Who else remembers the days of the BBS? Back in the 1980s I used to hang out on various dial-up bulletin boards, before the internet. They weren’t truly interactive — some used only a single phone line, a few fancy ones could handle a couple of simultaneous connections, but generally you’d log in, browse a couple of messages other people had left, maybe leave one yourself, and log out again, all at 300 baud. When the fancy 1200 baud modems came out (I bought one that was military surplus), my old Apple II struggled to keep up with the furious data rate, and I actually wrote my very own telecommunications program — in 6502 Assembler, of course, using the wonderful ORCA macro assembler package — and took the daring step of cutting a lead on my mother board to enable interrupts, and building the program around a custom interrupt handler just so it would stop dropping characters. I was a true nerd.
It all came rushing back with this article in the Atlantic, The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems. I abandoned them in the 1990s when the Internet became ubiquitously available, although still often through dial-up lines from home. Apparently some tiny number of them still hang on. There are actually 20 dial-up BBSes still running, somewhere?
But every mass extinction has its holdouts. Even today, a small community of people still run and call BBSes. Many seek the digital intimacy they lost years ago; 373 BBSes still operate, according to the Telnet BBS Guide, mostly in the United States. Many are set up to be accessible via internet-connected tools like Telnet, a text-based remote-login protocol originally designed for mainframes.
Did any direct-access, telephone-dial-up BBSes survive the internet’s proverbial asteroid? Sure enough, there are about 20 known dial-up BBSes in North America. And of those, only a handful have been running non-stop since the mid-1990s. These are the true dinosaurs walking among us. Who dares to run such antique systems, and why? Have any of them been left running by accident like the BBS in my dream? I had to find out.
Yes, why? I want to know. It turns out that many of them are just kept up for nostalgia’s sake, but others are…are you surprised to learn that they’re maintained by delusional right-wing paranoids?
Ten years ago, when I dipped back into BBSes, I still got a sense that many sysops ran them to provide a libertarian alternative to the internet. Among them, the unoppressed who wanted religious freedom, the unsurveilled who wanted freedom from surveillance, and those prepping for the day when BBSes would provide shelter after the internet came crashing down.
It was never an alternative to the Internet. It couldn’t be. You’d have to argue that the Post Office was just a slow version of blogging if you go down that path.