As a California Bay Area native, I naturally had my sights set on finding a BBS Oakland or anywhere in the East Bay. I was pleased to see that the “510” area code contained a host of BBSs. It was truly satisfying to scroll through the list of BBSs using the “510” area code and to instantly recognize the different names of places around the East Bay. It was quite entertaining to be scrolling through the many mundane names of BBSs such as “Bayview Graphics,” or “Alameda Business Information,” and then stumble upon BBSs titled “Clouds of Evil,” or “The Thing in the Closet.” A surprisingly intriguing and enigmatic experience, as there didn’t seem to be any shortage of quirky titles. After some thought I finally decided to choose the BBS quaintly titled “Vernon Street Café,” noticing that there were more cafes on the list of BBSs than expected. “Vernon Street Café’s” BBS number was 510-839-6200, at in ran from 1993-1994 in Oakland, CA.
Going into this deep-dive of uncovering forgotten BBSs I couldn’t help but let some thoughts of what the “internet” used to be like into head. Knowing that Oakland and the greater East Bay had a rich history of cultural activism, I pictured members of the Black Panther Party using the technology of the BBS, and many other activists during that time taking advantage of the technology. Of course, while it is still just as plausible that this did in fact happen, as Driscoll states, the greater content of BBSs has been lost to time. While not all of the Newspaper clippings I found were far off from being used to enact a monumental social change to better an entire demographic, the clippings that illustrated more leisurely behavior were a good example of the effect of a technology becoming accessible to the masses.
In researching Newspaper stories from the 1980s and 1990s (the Bay Area’s BBSs were very late), I found that the San Francisco Chronicle, seemed to serve most of the Bay Area’s news needs, as I couldn’t seem to find any articles regarding BBSs in the East Bay’s newspaper East Bay Times. Perhaps my favorite article on BBSs in the Bay Area that I found was printed by the San Francisco Chronicle in January of 1993 titled, “The Computerized Kaffeeklatsch / Cafes’ electronic bulletin boards offer cybersex with your latte,” written by Shann Nix. The article mentions that “…the ‘Net’ provides new lingo, new friends, new places to party and the ultimate in safe dating — cyber style.” The article goes on to explain the match-making process, the “Netters” or “Net-Heads” would virtually congregate in various cafes in the Bay Area using modems from their homes (at the time, 19 were “online”) and sign on to a specific café’s BBS. There were specific commands such as “– /p” which put the individual in a “…private “room” with someone, so that the other ‘Netters’…[couldn’t]…overhear your conversation.” Upon reading this I was amazed and shocked, I couldn’t believe how casual and personal BBSs had become in the 1990s. A similar atmosphere was created during the mid 1970s in the Citizen’s Band Radio as Kevin Driscoll (2022) states in his book The Modem World: A prehistory of social media, “The popular perception of CB radio as an ungovernable space was…reflected in the use of CB gender play and sexual exploration” which took on a stark contrast to the atmosphere of ham radio stations (47).
While café BBSs around the Bay Area during the mid 90s seemed to attract the caffeinated and curious, this wasn’t the only thing BBSs were being used for. In an article from the San Francisco Chronicle published in December of 1993 titled, “Computer Net Used to Solicit Bombing Clues / FBI circulates a plea for tips on electronic bulletin board,” author Bill Wallace states that, “…the Internet is primarily being used to disseminate press release information about the UNABOM bombings…recapp[ing]… information that had already been released to newspapers and television and radio outlets.” Amazingly, this newspaper article was released only months after the one regarding café BBSs, yet the application of the technology is entirely different, and the users have a collective purpose of informing others whereas café BBSs were more catered to individual, personal interests.
In essence, the BBSs in the Bay Area of the 1990s were reflective of a group of people with the commonality of pursuing their interests and passions in a virtual space of like-minded people.
Photo Credit: Historic Internet Café in San Francisco, CA, image from Hoodline.com https://hoodline.com/2016/02/remembering-the-horseshoe-quite-possibly-the-nation-s-first-internet-cafe/
Driscoll, Kevin. “Computerizing Hobby Radio.” Essay. In The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2022.
Nix, Shann. 1993. The computerized kaffeeklatsch / cafes’ electronic bulletin boards offer cybersex with your latte: [FINAL edition]. San Francisco Chronicle (pre-1997 Fulltext), Jan 14, 1993. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/computerized-kaffeeklatsch-cafes-electronic/docview/303116410/se-2 (accessed September 23, 2022).
Wallace, Bill. 1993. Computer net used to solicit bombing clues / FBI circulates a plea for tips on electronic bulletin board: [FINAL edition]. San Francisco Chronicle (pre-1997 Fulltext), Dec 31, 1993. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/computer-net-used-solicit-bombing-clues-fbi/docview/303096086/se-2 (accessed September 23, 2022).