ASCII by Jason Scott

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Quag7′s State of the BBS, 2006/2007 —

I am posting Quag7′s amazing entry in the 80sBBS mailing list on my weblog, because of the sheer amount of work and thought that went into it, and the issues it brings up.


About 6 months ago I took a tour of approximately 40 modern BBSes. I had a nice HTML article I was writing up but then I didn’t really know where to publish it.

So, while I have my thoughts together, I figured I’d write them up here.

I called these bulletin boards to try to get a sense of the state of the BBS scene. I wanted to see not only what people were doing, but to figure out why they were doing it.

One of the first things I noticed is that a lot of people run boards today for nostalgia. Sysops put their systems up to relive days gone by. And Isuppose there’s nothing wrong with that, except that, it seems to me, this ensures that the scene stagnates. There’s a difference between retro and retro-cool, and most boards I telnetted into were the former – dusty museums, so to speak.

It may well be that that is the fate of the BBS scene going forward. Some would say, perhaps fairly, that that is the just fate of bulletin board systems, given the modern internet and its offerings. I haven’t made any conclusions about this myself, yet.

I am an advocate of the modern age, and of the future. The past is valuable because it got us here, and everything in the future builds on the present and past. I enjoy a little nostalgia like everyone else, but the reverie of these little sojourns into the past does not last long, and it is not enough to sustain me.

To the extent that boards out there now are museums of sorts, many of them succeed in that regard. The problem is, if the boards I telnetted to were at all typical, most of them lack any kind of activity.

I noticed:

Stock Wildcats. For Christ’s sake, stock Wildcats were a scourge even during the BBS era, and they are mind-numbing now. I’m not sure what the pleasure is in running an unmodded stock Wildcat, other than…

A nostalgic concern with doors. There are dozens and dozens of boards out there running a lot of classic doors. And that’s fine, except most of them, like the boards they are connected to, have almost no activity.

I see dead, tumbleweed-strewn Fidonet echoes. This is particularly depressing. If one thing should have survived and should still be vibrant, if the BBS scene has any purpose in 2007, it is Fidonet.

Lots of BBS networks that have no reason to exist, as far as I can tell. I’m surprised anyone still bothers.

In short, to sum up – far too many BBSes, far too many networks, far too many echoes/subs on those networks, far too many classic Doors, and not enough users.

Perhaps this is not news to most of you.

From time to time on this mailing list, the question is asked, what can be done recapture the spirit of the BBS age?

“It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.” (This is from the movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, quoting from the Hagakure. When this quote appeared in the film, I thought of two things – BBSes, and the 1960s)

This is a sad truth. But I also believe that things can evolve, and elements of every age can be recaptured, reprocessed, translated, redefined, and improved.

I sense – and this is just my own personal experience – that while the internet affords far greater resources than any BBS ever did, a few things are missing from it, and over the years, some of these issues have been commented upon here.

I would not want to go back to a time before Wikipedia, Google, Google Earth, IRC, YouTube, and so forth. (Though I would like to see things like MySpace blasted right the fuck off the internet, but that’s a whole other rant).

One thing about every BBS I visited, was that it was refreshingly free of spam and banner ads, and there was a notable dearth of the subliterate knuckle-draggers you find on sites like MySpace.

I am still not a big fan of web boards. I realize that they are now the way the vast majority of the internet communicates, but they have problems (some software is better than others).

Frankly, I still think nothing beats a good Usenet client for public messaging. Some BBSes had some really usable subs, in terms of the BBS software, and I did like the navigation on those. Unfortunately, the only messages on most of these subs were from sysops.

One thing that paradoxically seems to reduce the usefulness of boards is the fact that they are accessible from anywhere in the world. If you had offered me this capability when I was a sysop, I would have jumped on it. But unfortunately, this has somewhat diluted the novelty of BBSes.

Every community needs to be built around something. H/P/A/V/etc. and pirate boards never had any need to be local; in fact, this worked against them to a large degree, because there were only so many people into these things in any local calling area. Many of those boards succeeded, though, because they had a common interest which built communities across wide geographical spaces.

