• Ryan M. Pierson

How is a BBS Like a Social Network?

Bulletin board systems were once the talk of the geek town, and before the days of the Internet, they were one of the best ways to connect with other people electronically. Email, forums, multiplayer games, and file sharing were all services commonly offered by your average BBS. So, how are they similar to today’s social networks?

Well, let’s start by how people join the service. A local BBS didn’t just let anyone anonymously log in. They usually required some form of a network ID to be established in addition to a password. This ID enabled users to play door games (multiplayer games hosted on the BBS), participate in group discussions, send email (private messages) back and forth, and even share files such as photos and basic programs.

Like a modern social network, the BBS of the early ’90s offered users the ability to form groups with like-minded individuals and take part in discussions. While not every BBS had this feature, many did, creating an atmosphere not entirely unlike the group discussions found on Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, and on many forums all across the Web.

Door games provided users with a turn-based multiplayer gaming experience. Games like Trade Wars 2002 and Legend of the Red Dragon were run through programs referred to as “doors” on the BBS host system, itself. These programs were accessible through the BBS and often allowed players to use their existing BBS login to play under. Does this sound familiar? Facebook has many games that run in a very similar manner today. For example, FarmVille is one such game that is in itself a separate app from the network, but allows players to access it through the network itself.

There are some notable differences between the two, however. For one, most BBS servers only allowed a single connection at a given time. Chatting was done between the server host (SysOp) and the end user only. A game of Scrabble, while still possible, took much longer to finish as each player had to log in using a direct dial-up connection when no one else was using the BBS. Yes, the server was so single-track minded that the monitor would actually display the user’s actions on the host’s monitor. This may sound a little creepy, but it’s how the SysOp knew when something was wrong.

In addition, connection speeds have greatly improved over the years. In the early days of the BBS, users would have to get used to single characters loading one-by-one as a new page of information was accessed. A single JPG file could take minutes, or even hours to download. Graphics were usually limited to ASCII characters, and color was an extra not every SysOp implemented.

So, is a modern social network like a BBS? I would say, absolutely. There are many parallels between the two, and undoubtedly some of the features you see on today’s social networks were inspired by previous communication technologies like bulletin board systems, chat protocols such as IRC, and newsgroups. The question facing us today is: what will our current social networks inspire?

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©2020 by Ryan Matthew Pierson.