Every morning, billions of people turn on their smartphones or computers, and before touching any of the work they have to get done, they instead turn to a plethora of social media platforms. Today, there’s a platform for every media, and every community has a place to gather. Tech giants hoard and mediate our interactions with others as they bring in trillions of dollars yearly.
However, not too long ago, people gathered online not through massive social media platforms but through their home computers on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). BBSs are simply servers connected through a terminal and a modem. Some of us may have tried to model such a chat system in our computer science classes. As someone who had to mimic such a sever-chat system, I can confidently say it certainly takes some tinkering to get right. But, while computers today are capable of this and more, BBSs at the time were a revolutionary development in communication technology. In The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, Kevin Driscoll (2022) states, ”BBSs were run out of the homes of amateurs who maintained their systems through tinkering and experimentation” (Driscoll 2022, 14). Compared to the titans of social media today, BBSs seem like an artefact from some ancient civilization.
Of course, I chose to find a BBS close to my home. Living within a little hamlet, I immediately had to expand my search only a few minutes away, where I discovered “The Dragon’s Lair,” located at 914-634-8692, sourced out of West Nyack, NY. Created by Mike Spike and his brother, ”the Dragon’s Lair” was run using commercial software before later being customised. The BBS existed between 1982 and 1989, at the height of the BBS craze. Fortunately, while there is little information about this specific BBS online, the creator left important details:
“My brother and I ran the Dragon’s Lair at both: 914-624-8692 914-624-8888 (later number — mostly AE). The first experience was using commercial software — we came home one day and some jerk hacked the BBS and deleted the software off floppy disk. So, we went back to the drawing board and took parts of other BBS software and customized it. We would love to hear from the “old school” people that were on our BBS. Funny anecdote — when I went to high school, my typing teacher accused me of taking a typing class already 🙂 I couldn’t really tell her I was running a BBS at home. Funny anecedote [sic] (2) — I received a call from some guy at home saying he was from the New York Times — Science Section on a weekend and they were running a story on the BBS phenomenon. I thought it was total BS so we called the New York Times on the other phone number and asked for this guy….They transfered [sic] me to his desk and we got his voicemail. Needless to say, the short interview was very tame and not a lot of information was passed along to the New York Times :)” – Dragon MasterMike Spike
From the name alone, it’s easy to imagine a simple role-playing game run by a boy and his brother out of their shared computer. From the sysop themselves, we know that “the Dragon’s Lair” was not only for these two and their assorted friend group but also others, perhaps from a town over. The fact that the BBS was known enough that someone hacked it and that a New York Times journalist contacted them about it speaks to its scale. I say scale, but it would have been limited in size. After all, it was run by two young boys in a town of around 3000 people. Of course, the sysop, Mike Spike, would be both producer and consumer, with the BBS being so small that someone would have to step in to moderate it. Of course, at this scale, moderation would be limited to rude messages or interpersonal drama.
Among the users, you would expect to find other tech-savvy teens. Not only was this a BBS in West Nyack, a town of 3000, but it was also during the 1980s, before the Internet proper. His friends would have needed tech literacy and access to a computer with a monitor and keyboard. Depending on the graphics Spike may have integrated into his BBS, the users may have had to upgrade their computers to handle the images. During the 1980s, computers weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. According to the US Census, by 1984, when Spike’s BBS operated, only 8% of US households had a computer.
This low percentage limits the number of people that Spike personally knew that could have been on the server. While, at this point, BBS were a known thing, very few of his classmates would have had computers, and even fewer would have had the specific knowledge needed to not only operate their computer but also connect it to others. Others in his school probably considered him odd for running a BBS if they knew he ran one.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the little popularity “The Dragon’s Lair” seemed to have, it was probably just run not for profit. At the time, BBSs were “operated by youths and adults who attach their computers to home phone lines, awaiting whoever calls in,” says Brian Lasden (1985) in his article “Of Bytes and Bulletin Board.” Today, with ever-increasing server costs and competition, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to start something like a bulletin board without some income. Were this today, Mike Spike would have to save up his allowance every month just for the chance to keep his BBS up. As Lasden says, BBSs were often run not for profit but community. More than likely, Spike was running his BBS on his family’s computer in the living, says Constance L. Hays’ (1994) reported in “Touring the Cyberhood”.
Similarly, it’s hard to tell if “the Dragon’s Lair” was an ill-conceived choice for a messaging board or a grandiose name for one’s Dungeons and Dragons or Magic the Gathering club. Both are equally interesting to consider. Were it simply a messaging board, maybe it was used between friends and acquaintances, perhaps with various topic discussion boards. Something akin to Discord servers, except for high-resolution videos, images, and links. Similarly, when considering the BBS to be a small role-playing server, it’s easy to imagine a boy and friends making character profiles, arguing about rules, writing scripts for turns etc. Of course, there’s no reason for the BBS to have purely text-based. By the mid-1980s, high-resolution graphics became far more common, allowing for BBS “door” games (Driscoll 2022, 19). I can picture a tech-savvy young teen deciding to add more and more features to his BBS hobby.
“The Dragon’s Lair” shut down in 1989. That same year, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre killed hundreds. It seems odd to situate a young boy’s BBS within such events, but this BBS became part of a larger tapestry of internet history, one oft forgotten. The end of the 20th century led to a revolution in communication technology, still stream rolling into today. It’s hard to imagine a world before instantaneous messaging, a world where friends and family and little more than a tap away.
Driscoll, Kevin. The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. New Haven ; London, Massachusetts: Yale University Press, 2022.
Hays, Constance L. “Touring the Cyberhood.” The New York Times, September 9, 1994, Late Edition (East Coast) edition. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/touring-cyberhood/docview/429928340/se- 2?accountid=11752.
Lasden, Martin. “Of Bytes and Bulletin Boards.” The New York Times, August 4, 1985.
Scott, James. 914 BBS list. Accessed September 20, 2022. http://bbslist.textfiles.com/914/.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2016. Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2016; Table 1; generated by Camille Ryan; Distributed by the United States Census Bureau. August 2016. <https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/acs/ACS-39.pdf>