Most of the boards I remember enjoying had a lot of local users. They lived in towns nearby or even went to my high school. There was a common frame of reference for schools, people, roads, towns, and so on that you could build a conversation on. It was possible, therefore, to put up a PCBoard with a name like “Somerset County PCBoard” and build an active user community around that, because at bare minimum, people lived in the same area and had similar experiences to build relationships on.

Most boards out there now seem to be unfocused; they’ll take anyone, and there’s nothing that particularly connects users. A lot of the boards are running stock or near stock, with few if any mods or even cosmetic flavor. There’s nothing that pulls like individuals together, and keeps them coming back.

I’ll ask the SysOps here – of all of the people who have ever signed onto your board, how many were one time callers, who never came back?

Running a board takes time and effort, especially if you’re running something paleolithic. You not only have to deal with hacks for internet connectivity, but also unpleasant extinct operating systems like MS-DOS in some cases. I
appreciate the effort involved, but on it’s own, it’s not enough, unless you’re just running a museum (which is fair; I don’t mean to bash anyone’s efforts).

On a personal level, and this just represents my opinion, I found that there was very little out there for me, personally. I was never a huge fan of door games, and probably 4 of every 5 systems that still exists, seems to exist solely for the purpose of running these doors. Message boards were dead. What else is there? File sections with a bunch of old shareware? I guess that’s interesting, once again, for nostalgia, but one website with all of that stuff would be more than adequate for that endeavor.

When I brought this up to a few people, I got a “What did you expect?” response – unanimously. I expected there to be a lot of dead boards, but I didn’t expect the whole BBS world to be in such a state. I guess I’m just naive or disconnected. I’ve been gone awhile, except for this list, and it’s only the yearning for something I can’t find on the net that brought me back, and brought me around to these boards.

Most boards have a bunch of echoes no one uses, along with multiple redundant BBS networks that have little to no activity. I assumed, for the first five boards that I telnetted to, that the echoes were simply broken, and weren’t updating, but after telnetting around and looking at the echoes on each, I came to the conclusion that most of the networked message subs really are dead. It reminds me of the massive sad redundancies on Usenet.

I tend to think of the peak of the BBS era as being earlier than most other people I’ve talked to. To me, 1986 or 1987 is the year that the scene was at its maximum and most vibrant, and possibly this was because the entry barriers were still fairly high (having the know-how to configure and keep a board running) and systems ran on proprietary 8 bit systems which required a fair amount of specialized knowledge.

Kids were still getting systems for Christmas, so there was a constant influx of new users each year. What I’m trying to decide is whether or not I consider that to be the ideal period because *I* was different, or because the online scene was different. I haven’t come to a conclusion about this yet.

But I miss the Spirit of ’86; the sense of newness and adventure where you really felt like you were exploring every time you dialed into a new system. Often I get a little taste of this feeling late at night when I find some weird website or system to telnet into and explore. These are almost never bulletin boards, however, and they wind up being more novelty than anything else. They also lack people; characters.

I’m so bored with modern technical communities. I’m tired of looking at peoples anime wallpaper, reading about OS partisanship as an end of itself (OK mister FreeBSD, so you’re all l33t cos you run it – what have you built with it?)…

I’m bored of Slashdot, bored of people with big mouths and nothing new or interesting to say. It used to be that you could potentially get your ass kicked at school or get yourself banned if you were a jerkoff on a local BBS. Sure, there were adolescent war boards, but most of them didn’t last long. Sysops as cops, moderators, and appointed adults helped bring out the best of people or at least keep the screwheads at bay.

Now, though, it’s a bunch of little doggies with big barks and IPods and not much else. So many of the message boards I read are full of these loudmouthed, insulting jerks who piss in the rivers they drink from, because there are no consequences to being a complete boor. These people have always been around, but there’s no negative sanction for this behavior, and it’s become the expected way to communicate. Disagree with someone? Flame them. It’s not the abusiveness I object to – it’s the *tedium* of the abusiveness. I enjoy a good flame as much as anyone else. 99% of flames are just lame. Many are unwarranted, many are trolls, and many ruin whatever worthwhile was being discussed.

