The 'Wild And Woolly' World Of Bulletin Boards These days, if you want to find a fling, a friend or a cheap used sofa, you might check craigslist. But decades before Craig Newmark posted his first list, computer users all over the country were connecting through electronic bulletin boards.
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The 'Wild And Woolly' World Of Bulletin Boards

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The 'Wild And Woolly' World Of Bulletin Boards

The 'Wild And Woolly' World Of Bulletin Boards

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GUY RAZ, host:

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of what we now called the Internet. We continue our series, The Net at 40, this week with a look at an Internet relic - bulletin board systems or BBSes.

Born in Chicago in 1978, they would grow to number over a hundred thousand by the mid-1990s only to be rendered obsolete by the World Wide Web, and just a few struggle on today. Producer Phil Harrell has this look back.

PHIL HARRELL: These were the original online social networks. Before Craig had his list, before friend was a verb, there were BBSes.

Unidentified Man: In this age of information, it is hard to ignore the fact that the number of personal computers is on the rise.

HARRELL: This 1992 instructional video said it all.

Unidentified Man: But most people are not aware of the possibility to connect their home computer to another in the outside world to share a vast resource of information and data.

HARRELL: The model for a bulletin board system is just like it sounds. Tom Jennings was an early adopter of the bulletin board in the late 1970s.

Mr. TOM JENNINGS: It's the corkboard in the entranceway to a supermarket. You know, you got a barbecue for sale, you put a three-by-five card with the description and your phone number and you thumbtack it to the wall, and there's a whole collection of these things. It's sort of a form of social commerce.

HARRELL: Tom Jennings went on to create something called FidoNet, which would revolutionize the way BBSes talk to each other - sort of the first strands of the World Wide Web. Here's how it worked: each individual BBS had its own phone number, usually run out of somebody's house. So, a PC owner interested in connecting with that person's BBS would�

(Soundbite of dial tone)

HARRELL: �pick up a phone and dial in�

(Soundbite of key tones)

HARRELL: �and they'd be met with a rather rude answer.

(Soundbite of fax tone)

HARRELL: Then you'd quickly unplug the cord from the phone and jam it into the modem and you're off. Before the BBS, the Internet was the exclusive domain of big business and big universities. All of the sudden, it was ours.

Mr. JENNINGS: It was hobbyist-based, it was much more egalitarian. Any fool with a thousand bucks to put a machine together could be on the net. You did not have to go through layers of academic or corporate access. So, bulletin boards were wild and woolly.

HARRELL: Tom Jennings saw the BBS expand from geeky computer talk - his words, not mine - to covering all sorts of different topics: sports, fantasy gaming�

Mr. JENNINGS: Sex and relationships clearly has driven network communications since the start.

HARRELL: Hobbies, philosophies.

Mr. JENNINGS: Oh, you know, just general birds of a feather kind of stuff. People who have similar interests.

HARRELL: BBSes opened up the world of computing to a generation that would go on to completely integrate computers into their lives. But by the mid-1990s, BBSes were obsolete and their numbers took a nosedive. But believe it or not, there are still plenty around, even today.

Most of them operate like any old Web site, but a handful of dial-ups are still out there. You can still dial into a BBS, provided you still got a modem.

Mr. MICHAEL POWELL (Capital City Online BBS): My name is Michael Powell, and I run the Capital City Online BBS.

HARRELL: And he's been running it in one form or another since 1989.

Mr. POWELL: It seems sort of a shame just to stop.

HARRELL: Michael Powell lives in Kentucky, where he says he spends about $13 a month to keep the phone line running and that extra computer powered up at all times.

Mr. POWELL: As far as the actual dial-up goes, you know, I might get two or three people a week where, you know, it used to be you'd probably get that many in two or three hours.

HARRELL: His BBS currently has conversations going on about the health care debate and politics and the sort of computer questions he always got back in the day. Most of his fan base went away with the advent of the World Wide Web.

Mr. POWELL: Now, there is one person I still sometimes see his name out there. He's still posting. He was a user of mine back in the early '90s.

HARRELL: But these days, Michael Powell says most of the people who come to Capital City Online do it just for the nostalgia value.

Mr. POWELL: When I get a new caller that calls in dial-up, usually they'll compliment me on keeping it going and, you know, still having it up the old-fashioned way. It's nice to know that they appreciate that and it's nice that I'm still here to provide, you know, that for them.

HARRELL: Powell says he has no plans to shut down his BBS, obsolete or not.

Mr. POWELL: I've always said if that particular computer I have it on, if it crashes, I might be hard pressed to just by the cost of setting it up again. But so far so good on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRELL: There's a Web site called BBS Corner that maintains a list of the remaining dial-ups in North America - 41 by their count - including Michael Powell and his Capital City Online, still making beautiful music together after 20 years.

(Soundbite of dial-up modem tone)

HARRELL: Phil Harrell, NPR News.

RAZ: You can find that list of the remaining dial-up BBSes and other stories in our Net at 40 series at our Web site,

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