Pixel style, retro color scheme, simple interface. You may not know what it is, but you see some familiar words, some familiar ways of operation. You may wonder if it’s a game.
Yet the answer is not so straightforward: yes and no. In 1978, during a huge snowstorm, two men sketched out an idea. Later, a group of young people got ‘modems’, they looked at them and decided to use them to paint a grand world. Over the next decade, what became known as the “Bulletin Board System” spread across the United States. In this sense, it was like a game of technology.
Bulletin Board System(BBS) is a computer server running program. It allows users to connect via modem dials using terminal programs. BBS has many functions, such as providing news reading, software downloading and uploading, games, online conversations with other users, and so on. In those days, all you needed was a computer to dial a BBS that you knew existed and interact with people on it. It is hard to imagine the impact this would have had in an age without the Internet.
Because of its low barrier, countless people began to dial BBS. People could call any BBS from anywhere in the world, but due to the high cost of long-distance calls, most people chose to call the local BBS system. Pictured above is ‘The Cave BBS’, a one-Node WWIV BBS operated by Benj Edwards (Red Wolf) in Rayleigh from 1992 to 1998. It once had about 1000 users and racked up well over 10,000 calls. In 1991, Edwards’ father brought home a modem. “You can connect to other computers over the telephone with it.” Little Edwards held the plastic box, having no idea how his life would be impacted. This was the birth of The Cave BBS.
In the 1990s, BBS mushroomed and expanded rapidly. It covered almost all aspects of people’s lives, and almost everyone could find a BBS that interested them. The purpose of the system operators varied from entertainment, to online communication, to information spreading, but they shared a vision for technology.
System operators showed off their humor and talents in their BBSes. The Cave BBS, for example, was carefully designed by Edwards. The whole BBS was filled with various pixel paintings. For instance, the picture below showed the interface that people see when they log out. It was indeed a cave opening, with a torch shimmering. Managing it could be time-consuming. Edwards mentioned, “The first thing I did every morning after waking up was to review the latest validation messages and check on the status of the system”. More than once, young Edwards was late for school because he needed to fix his BBS. Here’s a story. One of his former friends was jealous of eleven-year-old Edwards for having his own BBS. Edwards was inconsolable when his ‘friend’ eventually stole his account and used a virus to destroy the first Cave BBS. After that, he created an online avatar, John Scagon (also known as Red Wolf), a computer expert. Edwards had filled in so many details about the man that the 14-year-old schoolboy has become the object of admiration for his mature speech and behavior online. He wrote beautifully about this ‘avatar’ in his blogs. Having such an identity was personal. He mentioned that only one of his friends knew. Even when the conversation turns to BBSes, he rarely revealed that he was actually a BBS system operator. He was like an online recluse.
At that time, BBS was very popular. The national newspaper listed that a region “has more than 100 bulletin board systems (BBS)” representing prosperity. The North Carolina newspaper even mentioned that you can dial up USEPA and GreenNet BBSs to learn about the state’s Environmental information. It mentioned, “It’s good for environment.”
Why was BBS so popular? Users were mostly separated by geography, but they were linked together through online communication/games, thus mini-communities were created. In the BBS big time, there was no “algorithmic recommendation” mechanism, even individual user information was difficult to collect or confirm (for example, Edwards can act as 30-year-old John Scagon). It was organized in the form of pages, topics, keywords, and so on. Compared with today, this chatting format was certainly not as effective, but it has the magic of freedom. Unintentionally, it created such a community where every user was protected by the BBS, so they can communicate in a completely free way. In such a premise, people talked and played on BBS putting aside prejudice and bias, leaving only their stories, thoughts, and emotions. Perhaps, in reality, they would not be able to speak so freely. Maybe there were things they don’t want to talk about with their friends. They told their stories in the dark cave to ease their loneliness, and such a collective was thus formed. It seemed to generate an in-group identity for people on the BBS, providing an opportunity to become ‘another self’. In those stormy nights, countless people lit torches and went to that warm cave, their second home.
Unfortunately, every era has an end. With the later rise of the Internet and social media, BBS gradually obsoleted. ‘The Cave’ once had about a thousand users, and now there are probably only a few left who still use it. ‘The Internet has no memory. ’ This joke often used by Internet users is, in fact, incredibly true. Just as today’s 80s and 90s are on the verge of forgetting and the 00s almost never hear about BBS as a form of the online community, the Internet is also forgetting this once-celebrated prototype of online social networking. As with everything that disappears, the users of these things will be aware of the signs of age. In an article published in The Atlantic, Edwards writes, “Nostalgia is where obsolescence comes home to roost.” Today’s exploration of BBSes belongs more to those who were born in the Internet era but are curious about the past. Plucking away its heavy curtain and dust, we finally walked into that old cave and were surprised by its glory days.
To this day, Edwards is still running ‘The Cave’ BBS and publishing articles online to introduce and educate histories of The Internet. BBS was born out of people’s revolt against loneliness, connecting the hearts of millions of people in a slow era. It felt so warm and beautiful that it is still missed in this age of the Internet.
The Red Wolf is still howling. Maybe one day, he will hear the echo from ‘The Cave’.
The Cave BBS File:
Try to play with it!
Here’s several links to Benj Edwards’ articles: