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bulletin board system (BBS)

Contributor(s): Alexis Layton, Justin Scott, and Mariusz Zydyk

A bulletin board system (BBS) is a computer or an application dedicated to the sharing or exchange of messages or other files on a network. Originally an electronic version of the type of bulletin board found on the wall in many kitchens and work places, the BBS was used to post simple messages between users. The BBS became the primary kind of online community through the 1980s and early 1990s, before the World Wide Web arrived.

A BBS may be accessible from a dial-up modem, Telnet, or the Internet. Because it originated before the graphical user interface (GUI) became prevalent, the BBS interface was text-based. Although recent Web-based versions have a graphical, interactive user interface, the text-only interface preferred by BBS purists can often be accessed by Telnet. According to Justin Scott, co-founder of Sceiron Interactive and a former sysop, a Web-based BBS is essentially a Web site that is powered by BBS software rather than a Web server.

Most BBSes are devoted to a particular subject, although some are more general in nature. Among special interests represented on BBSes are dentistry, law, guns, multi-player games, Druidic practices, and information for the disabled. A significant number of BBS sites offer "adult-oriented" chat and images that can be downloaded. The BBS is often free, although some charge a membership or use fee. Many BBSes have Web sites, and many Internet access providers have bulletin board systems from which new Internet users can download the necessary software to get connected. The BBS has its own culture and jargon. For example, a sysop is the person who runs the site. Online chat became widely popular through the BBS and many chat acronyms originated there.

The first BBS, called the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS), was created in 1978 by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess. Although ARPANET was in operation at that time, it was restricted to institutions funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. When CBBS went online, it became the first non-military computer-based community, other than timesharing systems (which allotted portions of mainframe processing time to a group of computers). An article by Christensen and Suess published in Byte magazine described CBBS and outlined the technology they had used to develop it, sparking the creation of many tens of thousands of BBSes all over the world.

Despite the vastly greater reach of the Internet, the BBS is still fairly common in parts of the world where the Internet is less established and is still valued by many with Internet access for its ability to foster a sense of community.

This was last updated in September 2005

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