The thirtieth birthday of online communities
February 16, 2008 2:30 AM   Subscribe

During a January blizzard thirty years ago in Chicago, Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss came up with the idea for a computerized bulletin board system. One month later on February 16, 1978, the first public online community was officially established, and it was named CBBS.

As you might expect for the time, discussion on CBBS was mostly about computer stuff. You can get a taste of what the messages looked like in all their textual glory.
posted by SteveInMaine (26 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

The "textual glory" link shows logs from 1989. By 1989, I was downloading all my BBS messages using Qmail, reading and responding to them offline, and then uploading them again. BBSLists were filled to the brim, and you could spend hours every night calling new ones and getting in on new discussions. Also, by 1989, the subject matter was pretty varied.

A better place to find really really old online discussions is perhaps the advanced search page for Google Groups, which dates back to 1981. There you can find things like, how, in 1989, the internet was introduced to the chain letter. :(
posted by thanotopsis at 3:04 AM on February 16, 2008

Here's the original location of those CBBS files that has mirrored. I mention this because thanotopsis will then be delighted to go a little further and find that my original location has the dead CBBS scrolls collection, which Ward Christensen handed to me and which I transcribed original messages posted within the first three months of the first BBS, May-June 1978.

My BBS textfiles section has a bunch of saved message bases from various points of history since then. My personal favorite are the printouts collection, even though they're late 1984, because they're dial-up BBSes untouched by internet or usenet influence.

Long live the BBS.
posted by jscott at 3:27 AM on February 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

I met my significant other via BBSes, and we've been together for more than 19 years now. I ran a BBS (off dual floppies!) and she was one of my users. Later, we upgraded (to a hard drive!) and operated it together for quite a few years. Our real names and real phone numbers are still in some of those ancient BBS lists (we still have never changed our numbers). It wasn't purely for fun; I made some okay money selling BBS software and related utilities and custom-written transfer protocols and the like, at least until the internet came along and more or less killed off the BBS.

That was an interesting way to meet a mate, because looks had absolutely nothing to do with it. Not that either of us are unattractive or deformed or anything, but I think the reason we've weathered the inevitable relationship storms that pass through is because we fell in love with each other's *minds* before we ever met physically.

If I gave my original real name (which I have since changed, and which I won't, because I like my privacy), or possibly even my BBS handle, I'm sure there are a few geeks around here who'd even remember me, or at least would remember some of the software I wrote. I can't even say what software I wrote, because I did tell some folks in IRC once, and within 60 seconds a guy came back with my real name, phone number, and address, which kinda freaked me out. (That's when I discovered that my info from that era was still out there, and very easy to find.) I wasn't mega-famous or anything, but apparently I had achieved enough of a level of fame (if that's the right word), that I'm a part of the history of that era now.

Those were pretty good times; I have many fond memories of those days, and still have many friends from that era, mostly scattered around the country now and working in other fields (mainly the gaming industry in California).
posted by jamstigator at 3:53 AM on February 16, 2008

Curious coincidence: the inventor of the wiki was also named "Ward C" -- Ward Cunningham.
posted by Slothrup at 5:41 AM on February 16, 2008

Exploring various BBSs in those days was fun. You would poke around one and find telephone numbers for others. There was no internet (at least for me) and no Google. Lots of interesting stuff was on really small BBSs and they would disappear.
posted by caddis at 6:12 AM on February 16, 2008

BBS Documentary is well worth owning, very generous, could have been 4 or 5 documentaries it covers so much.

I have many fond memories of those days, and still have many friends from that era

same here. MeFi has an old-school BBS feel about it.
posted by stbalbach at 6:35 AM on February 16, 2008

We used to call the local bbs with our Vic-20 and 300 bps modem. Later, in 1993 in graduate school I used Fido to send email to my family from Portland to Utah.
posted by mecran01 at 6:59 AM on February 16, 2008

I still remember very much the BBS community in DFW in the mid-1980s. It seemed to be generally organized into the older folks on PC-based systems like FIDO, and us younger people on all kinds of obscure C64 BBS software. CompuServe had also got some good momentum going with live chat boards and forums, but connection costs were like $6/hr -- it did keep a lot of the riffraff off.
posted by crapmatic at 7:44 AM on February 16, 2008

same here. MeFi has an old-school BBS feel about it.
Yeah, something like that, eh? 60,000 folks but you feel there's a vibe to the place, and a regular sort of cast of characters.

And I can't stop that compulsive logging on!

