Life at 300 baud

bbs2Carol and I have been watching a great documentary for the past couple of days, and I know how documentary-hungy you bitches are, so here’s a link for you: BBS: The Documentary.

“Eh? What’s the matter with you, mjp, are you losing your mind? I ain’t watching no damn BBS documentary! What the hell is a BBS anyway?!”

BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) are how geeks communicated online in those dusty olde pre-internet days. You’d have your computer’s modem dial a number (usually another geek’s house), and if the line wasn’t busy (early boards could accommodate only one user at a time), you’d be connected to their computer. That computer ran BBS software that had a primitive version of email, file downloads, games, etc. The geek running the system was called a sysop – system operator. They were usually surly and unnecessarily authoritarian and stern.

Sounds like a barrel of fun, doesn’t it?

bbs1Well, even if it doesn’t, the fact that you’re reading this means you use computers in some form or another, and that will be enough to hook you in. Because really, the documentary isn’t so much about the actual BBSes as it is about the people who ran and used them.

Director Jason Scott traveled the country interviewing over 200 such people, and has distilled the interviews into a 5 1/2 hour documentary spread over three DVDs, with another hour and a half of bonus footage thrown in. Just to make it that much more overwhelming.

I’ve only seen the first disc so far, but the quality far exceed my expectations. Never mind that it is a DIY project – the product of only one obsessed guy – this is a damn fine film by any standards. I would rank it up there with Robert Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds documentaries, and I really liked those.

bbs3Even if you didn’t live and breathe BBSes, as most of his interview subjects did, you’ll be fascinated by this look back into the ancient history of the first online communities. Really great stuff.

And I know, 5 1/2 hours is a hell of a long time, but the first disc zipped by quickly. The film flows really well, and since it’s interesting, time flies while you watch it. Kinda like how the season premiere of Six Feet Under flew by the other night…

So here’s my obligatory BBS story —

bbs4I found a local BBS listed in the back of some computer magazine – I think there were about a dozen of them in LA at the time – but it was a private board so I had to actually call the sysop on the fucking phone to get a login. I left him a message and he called me back a couple of days later.

sysop: Do I know you?
me: No.
sysop: Do you work for McDonnell Douglas? (turns out the board was run by and for aircraft engineers)
me: No.
sysop: Well…why do you want to use the board?
me: I don’t know – I saw it in a magazine, and I have a computer and I was curious.
sysop: [long pause, followed by a dramatic sigh] Ooookay. I suppose I could let you in on a trial basis.

So, yeah, things were a little different back then. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you about the day electricity came to town, and the first moving pictures! Bastards.

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