Bulletin board diehards trying to save them
By DAVID BROOKS
MILFORD Back when the Internet was barely a gleam in researchers eyes, there already was a thriving digital world that let people play online games with a pal down the street, swap software with someone in Silicon Valley or send mail to friends in Liverpool.
Time and technology have not been kind to these electronic bulletin boards small, free computer systems that are run for fun in basements and bedrooms across America and throughout the world. The graphical wonders and cheap, global reach of the World Wide Web and America Online are slowly sending the BBS, as it is known, the way of the crystal radio set.
"I get a lot of mail from guys saying, Im not ever shutting down my board, and then the next thing you know, theyre gone," said Kurt Robair of Milford, who runs a BBS known as The Low Road.
Robair is on a one-man crusade to save the states BBS system, although he admits it could be a lost cause. His first step shows how difficult the job will be: He resurrected a listing of New Hampshire BBS sites, only to find that the number had fallen from more than 200 in November 1995 to 37 in May. Six boards closed shop in April alone.
"I think people are awfully discouraged because they have so few calls," said Gordon Green of Hudson, a former Sanders engineer who has run the Cuckoos Nest BBS since 1987. Green once coordinated echo-mail, bulletin boards mail system, for all of northern New England, and he is considered the guru of local BBS operation. "There are more and more shutting down all the time."
In 1995, around the peak of the states BBS presence, there were 26 bulletin boards in Nashua plus another 20 in surrounding towns. Today, by Robairs reckoning, Nashua has four boards, the most of any community in New Hampshire; Hudson and Merrimack have two each; and Robairs board is the only other in the region.
Not only are boards less common, theyre also a lot quieter.
"I used to get 25 to 30 calls a day in early 1997 ... now if I get three calls a week Im amazed," Robair says.
The result is that many systems are run largely out of habit.
"Ten years ago I put a tremendous amount of time into it; today I dont pay too much attention to it," said Mark Buda of Merrimack, a software engineer for Digital Equipment Corp.
Buda started running a board in 1984, barely a year after the advent of Fidonet, a store-and-forward system that linked BBSes throughout the world. He still runs a board known as VAXCat after a deceased feline friend who, in turn, was named after a line of Digital computers but admits traffic is minimal.
Like many sysops (shorthand for system operators, the folks who run each board), Buda operates his board on a spare computer hooked to a spare phone line.
"Its the fax line, so it doesnt affect anything," he notes. "Somewhere along the line I am going to end up shutting down."
The informal, just-down-the-street nature of BBSes has always been a major part of their appeal. Most sysops start boards because they are interested in the technology and the novelty of the experience, and since they have to do everything to make a board run from buying and installing software to hooking up the phone line to booting off users who were being a pain each BBS takes on the personality of the operator.
Just looking at some bulletin board names from a 1995 list reflects differences: Gamers Haven in Derry; Covered Bridge in Warner; Fantasy Realm in Dublin; Near Insanity in Manchester; the Chamber of Commerce in Keene. There even were boards that required you to pay to get access to pornographic files. None of these is in operation today.
Most bulletin boards share two characteristics: They have a place where you can upload and download software, and they have a place where you could send messages, either to public forums or in individual e-mail. The e-mail gets forwarded through the global Fidonet system and eventually ends up at any other "node" or bulletin board, although the trip can take two or three days.
Boards are missing two crucial components, however: identical, easy-to-use interfaces, and low-cost reach over long distances.
At one time there were scores of bulletin board software packages available, each with slightly different methods of maneuvering, most depending on text-driven menu systems rather than the point-and-click graphics available on todays Web. Combined with the lack of a standard communication package on computers, this increases the amount of needed expertise for example, you often have to be able to set your system to 8 bits, no parity; and know whether you want echo to be on or off.
The situation once was similar on the Internet. It took the arrival of the World Wide Web four years ago to really launch that online world. Now its much easier to go onto the Internet than bulletin boards so much so that many boards have migrated to the Web.
"I think its very hard to do the education to build up the users today," Green said.
The other big blow against BBSes is that they require separate phone calls. If you want to hook up to a board in, say, Boston, you have to make a long-distance call. With the Internet, you make a local call to a service provider, who handles the rest of the connection to anywhere in the world, in return for a relatively inexpensive monthly fee.
"You can pick up stuff from anywhere (with the Internet)," Green said. "I picked up some of the (software) utilities I use that are written over in Australia. I wouldnt think of doing that on a BBS, going overseas."
Still, this limitation does bring an advantage to boards: You know that most people on the BBS are nearby, whereas on the Internet they could easily be in Saskatchewan.
"The only thing you dont have on the Internet is the local feel local chat areas, or things like a yard sale," Green said. "On the Net theres thousands and thousands of messages, and you have to get through them."
In many ways, electronic bulletin boards can be considered a transition technology. They created an online world while the Internet was being developed, and in the process helped shape everything from the hardware to the expertise that runs todays online world. Many former sysops are now Internet service providers or run Web sites.
But with the Internet now spreading throughout society, is the BBS doomed?
Perhaps, Robair admits. He cant even get most sysops to tell him basic information about their boards for his monthly listing because it isnt worth their trouble anymore.
Still, he has hopes. Ironically, one of the ways Robair hopes to get out the word is through a Web site (http://members.aol.com/spec66/bbs.htm), which, among other things, links to a number of bulletin board software programs.
He also is ready to spread the word about the unique joys of operating a BBS.
"Its a more down-to-earth way of connecting with other people," he says. "And theres a thrill to be sitting there in your house and to hear the phone ring, and to know that somebodys there in your system.
"Its essentially an addiction," he adds, laughing.
Green, who has seen bulletin
And no matter what happens, as with other technologies, bulletin boards probably will never die out completely, he says.
"It really was ... a (unique) experience," he says. "Theres some diehards that will stick it out for a long time, and Im probably one of those."
To contact the BBS systems mentioned in this story, use a computer communication package to call these numbers:
David Brooks can be reached by calling 672-5710 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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Mailing address: P.O. Box 1008, Nashua, NH 03061
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