Back to the BBS
I’ve stated a few times that the purpose of this blog is to chronicle my journey into self-hosted, decentralized, and federated software and services. The reasons are to keep my technical skills sharp, route around censorship, and just be more independent from “big tech”.
I recently came across a YouTube series called Back to the BBS which got me thinking about one of the original self-hosted, decentralized, and federated community platforms - the dial-up bulletin board system.
My BBS History
Much of my misspent youth was calling or running BBS’s. As a kid in the 1980s who was interested in computers and technology, there weren’t a lot of role models or even other kids my age that I could connect with. BBS’s changed all of that.
My first foray into the world of BBS’s was with a 300 baud modem attached to my IBM PC Jr. This was not a “standard” modem which used the AT command set that was widely supported by modem terminal programs. It had a non-standard command set which only worked with IBM’s program. However, I was determined enough that I reverse engineered the commands to make it work with Procomm Plus.
I would often use my mom’s computer, a much faster IBM XT and her 1200 baud modem until I got my own 80286 IBM clone. There was the battle for the phone line since my parents didn’t subscribe to call waiting, which was actually good since a second call coming would disconnect the modem and there wasn’t a second phone to use for calling BBS’s. There were no cell phones, at least that we could afford, so anyone trying to reach us would get a busy signal for hours. Then there were the countless times I would sneak out of my room in the middle of the night to dial-up BBS’s without waking anyone.
My dad had been running a BBS where he was stationed (I was an Air Force Brat) in San Bernadino, CA. I spent a summer with him and learned the ins and outs of running a BBS from him. When he finished his tour and returned to San Antonio we began running our own board together using TBBS. That’s when we finally got a second dedicated phone line!
I learned so much from having to solve problems in order to play computer games, starting with copying games from BASIC code printed in magazines. Often my primary motivation to login to BBS’s was so I could play games. I was also able to use “electronic mail”, chat with other users on a multi-line BBS, and even read messages on various topics echoed around the country on FidoNET.
There were files which could be downloaded, at painfully slow speeds, which included primitive graphics files, MIDI music (no sound card, but played on the computer’s internal speaker), and Shareware. I saw the first pixelated digital picture of a nude woman as it slow drew line by line over the course of an hour! Now that took patience.
Of course, there were games as well. The multi-user games such as Tradewars, Operation Overkill II, and Barren Realms Elite were my favorites. I would rush home from school, take my own BBS offline and start re-dialing until was able to get through so I could play my daily turns.
Even my experience with computer hardware, which would lead to my first job building NCR Unix machines, was all motivated by maintaining the BBS or playing the latest computer games.
Once I was old enough to drive, I started attending the local FidoNET meetups at The Alamo Cafe where I met the faces behind the screen names. I also met the people who paid long distance bills out of their own pocket in order to bring messages from all over the world to the local San Antonio area.
As I went off to college in a new town in west Texas, the only friend I knew was someone I met on the The Worst BBS, a multi-line chat BBS, during the summer before I started college. In chatting, I told him where I was going and it turned out he was going there as well as an upper classman. We caravanned together for my first cross-country trip by car as a driving adult with all of my most important possessions that I was moving into my dorm room.
I connected with another friend I met later in the dorm lobby over our shared BBS hobby. We eventually became roommates and established a new BBS using a device, designed for fax machines, which would prompt any callers to press a number in order to talk to a person. After a period of time, it would pass the call onto the modem connected to the computer running the BBS software. We had some great times getting involved in the local FidoNET and inter-BBS games.
Then the Internet became a thing and BBS’s slowly became a much smaller part of my life. I’ve checked back in on my hobby and it always seemed like it was on the verge of dying any minute. Other than nostalgia, why would I get back into BBS’s?
The Modern BBS
After watching Back to the BBS, it occurred to me that not only is the hobby still being kept alive by the hardcore nostalgia nerds, but it is actually an interesting mix of the new and old. As I pondered this, I thought back to the reason I started this blog in the first place - to be less dependent on “big tech” and help foster the original vision of the Internet - one that sees censorship as a fault and routes around it.
I’d like to acknowledge all of the hardcore retrocomputing enthusiasts that keep their BBS’s boards running on the original software, using the original OS, or using the original hardware. The Commodore 64s, the Ataris, the Amigas, etc. I love that they do that, but that’s not my thing.
New versions of BBS software are available which run on modern 64-bit computers, running ported doors (games), accessible first by telnet and now the more secure SSH protocol. Those that are running on packet radio (another blend of the old and new) and mesh networks, that’s where the text-based interface and the still-thriving FidoNET and the spin-off networks dubbed Fido Technology Networks (FTN) scratch an itch for me. It’s about the technology, yes, but the community (as cantakerous as it can be) is what really seals the deal for me.
I don’t want to pretend that I’m some expert on the modern BBS community, but that’s ultimately what caught my attention and was a big focus of Back to the BBS - the community. I would say that I have been warmly welcomed and found others that I can connect with in just a few short weeks of venturing into it.
I jumped into a couple of conversations on the FsxNet General Forum and I received some thoughtful replies to my comments and contribution. That led me to join a Discord server where others were discussing BBSing and helping new SysOps get set up. They were also discussing setting up a Matrix server just in case Discord was ever shutdown. I have some experience with Matrix so I jumped in and offered to help where I could.
Of course, there were also those in the thread which decried the adoption of new technology because it would lead to fewer people using the old! I really don’t think that’s true, though, if you are truly a part of the community.
I was also introduced to the various ways that FTN messages are gated to other platforms. There’s a Telegram bot, e-mail gateways, and Usenet gateways as well. I wouldn’t think it would be too difficult for a Matrix bridge if there isn’t one already.
Where to Now?
For now, I plan to try to keep up my new habit of “calling” a couple of BBSs every day, playing a few door games, and participating in some discussions.
You can find me as Lynx769 on:
Have some thoughts or want to swap BBS nostalgia? Jump into my Matrix channel and say hello.