Identity: The World of the 24th Street Exchange
Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs, were dial-up online modems created to share messages and files. After the creation of the first BBS in 1978, BBSs continued to gain popularity, reaching their peak in the mid-1990s until their usage declined with the introduction of the World Wide Web. Nevertheless, BBSs provide fascinating perspectives and accounts of events and environments in their respective locations due to their heavily localized nature. As Driscoll writes in his book The Modem World,
“Unlike the nationwide commercial services, bulletin board systems tended to serve a local population of users since few hobbyists could afford to routinely call long-distance. System operators were keenly aware of the local nature of BBS culture” (16).
– Kevin Driscoll, The Modem World, 16.
Despite the inherent lack of information with existence in a pre-internet world, we can use the tools we do have to infer the identities associated with specific BBSs and uncover unique local perspectives and interactions of the time period.
One BBS system that stuck out to me was titled “24th Street Exchange” (24SE). 24SE, created by Don Kuhwarth in the early 1980s, was Sacramento’s leading bulletin board; it was one of the first multiple-line boards with 24 lines. Supported by The Bread Board System (TBBS) software, users could reach the BBS by dialing 916-448-2483. While Kuhwarth started the BBS as a hobby, he began to profit from his role as a System Operator (SysOps) as he, like many SysOps with more than 2 lines, charged a $4.95 monthly rate for 3 hours of daily, logged-on activity. With this multi-line BBS now established, 24SE began to form its identity.
In Kuhwarth’s opinion of BBSs, he has likened them to bars, adding “I mean there are some people who like to barhop and others who always go to the same old hangout.” In this sense, Kuhwarth implies the perspective of BBSs as a platform for social gatherings. In his position as SysOps, this opinion is significant when studying the identity of 24SE. SysOps had the ability and necessity to establish the tone of their BBS, as Driscoll describes writing, “In a sense, sysops were inviting strangers into their homes” (16).
In an article by The Baltimore Sun, published on November 29, 1993, they include the descriptions of 24SE user Todd Bartush as to the types of users he encounters on the BBS. Bartush wrote,
“People who share common interests, but may be leery of the usual sort of forums available, whether that be a club, a bar, whatever. I’ve always been an introvert, but I also enjoy spending time with people. Modeming lets me meet people and have friends without all the hang-ups associated with ‘going out’ to seek people.”
– The Baltimore Sun, “All the Lonely People are Hooking Up in Cyberspace”, 1993.
This first-person account, in conjunction with Kuhwarth’s opinions and general 24SE background information, reveals a 24SE user identity.
24SE users were likely those who value conversation and interaction. They like, Bartush, may be introverted and thus find an online social platform more appealing, or they may be held back by time constraints when seeking an in-person social experience such as a real bar. In The Modem World, Driscoll writes “In the early 1990s, when privatization opened the internet to everyone with money to spare, these BBS enthusiasts were among the first to open their checkbooks” (2). Given the monthly rate of 24SE, despite the presence of many other free BBSs which also provided the ability to exchange messages, play games, and access programs, we can infer that 24SE users were among those who had money to spare. Furthermore, whether 24SE users hailed from an introverted or time-restricted crowd, they were excited to be there and connect, so much so that they chose to pay for this specific BBS rather than a free option.
Given the personal investment of SysOps, their overall satisfaction with the developed identity of their BBS, or lack thereof, is revealing. In terms of Kuhwarth, he continued to develop his BBS into his career with the introduction of the internet, following a career path prescribed by Driscoll:
“As some of the only people to enter the dot-com boom with practical experience running online communities, many BBS sysops found employment in the internet economy of the 1990s. Some transformed their BBSs into internet service providers (ISPs)”.
– Kevin Driscoll, The Modem World, 4.
Kuhwarth and his wife Jackie developed “Midtown Computer Services”, a small, independent Sacramento Internet Service Provider (ISP). Their service was intentionally human, offering personal service to their customers, even at the expense of instant service, a sharp contrast to modern, automated, 24/7 helplines. In an article by the Sacramento Business Journal published on March 3, 2002, they describe Kuhwarth not wanting to sell Midtown, regardless of the larger technological ISPs absorbing the industry. Kuhwarth is then quoted, as saying “I enjoy it. I’m not ready to retire”. In fact, Don and Jackie continued to operate Midtown Computer Services until just 4 years ago in 2018.
While you could say that Kuhwarth’s career choices don’t tell us much about the identity of 24SE, his continuation into the internet economy does tell us something. Due to the unregulated nature of BBSs, they could produce harsh, negative, and even vulgar environments. If Kuhwarth had had an experience such as this regularly, we can assume he would not want to continue. Additionally, given the personal accounts of Kuhwarth and Bartush followed by Midtown’s unique, personal approach, despite larger competitors’ differing strategies, a pattern is formed. Kuhwarth valued human connection. 24SE allowed him this personal connection as did Midtown Computer Services upon the introduction of the internet. It was this emphasis on personal connection that shaped the identities of 24SE.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2021. “bulletin-board system.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 20, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/technology/bulletin-board-system.
Driscoll, Kevin. 2022. The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2022.
Inmagine. 2022. “SPEECH BUBBLE ILLUSTRATION OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY ACRONYM ABBREVIATION TERM DEFINITION BBS Bulletin Board System.” 123RF. Inmagine Lab Pte Ltd. Accessed September 28, 2022. https://www.123rf.com/photo_43094885_speech-bubble-illustration-of-information-technology-acronym-abbreviation-term-definition-bbs-bullet.html.
Kuhwarth, Don. 2018. Midtown Computer Services, December 2018. https://www.midtown.net/.
Marquand, Barbara. 2002. “Itty-Bitty ISPs Use Human Touch to Fend off Giants.” Sacramento Business Journal. American City Business Journals, March 3, 2002. https://www.bizjournals.com/sacramento/stories/2002/03/04/focus2.html.
ONE BBSCON. 1993. “ANNOUNCING WINNERS IN THE BOARDWATCH 100 READERS’ CHOICE BBS CONTEST 1993.” BBS, August 29, 1993. http://www.bbsdocumentary.com/mp3/93BBSCON/bw100.txt.
Propellerpowered. 2017. “Calling Bulletin Board Systems (BBS).” Instructables. Autodesk, Inc. , October 27, 2017. https://www.instructables.com/Calling-Bulletin-Board-Systems-BBS/.
Stanley, Don. 1993. “All the Lonely People Are Hooking up in Cyberspace.” Baltimore Sun. Baltimore Sun, November 29, 1993. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1993-11-29-1993333126-story.html.