A Modern BBS: Reviving the local, distributed, weird precursor to Facebook.

Andrew Roach
Mar 1, 2016 · 5 min read

BBSs were a weird, wonderful facet of early computer culture, connecting community members in to a distributed, often free, local social network. I want to revive this almost forgotten concept, and find a modern spiritual successor.

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Photo by Jason Scott

History Lesson

The important things to remember about these early BBSs:

— They existed separate from the modern internet.

— You connected directly to the BBS, by calling its phone number, rather than connecting to a single network that had access to many different pages.

— Anyone with a computer and a modem could run a BBS. There were no gatekeepers.

— Anyone with a computer and a modem could connect to a BBS, as long as they could afford the phone bill.

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Many early BBSs were run on C-64s

Imagine it, a private/local anonymous/pseudonymous social network that required no additional infrastructure beyond that which has existing since Alexander Graham Bell invented telephony. A private, local, distributed, weird internet, complete with email ( even cross-system email ), online games, public messaging, and a culture all it’s own.

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We’re going to need something more advanced than this, for the modern age.

As the internet matured, BBSs died away, and that’s a real shame, because BBSs were an astounding, and important development in early computing history and culture that has been all but lost today. I want to see this concept brought to modern technology to build a new, distributed, local, social network free from the privileges and restrictions of the internet, and I think it can be done in a new, and intentionally radical way.

Reviving the BBS

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The Library Box, one of many modern BBS like systems

There are other projects in the works (including one of my own) that aim to cover some of the same ground, that is, that aim to use cheap and readily accessible computers as a convenient way to serve up information, media, and communication tools for anyone in physical proximity. Of course, the biggest limitations of a system like this are:

  • The Wifi signal has a relatively limited range, meaning you can only access this system when you’re in the same (or possibly an adjacent) building.
  • There isn’t, at the moment, a reliable way to pass data between these islands

Even with these limitations, a community can build quickly around a well placed modern BBS. For a few months last summer, we ran one at Analog Revolution, and we watched it quickly become a place for community discussion, and the sharing of (among other things) local music. Eventually, the hardware was cannibalized for further experimentation, but as a dry run the Analog BBS affirmed my belief that this is a viable, necessary, and potentially vital next step in the evolution of modern computing.

Surmounting the Obstacles

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One potential solution for long range communication.

From there, I want to enable long range communication with these nodes. Ideally, using something akin to the GoTenna radios, but possibly using something like the xBee. This should enable client -> server connections over distances for 1–4 miles. In the long run, it is my hope to enable each of these nodes to connect together over a mesh network, enabling access to a local, distributed, surveillance resistant, censor proof, and unabashedly bizarre replacement-internet.

Why bother?

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Who’s with me?

We don’t deserve any better, either. We’ve given these large, private corporations access to every aspect of our lives. We won’t deserve better until we demand better, and create it for ourselves. We have the opportunity to take back our digital liberty, to connect with our local community, to fight the race towards homogenized culture, and to do something fun.

Wanna help?

Of course, this might all be little more than a pipe dream but, the technology is there, the need is there, and wouldn’t it be something if we could pull it off?

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