The Bulletin Board System: Customize Your Life

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(Images: Original BBSs/Jason Scott. Source: IEEE Spectrum)

The Bulletin Board Systems of the 1980s-90s served as a sort-of precursor for the Internet as we know it today. Originally used to help connect multiple telephone lines, the Bulletin Board System (BBS for short) quickly became popularized by computer users all over the country. Anyone with access to one of these systems could then upload, download, or view all sorts of shared information and messages from other users. As the popularity of Bulletin Board Systems continued to increase during the decade, the number of users and communities created because of it also increased. All sorts of interests and functions were now easily accessible to the average person from anywhere in the world. The multitude of functions the BBS amassed eventually meant that the computer experience became something unique to each person, with people either discovering or looking for what they were interested in.

One such Bulletin Board System was called Micro-Fone which ran from 1996-1997. Hailing from the miniscule 2 square-mile borough of Metuchen, New Jersey, this bulletin board lived in the transition from the height of the BBS popularity to the introduction of the modern Internet with the creation of applications like AOL. Unfortunately, the information that is available on this BBS is very limited. All we know about it is this: it’s name was Micro-Fone, it was a Bread Board System, and the telephone number was 7325499445. The fact that it was a Bread Board System is interesting to note because this allowed multiple callers to access the same TBBS using one machine, as opposed to other BBSs having to use multiple machines to process multiple lines. Additionally, one unique feature was the ability for the system operator to fully customize the TBBS so each one looked unique (other BBSs had menus that were hard coded). 

With the limited knowledge of this particular TBBS, one could only imagine what the specific functions of it were, or what it looked like. The name “Micro-Fone”, a play on the term “microphone”, suggests that this was some sort of communication system or idea platform. Chat room systems were a popular type of BBS and with the unique customization feature of the TBBS, could have been advertised to a certain demographic of people based on what design the system operator chose. Although I can only imagine what the customization process of the TBBS was like, it seems fair to assume that it would take someone who is used to technology to use it to its fullest capacity. After all, even with apps today, I as a younger person who is used to the technology around me am more likely to utilize an unnecessary customization feature than my parents who might not even know that such a feature exists. This could imply that it was run by and used by teenagers or young adults who wanted to check out the features of the TBBS and connect with others in the area. These are only assumptions about what the TBBS was actually used for and my estimation might not be entirely accurate. However, it does seem likely that Micro-Fone was used for some sort of recreational activity. 

(Source: Blog to Express)

In general, the Bulletin Board System, like the Internet today, serves multiple functions. Like the customization of each TBBS, people can customize their computer use. One major theme that transcends both the BBS and the Internet is the idea of interconnectedness. Essentially, there is something for everyone out there. An article in The San Diego Union-Tribune from March 23rd, 1985 also makes this argument when discussing the use of bulletin boards on the computer. The title reads: “There’s a Network for Computer Fans Who’d Like to Rap; Electronic Bulletin Board Systems Also Provide a User’s Marketplace” and excitedly explains how bulletin boards are “established by independent computer users who have an interest or hobby to share with others” and that “a BBS operates like the usual bulletin board hanging at a laundromat or in front of the grocery store (or the wall in a public restroom or your favorite freeway overpass, or …)”. The computer was now able to “link a more diverse group of people and cover a wider range of interests and communities” as Kevin Driscoll puts it in his 2016 article about BBSs. It is interesting that the Bulletin Board System, invented to make phone calls easier to operate, created a vast network that allowed people from across the country to entertain themselves by sharing hobbies or other fun ideas. As stated earlier, there is not much information on Micro-Fone – in fact, barely any- and the fact that the BBS at that stage covered so many different topics, it is very difficult to try and guess what it did to entertain those in Metuchen, New Jersey during its time in the system. 

(Source: Reddit)

However, with the expanding positive uses of the Bulletin Board System, negative uses followed. BBSs, while used to play games and chat with friends, were also used for various online illegal activities. Hackers would try to access complex data-processing systems and exchange personal data like credit card information, to name a few. While the high profile cases like the New York hacker wars made the masses aware of the new capabilities of these systems, they were skills that many skilled tech people learned. A similar event occurred in Rockaway Township, New Jersey (just north of Metuchen) in 1985, years before the New York wars. Tech savvy teenagers admitted to joining private chat rooms where people would exchange stolen credit card information and then delete the messages later after they had been sent. However, what is interesting is that members of the party involved in these private chat rooms quickly defended the computer with one saying, “It’s not all telephone numbers and credit cards. This is a communications medium.” It seems that these users seemed more nervous that these BBSs were going to be taken down than them getting into trouble with the law. It is a familiar attachment that we see today with social media platforms like Instagam or Twitter and how vital they are to our everyday lives.  

Regardless of how they are used, Bulletin Board Systems established a social network so-to-speak before the Internet fully took its place in the mid to late 1990s. Some were just used as simple databases, whereas others operated with chat rooms where people were able to discuss various topics. Anyone with access to a computer used them and anyone brave enough to program one would create a new system. BBSs popped up all across the country, even in the tiniest towns in New Jersey. They quickly were outdated by the popularization of the Internet at the turn of the century and have seemingly ceased to exist, but there are still a few functioning BBSs out there for those who want to experience the first form of the Internet.

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