Demise of the BBS

Published on 2009-06-17

A few days ago, I listened to a recent Hanselminutes podcast episode where Scott Hanselman and his guests discussed the Bulletin Board System industry in the 80s and early 90s and its decline in 1996 when the web went mainstream.

A BBS, as far as I can tell, is a little like a modern-day web forum. A system operator (sysop) would run a BBS on a computer in their house or office. Users would connect to the BBS by dialing in directly with a modem. In those days, a 9600 bps modem was considered very fast. Users could post messages for other users and download messages left for them. Early systems could only support one user dialed in at a time, but later systems could have multiple modems and supported features like games and chat. BBSs were very popular until 1996 when the web took off. They were almost entirely replaced within a year.

Unfortunately, I can't speak about BBSs with any kind of personal experience. I was 10 years old in 1996. The first time I heard about BBSs or modems was from a Ghostwriter episode where a computer hacker (12-year-old Julia Stiles) changes grades and sets off fire alarms in the school's mainframe.

In 1995, I knew someone who had Internet access, but my family couldn't afford it because it meant dialing long-distance to Iowa. We eventually went online in 1996 when we moved to a larger town in New Mexico. Our first modem was 14.4 kbps, which seemed very slow, even at the time. I remember enjoying web-based chat at WBS.net, which was later acquired by Infoseek (a popular search engine at the time), which was then acquired and shut down by Disney.

It is amazing to me that there are kids now in middle school who were born when all this was happening. The Internet went mainstream such a short time ago, and there are already a large number of people who won't remember it. I was even younger when BBSs were in their heyday, and I feel like I missed out on something.