The Funknown BBS

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What is this?

FUBBS, or The Funknown BBS, is a throwback to a bygone era--the era of the BBS. This was a special time when computers ran in text mode and the Internet was still just a nerdy experiment.

FUBBS is a fully functional MajorBBS software system, the same one we used in the 90s. If you're ready to re-live the BBS era or you want to experience what it was like, just click the Connect button.

Note that clicking or tapping was not a thing in the BBS world, keyboards only. Play the games, post in the message boards, chat in the Teleconference, and experience the origins of social networking!

OK, but what is a BBS?

BBS stands for Bulletin Board System and back in the 90s BBSes were humanities' baby steps into the online world. The cornerstone of an early BBS would generally be its message boards, early online forums for discussion similar to Reddit, but you could also chat with other users, play games, or download software. At that time BBSes were the computer's only connection to the outside world and getting new software would otherwise involve going to the store or borrowing disks from your friend.

BBSes were usually hobby systems run out of the homes of enthusiasts and most could only support one caller at a time. Some BBSes tried to make a business out of it and charged per hour for access. The pay-for-play BBSes usually featured multiple phone lines and allowed users to interact with each other in realtime, usually chatting or playing multiplayer games. Most of them had some kind of free-tier access, and being a broke teenager, that was basically all I had to work with.

BBSes ran in text mode, which meant no graphics except the most basic "ANSI art" drawn with only 16 colors and primitive shapes. A whole scene developed around creating and distributing ANSI art that was closely tied to the distribution of pirated software, or "warez". The warez scene was an underground network of software crackers and distributors that would supply the secretive warez BBSes with fresh games and applications. The warez BBSes always had the best ANSI art and access was exclusive and coveted.

My BBS Story

Around 1993, when I was about 12 years old, my mom bought a computer to help with some early online programs she was involved in with her work. The special thing about that computer was that it had a device called a "modem". This device could use the telephone line to connect to another computer and talk to it and I was absolutely fascinated by it all.

I soon discovered that a local BBS phone number list was published monthly in a computer newsletter and I began exploring what my local BBS scene had to offer by dialing into every BBS on the list. Each BBS was its own world to explore with files to download, people to connect with, and games to play.

I had a friend around my age that was also into computers and BBSing, quite a rare hobby at the time, and we spent countless hours BBSing, playing the online games, trolling people, and generally being obnoxious teenagers. I'm incredibly grateful that none of my posts or conversations from that time exist today!

That sounds kind of boring

By today's standards BBSes aren't very impressive, but at the time it was a unique experience. Cell phones weren't around yet so the concept of texting somebody wasn't popular and it made communicating on a BBS a fun and novel thing. If you were a BBSer then you belonged to a secret society and most people had no idea it even existed.

To a BBSer, the social networks of today are really just a continuation of what they were already doing in the 90s, just with more bandwidth and nicer interfaces. BBSing was such a fringe activity compared to the ubiquity of Facebook that it felt a lot more personal. It wasn't an endless sea of usernames from all over the world, it was a small community of familiar names.

Back in the 90s long distance phone calls were expensive, so BBSers were generally all from the same locality. The average BBS community was a group of maybe a few hundred people generally living in the same metropolitan area. It was a big deal when a new name logged on and you were genuinely curious who was on the other end of the phone line.

The beginning of online communities

My favorite BBSes were the multi-line BBSes running the MajorBBS software. I used to frequent three in particular: The Unknown BBS (TUBBS), Carl Hayden High School BBS (CHHS), and East Valley OnLine (EVOL), although there were others like Sho-Tron and The Rock Garden. MajorBBS software had fun multi-player games and a chat feature called the Teleconference that would let you talk or play with other people in real time.

MajorBBS has a feature called the Registry that lets you fill out a brief profile about yourself with information like your name, age, interests, hobbies, etc. It was kind of an early social media page and people would use the Registry to express themselves, either in a straight forward way, or by drawing pictures using text characters, or adding song lyrics.

To be part of a BBS community was a special thing. It meant you had real relationships with people that you might have never met or even talked to on the phone, and this was an entirely new concept. It was a strange thing to explain to people that weren't BBSers, and that was a very small number of people.

We should get coffee sometime

It's inevitable that any BBS community of any decent size will eventually organize a GT. A GT is a "Get Together", a pre-arranged place and time where everyone is invited to come hang out and meet each other. This was a chance to meet all of your strange and mysterious online friends face-to-face and see if they were anything like you pictured them as digital pictures were pretty rare and unwieldy.

The Phoenix BBS scene had a couple of multi-line BBSes whose communities eventually organized GTs. The GTs could draw anywhere from 5 to 50 (or more) people, and most GTs organized to meet at, or eventually ended up at, a Denny's restaurant for some reason--probably because they tolerated smoking and drinking free coffee and soda refills for hours at a time. These were hugely positive events that put faces to names and started to form a sense of identity and what it meant to be a BBSer.

The GTs lead to "real life" friendships and hanging out, and living in a big city like Phoenix, it was nice to have a network of friends all over the city. I moved around a lot and never really stayed at the same school long enough to make friends, so having the BBS community no matter where I lived gave my social life some stability. I'm still good friends with a few BBSers 20-something years later.

So what happened?

The short answer is "the Internet happened" but it's a little more nuanced than that. Really we all just grew up. Most BBSers were young, teens or early twenties, and eventually aimless summers turned into college and jobs, and families, and we just kind of moved on. We kept in touch with our closest BBS friends but the long nights of chatting with strangers online just didn't have the same appeal. And when we left, nobody showed up to replace us.

The Internet was what was happening then, and why not? It was huge, international, and unlimited. The local dial-up ISPs had huge modem banks and busy signals were less frequent. The same sites and information were available from anywhere on the Internet, it wasn't segmented like BBSes. It was just more convenient.

Some of the BBSes tried to cross over into a sort of BBS/ISP-hybrid model but they couldn't compete with the ISPs. The BBS went from being the hip underground computer club to Myspace in just a few short years as newly-minted Internet users struggled to see the point. Larger Internet communities formed, e-commerce moved in, and the rest is history.

BBSes Today

The BBS lives on with a few die-hard fans and hobbyists. Many telnet-accessible boards and even a few dialup boards are still up and running. There's even an amazing 8-part BBSing documentary that's definitely worth a watch if you're feeling nostalgic. You'll find a links to a few of these things below.