The Bulletin Boarding Of America
Kathy Yakal, Feature Writer
According to dozens of recent magazine and newspaper articles, some psychologists are worried that personal computer hobbyists are spending so much time with their computers that they're becoming isolated from other people and the outside world.
But ironically, communication with people in the outside world is the focus of a fast-growing application for personal computers today: telecomputing. Electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBS's) are providing a forum for new friendships and the exchange of information between computer owners. And it's a forum not bounded by neighborhoods or physical distances. BBS's offer free public-domain software, technical assistance, and contact with people across the street or across the country.
With the addition of a modem and a simple terminal program, a personal computer can help foster, rather than hinder, communication.
A Grassroots Movement
If you've ever logged on to a major information service such as CompuServe, you were probably overwhelmed by the wealth of menus and features available. A BBS is not nearly that sophisticated, but consider this: Most are operated by average people out of their homes, on equipment they purchased themselves or with a local user group.
The earliest BBS's came online in the late 1970s. Many served as information boards for fledgling user groups. Club officers would post important messages and meeting notices, and store public-domain software for members to download. Some computer stores also set up BBS's to allow customers easy and up-to-date access to prices and inventory information. And a few people—people who were willing to devote their computer system and a lot of time—started boards simply because they enjoyed making it easier for computer owners to get in touch with each other.
Hundreds of boards have come and gone since those early days, but hundreds more remain.
John Semenek, a Chicago, Illinois computer programmer/analyst, bought an Atari 800 a couple of years ago. Intrigued by its sound and graphics capabilities, he joined a local user group and started looking for Atari bulletin boards in the Chicago area.
He found only one. Now there are at least 20 in that metropolitan area alone, and Semenek's is one of them.
"I started it as a service to our user group, though it's not limited to those people," he says. "It really extends the usage of a home computer." Semenek estimates that if someone normally spends five hours a week with their home computer, buying a modem boosts that figure by about 300 percent.
If you made a printout of all of the BBS phone numbers listed on the People's Message Service of Santee, California (619-561-7277), the list would stretch out to about the length of a good Carl Lewis long jump.
The list includes many machine-specific boards; that is, boards that cater to the special interests of people with Apples or Commodores or Ataris or TIs or IBMs or Radio Shack computers. No matter what kind of computer you have, you can access any of these boards, but you won't be able to download any of the public domain software.
There are boards containing nothing but movie reviews, religious boards, "Dial-Your-Match" boards (computer dating services), boards for people who work with CP/M, adventure game boards, boards for lawyers, boards for aviators—boards tailored to just about any special interest.
Most BBS's, however different their reason for existence, follow a similar format. Once you've logged on to a few, you'll begin to recognize the general process of interacting with them, even though commands may differ.
Probably the first thing most people do when they call is check the message files. Nearly all BBS's let users read and write messages to individuals or the general public. In fact, some exist solely for that reason.
Many of the messages are technical queries or requests for information on hardware and software. Some messages advertise items for sale, or items sought. Some are just running conversations between different users. And quite often, one caller will start a debate on some topic that is picked up by others and carried on for weeks.
The second most popular BBS feature, say many sysops (system operators), is the ability to upload and download public-domain software. This is especially true on boards run by user groups; instead of standing in a long line at a user group meeting to copy a disk, club members can call the BBS and download that month's offerings.
Other features commonly found on bulletin boards include ads from local computer stores; bulletin sections where callers can post meeting notices or industry news, or call attention to books or magazine articles; "chat mode," or on-line conversation with the sysop if he or she is available; a classified ad section, which allows callers to advertise items for sale or trade; and lists of other BBS's.
Stan and Susie Subeck recently added an unusual feature to their Chicago-area Atari BBS: an on-line games section. Atari owners can choose from a few adventure games—even a trivia quiz—and play while connected to the board.
"At first, everyone said that would be impossible on an Atari," says Susie. "Actually, it's very simple. It just takes a lot of disk space."
Like many sysops, the Subecks started their bulletin board to provide support to other Atari owners. And, says Susie, as an educational tool for her 12- and 13-year-old children. "The kids have learned a lot about computers by helping with the maintenance on the board."
