Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/15/98
By GARY DECKELNICK
The World Wide Web's rapid growth has brought many benefits even to computer novices: free e-mail, free long-distance conversations, online shopping and access to more information than anyone could want.
But it also has caused just as rapid a decline in what had been one of the most popular features in the computer world -- the neighborhood bulletin board.
The bulletin board (or BBS for Bulletin Board Services) was a place where people got together to chat, exchange files, argue politics or sports or anything else, and meet for pizza.
All the members knew each other. Someone got married, chances are at least one BBS person would be in the wedding. If someone was in trouble, members would pitch in to help.
They were considered community features, albeit a feature available to and designed for computer users. Now, they are not as rare as the horseless carriage or the Model T, but their time has long past.
"Calls always went down in the summer but I sometimes get two or three a day," said Mark Levy, who, with Russell LeChard, are co-sysops (co-owners) of the Casablanca board in Brick. "In the winter, I may get 15 or 20."
But boards used to get much more. The biggest boards had 50 to 75 phone lines to keep up with demand. Even smaller boards, like Casablanca, used to have two lines. Now, it has only one line and that's not even private. It's shared with the line Levy uses for his Internet connection.
"If I'm on the Internet, you'll get a busy signal but I just go there to check my mail. Call back in 20 minutes and you'll get through."
Keeping the board going is a personal thing for the Casablanca sysops. Before they took it over, its second sysop had been a very popular member of a local computer club. He died unexpectedly.
"He would have wanted the board to go on," said LeChard.
Of the few boards that remain, many are kept alive and nurtured by the force that killed most of them -- the Internet. Local and free phone calls were a main attraction of the BBS community, that's why there were so many. People disliked paying the toll for a long-distance call.
Now, some boards have added Telenet to their features so anyone with Internet access and a Telenet program can connect to the BBS from anywhere. Telenet software is available on most boards, on the Internet and from many Internet service providers.
The boards always have been inconsistent -- the names and numbers changed frequently. What was consistent was that there were lots of them. Usually they were maintained by people with the time to do the work required.
A five-year duration for a BBS was about average. Then it was handed down to a new sysop -- the computer word for BBS operator -- or simply vanished to be replaced by a different board.
Now, the expired boards are seldom replaced. The people who normally would operate them instead have gone surfin'.
Most of the survivors either rely on the Internet, have sysops who can keep them up with little trouble or have a specific clientele.
Casablanca, for example, is a support board for the Jersey Shore Computer Club. The people know each other and meet monthly. The camaraderie remains. Once it was one of five support boards. The other four no longer exist.
And what's one of the first things a visitor to Casablanca sees -- a welcome screen promoting the club and inviting visitors to the club's home page on the World Wide Web. A board without the kind of specific support that a club can provide became as obsolete as an old XT computer. Most boards did feature specific topics: sports, politics, cooking, law enforcement. One in Maryland run by a group of physicians was for doctors or people seeking medical information.
All offered files, mostly shareware, but many featured pirated software.
But nothing can compete with the Internet on those subjects. There are thousands of Web sites devoted to politics, sports or medicine. And some of the Internet shareware sites have more than 200,000 files.
One feature of many of the popular boards was messages and they offered people the opportunity to join message groups or send e-mail coast to coast sometimes in as few as three days.
Internet user groups offer the same discussion topics as the boards but with many more participants. And e-mail on the Internet often goes coast to coast in seconds. With a properly equipped computer, you don't need mail. You can talk with no long-distance charges.
A BBS had what are called doors, specific areas where people could play games. The Internet has more games, even casino gambling for real money if you want.
Somehow, though, it's not the same and some Internet enthusiasts are doing their best to keep boards alive. A quick search for BBS with most search engines will yield 100 or more sites that link to various boards via Telenet.
Source: Asbury Park Press
Computer questions can be sent to Gary Deckelnick on the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Techworld at the Asbury Park Press, 3601 Route 66, P.O. Box 1550, Neptune, N.J. 07754-1551.