Compu-Plex: Baby’s First BBS
The internet has made it so easy to connect with people that share the same hobbies and interests as you. There are social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook that let you connect directly with people or follow pages that keep up with the latest in your little corner of the net. Image boards and forums like Reddit and 4Chan let you interact more anonymously on pages dedicated to virtually every niche interest. Nowadays it is so easy to seek these communities out; they have been established long before you began browsing. However, somebody had to create that page or that subreddit or that board you browse. It is these creators that often get lost in translation, the people that did not have these connections laid out for them on a silver platter. Nathan Cobleigh was a creator on the frontier of digital communication, long before any of these platforms above were even thought up. Cobleigh was not a traditional computer nerd, however. He was not a spectacled, middle-aged, middle-class man we associate with nerds of the past; he was a middle-schooler. But before getting to his story, I think a bit of context is due.
The Computer Bulletin Board System (CBBS/BBS) was an invention of the 1970s which provided a means for computer owners to interact “online.” Clarence Petersen (1989) in the Chicago Tribune, perhaps a bit derisively, described it as “nerd heaven: a place for introverts to meet electronically, to exchange ideas, to make friends without showing their faces, without ever exchanging a spoken word.” I think it’s a fair description. BBSes offered people a way to communicate easily (and cheaply) by plugging their modem into their computer. All someone had to do was dial a BBS’ phone number and connect. It also gave sysops, the people running these BBSes, an opportunity to curate a unique and personal experience for the user. A BBS could have a plain text display, but it could also be flashy and exciting with such novel features as colors, flashing text, even ASCII art! Compu-Plex will be an example of the latter.
Compu-Plex was the invention of 13-year-old Nathan Cobleigh from Philadelphia in 1989. The nature of the BBS would not have been foreign to most BBS users; Compu-Plex was a place for people to chat and share files. What distinguished Compu-Plex from other BBSes was the organization of the page. According to an article from the March 4, 1993 issue of the Philadelphia Daily News, Compu-Plex was set up “as a sort of building” (Branstetter 1993). The building had a series of floors to traverse: users would sign in and enter on the “ground floor,” the first floor was for leaving notes to Cobleigh about the board, the second for “shareware,” or software that could legally be distributed and copied, and the third for discussions. There were almost certainly more “floors,” dedicated to a whole host of subjects lost to time. No screenshots of the BBS exist, and this account relies heavily off Branstetter’s brief description of it in her article. One floor we do know of, perhaps most notably, was a floor dedicated to posting messages about paintball. According to the Newsarticle, Cobleigh said players from all over the country dialed Compu-Plex to “swap tips on the game and talk strategies” (Branstetter, 1993). Paintball is not a very mainstream hobby, so Cobleigh would likely have had difficulty finding a discussion board dedicated to it. As a result, Cobleigh invented his own place to share his hobby with others across the country.
Before we had access to every imaginable community at the tips of our fingers with modern social media people like Cobleigh had to create their own. We engage in a much more passive manner with these communities as a result; we have nothing at stake, we are just the consumers. But this BBS was Cobleigh’s child, his responsibility. Some people enjoy having this control–Cobleigh himself even said “I was interested in starting one [a BBS] because I wanted to be the boss” (Branstetter, 1993). The sysop had to pour so much effort into their work since there were no site admins or real accepted conventions to submit to. These BBSes were built from the ground up. As Kevin Driscoll writes in The Modem World, “these changing systems provided a context in which amateurs could begin to build a new data infrastructure from the bottom up.” The grassroots nature of the growth of BBSes from hobbyists tinkering with computers makes it hard to discriminate between the creators and the users. In the Circuit of Culture, distinct identities arise around people involved with platforms. Some major distinctions are between the producers (the people creating and maintaining the platforms), the regulators (the people controlling what is on the platform), and the consumers (the people using the platform). We can clearly see these identities portrayed in modern social media: people create social platforms, moderators review and filter the content posted to them, and we use them as consumers to keep in touch. For example, the site Reddit has admins that run the site and develop updates, moderators that enforce site-wide and local community rules, and users that engage with the site. On BBSes, however, the lines are blurred between these three identities. Nathan Cobleigh was the producer of Compu-Plex, decided what went up on the platform, and was an avid user of it. The distinct identities we find in social media today were not so well-defined in Cobleigh’s time on BBSes. The sysop would be so deeply entrenched in the identity of their BBS that they would be involved in every facet of the platform.
By 1993, Compu-Plex had over 1200 users, most likely due to its phone number being published in Action Pursuit Games, a national magazine contemporary with the BBS (Branstetter, 1993). This staggering number was probably beyond anything Cobleigh could have predicted. Compu-Plex was only up for five years, from 1989-1994, but it serves as a microcosm of BBS culture. Somebody wanted a place to meet new people and discuss their hobbies with from all over the country, so they made it themself. On top of all that, Cobleigh managed to do it all before putting on his cap and gown.
Branstetter, Ziva. 1993. “TECHNOTALK: COMPUTER BULLETIN BOARDS ARE THE NEW RAVE OF COMMUNICATION.” Philadelphia Daily News, Mar 04. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/technotalk/docview/1839064710/se-2.
Driscoll, Kevin. “Computerizing Hobby Radio.” In The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, 39. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2022.
Gay, Paul Du. “Introduction.” Introduction. In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1–5. Los Angeles Calif., etc.: Sage, 2013.
Petersen, Clarence. 1989. “Whether for Gabbing Or Gobbling Facts, Computer Bulletin Board Systems have Taken Wing: [NORTH SPORTS FINAL, C Edition].” Chicago Tribune (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Mar 16, 1. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/whether-gabbing-gobbling-facts-computer-bulletin/docview/282516907/se-2.