Bad signal to noise ratio. And I’m only talking about people who can form reasonably coherent sentences.

http://photos.imageevent.com/revolution/myspace/www_myspace_com-jakejekyll.htm

Too many guys like this. Too much crap like this.

BBSes, because of their nature, are petrie dishes where you can, at least in theory, grow healthy ecosystems of users (they’re not the only way – some decent moderation on web boards could also do it)…

I just think there’s an opportunity for a “back to the land” movement here…The benefits are growing quality communities of people, but also attracting people who have been online long enough to see the ways in which online communities can rot, and can do something about it before these problems metastasize.

RESUSCITATION

If there is any hope for the BBS world, there are a few things which I think need to happen, and again, this is just my opinion, and I’m open to other suggestions.

(1) Decide whether or not the BBS scene is worth resurrection. It may well be that the only purpose for modern BBSes are to be quaint museums; nostalgic tributes to the past run by people who were there. Certainly there are some superior technologies out there now which may be so substantially superior that they cannot be replaced or replicated in a BBS environment. So that’s the first thing – is there anything to be gained by attempting to revive a scene which is, for all practical purposes, dead? Does anyone have the time and energy for this? How many willing sysops would be willing to once again learn how to mod their boards and keep updating them on a regular basis?

This is not the same, as anyone knows, as updating a web page or writing another “dig me! I have an opinion!” blog (I’m not bashing all blogs, just 99% of them). So many blog posts would be fantastic as BBS posts.

(2) Consolidation. There are too many boards, too many echoes, too many networks, and not enough users. I have to assume that many people running boards are concerned with putting their name on something. What I’d like to see are BBS networks collapsed into one or two – preferably just Fidonet, and then perhaps a raunchier, more underground network. Within each network, redundant echoes should be consolidated, and dead echoes should be eliminated entirely. Aside from territorial pissings, I cannot understand why there are still a dozen or so BBS networks out there, given the number of users. There’s no need, for example, to have a dozen football echoes spread out across as many networks, when there is, at most, a trickle of posts to each. Choice is *not* a positive thing when its overall effect is massive dilution of activity to the point of extinction.

What we need is more collaboration. If anything, the free software/open source world has shown the benefits of such working relationships. We need to resurrect the concept of the co-sysop. Reasonable operating systems like Linux, the BSDs, and even Solaris, are free, and allow, at least in theory, people to work on systems in tandem, remotely. Imagine if you could have 8 or 10 developers/sysops working on each BBS, in terms of moderating message bases and, perhaps more importantly, extending the capabilities of systems through modding source code? What I’d like to see are collaborative boards with ten co-sysops and no Sysop at all. A collaborative effort means you can join forces, and well-structured teams of system operators could be greater than the sum of their parts. Plus, with all of the years that have passed, I’m sure there are some fantastic ideas that no one even thought of implementing during the heyday of BBSes.

Redundancy given the size of the BBS user community is one of the biggest problems out there now. There are way too many boards, just like there are way too many Linux distributions. This is true, too, of door games and the number of people who play them. It would be far better to have bigger games with more players on fewer boards than a bunch of dead games or games with one or two players like there are now. Pretty much every BBS seems to have the same uninspiring advertisement for itself: 400 FIDONET ECHOES (all dead), 29 DOOR GAMES (all dead), etc.

The question is whether or not those with the inclination to be system operators are likely to abandon their own fiefdoms and pitch in with others. BBS message networks in general have a long history of personal politics and egos, and frankly, given the moribund state of things, those egos are completely unwarranted. A duke in a wasteland is a duke of nothing at all. One possible approach to this problem is some equality among participants, or democracy where it can be implemented without utter chaos. Does someone always need to be the king? There are other ways of running systems. A charter/constitution is good place to start, which defines ways groups of developers or co-sysops can make decisions. Government of rules, not of men.

