ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Prayer for the Part-Time BBS —

Sometimes, there are aspects of history that are so obscure, so unusual, that they are forgotten even by people who were a part of that history. In the sphere of technology, you will often have the case of people being faced with a problem so easily overcome in later years that the fact that the problem ever existed will be buried in distant memory. An easy example is modem speed; in a world where the entire contents of an Apple Floppy Disk can be downloaded in one second, more and more people will forget how truly slow and time-consuming the process of downloading text at 300 baud was. And, sadly, many people will not have learned the art of compressing thoughts and communication to make that 300 baud relate the most information in the shortest amount of time.

But as the world barrels forward and we move to hazy memory the times of dedicated telephone lines running dial-up Bulletin Board Systems, with their single-user capability and their local, town or county-based reach, let us not forget the most weak, the most easily-missed and perhaps bravest of all of them.

I speak of the part-time BBS.

Consider this list of Bulletin Board Systems scattered throughout the country. Lacking a proper date stamp, it’s hard to discern when this list was created. BBSes running at 2400 baud co-mingle with a “38.4k” BBS, which is very likely a misprint or an unbackable brag. More likely, there are 19.2k BBSes, which puts the date somewhere in the range of 1989-1990. In this list, you see a nice cross-section of the types of BBSes from that period. I could spend an entire day describing all the small social quirks being shown in this list, from the illiterate youth of the “Blak Sabbath BBS!” to the staid, no doubt for-pay online service-wannabe of “John’s House” with its 300-meg drive and “PC relayed” “Adult” aspects. But look closer at three of these listed systems: The
“Spider’s Web”, the “Master Powers”, and the “Fantasy Zone”.

These three systems have a datum that does not even warrant its own column: Their hours of operation.

Buying a home computer was an extremely expensive proposition by most standards in the 1980’s. While for some folks the choice to buy a computer could be done with the same cavalier attitude of buying, say, a cross-country plane ticket, the fact remained that it was often a long-fought battle by a young member of the family convincing his or her parents that this large amount of money was worth it for the piece of plastic and wire it got them. Having won that battle and perhaps having earned the purchase of an inexpensive modem sometime afterwards, it was that more unlikely parents would shell out the extra money for a second phone line. This would mean that the young BBSer would have to use the family phone line starting late into the
night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, staying up and typing as quietly as possible so as not to wake anyone. In many ways, this was a good situation: the BBSes weren’t so busy that late, and the BBSer was free to write and interact on the boards with a gusto and profanity-laden robustness they wouldn’t otherwise achieve with parents or siblings nosing in.

But as anyone who spent a lot of time cruising the BBSes knows, the real power didn’t belong to those who just dialed in and posted messages, or even those who uploaded many files and earned higher user levels or greater respect. The true power lay with the SysOps, the System Operators who ran the BBSes themselves off dedicated phone lines and who could grant access to whatever sections they wished, not to mention take it away on a whim. If you were a SysOp, the world came to you, not the other way around, and you could lie back and take it easy while the messages, files, and respect came pouring in. Of course, if you didn’t put any work into your BBS, were unusually cruel, or simply lacked the fundamental temperament to run a BBS properly, then no one would call you. But that’s a fact you would have plenty of time to learn about after you became a SysOp.

Unlike today, where competition and innovation towards the use of the telephone system means that getting a second phone line is neither a major difficulty or a social aberration (and, in fact, might even be considered a necessity), it was an unusual thing to have multiple telephone lines in a house, and seemingly expensive. Again, the same parents who didn’t think twice about dropping $1200 for a home computer wouldn’t blink at the additional expense of a second telephone line, but for some kids it was a battle they simply
could not win.

So what was left to you if you wanted the power of being a BBS SysOp, wanted so badly to run a board and be the master of your own user list, but didn’t have the required dedicated telephone line to run it? Well, you could wait until everyone was asleep, turn on the BBS program on your computer, and then wake up before everyone else did to turn off the computer. Thus, the era of
the part-time BBS began.

It burned brightly and quickly and soon began to fade. Eventually, as the 1980’s went on, there were simply too many BBSes available for people to want to put up with the trouble of going near BBSes with hours; much the same situation that BBSes themselves would encounter as the Internet became more popularly available. The Part-Time BBSes were a quick casualty of these BBS boom times, shutting down and disappearing forever. Their disappearance was a sign of technology eclipsing desparate solutions, a theme that continues today. Precious resources become ubiquitous and hoarded information becomes freely passed.

Say a prayer for the part-time BBS, but also be thankful the reason for them existing has passed on as well.

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