These days, social media is getting all the attention, but the Bulletin Board System (BBS), a relic from a kinder, milder time in data communication, remains. Each BBS is its own retro-flavored group with messages, text-based games and files you can download. And you can still connect to one today.
What is a BBS?
A bulletin board system, or BBS, is a computer-based electronic community where its members can read and write messages, play text-based games, and download files. They originated in 1978 in Chicago, and their popularity peaked around 1995, just as the internet became popular.
In the days before the Internet, most BBSs were run by hobbyists on personal computers with modems connected to dial-up telephone lines. Usually only one person could call and use BBS at a time (although there were some multi-line BBSs).
Today, because dial-up telephone lines are scarce, and we have the Internet, most BBS devices use the Telnet connection protocol (although some dial-up BBS devices still exist).
In the United States, there were once tens of thousands of active BBSs. After the internet became commonplace, however, most went offline, but some switched to the web. Today, the number of BBSes is increasing due to a growing nostalgia for the past. The Telnet BBS Guide lists almost 800 active BBS devices, which is more than twice as many as in 2016.
Why use a BBS today?
Sure, you can just hop on Twitter, Facebook or Reddit to find a community. But if you want an explosion from the past, you should try a BBS. Below are just a few reasons why people still use them.
There are no concrete figures, but hundreds of thousands of people may have used BBS in the 80s and 90s. Today, many people like to remember their early online experiences (and maybe share them with their children).
Many would like to relive these times, so they go to a modern BBS. Some hobbyists even use vintage computer systems with a special serial-to-internet adapter to call a BBS.
Unique gaming experiences
Until 2020, there are still some gaming experiences on a BBS that you can not get anywhere else. Classic BBS door games, like TradeWars 2002, Legend of the Red Dragon, Solar Realms Eliteand Function: Overkill II, still attracts a legion of players. This is proof that many people still enjoy the text-based delights of BBS retrogaming.
Unique cultural groups
Each BBS is a cultural pocket that is usually isolated from Google’s indexing or viral intrusions from social media. You can not access a BBS via a web browser without logging in via a terminal emulator. This means that you generally cannot access a BBS resource openly from a website (although there are exceptions).
As a result, each BBS feels like a private club that reflects the personality of the administrator, or Sysop (system operator). Each BBS is its own community. People leave messages for each other, play against each other in text-based games and (less commonly now) share files that are only available on that particular BBS.
How to call a BBS
To use a modern Telnet BBS via the internet, you need a Telnet client. This is a program that simulates the computer terminals from the past and connects to a BBS.
Ideally, you want a client that supports the entire IBM PC character set, so that you can see ANSI block graphics as they are intended to be viewed. You can not go wrong with SyncTerm, which is available as a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux.
After downloading SyncTerm, run it. When you see an empty “Catalog” window, press Enter. A popup pops up asking for the name of the BBS. We write “The Cave BBS” (it is run by the author).
SyncTerm will ask for “Connection Type.” Use the arrow keys to select “Telnet” and then press Enter. When it asks for an address, we write the following:
We then select “The Cave BBS” from the directory list using the arrow keys and press Enter to connect. The screen turns black. If BBS is available, you will see a screen like the one shown below.
Almost all BBS require you to log in with an account before you can use the system. At “Grottan” you can create one for free. Just type “New” in the “Login:” prompt, then press Enter.
You get a series of questions to create your account; press Enter after entering each answer.
It is common for many BBS users to use a cool alias, such as Red Wolf, Nukemaster or Blue Dragon. At “Grottan” you do not have to write your real name, birthday or address if you do not want to – these are relics from the call period.
You’re getting to a point where you need to write a “validation message.” This is a BBS tradition where you politely request access to the system and tell Sysop how you heard about BBS.
Write your message, then write a new line
/s and press Enter to send it.
When your registration is complete, you will see some screens with statistics and then a main menu like the one shown below. The menu contains all possible commands that you can type to use BBS.
To type a command, pay attention to the yellow prompt at the bottom of the screen. Type a command (like
C to visit the chat area) and then press Enter. In general, the menus are hierarchical. So if you press a letter and open a new menu, you can almost always go one level back by pressing Q to exit.
If you are primarily here for the games, write a period (
.) and then press Enter to check them out. To read messages left by others, press N to scan all message cards for new messages.
You are free to explore the system however you want. Cave BBS has four nodes, which means that four people can connect and use the system at the same time. Each person also has a (generous) daily time limit. This is also a relic from the dial-up period – you get a time limit if your account is inactive for too long.
Common BBS commands
Each BBS software platform has different commands that you can use. Cave BBS runs software called Synchronet, which is configured to use older WWIV-style menus.
Below are some common commands to help you get around:
?(question mark): See the BBS main menu which shows commands.
.(period): Go to the online door game menu.
N: Automatically search for new messages in all message cards (below).
*(asterisk): See a list of message cards.
+(minus and plus signs): Navigate between message cards.
[ ](parentheses): Switch between local and network-based subs.
S: Read messages on the current subcard.
P: Post a message on the current board.
E: Read or send an email.
C: Visit the chat area to talk to people on other nodes.
T: Go to the section on file transfer (download).
CTRL-U: See who is connected to BBS.
Q: Exit and return to the previous menu.
O: Log out and disconnect from the system.
When you are done with BBS, write
O in the main menu, then press Enter to disconnect. The next time you connect, enter the username and password you created earlier at the login prompt instead of “New”.
Other popular BBSs to visit
The cave is not the only BBS out there. You can browse a list of almost 800 systems in the Telnet BBS Guide. Here are a handful of well-known BBSes and their Telnet addresses, so you can check them out:
- Level 29 (bbs.fozztexx.com)
- Particles! BBS (particlesbbs.dyndns.org:6400)
- Heatwave (heatwave.ddns.net:9640)
- Black flag (blackflag.acid.org)
- An 80s Apple II BBS (a80sappleiibbs.ddns.net:6502)
- The Keep (thekeep.net)
In general, each system will teach you how to use your own messages and menus. As you explore, remember that each BBS only exists because a Sysop donates its time and computer to keep it running. If you are always polite to the locals and follow the rules of the system, you have good BBSing!