Preceding the World Wide Web and its evolution of the internet into what it is today, people built virtual worlds and communities on their computers via bulletin board systems (BBSs). BBSs were run over telephone lines, so users accessed them by dialing up their intended BBS, incurring telephone service charges as a result. Because long-distance telephone service fees were so high during the late 20th century, BBSs were generally set up to be used within local counties and communities, rarely extending to the international level.
Once you finally got into a BBS, it might have been run by a national company providing a service such as banking or file sharing, a “place” where you could find the local public school’s bus schedule, or it might have been your neighbor’s makeshift choose-your-own-adventure game. It was these leisurely endeavors of random people who wanted to create a community in which they could share their love for a hobby, game, city, etc. that was at the heart of what made BBSs so unique. As Kevin Driscoll says in The Modem World,
“Logging into a popular BBS could feel like stepping into an electronic nightclub. You were visiting a real place with real people, personality, and vibe. The web of 1994, by contrast, felt less like a place than a thing. The technology was impressive, the aesthetics were cool, and the information was engaging, but the overall experience felt static and lifeless.”Driscoll, Kevin
Despite being one of the more defining features of the BBS era, these casually-run, interest-driven BBSs that came about simply due to people’s curiosity and enthusiasm are poorly documented. As such, a part of the people who lived and grew up in this period is lost to history, living only in the memories of those who experienced it.
What is even more poorly documented, is the application and use of BBSs outside of the United States. Being from the middle east, I wanted to learn the extent to which BBSs were used in this region, and searched through newspaper articles dating from the late 70s to the early 90s in search of official accounts of people from there using BBSs. However, it appears that very little was documented about BBSs in the middle east, and that by the time BBSs did start to make their way to this region, the World Wide Web was closely following. By 1991, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, high school students in St. Louis were communicating with students in Bahrain through the Apple Global Education Network BBS, confirming that at least some countries used BBSs for educational purposes at that time. Moreover, according to United Press International, a BBS was created in 1995 by Union National Bank in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to make stock market figures more accessible to the public, showing their use in providing consumers with information and database services.
Even though these articles displayed official applications of BBSs in the Arab world, I was more interested in the presence of such previously described intimate, unofficial BBSs made for bringing people with similar interests together, because it is these communities that portray the most accurate depictions of the identities of the people who were on the internet at the time. Despite being more interesting to me, the lack of significance on a grander scale of such BBSs meant that they were less likely to be covered by news outlets, which means that it is much harder to find documented information about them.
Eventually, I came across a Reddit post on the Dubai subreddit, in which people who lived there discussed their experiences with BBSs and reminisced about their times calling into certain BBSs. Throughout the post, some well-known BBSs were mentioned such as Wildcat and Enigma, but there were also ones with little to no reference on the internet such as AD 2000 and Nightline. I did not find mention of AD 2000 anywhere outside of this reddit thread, which has led me to suspect that the creator of this BBS was in the UAE. Nightline, however, was present on some BBS lists, and although there doesn’t seem to be any accounts of what it was exactly, there are images of the BBS itself that show that it originated in Germany, and suggest that it could have been some sort of role-playing game, adventure game, or just a platform for people to hang out, analogous to the “electronic nightclub” referenced by Driscoll. One can immediately sense from the image of the BBS that the creator wanted to convey an aesthetic of nightlife in the city; an escape from the realities of the day where one can relax and find joy, whether it being through the company of others who want to do the same, or through one’s own journey within a game.
Although it was disappointing to not find concrete evidence of a BBS based in the middle east that had the spirit of the BBS as a way of connecting strangers, these accounts confirm the presence of a community there that was active on BBSs for the purposes of expression and enjoyment, as opposed to service automation or education. It is the identity of this community that made the BBS so culturally significant, and it is this identity that more accurately represents the identities of the population as a whole during the 80s and 90s, but because their stories often go undocumented, not many people learn about them. Another consequence of these stories going untold is that people don’t fully understand how much of an influence, and how far of a reach, BBSs truly had.
Driscoll, Kevin. “Recalling the Modem World.” Essay. In The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, 2. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2022.
Bower, Carolyn. “Pupils Let Their Fingers Do Talking Via Computers … Keyboards Link Area; Schools With World At Large.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 7, 1991.
“UAE Bank Offers Automated Share Service.” United Press International, October 7, 1995.
“Old Dubai BBS (Bulletin Board Systems).” Reddit. Date accessed: September 28, 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/dubai/comments/gnpxd9/old_dubai_bbs_bulletin_board_systems/