And <3 to jscott for all that documenting you do. Gotta vote iCE first and all, but hey.. ^_^
posted by cavalier at 7:50 AM on February 16, 2008

One of the few times I got in serious trouble as a kid was when I racked up a huge telephone bill one month calling BBSes all over South Jersey. Up to that point I had only used the phone to call my (local) friends, so I hadn't quite grasped the whole nickel-a-minute long distance rate yet.

I think I was about 6 or 7 at the time. Yes, I'll get off your lawn.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2008

Thanks for posting the link to those text files, jscott. If nothing else, they remind me that online chatter really hasn't changed all that much since the opening day of Temple of Doom. People are still making variations of the same jokes here that they were making then.

Well Lord Foul and I braved the lines and saw Temple of Doom on the opening day first showing like and all I have to say about the movie is this:
Awesome !!!!!!!!12121212226969

posted by Dave Faris at 8:23 AM on February 16, 2008

The BBS Documentary is highly recommended. If you first discovered the Internet in 1998 and had no idea what a BBS was, it might not make any sense (although it still might be interesting), but if you ever called a BBS at all you'll love it. My favorite part was the Artscene documentary, since that's what I was a part of (never much of an artist, more of an organizer/sysop of an art board), and it was cool to see what guys like RaD Man and JeD actually looked like.

I've long said that the BBS days were superior to the Internet, at least for the social aspect. Your friends on the boards were legitimately your friends that you would actually meet and hang out with. There were faces or at least voices (it was common to drop carrier and "go voice" over the phone with someone) to most of the names. I even got laid for one of the first times with a girl I met on a board. If people acted like modern Internet trolls, they would be totally ostracized within their area code to the point of someone finding out their phone number and address and terrorizing them. In my area (713/Houston, one of the more active), there was still a telnet BBS as late as 2001 where many of the old users would still keep up with each other. The loss of BBSes to the Internet has left a hole that the Internet, for all its superior aspects, has not really filled. Places like Metafilter are close, but I might be laughing over some joke with a 52 year old exterminator in Poughkeepsie instead of someone 10 miles away.

And yes, everyone has a "the long distance bill came and I got grounded" story. In my area code, if you didn't have a special "metro line" in certain outlying areas of Houston, you would get billed long distance for certain numbers in your own area code. A lot of people got fucked over on that. Mine was an ill-advised run as the hub of one of the many underground Fido-like networks, for which I would "poll" a board in New Jersey daily to download packets of new net messages. That didn't last very long. I called LD all the time, but for occasional calls, we had methods to, er, abrogate the charges. Watch the BBS documentary, they'll explain.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:35 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know that I was old school, but the BBSes had a profound effect on me in high school (91-95). Profound enough that the BBS community in my hometown was actually the focus of my graduate thesis. It's a good thing none of my committee really had the foggiest notion of what a BBS was, otherwise there is no way this thing would have gotten me my degree.

Mr. Scott's documentary is also very good, though sorely needing a narrator. The interviews with J-random-user were kind of uncompelling, but he got some great interviews with some of the early personalities, movers and shakers, and general celebrities of the BBS scene.

Also: Speaking of Fido, I can't think of anyone cooler from that scene than Tom Jennings. The crumudgeonly everyman of the future.
posted by absalom at 8:43 AM on February 16, 2008

Ooh, this takes me back to the good old days in the early '90s. I also remember the hundred-dollar-plus local phone bills and identifying connection speeds by ear.
posted by halonine at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2008

Wow, I didn't notice Jason Scott had posted here until just now. Jason, you're awesome. Thanks for everything you've done to preserve the history of something that was such a large part of many of our teenage lives, which might have otherwise been forgotten. I've spent probably a total of years at your site, watched your film over and over (and will do the same for GET LAMP) and some of my shit is preserved in your art packs section. I've told you this via email before, but it was a long time ago. Long live the BBS indeed.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:53 AM on February 16, 2008

When I went searching for links for this post, I ended up with a lot that pointed to jscott's documentary and site. The video documentary looks like it would be well worth owning. My bad for not digging enough to connect him as a mefite. Besides his efforts, there is very little information on the web that goes into much detail about the beginnings of online communities. This is a shame, since the time wasn't all that long ago, and CBBS and its ilk were the precursors to everything from modern blogs to MeFi.

Living in the Chicago suburbs, I started dialing into CBBS around '81 or so, and credit the friendly help I received from contributors there with my subsequent career and interest in all things computer. And yes, I too had a couple of troubling phone bills (at 300 baud), but by that time I was in my mid-20's and a homeowner, so I couldn't yell at anybody but myself.