Heh, maybe I’m just dreaming. I’d be willing though. I can’t be the only one.

(3) Evangelization. Many newcomers to the internet don’t even know what a BBS is. There’s got to be a good way of bringing the right kind of people into the BBS world, and one way is to make BBSes retro-cool, rather than retro-nostalgic. In Jason’s documentary, one of the ASCII artists (forget who) talks about the apparent pointlessness of ANSI art – like, why would anyone take so much time doing that? Well, I’ve always considered ANSI art cool in the way great graffiti art is cool. I have a feeling that many younger people would find it fairly cool, that is, if they ever had a chance to see it. In telnetting around, I’ve seen some really cool ANSI art out there (some of it original, some of it purloined from art packs). Quality ANSI speaks for itself. It could be used as the signature of the BBS scene, because there’s nothing else like it on the internet. I’d like to see advertising for boards in the form of ANSI screencaps, but I’m sure others have other ideas as well. I think ANSI makes a statement, and good ANSI is still fairly remarkable to look at. And in a way, with ANSI, the medium is the message in the most essential way. It’s fairly startling to look at now, because it looks so much *unlike* stuff you see on the web.

As far as I know, all of the major operating systems have telnet clients, the basic interface required for modern boards. Most people don’t know they have it, and if they do, don’t know what it does.

There’s got to be a way of making people aware of BBSes, but there’s also got to be a compelling reason to get people to use them.

BBSes need to evolve….Which brings me to #4.

(4) A technological “Great Leap Forward” without the negative connotations of that phrase. Bulletin board systems ought to be more MUDdy and less menu-ey. There are some old technologies still in use on many of these systems which serve no particular purpose, such as ZModem, which telnet clients don’t support anyway unless you’re running a specialized BBS term. I can think of some interesting ways NNTP can be used for message bases, FTP or HTTP for file transfers, and IRC for chat…I’m sure there are developers with better ideas than me. The main thing which makes a BBS is the linkage of these facilities together – a BBS is generally nothing more than a message base, file base, chat system, and maybe doors and a text file database, all under one roof, with nice pakaging. Web interfaces for most modern boards provide facilities for these things but they don’t do it very well (IMHO).

As others have suggested (and I agree), a sense of “placeness” is also essential to a BBS. We have the computing power and multi-user capability to develop this sense far beyond what it ever was back in the 80s and early 90s.

There ought to be lots of easter eggs, interactive, realtime online games, and other such facilities. Some kind of standard for writing these new things needs to be developed. Ideally, there should be a lot of extensibility with low entry barriers. The first software I ran, C-Net, was fantastic software – all of the essential stuff was compiled, with a lot of the stuff in Commodore BASIC so it could be modified. I’d love to see some kind of standard such that doors could be written in Python or Perl, using libraries and classes to interact with the BBS software (I haven’t looked too close at this in recent years; I’m not sure what’s going on with doors, so if I’m talking out of my ass or this is already being done, apologies in advance).

(5) A worldwide summit of what is left of the BBS scene should take place, and this should be online. That is, if anyone is at all interested, and everything I’ve written in this essay has been written with the assumption that people *are* interested. We need to have some kind of mailing list, or perhaps IRC channel, and we need to figure out ways of better working together if this scene is worth saving. In theory, most of us are old enough to be mature enough to set aside some of our differences and pull together to resurrect the scene – that is, once again, if anyone is really interested in this – which remains to be seen.

I was surprised, frankly, at the number of BBSes which remain. I was under the assumption that the number of people who would have any interest in running a board would be a lot smaller.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are too many BBS lists, going back to the consolidation issue for a moment. A lot of these exist because people have been publishing these lists for years, or because all of the boards run certain software. I would really like to see consolidation in this regard, and have those who run lists now become co-maintainers, or whatever they need to make it worthwhile for them. It’s simply too hard to find boards to call. And BBS lists which exist often don’t provide enough data on systems, such as a mission statement or what they offer. Frankly, too many sysops haven’t thought about that too hard, either. It’s worth doing.

