Broadband BBSing — A Case Study on Contemporary BBS Use
This paper is about my visit to ||||| and why after seeing it I think everyone should think of new ways of leveraging exciting legacy technology.
To pass time on BBSes in the second, (almost third) decade of the 21st century poses a problem. The problem of being disconnected from reality, for BBSes started to die circa 1995, when the commercial internet became the connect-to place for modem users, and the BBS global community practically disappeared.
Today, almost four decades after their invention, BBSes have returned. Those who loved them are back in business, those that couldn’t get enough of them are connecting to them again, and a new generation of users that were born (or where small kids or toddlers) when they were losing popularity is discovering them for the first time.
Yet, the problem of resorting to obsolete technology and making a culture out of it — be it social, of leisure, or of aesthetics — is that the time spent with it is time not invested or spent with current things, and taking advantage of the advances in technology that happened in the twenty-plus years since they stopped being the official, real-world version of cyberspace.
In this case study, I will show how ||||| BBS is a good example of re-purposing old technology to solve current problems (like censorship in cyberspace) and fill current needs.
Elite BBS, Punk, Horror, Science Fiction, Interactive Fiction
A Return to Rad BBSing
I want to thank |||||, the sysop of ||||| for putting this BBS online and for allowing me to write this case study.
The BBS runs on System/X based on Gamesrv as telnet server and runs natively on Windows 7 32 bits.
The customization is a kind of Amiga Express ASCII theme, but it doesn’t stick to the Amiga color palette. This BBS in particular benefits greatly from using one of SyncTERM’s custom fonts, like the MicroKnight font. The steps to enable this kind of fonts to enjoy the BBS as it was meant to be used are laid out in the appendix, under the section that explains how to enable custom fonts in SyncTERM.
A goal of this BBS, as the content in it puts it, is freeing the technology on which it’s based. It’s also an oasis on the internet in which those that connect can express and let recorded their feelings and emotions without having to be politically correct. Finally, it delivers the cream of punk, horror and science fiction interactive fiction games and a peculiar chatbot.
The BBS has a thread (I think it’s message #5) in the messages base of the punk courtyard that’s called The Venting Profanity Thread, it’s a thread that the sysop started to inspire others to vent their accumulated steam, especially if it’s technology-related anger. In that thread all expressions are welcomed, the more caustic, the better.
During the whole visit, use and abuse experience I used mainly Syncterm to connect to the BBS. I used mTelnet but only occasionally; because of its window-only interface that I disliked. If you want to know more about contemporary BBS client software, refer to the appendix at the bottom of this paper.
If you want to experience a new take on BBSing, you should visit this BBS. Specially if you identify with punk, horror or science fiction fandom.
The BBS has three areas, what in the past were called conferences, but in it, they are called “courtyards”, the first one is the punk one, the second the horror one, and the third the science fiction one.
The BBS doesn’t belong to any group or echo messages network like the elite BBSes of the past used to do or like many of the present still do.
Its strong points are its selection of punk, horror, and science fiction scholar and leisure materials available in its file bases for download. Also, the punk chatbot |||||, in the punk courtyard is a conversation to be had.
There is one message area per courtyard, and they can be accessed by typing “R” and then enter. There is no list of message threads feature, but the simplistic message reading interface is self-explanatory if not totally user-sensitive, with its modest, text-mode simplicity.
There are three file bases per courtyard, 1 is for games, 2 is for texts and 3 is for the files users upload. If one visits this BBS the file bases are a must see. Punk, horror and science fiction niche goodies await there, like for instance, The Raw and The Rotten: Punk Cuisine or the whole collection of the Punk Lives! punk magazine, the magazine that real punks ’77 read.
There are four punk games, and a punk chatbot in the punk courtyard, six horror games in the horror courtyard, and three games in the science fiction one, they are accessed from the main menu directly.
When there is a flood of choices of web communities to pick, a thing like BBSes, that in the past was a great mean to build communities, is not as relevant, especially for the technical barriers and steps required to access them. And I’m not saying anything yet about the reduced fun factor of text mode graphics and text mode design yet.
As I see it the BBS culture can’t stand on its feet for itself any longer and it hasn’t been for the last twenty-odd years. What before was not just a hobby, but also a culture, and a way of life now is relegated to the category of hobby only.
I think that a BBS of today should be something catering not to the BBS scene in general, but to a specific, narrow segment and deliver a one-time, museum-like, niche experience, like ||||| does.
I personally won’t be calling to BBSes anytime soon, but when I called ||||| it really was a paradigm-shifting experience. ||||| feels very legacy, but it’s a good example how obsolete things of the past, can become a solution to a modern problem.
Even if the human resource is nowadays lacking, to have a rad software like System/X running natively and working correctly on Windows 7, like |||||, is way cool, and can be interpreted as some kind of statement.
If we are stuck with old technology just because of the fun of it, we should revise our attitude. To me the worst thing — in BBSes and in everything else — is to be lost in the means of something. Yet, if we can give new ends to old means and, making it a satisfactory aesthetic experience, actually enjoy it, and even get something out of it, then we shouldn’t.
||||| is current since one of its main attractions is the punk chatbot in the welcoming area. There is a global market for chatbots, and if you really love and like them, once you chat with one, you want to chat with all available, the weirdest, the better.
