Identity: The Sybercom Bulletin Board System

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Personally, I use the internet so often that it is almost considered a necessity for me, especially in terms of communication. Even though many of my friends could be reached through in-person talking, the internet has made communication much easier. However, the internet we know today is so much different compared to about 30 years ago, in which some people relied on electronic bulletin board systems, or BBSs, to interact with others. 

When I first heard of BBSs, I thought the chances of my own hometown having BBSs were very low. However, to my surprise, I was proven wrong. When I searched for my 757 area code, which is the Tidewater and Hampton Roads regions of Eastern Virginia, I found more than a hundred BBSs. I was not only able to find some BBSs that were from my own city, but I also found many BBSs from neighboring cities as well as some lesser-known cities. While going through the list of BBSs within the 757 area code, I was able to find some that connected to me as well as some BBSs that I was very shocked to find. For example, a city that was about 30 minutes from where I live is known for having the world’s largest naval station. Thus, there were several BBSs that were related to the navy and organizations that work closely with the government. There was also a surprisingly popular BBS called Pleasure Dome, known for sharing sexually explicit content, that originated in my city. However, there was one specific BBS that originated from my city that stood out most to me, called “Forbidden Playground, Sybercom” because of its backstory.

The BBS “Forbidden Playground, Sybercom” was run by Michael Plautz and Steven Plautz from 1995 to 2001. To reach and access this BBS, users would have to dial the number 757-420-7827. Even though this BBS was popular, there is not a lot of information left about this BBS. However, Michael Plautz, one of the creators of this BBS, made a comment about his BBS that said:

“Inspired by other MajorBBS’s, such as Shadowscape in Memphis and Cupids in Norfolk, we decided to start a system of our own when we bought a new house. I recall it became so popular, we had to add lines every few months causing issues with the phone company running out of copper pairs. We quickly became one of the largest BBS’s on the east coast. At its peak in 1996, it was not uncommon to see over 100 users online at once. After that, due to the increasing popularity of the internet, BBS usage declined and we became more of an ISP. The whole system was ran out of one bedroom, which eventually looked like a server room, containing 66 analog modems, many PC’s, a couple Portmasters & a USR Terminal Server. Much of our equipment was eventually moved to a Cox co-location facility in Norfolk as we converted to all digital lines. Its worth noting that Sybercom was one of the first ISP’s in the Hampton Roads area to offer 56kbps X2 access. When Sybercom was sold to Picus at the end of 2000, we had about 4000 users with almost 400 lines. But by that point, the BBS itself didn’t have much usage except as a billing system and occassional MajorMud players. It lived on though until 2001 when I shut off the power that final time.”

Michael Plautz (Scott, n.d.)

From this comment itself, it reveals a considerable amount of details in regards to what this BBS is and its full backstory. As a result of knowing this information, we can deconstruct parts of the identity of this BBS. Michael Plautz and Steven Plautz produced this BBS within their own bedroom and later moved to a facility. The comment mentioned that their BBS is “one of the largest BBS’s on the east coast” and that they had thousands of users along with hundreds of active users daily (Scott, n.d.). Although Michael Plautz’s comment does not provide a lot of details on the purpose of this BBS and its users, the comment mentions that many users used the BBS for its billing system and MajorMud. Since it mentions that the BBS is used for billing, it can be assumed that this service is primarily directed toward businesses and customers. That being said, this means that the groups who consume this billing system may be for more professional and older users, as compared to children or those who do not understand how to handle money. It is important for those who need to organize their finances and manage their money. On the other hand, this BBS also mentions that there are many MajorMud players active on it. This BBS uses The Major BBS, which was later renamed Worldgroup, and MajorMud was a “text-based Multi-User Dungeon” video game that could be run on this software, as explained by Computer Support Specialist Kevin Goebel (Goebel, n.d.). This game contains multiplayer functionalities, quests, combat, and much more, similar to most computer games today except it is text-based. Thus, this game would attract mainly younger audiences to the Sybercom BBS rather than the older generations. These games would be important for those who are seeking some entertainment and fun, as they can make new friends and join the game with friends. The billing system and MajorMud are only two of the capabilities mentioned in the comment, but it could be assumed that there are many other functions of the Sybercom BBS. For these reasons, it seems like the Sybercom BBS is open to anyone and the consumers could do many different things through it, from running a billing system to playing a video game. Furthermore, the comment mentioned that Sybercom was the “first ISP’s in the Hampton Roads area to offer 56kbps X2 access,” meaning that it would attract even more customers around the area who need more reliable and faster connections (Scott, n.d.).

