As a child of the 90's and a teenager of the aught's, I missed the era of the BBS. I think prior to this documentary, all I knew was that BBS was essentially what came before "the internet" (visual pages and browsers). Recently, the crew over at Giant Bomb put up a BBS that the users could "call into" (albeit via broadband) to experience the door games and the feeling of something before our time. I logged in a few times and found that it was a fun glimpse into a pretty abstracted world. But again, the scope of my knowledge about BBS was pretty primitive. It just seemed like text on a screen. But of course, like many things I write about here, the story and the importance comes from the relationships between the users and the technology. Not from the object itself.
BBS - The Documentary, by archivist Jason Scott, is available here on youtube and tells the stories of relationships through the lens of the BBS era. Like any great documentary, it focuses on the storied connections between the people and the circumstances surrounding them. The hours of interviews are broken into logical parts, building from the birth of the BBS to its eventual replacement by the Internet. During each stage you are not only told stories that are funny, intriguing and even moving — you also get a crash course in what it was like to use the technology of the time. From the humbling concept of 300 baud modems (I will never complain about "slow internet" again... and once you see it, you won't either) to the impressive works of ANSI art — you will get a big dose of perspective as to how far technology has come. However, there are some truly bittersweet moments in this documentary. As you get glimpses into what it was like to be in those communities, you realize how genuine and important the friendships on the BBS were to people. BBSes by their very nature, were local and organic. It was built by people who were welcoming you literally into their home via phone line. Unknowingly like-minded folks met online, and blossomed into real life meetings at local pizza joints. Genius minds figured out how to develop software across the US, long before skype and dropbox. People connected. Really connected. Beyond wires and text.
To watch the story unfold as BBS gets washed away by the Internet, I think you'll feel a twinge of loss, like I did. Though admittedly I am nostalgic for someone else's past — one that predates my own existence, the emotion is still there. It feels that in a trade for the internet, we lost the gentle and local sense of community that something like a BBS could bring about for people. And for all the good the internet has brought about, there isn't a good modern comparison that my relatively young mind (24) sees to the BBS. Twitter might be the closest, but even that is too large and probably too fast. Not to mention, it's not local. If I do a local search on twitter (either by trends or via GPS in tweetbot) I get a list of strangers who, while public, aren't expecting me to say, "Hi neighbor!" In fact, if I did, the idea of locality would probably creep them out. It might creep me out at least, whether or not we had a lot in common. In fact, even a locality-based service — like Foursquare — isn't intended to bring together complete randoms, it's to share with your already-friends. Has the growth and expansion of technology pushed us too far away too fast? In an effort to all become individuals with big voices and audiences, have we all become comfortable shouting into the void, rather than talking to the person next to us? Do we even want to talk to the person next to us anymore? I hate ending posts like these with big "think" questions, but I can't answer these. Maybe that's the point. Maybe after watching the BBS documentary, you'll have your own thoughts and answers to those questions. When you do, call me up. My line's open.