The Status of BBS Use in India

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In the early 1990s, when BBS were gaining popularity in the US, they were also being introduced in other countries, including India. By 1997, thousands of tech-savvy Indians had joined the BBS craze, and were fascinated by the ability to play games, chat with others, and read stories, all through a microcomputer. In New Delhi, India’s capital, a BBS called Status was gaining popularity, and had seven nodes in cities around the country, connecting thousands of users from all over India. BBS gave people a chance to sample the internet without having to grapple with the size and scope of it, something that was holding many people back from embracing it. While the internet was a vast and largely foreign entity, bulletin boards were local and more user-friendly, which enticed more people to use them.

Bulletin boards represented the exciting opportunities to share art, chat with strangers, and experience the anonymous perspectives of other users. Thus, much of the culture of BBS deviated from the more business-focused and technologically driven nature of the world wide web. BBS culture was more about building a sense of community and resources, where someone alone in their home would never be alone in cyberspace. This element was augmented by the ability to remain anonymous on the platforms, a plus for users who feared losing their privacy. Users could assume a completely new identity, something clever to express themselves over a harmless platform, and no one would be the wiser. Because the point was to participate in an online community, meeting people in person was usually out of the question, whether the user wanted to protect their anonymity or keep their virtual life separate from reality.

In the case of Status, a BBS out of New Delhi, there are no available visual or first-person accounts of it, but it is mentioned in a 1997 Times of India article titled “LiveWired,” by Namita Devidayal. The author describes Status and a few other BBS like LiveWire! and Way out Wild and discusses how these groups were essential to maintaining communication and getting a “taste of the internet.” She recounts the stories of regular users who turned to BBS as a replacement for email, but also a couple of more outlandish stories that reaffirm that idea that BBS were truly a hub for connections. In one, a couple from Atlanta, Georgia messaged a man living in Mumbai for some advice on adoption in India. The man enthusiastically agreed to help the couple navigate the adoption process, and eventually, after the couple had picked up their baby, they actually asked the man to be the godfather of their new child. The other story recounts a man and his pregnant wife who both regularly used a BBS. One night, the woman was experiencing severe pain, and the person they happened to be chatting with on a local BBS was a doctor who was able to diagnose her symptoms and direct her to pain relief treatments. These stories are among the most unique connections made through the BBS, but they represent users with everyday problems that found solutions and help from an unusual source. Devidayal comments on how these stories are an example of how “the Internet is connecting people in ways that were previously unimaginable.” Before BBS, people relied on personal connections or networking to establish contacts, but with the advent of a system where users could make new friends at the push of a button, these types of connections became much more imaginable.

Status connected a few different cities across India and had nearly nine-thousand users at its peak. I imagine that because Status was started in New Delhi, a city full of universities, it was frequented by college students who were looking to chat with peers, share information about events, or even get help on homework. Like how physical bulletin boards function in dormitory halls, where residents can post informational flyers, Status must have been a hub to market different events, clubs, and services. New Delhi is also the administrative center of the nation and where the branches of the government are located. Because of this, a BBS in the city could have contained job postings and to engage with younger people entering the workforce. Bulletin boards may have also been places to discuss politics, organize protests, or meet other like-minded individuals. It would not be surprising if there were more BBS specifically dedicated to sharing political commentary, especially amongst students in the area. This type of BBS seems drastically different than an informal, entertainment-based board, but all of them share the same sense of community and gathering and were an additional mode of communication to bring users together. As communication technology in India was advancing, traditions were likely advancing too. The business of matchmaking—finding potential spouses—may have also transformed to adapt to changing times. Especially in large cities, where thousands of men and women used BBS, it seemed like the ideal site to place matrimonial ads, just as one would post classified ads. Families could search for potential matches through bulletin board ads and get to know them, all before having to make a long-distance trip to meet each other.

All over India, the abysmal access to the internet made it so that only major cities or tech hubs had enough interest and capability to establish networks. Coupled with the exorbitant costs that came with internet access, common families and students used BBS as a more affordable replacement. Granted, local BBS servers required that users have some sort of computer machine and phone line, so access and usage of bulletin boards was still reserved for those who could afford to pay for these services. However, saving money on larger phone bills by using the email and chat functions available on BBS was also enticing enough for users to splurge on purchasing microcomputers.

The connections and possibilities that came with BBS were endless, and for a while it seemed like BBS would be much more popular than the internet, so much so that the internet would soon be obsolete. Reporter Manoj Kotak also wrote in his 1998 Times of India article, “Bulletin Board System,” about how BBS were much more advanced and accessible than the world wide web. He also talked about how businesses and consumers alike favored using conventional telephone lines to conduct their business, so making the switch to BBS, which used phone lines, was a quick and welcomed change. The article doesn’t list the specific BBS or modems that were popular at the time, but it does list the most used functions of them, including e-mail, file transfer, and gathering information, as well as the advantages of using BBS, like electronic accuracy and easy operation. This is a good summary of how BBS were gaining traction and what kinds of functions they served.

With the combinations of user-friendly operability, simple interfaces, and novel functions, BBS in Indian cities took off during the late 1990s. Especially at a time when many goods and services were transitioning online, BBS were a useful precursor to familiarize people with the internet and online communities. They were popular enough to gain national attention, like in in the Times of India newspaper, and really revolutionized the way people communicated beyond in-person conversations or mail. In a way, the creators of these BBS functioned as community leaders who had built systems to foster engagement across a locality, and in the case of a national BBS like Status, decrease the divide between two geographically distant places, something that must have been unfathomable just years prior.

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