The Rise and Fall of Social Networks brings us a 1982 assessment of the “golden age” and subsequent decline of Bulletin Board Systems:

What ever happened to real bulletin-board systems? 

First off, I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I cannot be  objective in these notes.      These are observations,  but they are from

1) a Sysop

2) a user of 8BBS, the greatest BBS ever evolved

3) a boy … who’s become a boyish programmer

4) an old timer….1977 was when I first started

using BBS systems.

5) the author of a BBS system

If you’re expecting objectivity, then don’t bother reading on.  I have a

rather unique perspective on the entire BBS scene.  I’ve been around since close

to the beginning, and I’m wondering what has happened.  Have BBS’s gone the way

of CB?   Is the entire system in a slump?  Is there anything wrong at all?

I’m going to try to present these questions and show how things have

changed…for the better, and for the worst.


A long time ago, in a city far-far away, two men had an insight.  Ward

Christensen and Randy Suess wanted a way to leave notes and messages to their

programmer/engineer friends.  Back then, modems were used by field-engineers and

some high-level executives to talk to their companies computers.  A 300 baud

modem was extremely fast, as most people were using 110 baud TeleTypes.  Ward

and Randy devloped the concept of the BBS.  They called it CBBS, for “Computer

Bulletin Board System.” CBBS was the first of its kind.  It was an enormous

program written in 8080 assmebly language.  By our standards today, it was

kludgy and bug-ridden, but back then it was heavenly.  Users could enter

messages and read messages…  that was about it.

CBBS was a wonderful concept, but it was localized to the Chicago area.  Ward

and Randy were the only ones who were running the program.  Then Bill Blue came

along and wrote ABBS, which was designed to “emulate” the CBBS system.  I feel

it was ABBS, rather than CBBS which made the real breakthrough.  While ABBS was

much less powerful, and more difficult to use, it could be run on a “universal”

machine:  –The Apple ][–

Anyone with an Apple ][ and a D.C.  Hayes MM][ modem could run ABBS.          This

program could be installed in a matter of minutes, and anyone could have their

own bulletin board system.  Soon after the release of ABBS, several other BBS

programs (for various computers) soon followed.  ABBS was the king for many

years, just because there were more ABBS systems than any other BBS program


It is this time that I would like to refer to as the “Golden age of the BBS.”

It wasn’t as golden as you might think.  Most Sysops would come home every

evening from work to find that their BBS had crashed because of yet another bug.

Even back then, user’s logged in under false names and left obscene messages.

The one point that made that age golden was the users.  Without users, a BBS

is just a program.  With users, it gains a personality, and if I may be

metaphysical, a soul.  The users MAKE the BBS. A Sysop may have the greatest

BBS program in the world, but without active users, he just has a computer

wasting line-current.


A user would think nothing of spending his Saturday helping “The Sysop” find

an intermittant bug in the BBS program.

A user would not only answer his or HER mail, but also butt into other

people’s conversations and throw in his/her two cents worth.

A user would suggest improvements to make the system easier to use.

A Sysop would care for his BBS like a baby.  He’d spend 2 hours each night

writing messages and playing with modifications to the program.

A Sysop would NOT restrict conversation to one particular topic…such as CP/M


A Sysop would tolerate kids who were just learning how to use modems.  He’d

even give them a hand getting things working.

A Sysop would [on his own preference] dilligently weed out obscene or

“pseudo-illegal” messages, — or — promote them as he saw fit.

Users would start clubs, such as the well known “Gabber Gang” and later the

infamous “Phone Phriekers” who figured so prominently into BBS history.

The government didn’t try to restrict BBS users.  It was just “us” against

tyranny (at that time “Ma Bell”).  Although most users did not approve of “Phone

Phrieking”, everyone talked about it, and was interested in it for curiosity

sake if nothing else.  [Hard to believe, but true.]

Uploading and downloading of programs did not exist.

BBS’s were few and far between.  When I wrote the OxGate, the two closest

other CP/M based machines were Kelly Smith in Simi Valley (375 miles away), and

“Jim C” in Larkspur (100 miles away).  People tended to congregate on the local



1) Program uploading and downloading.  People just get their programs and


2) The technical clique’s retaliation against “gabbers” who just used the

systems for personal communication.

3) Too many BBS systems in one area.  BBS’s are still alive and healthy in

low-density areas.

4) The loss of “anonimity” among BBS users.  The BBS used to be the place to

escape.  Where no one had to be “themselves.” Users such as “James Bond” and

“Captain Scarlet” were given free reign to vent their fantasies.  Today, most

systems do not allow false names so they can keep track of users.

5) The anti-hacker movement.  More and more people today think the word

“hacker” means “phone phriek/computer crasher.” All it ever meant was “great

programmer.” You would feel proud if someone labeled you a “hacker.”

6) The press’ ignorance of the BBS community.  By trying to make a scandal out

of all of it, they ruined a great form of communication.  In particular, the

magazine “InfoWorld” has done more harm to the BBS community than other press

organization.  While they actively TRIED to HELP the community, they have caused

more harm in their mis-reporting of info.

7) Sysop’s ignorance.  Quite frankly, the average quality of “Sysop” has

dropped.  Sysop’s are (on the whole) less active and less responsive than 5

years ago.  More and more of them are technically incompetent, they couldn’t fix

a bug if it bit them in the nose.

All of these problems are inter-related.  We can’t solve any of them until all

of them are solved.  From my descriptions it should be obvious that the “golden

age” certainly wasn’t all gold.  People like “James Bond” and “Sam Daniels” had

to be stopped, but the pendulum has swung too far to the opposite side.

These observations are very general.   I’ve noticed this swing, and it has

taken place on 95% of all of the system’s I’ve called across America.  It’s sad

that these problems have stabbed us in the back, but it’s not too late to try

and bring about a change.  I don’t have the answers, but maybe these

observations will prompt thought into this death of a virtual “art form” of


There is one possible solution to this problem…  the acceptance of children

again.    For too long we’ve been kicking off kids (both phyiscal and “kids at

heart”).  They’ve been disruptive, and caused fights galore.  Many have even

tried to crash the systems they used.

“If there’s any hope, it lies with the proles.” — George Orwell, _1984_

Perhaps the thing to do is call a few local Commodore and Apple boards and let

the users know that they’re just as welcome on your super-fancy 100mb 2400 baud

RCP/M system as any of your so- called “serious users” .  .  .  “serious users”

who can’t even bring themselves to answer their own mail.  Saddening.

About GilPress

I launched the Big Data conversation; writing, research, marketing services; &
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