CONCLUSION

All of this is based on the assumption that anyone is *really* interested in putting the work in to resurrect the BBS scene, and I do think the scene really is dead or nearly so, and continues to sink into obscurity. It may well be that it’s time to admit it’s dead, and simply accept the fact that most boards are museums, and that’s all there is to it.

But something keeps gnawing at me. I’m as pro-internet as it is possible to be. I am astounded at how things have turned out. I’m old enough to still be amazed at what’s going on out there, and I am as immersed in the internet as it is possible to be. I spend a lot of time here. I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on things, on this, my 23rd year online.

And I have found nothing which replaces the BBS. I’ve found things which replace parts of it, and many things that BBSes simply *couldn’t* do, but I miss bulletin board systems nonetheless.

As I said earlier, I am not sure whether this is simply a form of unshakable nostalgia – because I was young, and alienated, and bored in the suburban monoculture I grew up in, and at the time BBSes were an escape from that, or because truly, something is missing – something the internet should have going for it, but doesn’t. Usenet used to have a little of this, but even that’s dried up in most places. Spammers haven’t helped, and fewer people want to put the effort in to moderate, or at least try to lock out people who having nothing to contribute but crap.

I don’t have all of the solutions, just a sense of what needs to be done. On several occasions, I’ve considered putting up a board again, but I download the software, and then think about the complete lack of activity on most of the boards I called and ask, “Why?”

I look at my Linux system and wonder why there’s not more BBS software available to run, software-wise, and I consider the potential for massive collaboration on multiuser operating systems such as this. I consider the amount of free tools, programming languages, and documentation out there, and it really makes me ask, what if? So much of what’s out there now provides collaborative facilities we couldn’t have even dreamed of back when. I rarely even write scripts on my local system; almost everything I do at work or here at home is done via SSH on a remote system.

I have a hard time figuring out what others think about all of this because so many of us (this list is an example) are involved in the past, and documenting and preserving it. That’s important; that effort needs to never end, but I have to wonder if there’s some kind of future in all of this – a movement, really, that just needs a little hand to get started.

I am interested in anyone’s comments on this – feel free to reply to me here on the 80s BBS list.

I think the first step is that summit I talked about. I think we need to have a talk about the scene and find out if anyone has the energy or interest for this. Fair enough if no one does. My own sense is that it’s going to take a lot of people to pull this off, if it’s worth doing at all, especially when it comes to consolidation – if my sense of needing to consolidate is correct at all.

If you know anyone beyond this list who is interested in any of this, feel free to forward this on.

- Quag7


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13 Comments

  1. Shii says:

    Hey, no good, this doesn’t count as something you wrote. :)

    It’s very inspiring, though. I’d definitely participate in a BBS revolution.

  2. Content Beaver says:

    The content! ALL DAY I FEED!!!!

  3. a@a.net says:

    That all sounds really good but… how would what he writes about be any different from all the other communities out on the net right now? Other than that his envisioned community will be all retro-cool old-skool with ANSI graphics and the like?

    I am a member of quite a few online communities some of which have local meets. Many of these communities really are “communities” in the truest sense of the word and feel very similar to the way that BBS’s felt back in the day.

    What he writes sounds good but when you get down to it, most of what he writes about exists already, you just have to know where to find it.

  4. Mike says:

    How about a board that limits users to people within a certain geographical area? That wouldn’t be hard to do with IP addresses.

    The closest thing I’ve seen to what you describe are livejournal groups focused on a specific city or part of a city. Only people who care about that area participate. I’m not a fan of livejournal but those actually are communities and many are thriving.

