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From the BBS Backroads to the Information Super Highway

By Fire Escape

With the advent of the home computer in the 1970's there arose a hobby known as BBSing. This was the beginning of a great electronic community which met and exchanged ideas over what today is called cyberspace. Before the internet became accessible to the common person, computer bulletin boards were connecting large amounts of people to others in their local community. BBSes (as they are nicknamed) operate by allowing people to connect to another person's home computer via the local telephone lines. Since this was usually a local phone call, it was as free as calling your neighbor up to chat about the weather. Most early computer bulletin boards were run
as free public hobbyist systems and they operated on great state of the art BBS softwares like C64, Fido, Opus, Seadog, GBBS and MTABBS. The C64 ran on Commodore 64 machines, MTABBS ran on TRS-80's, GBBS ran on Apple machines and Fido, Opus and Seadog ran on the early IBM 8088's.

This was an exciting era in the BBS world. As machines became faster and cheaper to own, more and more BBSes went online and the softwares they ran evolved to meet the needs of the people who used them. In the mid 1980's Microsoft introduced Windows to the computer world. This inevitably led to an increase in multinode systems which could support more than one
user online at a single time. Before this time, multinode systems where much more expensive because they required one computer for each instance of the BBS and they had to be networked together through primitive methods. Microsoft allowed BBSes to open several instances of their software on the same computer. We saw new multiline BBS softwares arise in response to this new development and soon there were many multiline BBSes running Oracomm, DLX, Major and TBBS. Because this multinode environment required more phone lines, many of the BBSes had to begin charging a fee for access to cover their expenses. There were now large commercial systems operating side by side with the small hobbyist systems.

By the end of the 1980's the BBS hobby was rapidly spreading and the number of computer bulletin boards began skyrocketing. The boards moved off of their IBM 286es and onto the 386 which followed it in early 1990. The size of hard disks tripled and the speed of modems quadrupled in less than 5 years. This greatly impacted the BBS community and we began to see systems with huge 500 MEG filebases and fast 9600 baud modems. By 1992 most BBSes were moving onto 486s and had upgraded their modems to 14.4's and their hard drives to 1 MEGGERS. The BBS community had expanded locally to an incredible 450 systems in St. Louis alone. Due to Wayne Bell's early seeding of the BBS community here the late 1980's, by the early 90's WWIV or World War IV BBS software was the most common BBS software to be found. Over 200 systems in St. Louis were running this software in 1992. Users in the BBS community would also encounter softwares such as Telegard (a WWIV clone), Renegade, Wildcat, PC-Board, VBBS, Remote Access and Maximus.

For the next 2 years (1992 to 1994) the BBS community would reach it's maximum growth. These were the best two years for the local BBS community in St. Louis. Between 1992 and 1994 processors and modems became faster and cheaper. Hard drives became bigger and cheaper. BBS softwares were being written and a new hybrid version seemed to pop up every few months. Boards were bursting with users, sometimes as many as 60 people a day per node for your average system. Busy signals were a common problem during this era of BBSing. Many terminal programs now implemented the "Auto-redial" feature which up until this point, hadn't really been necessary when calling a BBS. In early 1995, Netscape began to appear on BBSes with this description: "Graphical Internet Browser makes the World Wide Web easy to navigate.".

Users downloaded this file and began to spread it about. A few brave souls ventured from the BBS community onto the internet with this new innovative program called an Internet Browser and came back to tell us all about the wonders they'd encountered in this strange new world. Slowly over the next year, users began to explore this newly discovered alternative to BBSing. The media played up the internet and browser software began to appear left and right. By early 1996, internet providers were calling to BBSers and non-computer users from every computer magazine, newspaper and BBS. By the middle of 1996, the great migration (as I like to call it) was beginning to have an effect on the local BBS community.

As user activity on the BBSes began to decline, sysops became discouraged and closed up shop. The number of BBSes began to fall,  first a few, then a few more and finally a landslide. By early 1997, BBSes had dwindled to a mere quarter of their previous number. St. Louis was turning into a BBS Ghost-Town. I have given a lot of thought to the reason for the great decline in BBSing and here are my conclusions:

Beginning in 1995 with the advent of web browsers, internet access became accessible to the average non-technical personr. Many left the local BBS for the internet at this time. Then colleges and highschools began to hook their students up to the internet for education and this turned most of the next BBS generation onto the internet instead of onto the BBS where they were needed to replace those who were leaving it for various other reasons. If you effectively kill off a whole generation of BBS users, then there will be no one left to carry on the legacy. And that is just exactly what we have done to the BBS generation with the internet.

