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Dialing Up Community

By CHM Editorial | May 02, 2024

The Legacy of Bulletin Board Systems

Long before online forums and communities like Reddit and Discord, and even before the World Wide Web, bulletin board systems (BBSs) reigned supreme. In the 1980s and '90s, millions of people participated in more than 100,000 BBSs.

Kevin Driscoll, author of the award-winning book The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, and technology and society expert danah boyd joined CHM’s Marc Weber on stage at CHM Live to discuss the innovative world of BBSs and how they shaped today's digital world. Here are some highlights.

"Modemers" Unite

Speaking to an insider audience, where 60% of people had once dialed in to a BBS, Driscoll explained what it took to access one in the late 1980s—if you even knew about them. First, you had to buy a modem so you could connect your PC to a telephone network. These early “modemers,” as they called themselves, discovered a whole new world of people interacting virtually that they quickly found to be indispensable. Today, we take it for granted that we're online all the time, but back then it was an intentional choice.

Kevin Driscoll describes what it was like to go online in the ‘80s.

On a bulletin board you were likely to meet people who lived nearby because of the flat-rate local calling of phones at the time. Bulletin boards might also be an extension of a real-world club or interest group that had offline meetups at a bowling alley or bar.

The Gifting Economy

danah boyd's first experience online was memorable for the $700 phone bill it generated because she didn’t realize some of the numbers she was dialing up weren’t local. Sharing an account with her brother ensured that neither one would tattle to their parents about their experiences in this new space.

Usenet was her coming of age, and she found that many other early users self-identified like her as “geeks, freaks, and queers.” Sharing without consequences and receiving advice and help from caring strangers was life-changing for many online users.

danah boyd says early online communities were "gifting economies."

By the late ‘90s, people were online building communities and social support networks as well as blogging. Some were using BBSs to share files, particularly images, when this was technically hard to do, and then got drawn into messaging forums. The content of early files expanded to other forms of grassroots media-making, like fanzines, and gave birth to music tracking and the demo scene.


The ability to create and participate in media was novel at this time, when most people experienced mass media primarily as passive consumers of television. Online users were exploring new territory. For example, Driscoll described how people who offered things they had created on bulletin boards had to relinquish control of distribution because other users could share it wherever they wanted.

As with any new technology, users also had to work out the systems and norms in addition to the technology, says boyd. There were trolls and jerks then as there are now. People crafted rules for behavior—called “netiquette”—in text files that were shared across boards. But, if rules or bans didn’t work, sometimes the bulletin board system operator was forced to literally pull the plug to shut down the conversation.

Participation vs. Consumption

BBSs and other early online communities gave rise to new social network sites that used the concepts of online profiles and recommendations, like Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, and online dating sites.

The panelists debated if early online networks were more participatory and creative and less about consumption than social media today.

The panel debates then and now.

While writing may be a more difficult way to engage with online communities in today’s video-driven world, there’s no doubt that technology both drives how users interact and is in turn driven by those who use it.

So, what’s the lesson for today? Many monetized systems push for more and more users, but the history of BBSs and other early online networks shows clearly that quality is more important than quantity in building authentic online communities. 

Wouldn't it be nice to dial back in time?

Watch the Full Conversation

Dialed In | CHM Live, April 25, 2024



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About The Author

CHM Editorial consists of editors, curators, writers, educators, archivists, media producers, researchers, and web designers, looking to bring CHM audiences the best in technology and Museum news.

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