I still remember the phone number - it ended in "8086".
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:01 AM on February 16, 2008

posted by caddis at 10:11 AM on February 16, 2008

Dec'Boy, what was your 713 board?
posted by cavalier at 10:27 AM on February 16, 2008

I've long said that the BBS days were superior to the Internet, at least for the social aspect. Your friends on the boards were legitimately your friends that you would actually meet and hang out with.

That is so true, DecemberBoy. I used to hang out on a BBS when I was in high school too. There were several people who used it with whom I was already friends at school but plenty of people of all ages I'd never met before. The sysop would arrange softball games and we'd always get together unofficially at each other's houses. It was a lot of fun and it made life in a crappy Florida town a lot more bearable.

Thanks for the post, SteveInMaine, I had almost totally forgot about all that.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:36 AM on February 16, 2008

thanotopsis writes:
A better place to find really really old online discussions is perhaps the advanced search page for Google Groups, which dates back to 1981. There you can find things like, how, in 1989, the internet was introduced to the chain letter. :(

Even better, the chain letter signature is "BIZMAN DAVE, THE MODEM SLAVE," which leads us to this meme.
posted by zippy at 12:09 PM on February 16, 2008

cavalier: It was called Lexicon Devil, after the Germs song. It was up around 93-94, and I had to take it down in late 94 when I moved. It wasn't huge, and people mostly called it because I had the most tricked-out configuration around, skills which I was later able to parlay into web and other visual design. A lot of people were able to do things like that, use, say, programming skills that were obtained so you could make an ANSI viewer or MOD player or 'zine ("'zines" in this context were self-contained .exe files that loaded often poorly written articles about some aspect of "the scene" into a specialized text viewer, there are examples on which is like but centered on the underground) and be part of some group or crack software could later be used in the job market. Hacks and phreaks often became security consultants. The best ANSI artists are often professional graphic designers now. People who organized and oversaw large national groups had the skills of a corporate manager at 16. To even call a BBS took a not-insignificant amount of computer literacy in an era where few people knew much beyond how to use a word processor. Much different than now, when any vacuous waterhead 12 year old can make a MySpace page.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:15 PM on February 16, 2008

1985 I was logging into Telstra's (Telecom then) BBS Viatel with a Commodore 64 (cringe) and long distance phone charges (Townsville to Brisbane). Ha! One month, I paid a $300 phone bill because I got booted off every ten minutes and had to redial with the extra charges that involved. Since then, I got a life, sort of. Except back then, the ratio of women to men was something like 1 to 100. I was a goddess!
posted by b33j at 3:02 PM on February 16, 2008

BBSs are still extremely popular among university students in Taiwan:
Professional Technology Temple (wiki)
posted by Sangermaine at 4:33 PM on February 16, 2008

Heh, I'd forgotten about the phone bills associated with BBS'ing back then, because I lived in Rogers Park and Ward was in the south burbs. I'll have to look thru the logs and see if I appear therein.
posted by pjern at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2008

I still run a BBS. It went telnet-only about... four years ago, maybe? It was dialup in the 206 area code from 1991 until then, and still runs.

MeFi really does feel a lot like the old BBSes sometimes, partially because the comments look rather like the list of posts in a Citadel message room.
posted by litlnemo at 12:56 AM on February 17, 2008

Y'all would like this thread.

I ran a WWIV BBS back in the early 90's. (314 hollah!) It was a pretty standard setup for the first year or so. However, eventually I lost the whole thing due to a hard drive crash. When I put my site back up I decided to put a twist on it - I would give everybody 255 SL, or sysop-level access. This meant that anyone could do anything on my board that they wanted to - including crash the site, delete other users, shell to dos and delete files, etc. This was pretty much unheard of. At the time, people would brag about how many sites they were "co-sysop" on. It was a mark of status and distinction. Nobody, and I mean *nobody* just *gave away* 255 SL. You could say that my BBS was like an early form of wiki.

The strange thing was how well the whole thing worked out. People would occasionally crash the site by accident - like shelling to DOS and trying to run Windows or play Lemmings - but very little malicious behavior took place.

BBSes were enormously influential in my life as a teen. It's how I met my first real friends - several of whom I'm still close with to this day. It amazes me that kids these days start out with IM and social networking from day zero. Back when my friends and I were doing it in the early 90s, nobody at our schools knew what the heck we were talking about. The few kids I talked to at my school just knew that I was into computers, and would always ask me the same questions - "Can you hack? Can you change my grades?"

Obviously, the entirety of their exposure to computer technology was the movie War Games.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:03 PM on February 17, 2008

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