Many people defend this as a natural and necessary part of electronic and social evolution, but that implies that the change is for the better. I am not entirely convinced that this is the case with the internet and the BBS. Some proponents of this evolution cite the larger arena of the internet as being superior to the small scale of life on a local BBS. But is bigger really better? Many people are overwhelmed and frightened by the huge vastness of the internet. These same people have probably never even heard of a BBS and have no concept of what a small electronic community can offer in terms of SECURITY and ORDER. Is the lack of organization and security on the internet really superior to the safe haven of a BBS? Are the unmoderated discussion groups, cybersex chats and incessant junkmail bombardments really that much better than the local BBS with it's SysOps, moderators and filters?? I contend that it is not. The local community BBS still has a great deal to offer to the online community.

In the great ocean of the internet, we can be islands of tranquility, a safe resort to hide in from the turbulence of cyberspace. However if the local BBS is to survive into the next century we will have to do a few things to see that it doesn't disappear into the annals of computer history.

The first thing to be done is to increase the public's awareness of the local community BBS. The internet has gotten so much attention that no one ever seems to mention the BBS anymore. Write letters and articles to your local papers about the BBS community and get them interested in giving it some media.

Second, support your local BBSes by calling them and if they are worthy, even donating to them. If the SysOps don't think anyone cares then why should they continue to put the effort into providing the service?

Third, encourage your local BBSes to hook up to the internet so they are accessible through the world wide web. Many sysops are afraid to do this because they do not understand how to go about doing so. Internet access is a survival issue for local BBSes now. If the internet is like a super highway then we have to construct on and off ramps to the local BBSes to provide access for the majority of online users. People want a BBS which will also be an internet provider for them.

Many sysops are currently just holding their breath and covering their eyes hoping that the internet will just "go away" and that once it's novelty wears off, their users will return to their BBSes. I think this is a hollow pipe-dream and that those sysops are simply deluding themselves and will in the end discover their folly in not adapting to the changing needs of their users. It is true that some of the internet users have gotten "burned out" and have come back to the BBS community, but this is not something I see becoming a trend. In fact, If I were to speculate on BBS trends here are my predictions for the 1998 to year 2000 period.

1. Traditional BBS use will continue to decline.
2. Traditional BBSes will continue to disappear.
3. More BBSes will connect themselves to the internet.
4. More parents and young children will enter the old BBS community
looking for an alternative to the "dangerous" anti-family world of the
internet.
5. More G-rated Safe Haven Family-Oriented BBSes will go online.
6. There will emerge a new kind of BBS which couples internet access
and availability via the WWW with the security, moderation and
organization of the traditional BBS.

Early in 1997, many sysops of traditional BBSes banded together to form an organization to accomplish this goal of taking the BBS into the next century. This group is known as COCA or Council for Online Community Alternatives. Membership is free to all BBS SysOps who promote BBS awareness and carry the COCA discussion group on their systems. It is COCA's goal to promote BBSing as an alternative to internet surfing and to increase the public awareness regarding the local traditional BBS. COCA also assists SysOps in connecting their BBSes to the internet where they are now being referred to as IOA's or Interactive Online Systems.

So my challenge to you is this: Do you want to see the local BBS evolve into a better thing and survive this turbulent period in cyber-history? Or will you let the internet engulf it and obliterate it forever? It's up to you. You are the consumer, the buyer and the computer user. It is for you that these things have been created and because of you that they still exist. Consider carefully the choices you make in this matter. Do you want your children to grow up on the internet where there is no Sysop to watch over their shoulder when you can't? Without the local BBS, that's your only alternative and it's not one that I consider very good. It is my hope that you will hear and receive this message in the spirit it is intended. The BBS is dying and you are it's last best hope. Save it.

For more info contact: Fire Escape at Fire Escape's BBS.
Dialup: 314-588-0780
Telnet: bbs.fehq.org
E-Mail: fire.escape@fehq.org
World Wide Web: http://www.fehq.org

To contact COCA visit
http://home.earthlink.net/~cooper/bbs/bbs.htm

To contact ICON visit http://icon.rgcomputing.com/

To contact The BBS Promotion Team visit
http://www.fanciful.org/bbs-promotion/

To contact The BBS Awareness Project visit
http://www.kerowyns-haven.com/BBSAware/

You can also get a listing of BBSes anywhere in the country from
The Directory at: http://www.thedirectory.org.