The Prehistory of Cyberspace

How BBSes paved the way for the Web.


In the antediluvian '80s, when mass participation in the Internet was still but a gleam in Al Gore's eye, an enthusiastic network of avant-garde geeks was exploring an embryonic cyberspace. By the hundreds of thousands, they created in miniature the precursors of the vast communication system that today envelops our social and professional lives.

They were called bulletin board systems, or BBSes: communities that allowed users to dial in at crawling modem speeds–usually only one at a time–and exchange private e-mails, public messages, and software files. The first of the boards appeared in 1978, when a snowstorm provoked hobbyists Ward Christensen and Randy Suess to hack together something they called CBBS, the Computerized Bulletin Board System, for their Chicago-area computer users group. By the mid-'90s, the BBS scene was all but defunct: The Internet had siphoned off its early-adopter members like a newborn insect devouring its mother.

The all-but-lost story of those early years is exhumed in Jason Scott's BBS: The Documentary, an eight-part, five-and-a-half-hour, three-DVD history cobbled together from some 200 interviews with the people who ran, used, and covered the world of the boards. Rarely present in BBS himself, Scott stitches together scraps of his subjects' recollections into eight topical narrative collages focusing on different aspects of BBS culture, from the quixotic struggle to make a buck off the boards to the fierce rivalries between the BBS art groups, teams of graphically gifted kids who competed to produce the most dazzling images working from a palate of clunky colored blocks.

Among the more interesting tales is that of FidoNet and its frenetic architect, Tom Jennings. In 1984, when only a handful of academic computer scientists were aware of (let alone using) the Internet, Jennings created software that allowed BBS users to send e-mail and discussion board messages across the country and, later, around the world. By modern standards, it was slow. At the time, it seemed pretty rapid. Member boards–numbering more than 35,000 at the network's peak–would dial in periodically to a regional hub, which would then relay messages to other hubs and, finally, to their destinations.

"It really was written on explicitly anarchist principles," explains Jennings, who would later found the queer/anarchist/punk zine Homocore. "We work better without top-down control; we work better cooperatively." Many assume that, because the Internet grew out of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, it could only have been created by government. Yet FidoNet–which still exists–proved that dedicated amateurs, mostly working on shoestring budgets, could cobble together a globe-spanning network in their spare time.

It's easy to forget, now that the vast majority of Americans are online and the phrase "we met on the Internet" need not be uttered with a blush and a mumble, how empowering it was suddenly to come upon a new world untethered from geography. People have always found ways to exploit new technologies to form communities, from science fiction aficionados circulating mimeographed fanzines to early telegraph operators chatting away in Morse code between official messages. But BBSes ratcheted up the scale on which such communities could be organized.

For many in the '80s and early '90s–isolated gays, abashed alcoholics, or just disaffected teenagers–finding that first board was a dial-in to Damascus experience. It also afforded a first taste of the online world's empowering anonymity. A shy kid could craft a new identity, even become a respected system operator.

The episode of BBS that focuses on the darker side of the scene–hackers, crackers, phone phreaks, and software pirates–opens with a monologue from a portly aging biker called Bootleg with a great frizzy white beard and long hair, who sits astride a great black Harley taking drags from a cigarette. "Whether people are called bikers or whether they're called hackers, it's the same type of freedom we're talking about," he explains.

The online world now feels a bit less like the open highway, a bit more like a suburban street: For most people it is just another part of ordinary life, not an escape from it. By reviving this nearly forgotten history, BBS offers the vicarious thrill of that first discovery of virgin territory–and hints that, behind the easy familiarity of cyberspace, it may still be out there.

For several years in his adolescence, Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez administered a BBS called Surreality, where he answered to the name Lord Cardboard.