The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

How fitting, I thought, that a rugged individualist-type would still be running a dial-up only BBS (no Telnet) out in the middle of Texas.

I dialed-in, looked around, and found a bare-bones FidoNet messaging center with no apparent games and no local message activity to speak of. It was a Texas ghost town.

FidoNet is the most popular inter-BBS message network, with about 2,500 listed nodes (or connected systems) worldwide. That might be a stretch; recent attempts to verify that number by actually connecting to the services have come far short of 2,500. It's more likely that 100 to 150 are still active. It's a long fall from FidoNet's peak in 1995, at over 35,000 nodes. [...]

Intrigued, I left a message for the sysop, Mike Luther. No response. I called again and left my phone number. About an hour later, my phone rang: "Caller ID Blocked."

The BBS as a digital bunker for the age after privacy on the internet. It was Luther. He spent most of our hour-long conversation talking about things like Area 51 and the Mafia. They reflect the colorful nature of some of the BBS holdouts. In part of our conversation, Luther described the activities of Adolf Hitler and how they related to Texas. I had to ask: "Did Hitler ever use a BBS?" Luther replied, "I don't know."

This veteran sysop was born in 1939 and has been using computers as long as he can remember. He says his father once led the math department at Texas A&M University, which is located in College Station. Today, Luther runs his BBS out of the small house where his dad once lived, and he does so out of a sense of obligation to provide a dial-up avenue to FidoNet that is -- supposedly -- free of government surveillance. The BBS as a digital bunker for the age after privacy on the internet.

Eventually, Luther expressed grave concern for my safety given his complex life full of dangerous connections, so we exchanged polite goodbyes. [...]

Ten years ago, when I dipped back into BBSes, I still got a sense that many sysops ran them to provide a libertarian alternative to the internet. Among them, the unoppressed who wanted religious freedom, the unsurveilled who wanted freedom from surveillance, and those prepping for the day when BBSes would provide shelter after the internet came crashing down.

Today, those sentiments are much more unusual in the BBS community. In 2016, calling a BBS mostly means reliving glory days long past: 1990s technology as comfort food, nourishing the fragile soul with a slow drip of information at a rate that old-timers actually can comprehend.

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7 Responses:

  1. The internet is pretty great and all, but I do miss the intimacy of local BBSes. You'd have GTs and get to meet the other wierdos in person. Some of my best friends are from those days long ago.

    I finally turned my BBS off in 1997, long after everyone had pretty much moved on. Sadly I did not make durable backups of that stuff. I'd love to see it now.

    • Miguelito says:

      I still have the box and manual for Wildcat BBS! 3.x. Also some door program floppies. No idea if they'd actually work if I had a floppy drive anywhere.

    • Bill Whitehouse says:

      I pulled the plug in 1998 after years of tracking the weekly nodelist contraction for the fido newsletter.

      Fired up my old system on a backup XP box just now and RemoteAcess loads local without a hiccup. Nothing to stop me from testing the modem but fear of the past.

      Does Tom Jennings still haunt SF?

    • Elusis says:

      I ran my WWIV BBS through 1997, when a cross-country move forced me to decide whether to get a second phone line installed at my new place, and my grad-school budget said "no."

      I also made a lot of local friends thanks to BBS parties. Usenet stepped into fill the "online friends" gap but it took a lot more effort to cement friendships when they weren't in your area code.

  2. Timmay says:

    My friend and I ran a popular "Citadel" BBS back in the day. Met a good handful of friends that way.

    I miss the BBS style interactions.

  3. apm74 says:

    That was where I ran into a survivialist/white nationalist person for the first time in my life. Now they'll be running the country.

  4. I used a Fidonet board to email my parents when I was going to graduate school in Portland in 1993 and my dad was using BBS's in Utah, probably to cheat on my mother. He's dead now, but Fidonet remains.

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