Before the world wide web bursted onto the scene, digital exchange was most influentially distinguished by the bulletin board system (BBS). In the 1980s and 1990s, BBSs were unique because they facilitated connections between personal computers. In this era, computer usage predominantly took place in academic or research institutions or on government servers. However, bulletin board systems allowed users to play games, communicate digitally, interact with friends and even romantic partners, and share information. People with niche interests, like science fiction for example, could find ways to communicate without the necessity of geographic proximity. As long as the community consisted of people in similar locations or regions, it could function as a place of interaction and a source of information.
I chose to focus on Wayne Gregori’s SF Cafe Net/Coffee House BBS due to its distinctive user base. SF Coffee House was founded in 1991 in San Francisco, California by Gregori. It was popular primarily from 1992-95. It functioned in San Francisco coffee houses and offered its services to local patrons. SF Net connected hundreds of Bay Area residents because it linked coffee houses not only to each other, but also to home users. To access SF Net, users could dial 415-824-2488 and become instantly immersed in dynamic message rooms.
According to a 1991 San Francisco CNN report shortly after SF Net took off, patrons loved the network due to the fact that it connected them with “so many nice, intelligent, educated people.” In the interview conducted for the report, interviewees stated that they spent about 30 minutes on SF Net, for which they paid $2, each time they spent time in their local coffee house. So what attracted this young, urban professional demographic to the SF Net? Perhaps it was the fact that the nature of the debates that took place on this network included talks about social issues and the environment. Users could interact with each other and debate these topics, all while cultivating a sense of community.
SF Net’s digital community reflects a broader national trend with BBSs in the 1980s and 90s. Though initially used by young hackers to coordinate hacks, by 1985, BBS usage had become much more conventional and mainstream (Reid, Washington Post). As long as a user had a computer and a modem, they could access bulletin board spaces of their own selection. A small fraction of U.S. users had personal computers at home, but this was made up for by the access provided by places of work, which often had computers. The availability of BBSs gave a communication platform to those who would normally no the one, or those who would normally struggle to find one. Many BBSs were also free, which contributed to their rapid rise in popularity.
As the popularity of BBSs grew, they provided a space not only for communication and computer games, but also for an impressive assemblage of information. BBSs became used as national sources for access to things like healthcare information and even a platform to report abuse in government. According to a 1992 New York Times report, “Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois uses a bulletin board to collect and process Medicaid claims and transfer them to the government. Doctors and other providers can dial in to transmit claims. Many businesses use bulletin boards as 24-hour customer service lines, where clients can get information, leave messages or place orders” (Berck, New York Times). Over time, the rise in BBS usage came to be characterized by its practicability and various types of usefulness to users all over the world.
At the same time however, others thought that BBSs were a new way for people to avoid physical contact with each other. In a way, they claimed that hiding behind a computer screen to interact with people is inherently anti-social. What I think is short-sighted about this argument is that bulletin boards offered users the opportunity to meet and talk to people they never would have met. SF Net provided a unique space for young people to engage with others in relation to politics, the environment, and other topics about the status of the public sphere.
Before the world wide web, bulletin board systems dominated the realm of digital communication and connected people to others who shared niche interests and hobbies in a way that was not possible before the early 1980s. The identity of the BBS is centered around community; bulletin boards facilitated community building for all kinds of people. Anybody who had access to a computer and modem had the ability to find their own place and their own people.
featured image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SF_Net