It was their 13-year-old daughter's habit of talking in "Valspeak" (Valley Girl jargon) that sparked an idea for the board's theme. Called "Valley Girl BBS," the Subecks' board has command menus written in Valspeak, as well as a glossary to understanding the Southern California lingo. Callers to this BBS don't delete messages: They "bag" them. And you don't exit the board: you "de-val." Crude callers are "grody" or "nerds."
Try to be patient. BBS's are single-user networks (only one person may be on-line at a time), unlike commercial information services, which are multi-user networks capable of simultaneously handling thousands of callers. When calling a BBS, chances are you'll get lots of busy signals before you get through. A modem with auto-dial and auto-redial can ease the frustration.
Another problem you may encounter is finding numbers of bulletin boards that suit your interests. A good place to start looking is the People's Message Service mentioned above. The list is several thousand bytes long, so make sure you've got enough file space if you plan to download it. If you want, you can enter your area code and get a list of only those boards in your own region (to avoid a hefty long-distance bill).
Noisy phone lines and faulty hardware or software can give you a screenful of garbage, even on the most reliable boards. If this happens, disconnect and try again, checking to make sure your modem is connected properly. If it persists, wait a couple of days and call back: The sysop may have corrected the problem.
A few words about etiquette: Most BBS's run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but some don't. Please observe the limited calling hours of those exceptions, and remember to check what time zone you're calling. A phone call from Sacramento to Boston at 9:00 local time may awaken an East Coast sysop out of a midnight slumber. Limited BBS hours usually mean the phone line is also used for business or personal purposes.
Most BBS's don't tolerate obscenity and the uploading of copyrighted software, and sysops are quick to ban such callers from their systems. Many BBS's are switching to closed systems (requiring a password and sometimes a membership fee) for that reason.
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When he wasn't acting in San Francisco Bay area theatrical productions, Kent Fillmore was working as a maintenance man at a local hotel in the late 1970s. The hotel manager was using an Apple for record-keeping, and suggested that Kent play around with it a bit.
"I went through the manual in a month," recalls Fillmore. "Then I said to myself, 'I'm going to get one of these, and I'm going to change my job. "
Fillmore now does research and development for Pacific Al-chemical, a company specializing in educational software and programming utilities. His interest in bulletin boards led him to pitch a proposal for a nationwide network of BBS's to a software retail firm.
The plan is to have one franchise in every area code of the country, a BBS that will offer information on software available through retail company software brokers. It's primarily a commercial venture, but there's a bonus for user groups. Fillmore's system is set up so there can be several boards within one BBS, and he's offering those boards to local user groups to use for their own purposes.
The first BBS in the system, Draco-Net, has been running out of Fillmore's home on an Apple II for about three months now, and he's enjoying the interaction with fellow users. "I honestly don't know what the fascination is with bulletin boards," he says. "It's a whole new way of dealing with people. You can literally create your own personality if you want."
Sysops spend an average of more than $3000 to put a BBS on-line and an additional $50 per month to keep it running, according to a recent survey conducted by Ric Manning, editor of Plumb, a monthly telecommunications newsletter.
Besides this drain on the sysop's wallet, a lot of time is involved. Manning reports that general maintenance, data entry, and other chores can take up to 50 hours a month.
The biggest problem sysops encounter is heavy usage at peak times, which they defined as 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Tim Renshaw, sysop of the AVC Commodore BBS in Indianapolis, Indiana, tells of another problem. "The twits," he says, "the callers who have very little sense of good taste and like to leave obscene messages. That's really tapered off, though. It used to be a daily event."
Hundreds of boards have fallen by the wayside because the scales tipped too far for the sysops: The bad outweighed the good.
But Renshaw and other sysops anticipate even better things over the next year. Things like more graphics, increased storage space (enabling more users, on-line games, and room for more messages and programs), and BBS software that supports a wider variety of communication standards.
Sysops continue to support each other and improve their systems as manufacturers work on the cheaper, faster, easier-to-use modems anticipated in the future. The bulletin boarding of America is well on its way.