Photo of MajorMud Screen (Goebel, n.d.)

As mentioned in Kevin Driscoll’s The Modem World, “BBSs provided a valuable medium for computer owners to meet and discuss their experiences with various games and applications,” which is exactly what the Sybercom BBS has accomplished (Driscoll 2022, 111). Through the Sybercom BBS, users could form relationships while gaming or make everyday tasks easier, like serving a client during a business transaction. Without these capabilities within Sybercom BBS, it would not have gained so many users and become known as “one of the largest BBS’s on the east coast” (Scott, n.d.).

Unfortunately, although it seems like the Sybercom BBS is attractive to many different people and groups, there are some limitations, which could cause people to feel like “outsiders” or be left out. As stated by Kevin Driscoll, “white men were nearly twice as likely as other groups to report using bulletin boards” and that ”social and material barriers to entry were high,” showing that not everyone was able to access the BBS in the first place (Driscoll 2022, 21; 57). Some people may not be able to afford to connect to these BBSs, some may be discouraged from using BBSs as a result of not having the sufficient technical knowledge to access them,  and some may not even want to be involved with the BBS since none of its functionalities and services match their own. It can create outgroups, creating a separation between those who use BBSs and those who cannot. Even though the 4000 users may sound like a lot, there were hundreds of thousands of people living in the city at the time.

With the limited information about this Sybercom BBS except for the comment by Michael Plautz, it is also very important to contextualize the BBS at the time in the area. Unfortunately, there are not many news articles that are related to Sybercom. However, through deep digging within the local newspapers, I was able to find a short page within the business section of the newspaper The Virginian-Pilot that briefly mentioned Sybercom. This page listed several companies which filed for bankruptcy. Within this list, it contained Sybercom Inc. as well as Picus Inc. and Picus Communications LLC (the companies that Sybercom was sold to, as mentioned in Michael Plautz’s comment) all filing Chapter 11 reorganization. This shows how Sybercom eventually went down and the fact that Sybercom had “assets of $225,616.04 and liabilities of $26,611.13” showed how Sybercom was doing in terms of its finances (The Virginian-Pilot, D2). 

I also came across another news article published in The Richmond Times Dispatch which also mentioned that the Virginia Assistive Technology System (VATS) electronic bulletin board system was discontinued as a result of a lack of funding. Although this BBS is different from the Sybercom BBS, they both originated in Virginia and their BBSs ended within a few years of each other. Within this news article, it stressed the importance of the VATS BBS, which helped disabled residents through chat rooms, announcements, and organization. Within the article, one of the consumers mentioned that “a lot of disabled people feel like they need a connection to one another,” showing that BBSs were valuable in forming connections and relationships with other people (The Richmond Times Dispatch). With the detrimental effects that were caused by shutting down the VATS BBS, it is hard to imagine the consequences after the Sybercom BBS was discontinued. Companies may have to struggle to reorganize their finances and find a different billing system they could rely on. MajorMud players would have to switch to a different BBS that would also offer the game, which could cause changes to their progress. With both the Sybercom BBS and the VATS BBS being discontinued in the late 1990s or early 2000s, it showed the decline of BBSs during that time and the rise of the internet we know today.

Works Cited:

“Bulletin Board Faces Funding Loss; Disabled Virginians Are Users Of System”. The Richmond Times Dispatch, July 7, 1998.

Driscoll, Kevin. 2022. The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. Yale University Press. 

Goebel, Kevin. “MajorMud.” Kevin Goebel’s Web Page. 

“News Of Record.” The Virginian-Pilot, November 13, 2000: D2. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current.

Scott, Jason. “757 Area Code BBSes Through History.” The TEXTFILES.COM Historical BBS List.

Wagner, Lon. “On-Line Sex: At A Virginia Beach Computer Bulletin Board Campany, Business Is Pleasure.” The Virginian-Pilot, November 27, 1994: D1. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current.

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