  5. JAD says:

    forums.somethingawful.com is an example of a large community that has a long history, its own culture, and lots of people meeting locals in their city for “goon meets.” There are people at the SA forums working on software projects together, music and writing projects, people visiting other cities asking forum members for places to stay. There is also really strong moderation so trolling is almost nonexistent.

    http://williamgibsonboard.com is an example of a much smaller community. People here have often met one another to hang out in real life. It is a small but very tight community.

    Like the above guy said, there are Livejournal groups that are very local centric with kids/people only from a certain area. Despite Livejournal having such a (deserved) bad rep, some of those groups actually have a little bit of the spirit of old BBSs.

  6. Alex Rudloff says:

    I think most anyone involved in that time frame will tell you that something is missing now. It very well could be the spirit of the age, but if in fact, there’s something fundamentally missing that we could all recreate.. man.. it’d be the next “new” (old) thing.

    Excellent post.

  7. In the end of my book Commodork (which was about BBSes), I stated that the BBS was dead. Not a week goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from someone stating, “OMGWTF have you never heard of telnet BBSes?!?@@?”

    While I had heard of telnet BBSes, and as much of a huge fan of BBSes I was back in the day, I just can’t see the point in them today. I WANT to see the point, and I am currently “calling” a few on a regular basis, but like the author above I’m still struggling to find a reason to keep doing so, other than for nostalgia.

    From a TECHNICAL stand point there’s nothing BBSes have to offer that the Internet doesn’t do better. In my world, BBSes revolved around five things: messages, files, online games, text file collections, and real time chatting. I don’t think it can be argued that any of these things work better on BBSes (again, from a technical perspective) than they do on el webbo.

    It has been said that BBSes were better because the users were more technically adept, and at least throughout the 80′s, this was largely the case. Sure there were annoying kids, but there weren’t 10 million of them. The logic is, it took a certain amount of intelligence, knowledge, dedication, and let’s face it, money, to get online back then. So obviously that’s a different demographic than who’s online today. The only argument I see for bringing back BBSes is the same; selectivity through obscurity, or something like that. In other words, MySpace kids are never going to be into telnetting into boards and vomiting HTML everywhere. Then again, ten years ago, I never thought I’d see them here (online) either. So who knows. I think exclusitivity would be more easily done via an invitation only forum than putting together some archiac system that’s pigeon-holing people into 20 year old menu systems.

    God bless the guys that are keeping boards online, but I tell ya, most of the ones I’ve seen look a lot like those fake city fronts in old west amusement parks. Yeah, it looks like a BBS, but without any individuality or local flavor, what exactly have you got?

  8. What do I miss the most? QWK mail. Laugh all you want, but it was the best way of handling conversations online with people. Today’s forums tend to be disjointed and don’t allow you to control the information.

  9. JAD says:

    “most of the ones I’ve seen look a lot like those fake city fronts in old west amusement parks”

    That is an awesome analogy and fits perfectly.

  10. mobius says:

    i dunno, i think the scene has pretty much relocated to private bittorrent trackers. the only thing that seems to be missing are the ansi artists and the cross-networked boards.

  11. Shii says:

    “There is also really strong moderation so trolling is almost nonexistent.”

    Bullshit, the moderators do all the trolling themselves.

  12. i know Quag7, he’s an idiot. most of his suggestions for the future of bbsing are ALREADY implimented into newer bbs softwares.

    and he is NOT authority on bbses.

    this guy is a noob, he cant even navigate a simple menu system.

    dont know what handful of bbses he called, but i get 10 or more new users a day, and all the msg nets i have are very active. even the fidonet subs!

    i think this guy was on boards that didnt have fidonet setup [but had the msg subs made by default].

    he should have asked for help before typing up this TLDR masterpiece and making himself look like a moron.

  13. (was doing a quick post from work)sorry for my flamish post, i just felt that
    i flamed quag7 because he isnt really a bbser in my opinion, nor did he base his judgements using appropriate fact finding [in my opinion].

    i think he just called a few boards. to the best of my knowledge [which i keep track of our bbs scene] he has not called many boards or been active at all.

    i stand by what i said, but i should have cranked it down a knotch.

    thanks,

    jas