Before there was the Web, before even Al Gore invented the Internet, before email was a daily routine, there were various technologies that flourished under the moniker of BBS, for the bulletin board system. This software was part discussion forum, part messaging system, and part chat rooms—taken together, the BBS contained the seeds of what we all know and love and use today online.
BBS’s came of age in the 1980s and were the passion for many software developers and users alike. Thousands of them flourished and grew in the decade before the Internet and in many instances created the groundwork for the growth of the Internet and its ensuing popularity. They are almost completely extinct as a species as the Internet made it easier to communicate and as TCP/IP protocols became the dominant language of the world.
I never was a big BBS fan, although I grew up professionally alongside them and watched the culture wax and wane. I came of age as an engineer and later as a writer and journalist during this era. At one point I had a job doing R&D for a company that was promoting an early BBS called Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES that was in use in some academic and corporate settings. But there is a still a fond place in my heart and mind for those that helped bring about this era, and luckily video producer Jason Scott has taken upon himself to document the many men and women that took part of the major and minor BBS’ around the world.
The documentary is in the form of a three-DVD package (that sells for $50) that is well produced and professionally done, from the extended slip case to the many notes and supplemental materials included on the DVDs themselves. The videos take the form of a series of 40 minute programs that can be watched in any order and that tell the story of the software, the graphic artists, the developers, the pioneering board operators, and other luminaries such as Vint Cert from MCI and Ward Christensen who built one of the first BBS’s and developed the XMODEM protocols that enabled many BBS’ file transfer activities.
What I found interesting about the video interviews was how passionate everyone was about their BBS’s – in some cases, people still had their original computing rigs, modems, and other gear from BBS’s long gone from the scene, and could recall details about their activities 20 and 30 years ago as if it were still fresh in their minds. In some cases, these were people who clearly had their creative peak in their early teens and twenties. But many of the people in the videos are just ordinary geeks, having fun the way geeks know: learning how to use a new computer system and telling people all about it. What is amazing is how primitive these systems are by today’s standards: we are talking character-mode screens, 300 baud modems, and hardware that was measured in single-digit MHz and KB of RAM.
Scott got his start with the BBS culture with a Web site called textfiles.com, where he archived and saved the hundreds of files that BBS owners catalogued and maintained on their boards. He then expanded his interests into video production and began a multi-year product to interview anyone who would talk to him about their BBS experience. It is a labor of love and it shows.
Scott conducted hundreds of interviews with people notable and unknown, but with one common element: most of the people have terrifically bad haircuts and no fashion sense whatsoever. Even years later, and many of these people in are in their advanced years, they still proudly wear their outdated logo t-shirts and sit on furniture that could best be described as items that even the local Goodwill would turn down. One woman had a sofa with a pattern of repeating numbers 0 and 1 across it. Many of the people are filmed sitting next to their gear that they ran their BBS on, and these old relics of computers recall the dawn of the PC era, when the Commodore 64 and Apple II were new and novel.
The BBS was the precursor to many things that we take for granted now in the world of the Internet: world-wide nearly instantaneous communications, group discussion forums, instant messaging, multi-user games, online porn, and on and on. It was a culture into itself, and Scott does a terrific job of documenting this era. What makes for compelling film is that he is great at letting everyone tell their individual stories, and collectively it is a fascinating tour de force.
One segment concerns the hacker BBS culture. As Scott says, “portraying a generation of BBS users as evil geniuses bent on destruction is an easy story to tell – but that isn’t the story told here.” Another is the story about ANSI or ASCII art, images that are entirely constructed out of characters meant to be printed on a typewriter, the beginnings of the modern era of computer generated art and the online porn industry. The story about the phone phreaks is a good story about the lengths that people would go towards free long distance calls, back in the day when these calls were much more expensive than they are now. Again, this was something completely embraced by the mainstream with freebie IP voice software such as Skype.
“People today get their noses pierced. We were anarchists back then.”
For those of you that fondly remember the BBS era, this video is a must-have and recommended viewing. It is entertaining, it is informative, and it is exceptionally well done. For those of you too young to remember, it is a trip back in time to a part of our computing history that is well worth exploring. The video can be ordered from their web site.