Bulletin Board System

A Bulletin Board System (BBS) is an online community service based on character terminal connections – traditionally over landline telephone modems, but currently most BBSes use Telnet or SSH over the Internet instead. There are also packet radio (?AX.25) BBSes used by radio hams.

BBSes came to existence in the 1970s but were preceded by time-sharing services of the 1960s. A major difference between a BBS and a time-sharing server (such as a public Unix system) is that BBS software is usually user-friendlier and specifically designed for messaging and file-sharing. Also, BBSes have generally been run on much smaller computers, usually microcomputers with a single modem. Multi-user BBSes were not uncommon in the "golden years", but most BBSes only allowed only one online user at a time. In many places, BBSes declined quite rapidly especially when broadband Internet connections became available.

Some notable features of the BBS culture from the permacomputing perspective, especially in contrast to the Internet:

  • Locality. Since long-distance telephone calls are more expensive than local calls, most modem users have preferred servers that are geographically close to them. This helped create local variation to the BBS scene and prevent excessive centralization.
  • Personality. BBSes generally look and feel like their owners, and visiting a BBS feels more like visiting someone's home than a public service. On the Internet, small messaging forums and personal servers may sometimes create the same kind of feeling.
  • Limited availability. There used to be much more BBS users than BBS nodes, so it was quite common to get a BUSY signal instead of a connection. Automatic dialling lists that repetitively called several BBS numbers until a connetion was made were common. Also, BBSes could become temporarily or permanently unavailable due to various personal reasons. So, BBS users generally felt joy on succesful connections, something that does not happen on the Internet where everything is expected to be constantly available at all times.
  • Intensity. When online time is limited (and possible even charged per minute), it needs to be used actively instead of "just idling around". Non-multitasking operating systems amplify this. Offline is the default state of mind, and online is an exception.
  • Scarcity and sharing. When connection time is a limited resource, users are generally expected to contribute to the systems by message-based discussions and/or uploads instead of just passively "leeching" files. Most BBSes implemented an upload/download ratio system where files were used as "currency".
  • File collection. BBSes typically host all kinds of software and other files useful for computer users. Also, before the broadband Internet, it was not feasible to redownload the same files every time they were needed, so it was also important to curate local, personal file collections.
  • Decentralization. Because of the file collection culture, nothing that is published in one place stays in that place. For message forums, there are networking systems (particularly ?Fidonet) for creating shared forums between several BBSes, although system-specific ("local") messaging cultures are also considered important.