It’s also relevant in the sense of its nature of its objective of being a liberated area where the fear of vulgarity doesn’t exist.
How to Connect to a BBS in the Web 2.0 Age
Yes, time passed and archaic technologies like telnet are almost forgotten. At least that is what I thought when trying to get my BBS up and running at a normal production pace. I thought that if this was leisure computing, how soul-killing could real work get.
I couldn’t relate to the pain I’ve been through to get a BBS up and running. It was very difficult to emulate the DOS era without using an emulator. It was obstacles everywhere—because of the 16 bits to 32 bits trade-off.
While a BBS scene still exists, it is nothing like it was in the past because while the commercial internet came of age, the Telnet era is pushing about forty years, and as I said, except for enthusiasts, the DOS era is logically dead.
Still, we mustn’t forget that BBSes were the internet of the eighties and most of the nineties.
BBSes never really went away, they evolved with the internet. I guess that in the years of the dial-up to broadband internet transition, to be in a Telnet-able BBS would have been fun. But this just if taking on account the things from the internet that were integrated into BBS systems. Features like IRC, FTP, telnet to another BBS from inside a BBS, and inter-BBS games.
But nowadays even that has lost its novelty value. Who wants to chat by IRC these days? Not many, I guess. You can’t beat meta-IMs, the messengers of social networking portals, or VoIP with the old-hat trick of supporting IRC chat on ASCII text mode on a BBS. It’s not difficult to innovate anyhow. Some BBSes still online I’ve seen, in some ways, reflect the present with things that weren’t in the BBS’ heyday. Like delivering data extracted from web feeds.
Others BBSes dedicate themselves to be just like a time capsule, even offering old collections of software and information, like digital museums, which is neat, if you can find pearls among the heaps of shovel-ware and obsolete things.
SyncTERM vs mTelnet.
Get a telnet client: not many free ones with full BBS functionality to choose from.
This telnet client is free, it has all the goodies one might need in using a BBS. After some trouble with the other option (mTelnet) I conclude SyncTERM is the way to go, besides, it includes even an Amiga font among its features.
The screen has two windows. The left side’s one is the BBSes directory. The right one, switch to it with the Tab key, is for the connection’s settings, screen, fonts, and options.
Text-Mode Vintage Fonts
As I said, one of the coolest features is the fonts, you access them by:
1. Tab to SyncTERM settings
2. Go to Default Connection Settings and press enter
3. Choose Font, and a big fonts menu appears
4. Choose your own text-mode font
Adding a BBS to SyncTERM’s Directory
Make sure you are in the directory, it has to be blue, and not cyan. In SyncTERM blue denotes the active window and cyan the inactive one (of the two on its front-end).
Remember, tab switches between the two.
1. Press the Insert key
2. Enter BBS name
3. Press Enter in Connection Type (Telnet)
4. Enter the BBS’ address, something like bbs.tolinkto.org and press Enter.
That’s it, you added it to the directory.
Calling To A BBS
Scroll through the directory, choose a BBS of the many that come on the list with SyncTERM, and press enter. SyncTERM then proceeds to connect to the remote system. SyncTERM should connect to the remote BBS in one to five seconds. If this doesn’t happen it means the BBS is down. Press the Escape key to return to the directory in that case.
There aren’t many technicalities in calling to a BBS. When asked if the terminal supports ANSI it means if your client can display colors. Which the two clients recommended here can, thus answer yes.
Remember ALT+Enter will switch to full screen; to the console/text-mode screen.
Most BBSes, I dare say ninety-nine percent of them, require you register to use them. Don’t panic, it’s an easy “questions and answers” process like in any web forum or community site on the web. It’s even easier than registering on a website.
Most, but not all, BBSes require you to be a validated user to use them. Because of this it’s good to register in a handful of different BBSes, forget them for about a week and then connect to them again to enjoy full privileges.
Using Login Macros With SyncTERM
You can edit a BBS entry by pressing CTRL-E or F2. A rather self-explanatory menu in a window appears and the entry’s settings can be edited. In the Edit Directory Entry dialog.
You can even set macros for your username and password at the BBS. By doing this, the next time you call you press the macro’s shortcut, ALT+L. Doing this, SyncTERM enters the username and the password semi-automatically.
Useful BBS Hot-Keys
SyncTERM has some standard BBS-era hotkeys:
- ALT+C: Captures a log, creates a text file in your hard disk with a long snapshot of all the telnet session in ASCII
- ALT+H: Terminates connection, when in aBBS and you want to quit it ALT+H will end the connection and return you to SyncTERM directory
- ALT+Enter: Switch windowed and full-screenmodes
In SyncTERM BBSes directory:
- CTRL+E: Edit directory entry
- CTRL+D: Quick connect to a BBS, opens a dialog in which you can input an URL directly and connect to a BBS in two steps
A poor excuse for a terminal program mTelnet was all image and no functionality. Doesn’t have full-screen mode, and has “eecchhoo pprroobblleemmss” in some systems. Not recommended.