516 – 698 – 4008
Before the expansion and boom of the internet occurred, people connected and communicated with one another through local networks. They received news, shared files and learned more about computers and programming them. These networks were referred to as bulletin board systems. BBSs, for short, were the social media of their time. They operated over traditional telephone lines and were very localized due to the cost of long-distance telephone services. Because of this, BBSs took on the characteristics of their local and regional geography. The piece that makes all this possible is known as a modem. This “box” makes the noise that allows computer to talk to one another. Nowadays, that noise is traveling throughout the phone system at an astronomical rate.
Prior to the popularity of BBSs, there was an aspect missing from the internet. It was already full of information, but there were no people. BBSs were an intro into the online connection of people. With the use of BBSs, communities could dial in from their home PCs to do various things. In The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, Kevin Driscoll states, “Every night, dozens of people dialed in from their home PCs to chat, trade files, play games, read forums, and post messages of their own. In 1996, Mark described it as thriving ‘cyber-city’ (1) … 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.” (2). This new, unheard of technology was groundbreaking, and it was only the beginning.
Many of the sites were created by young adults with some tech savvy and enough money to afford to buy the components of the first PC’s. Gaming, sharing information on a common subject, and simply meeting other people seemed to be the initial interests of users and they were also limited to those with the knowledge and resources to participate. With little to no regulation initially, it was up to the sysop (the systems operator) as the creator to outline and enforce general rules for the site. This included banning users for such things as posting inappropriate content, using stolen credit cards for payment, or pirating software. Many of these infractions led to more serious legal issues for both the developer and the users as time passed. From these early days we can see how the roles, responsibilities and expectations between developers, users and regulators has become so important. The simple structure that was developed in the initial BBS’s became the building blocks for the technology and the concepts of search engines, social media and online communication as we know it today.
A BBS I came across while researching was the Pirate’s Cove. In order to connect you’d need to dial 516-698-4008, which has a long island area code, where my hometown is located, so naturally it caught eye. According to Of Bytes and Bulletin Boards, when dialed into the Pirate’s Cove, a character popped up, who presented you with subjects to choose from, including politics, poetry, music, food, astronomy, jokes and sex talk. Pirates Cove was a wealth of information and attracted the tech savvy long islanders who took the time to build their own computers and discover the BBS. Word of mouth spread Pirates Cove all over long island rapidly. In no time Pirate’s Cove became amongst the most notorious electronic message boards, attracting hackers along with ordinary people looking for various kinds of information. In 1984 it had nearly 1000 users from around the world and was considered one of the largest in the world at that time. According to Bulletin Boards Go Electronic, it was initially developed by the computer hobbyist and software developer called “Black Beard”, who I later found was Jeff Michaels, and was the first board devoted specifically to software piracy. Although it began as a board that could transmit copyrighted software to users, it eventually converted into a general message board with over 60 subcategories which likely made it one of the most diverse BBS communities of its time. As mentioned in Hackers Holding More of the Keys (Newsday; Apr 23, 1984), published in my home town newspaper, at some point the Pirates Cove board contained the phone numbers, account numbers and passwords of three computers at Rutgers University. A direct quote from Michaels states, “Trading, legal advice, politics and ham radio, self-help, things like that, take up most of the board.” But some people, he said go directly to the hacking section and look at nothing else. Michaels would try to regulate the content within Pirates Cove, but it was hard to stop users from trading illegal software and information. What started as a place for basic information became a breeding ground for hackers. This criminal activity led to the development of a new field. Cyber Security. Protecting information and preventing hackers from getting their hands on information that was not meant for them. Nowadays there are whole companies that specialize in stopping this crime.
The initial BBSs from decades ago have developed into the World Wide Web and the creation of social media and social and global businesses that have taken over the modern economy.
Citation – Dolinar, L. (1984, Apr 23). Hackers holding more of the keys. Newsday (1940-)