What Was Old Is New Again

In replying to a discussion to an article in which the author predicts the institutionalization of social networking sites by businesses (oh yuck!) it struck me that social networking sites are the new computer bulletin boards.

For those too young to have been active in the computer community in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, computer bulletin boards (BBS) were dial-up havens where you could chat online, play games, download stuff, exchange messages with folks all over the world, and generally goof off on your computer.

This was still the hey day of DOS, not too many folks had or wanted Windows if you had an IBM based PC. All you needed was a phone line, a modem, and a communications program – which you had to install and tweak so it would work. Then if you wanted to download anything, you had to install and tweak the download protocols as well. Usually X-modem came with the comm program, later so did Z-modem. The nifty protocols like Puma, you had to put on yourself. I had a shell program that I called from within my comm program that ran 14 different file transfer protocols. You needed a few different ones because you never knew what the BBS would use to send you files. To download anything, you needed to use the same one.

Hey, while I’m blathering about protocols, this was my one big complaint about the film INDEPENDENCE DAY. How come Jeff Goldblum was able to upload a virus to the aliens? What? They use Z-modem? FTP? Shoot, they might use Zarg-bits, a protocol computer users on Earth cannot even compile without first loading some alien font set. Yes, I know. No deity was involved, Captain. It was my cross-circuiting to B… (2 points)

Every month here in the DC area Mike Focke published a list of local BBS’ complete with phone numbers and the BBS software (Searchlight, Wildcat!, RBBS, etc.) they used. You could download this list from any of the BBS you frequented. It also listed the major interest of the board. Some were interest based; you know, cars, politics, some religion or other, I remember one, Hiram’s something or other was about the Freemasons. Hmm. I just remembered I have a complete package of Wildcat! BBS software in my closet somewhere. I can still set one of these things up… Maybe when I retire… If I still have a landline…

Anyway the fun thing was that if you managed to connect with one of these things you knew that anyone you came in contact with was at least at your level of expertise. Not like today’s Internet where any idiot can get on and muck about. It was much more a cyber-geek’s domain.

There were games hosted by each BBS, “Bagels”, “King of the Hill”, “Chess”, etc. The high scores got listed. There were also networked “conferences” much like the Usenet Newsgroups of today (I’ll bet many of you don’t even know about these) where there are many topics of conversation going on. Relaynet was one such outfit. It had 800 or so “nodes”, or connected BBS’ all over the world that carried the Relaynet conferences. I was one of the hosts of the Mystery Conference, the one discussing mystery and detective stories. If I Google myself, this still comes up. There was a conference for movies, recipes, the list went on.

But as I said above, the thunderbolt hit me. This stuff is still going on, but we now call them social networking sites. Goes to show you, everything does return in one form or another. Now if only those wide ties we wore in the seventies…

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Andre Goodfriend


I remember the old BBS sites. And, you’re right, back in those days the Internet was more about networking. The closed communities, such as Compuserve and upstart AOL had their own content, but the Internet was a network of groups that you sort of had to know someone who knew someone to find out about. I started with General Electric’s GEnie Aladdin service in 1991, then I went off to India and when I came back in 1993, it was possible to link directly to the Internet via Delphi.com, but no graphic interface. I found the BBS communities were a bit more geared towards the technical side of things, but I used to use the newsgroups quite a bit. And while the Usenet newsgroups were certainly ad hoc networks of people, there was a greater anonymity to them, making them less social. There’s a bit more focus on knowing who you’re talking to, and being accountable for what you write than their used to be.

Like with so many things, the drive to interact has remained the same for centuries, but the technologies have changes. Maybe we’ve gone from town crier to bulletin board to BBS to newsgroup and listserv to social network site. But the constant has been that it’s still about people interacting with people.


Agreed. Most of the new tools are really iterations on previous iterations of the social web. I think in the end they just tie back into the human need to be social, forms groups, and connect and share information whether it is your vacation photos or chatting about cloud computing.

Denise Hill

The problem is that Ed took me further back than I care to remember. Now I am yearning for the sound of the modem connecting. Sish. It’s all the same, just newer ways of computing. Remember shared data centers? Processor sharing? chat rooms? virtual terminals/windows/xxxx. I do know that I have not had any long distance calls on my home phone for a while thanks to IM, etc.

Ed Albetski

Thanks for your comments!
Andre, I really got much the same feeling I do here and somewhat on Facebook on a few of the boards I called. These were the ones where I found a core of competition in their online games, trivia quizzes, mostly, and recipe trading (!?). I made a few friends and afterwards we regularly left messages. Same felling here, where I invited some ready-made friends to join, but I’m getting new ones all the time 🙂

Arlena Boxton

Oh yeah, I remember those good ole days! The difference was that with the old BBS sites you really needed to use more visualization because you didn’t have the graphics and up-close and personal collab tools we have now. I mean it was always exciting back then to decide to actually “meet up” with online friends in real life. Now, we can see each other on our web cams with so many choices of available apps – WebEx, NetMeeting etc. and we can use VOIP to actually speak to one another real time. I kinda miss the old days where I had to use “pure text” to communicate 😉