Growing up during the halcyon and formative days of modern, personal computing was an exciting time. Even if you were not technically inclined or even at all interested in computing, it was clear to anyone how the computer revolution was already affecting all areas of society. We think technology changes rapidly now, but it was at a breakneck pace a few decades ago. Seeing technological innovation go from Star Trek science fiction to commercial reality was mind-blowing and also inspiring. As a young man, I really did think that tech could save us.
Though we were amidst such rapid change and technological innovation, somewhat ironically it was hard to get up-to-date information about computers and technology. Before the internet, the best place for such information were trade journals and specialty magazines like Byte, Compute!, or Dr. Dobbs. All of which cost money, which a young man such as myself had very little of. The public library had plenty of books on computers that were all at least ten years old. And coverage of computers and technology in the newspapers was as vague as it was dramatic. Anyone else remember breathless headlines about “the information superhighway”? This meant that out of necessity you traded what you had with your friends. Passing well-worn copies of PC Magazine, floppies of unclear provenance, and dog-eared user guides between friends and like-minded aspiring geeks was an early form of information decentralization.
But this didn’t scale well beyond your immediate friends. When my uncle gave me his old 2400 baud modem, I quickly discovered a new way. Bulletin board systems (BBSes) were the first generally-accessible electronic forums that average computer users could connect to. Modeled after the physical bulletin board or cork board at your local town hall or community center, where people would post local news and announcements, BBSes were run by enthusiasts with time and a little hardware to spare. With a low-spec computer, modem, and a phone line, a system operator (sysop) would open the phone up to anyone who wanted to call in and use the BBS. If you had a modem, you could dial in, read the content of the BBS and post a message for the next person who dialed in would read. BBSes usually offered discussion forums, user-to-user messaging, and file up/download capabilities. It wasn’t the free disks inserted into issues of PCMag that drove the shareware explosion. It was BBSes.
BBSes became the first digital social networks, allowing people who would otherwise not be able to meet up directly to connect with each other and share ideas, opinions, and support. Growing up in a small town where change came slowly if at all, it was liberating to be able to easily connect with a larger community of people who shared similar interests and wanted to engage in conversation about technology and the future. For a geeky kid, this opened up a whole new world of possibilities and information. It was also a kind of equalizer, where it did not matter how old you were. If you had a good idea or insight, you were welcome to contribute to the conversation. It showed me how technology could bring people together.
You can read countless articles today on the internet about nostalgia for the BBS age. From stories of getting yelled at by the parents for tying up the telephone line, to getting stuck with eye-watering long distance bills for calling a BBS that you were sure was in your coverage area, to just thinking about the sound of the modem connecting, people look back fondly on that technology and spill copious ink sharing memories. Just the other day I was going through my archives and found an old spreadsheet of the names and phone numbers of the local BBSes in my town as a kit. It made me smile. A lot.
But the power of the BBS was not the technology, but the connections you made. It was the people and the community they created. The technology facilitated the conversation but did not drive it. BBSes grew organically. One would spring up in a community to fill a need. People would join, add to the conversation and it would grow. Or maybe it would dwindle and die as the conversation waned or because of the mercurial nature of a sysop who lost interest in maintaining it. But the people remained and their connections would move to another BBS. Or maybe they would start their own. BBSes taught many of us the power of community and sharing.
At the outset of Twitter, I heard it described as the digital town square, a public space where people could gather and converse. I tend to avoid any public space populated by Nazis, bigots, and hucksters. BBSes weren’t perfect, but they were more faithful to the metaphor after which it was named. They were local. They were supportive. And they were useful.
But it ultimately comes down to the people. There were some nasty exchanges I witnessed on a couple of BBSes I dialed into. There was a lot of bad blood in our local tech community when one sysop decided overnight to shut down the largest BBS in town because he wanted to sell internet access as an ISP instead. But the people who wanted to communicate moved on to another BBS to maintain those connections. Some started a new BBS. It was truly decentralized communication serving the users.
I am not going to spend time here decrying modern social media. I’ve done that enough to make my position unambiguous. But I think a lesson from the past can inform us as we try to understand the problems of modern social media. If the power of BBSes was the people and their connections, it was only so because the people had the power to maintain those connections themselves. The weakness of modern social media is that users do not have power over anything. They can’t take the conversation elsewhere. They are stuck in an artificial town square populated by fascists and crypto bros pushing the latest Ponzi scheme. Not because that is what the community needs, but that is what makes money for social media.
So I am excited to see where new, decentralized, federated social media takes us. ActivityPub-based platforms like Mastodon share so many parallels with BBSes of old, it is striking. The ability to relatively easily spin up your own instance for your own needs and create community is something straight out of 1989 without the bank of Hayes modems. People having their own say in how an instance is run, free from corporate oversight or control is exactly how many BBSes operated to serve their users. And the ability to choose which other instances to further federate if at all is just how BBSes used to interconnect to open up wider communication channels. Mastodon, and federated social media in general, seems like a solution created serve the users rather than a solution created by a company to serve its bottom line.
So maybe history continues to prove itself to be cyclical. BBSes died out because something better (the internet) took over. The internet as a platform for communication became less relevant as walled garden social media sites like Facebook and Twitter took over. Maybe we are headed back to the roots of where it all started with BBSes for the 21 century.
Whatever happens, whatever develops, it will only be as successful as the communities it can help foster. Tech won’t save us. But people can. If people can once again have control over their own digital conversations and community we might have a shot at building something better.
Visit my BBS
I of course built my own BBS. If you would like to visit, contact me and I will send you the link.
Or visit me on Mastodon. Let’s see what decentralized social media can be.