Monday, January 13, 2014

The forgotten social network

Know what I'm really missing these days?

(You're probably gonna laugh. Ready?)

I miss dialing up a local BBS.

Yep, an old-fashioned PCBoard-running, ANSI-image-spewing, door-game-hosting, BlueWave-compatible, scream-if-you're-on-at-300-baud BBS. And no, it's not because I'm trapped in a misty haze of '80s/'90s nostalgia. Nor do I hate the Internet or social media; I love both those things -- maybe a bit too much, based on the sheer amount of time I spend online. But current social networks have a small but significant service hole that used to be filled by BBSes, and no equivalent has sprung up to fill that niche.

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. For those of you currently saying "buh-ba-wha?", I'm talking about a Bulletin Board System, one of the very first online social networks. Way before Facebook or MySpace or even Friendster had ever been thought of, people all over the world were running or logging into local or national BBSes to chat, play games and share files.

The splash screen for Random Lunacy, our old BBS. Image courtesy Fen Eatough.
Not that the average BBS looked or worked anything like current social media. Most BBSes were hosted on someone's home computer with a modem, running some kind of BBS software and attached to a phone line. (Some BBSes had dedicated phone numbers and were available 24/7, but others could only be dialed at night -- usually because the teen hacker who ran the BBS was using the family phone and could only get away with monopolizing the line when everyone else was asleep.) Interfaces were keyboard-only, graphics were charitably described as primitive, modem speeds were glacial, and since most sysops (system operators) were in their teens and twenties with volatile personal lives, local BBSes could spring up overnight like mushrooms and die off just as quickly. Since most hobby BBSes only allowed one user at a time to log in, if you wanted to call your favorite board and someone else were already on, you'd have to sit tight and wait for the line to free up. If your modem were attached to the only phone line in your house, you could be downloading a massive file only to get disconnected by someone in the other room trying to make a telephone call. It was a far from perfect setup.

So if the average BBS was so primitive and wonky, what's to miss about them? What was it about BBSes that made them special, and what niche did they fill that no other social media site has adequately replaced to date?

Two words: local community.

So. As you've probably noticed, the Internet is big. Really big. It's full of information from the sublime to the ridiculous, and is available nearly everywhere on earth; that is its primary advantage, and also its primary drawback. You can (and will) meet people from all over the world online. But if you're looking for substantive discussions with new people who share your interests and who live in your local area, you're pretty much outta luck. Specialty discussion boards pull in people from every corner of the planet; few of them are likely to be local to you. Likewise social media sites like Pinterest and Twitter. Networking sites like Facebook and Google+ will connect you to people you already know, but aren't very good at introducing you to new folks. And localized networks like Craigslist are routinely overrun by anonymous barking trolls with virtual air horns.

When I started calling BBSes in the early 1990s, I met all kinds of fantastic people -- including the very first sysop who took pity on me and gave me hours of extra time on his board so I could download a program to speed up my modem. I got to meet and talk to lots of local people, both online and in person, and the FidoNet echoes let me chat with people further afield. I learned about all sorts of interests and hobbies that I might never have discovered if not for discussion groups on local boards. Lots of message-writing turned me into a much better writer -- and a faster typist. Eventually I became a co-sysop for a local BBS, and it was through that forum that I met the handsome and talented Captain Midnight. (So, OK, yeah, maybe a little bit of nostalgia...)

What's missing from current social media is the online equivalent of someone's living room, the local pub, or the corner bookstore -- a friendly, convivial place where local people can get together and talk about all kinds of subjects in detail, where new people are always welcome to join the fray, and where the proprietor routinely bounces the trolls. And that's precisely what a good BBS used to provide -- a place to talk, to goof around, and to make new friends. The Internet provides international breadth; BBSes provided local depth. That's what I miss: a social forum that focuses on my specific region, is friendly to newcomers and effectively polices disruptive boors.

It shouldn't be that hard to create something like that in 2014, should it?


mro said...
^^ recent bbses

Soozcat said...

Thanks! I'll have to check those out.