Identity: Bulletin Board Systems
Christine Love’s interactive visual novel Digital: A Love Story is a mystery romance told through the applications of 1980s computer connected to the internet using a dial-up modem. The game’s design is a throwback to the Commodore Amiga and its Workbench operating system. To follow the story, players dial in to a series of bulletin board systems, or BBSs, hearing the iconic sound of the era, and along the way set up accounts complete with usernames and passwords to unravel a vast internet conspiracy. Download the game here for a fun look at a bygone digital era and nostalgic explainers about the internet’s origins in ARPANET, the first computer viruses, and hacker culture.
The second blog assignment focuses on the identities that interacted with and grew alongside this world of bulletin board systems. Before the World Wide Web, people connected with each other over a patchwork of local networks to chat, get news, share files, and learn more about computers and computer programming. Bulletin board systems, which were operated over traditional telephone lines, were local affairs, as the cost of long-distance telephone service was steep, so they took on the local and regional characteristics specific to their geography. Within this context, as Kevin Driscoll writes in his book The Modem World, BBSs were the social media before social media:
The best-known histories of the internet focus on either the engineers who developed the core technologies or the businesspeople who profited from them. Neither offers a satisfying explanation for the rise of computer networks as platforms for popular culture and public life. The prehistory of social media unfolded not in the office parks of Silicon Valley or the meeting rooms of military contractors or the labs of university researchers. Instead, we must peer into the improvised workshops of millions of hobbyists, volunteers, activists, and entrepreneurs who—for fifteen years prior to the opening up of the internet—hosted small-scale online systems in cities and towns throughout North America.Kevin Driscoll, The Modem World, 3.
The aim of this assignment is to introduce you to some of the research tools that will be necessary for your final project. We’ll be looking at the aspect of identity from the circuit of culture. Who were the people who used these systems? What did they use them for? How did they communicate with each other?
Answering these questions can be difficult. As Driscoll notes, most of the material that once populated the spaces of BBSs is now “lost to time” (40). Only chance images and remembrances remain, fragments of what once was. But communities have built up around nostalgia for these pre-Web means of connecting online, and we’ll use these communities, alongside Driscoll’s comprehensive history, as a jumping off point to document the history of BBSs. However, these web resources are only a start. To flesh out the history, we’ll look to verifiable sources from newspapers and magazines from the period, too.
To help you familiarize yourself with what kind of information is available online about BBS culture, here’s a helpful list of resources:
- http://bbslist.textfiles.com/usbbs.html List of known BBSs.
- https://wwwtxt.org/tagged/img Largest archive of old BBS content. For more, see this story.
- http://sfhqbbs.org/ataribbslist.php Old Atari BBS list.
- http://ptbbs.ddns.net:7000/pt.html Cleveland based BBS restored.
- https://www.reddit.com/r/bbs/ Reddit BBS sub.
- https://www.pcmag.com/news/7-modern-bbses-worth-calling-today A story about still running BBSs.
- http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/category/computers/bbs-history Benj Edwards BBS stories.
- http://www.zimmers.net/bbs/aabbs.html All American BBSs.
- http://www.africa.upenn.edu/BBS_Internet/afro_bbs.html Afronet BBS list.
- https://www.telnetbbsguide.com/ Telnet BBS Guide.
- http://bbslist.textfiles.com/comments.html List of comments on BBSs.
- https://bytecellar.com/category/bbs/ Byte Cellar BBS resources.
- http://software.bbsdocumentary.com/ BBS software directory.
- https://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/19/business/all-about-electronic-bulletin-boards-it-s-no-longer-just-techno-hobbyists-who.html New York Times story on BBS culture from 1992.
- http://www.textfiles.com/directory.html Text files on BBSs.
The idea is to select a single BBS to focus on. It might be a BBS from your area. It might be one whose visual design sticks out to you. It might be one for which we have no visual record available but about which we have first-person accounts. It might be a BBS that we know only by name and telephone number, which requires you to creatively imagine what once was. It’s your choice.
Then, search for articles published on BBS culture from the time period when your BBS was active, roughly between 1980 and 1994 before the takeoff of the World Wide Web. This article from the New York Times is a good example. Try to find local newspaper or magazine coverage. If your BBS was located in Denver, Colorado, maybe look at the Denver Post or other newspapers from the area. If your BBS was from Sydney, Australia, check out the Sydney Morning Herald. If you’re confident translating other languages into English, all the better. Follow wherever your interests take you.
Here are some helpful databases to help you find relevant newspaper articles:
- Nexis Uni (for English-language newspapers from around the world)
- Proquest US Newsstream (for US-based newspapers)
For individual newspaper archives and other databases, see the Johns Hopkins University Libraries Databases list. Resources include the archives of the Baltimore Afro-American and the Times of India, as just a couple of examples.
You should cite two newspaper stories, while providing identifying information in the flow of your discussion: name of newspaper, date of issue, and author and name of story where applicable. If you can link to a freely available web resource, please do, but if it’s behind a proxy, the information above will suffice. One of your articles should be geographically connected to the BBS you choose, but the other can come from a regional or national newspaper.
- Choose one BBS.
- Explain the culture and identities associated with the BBS.
- Cite two historical newspaper articles, one of which should be geographically connected to your BBS.
- Cite Driscoll’s book The Modem World.
- Provide links to resources where applicable.
- Credit images where possible by providing a caption.
All assignments should be submitted as text documents on Canvas and to the blog on the course site. For further instructions on posting to the blog, check out this explainer.
Due September 23 by 5:00 p.m. EST.