Happy Groundhog Day! Every February second I think about bulletin board systems, as I started mine twenty-five years ago, on February 2, 1991. Before the internet became popular, computer hobbyists would call bulletin board systems, or BBSes, over a phone line, using a device called a modem. A system operator, or SysOp, would run a bulletin board system on their computer, which would host callers. I ran mine all through the nineties, and still consider it the most fun I have had using a computer. Last year I began writing my own BBS software for the fun of it, and put up a small BBS in the meantime.
The internet pretty much killed off the small bulletin board system, much as global chain stores have largely replaced smaller more local establishments. A BBS felt like a village inn where people could gather and converse, transfer files, and played games. I wrote a popular game called Barneysplat! You can check out this great interview to earn more. I loved interacting with callers and providing a place for my fellow high school outcasts to communicate. I had a lot of fun but it eventually had to end…or did it?
Back then, we had to pay for long distance calls, or do something illegal. Now we can legally call a BBS half way around the world for free. Back then, most systems only had one node, or connection. Multiple nodes meant multiple phone lines, and a multitasking operating system. Now we can easily run a BBS with 100 nodes. We have what we always wanted!
A number of enthusiasts have setup bulletin boards running the very software we ran in the nineties, and in some cases active development continues. Calling some of them feels like going into a museum, with software with copyright dates in 1993, and ten-year-old discussions frozen in time. Don’t take that wrong – I cofounded Philly Touch Tours, a business which helps give the blind access to museums. I love museums, but I wanted something more modern.
Because of this, in 2015 I began writing my own retro-style BBS software package in Ruby. I call it Disboardia, a pun on Discordia, the goddess of primal chaos. It has all modern code, and uses modern gems and ways of doing things. This lets me leverage the awesome power of the Ruby language. I don’t need to invent a scripting language – I already have an awesome one! It will have the standard features, as well as the ability to customize it in ways we could only have dreamed about back then, unless we had access to the source code, a less than common thing. I will release Disboardia as open source, of course.
To customize the appearance and behavior of the BBS, it has textfiles and languages as many systems did. It also has a simple module system, using a number of hooks. Simply write the appropriate methods and register the module and let Disboardia do the rest. Finally, themes tie everything together. Ideally, you can make Disboardia look an feel like any BBS software you wish, and “mod” it without touching the stock source.
Working in a museum has given me an appreciation for replicas. In our tour about mummies, we obviously don’t want people handling a real brain hook, so we have a replica. This allows safe exploration while still handling a realistic object. Replicas help preserve history. In the same way, I want Disboardia to act as a toolkit to reconstruct the systems from times past, and maybe come up with some new designs for the future. I certainly have!
I really wanted to have something to show on the auspicious twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of my BBS, but I didn’t quite get it done in time. Maybe I’ll have something by the summer. I work on it in my spare fun time. Until them, I have setup a small BBS to tide us over. Feel free to log in and say hi, but ultimately I plan to replace it with my own software. Still, I just had to do something.
Playing with different BBS software has proven very interesting. I wondered if it would make me want to write my own less, but it had the opposite effect. Many of them require doing some pretty advanced work to get them working, and some of them seemed unstable. If we want to bring back the BBS then we have to offer an effortless installation. Ultimately I want someone to type “gem install disboardia” as they would with any standard Ruby gem, do some minimal configuration, and have a working BBS on their system. I chose to run Citadel for now because it comes closest to meeting these requirements, though it has a rather arcane interface.
I think people have begun to tire of monolithic social networks, and can’t help but wonder if bulletin board systems will make some sort of return. Every time I go on Facebook I miss the BBS days a little more. Most modern web forums feel kludgy and cluttered, especially to a blind screen reader user. Give me a simple text interface any day! Maybe people will use Disboardia, maybe not. Either way, I can one day check it off my list of things I wanted to accomplish as a seventeen-year-old, and that feels good.