users would enjoy/expect more than the hundreds of tiny islands we have. But having more BBSes provides more technical challenges for me to solve: more platforms to support, more variance in sysop-customization and configuration and BBS inter-networking use-cases. And most of us really do like the idea of having their own island to decorate and dominate as they see fit; so I focus on inter-connecting hundreds of tiny islands as seamlessly as possible with an engaging user experience. And that's fun for me!

So that brings me back to the question: “Why BBS?” and here are the answers I have to offer you:

  1. Nostalgia:
    you likely BBSed back in your younger years and its one of the ways we can still feel young
  2. Obscurity:
    it's highly unlikely your ex or your next prospective employer is going to find and judge your BBS activity
  3. Independence:
    the content, management and durability of your BBS is really up to you (it's your island)
  4. Challenge:
    the technical challenges involved should be fun and give you a sense of wonder and accomplishment
  5. Creativity:
    within the limited confines of BBSes, there's still plenty of room for the astonishment and inspiration of others
  6. Experience:
    believe it or not, knowing how BBSes work may give you a step ahead in your future technical aspirations
  7. Community:
    there is a BBS community, or several, and they will likely welcome your participation and enthusiasm for the hobby

So in summary, I agree: BBSes can be made more accessible and user-friendly than they are today and support more mainstream use-cases than they do today. And maybe, probably, some of those enhancements will come to fruition in the near future. Maybe your contributions will help drive the innovation you seek. But in the meantime, see if you can find the enjoyment and inspiration that we've found in the BBSes of today and rejoice in that!

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