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Online San Diego

From the February 14, 1997 ComputorEdge (Issue 1507)

By Jim Trageser

Where is the Web falling short?

The explosion of the World Wide Web has caused a dramatic drop in the number of local BBSs. The ease of use of the Web and the fancy graphics, along with its creation of a common standard that all platforms – from Windows to Mac, Amiga to Sun – can use and access, has seriously eroded the user base for the local bulletin board systems that once dominated cyberspace.

But has the Web truly replaced the BBSs – or has it merely displaced them?

From my travels over the Web, I think there are several areas where the BBS was clearly superior to the Web – areas in which the Web is failing to fill the void left by the many BBSs it drove out of existence.

File areas

While there are plenty of files you can download from various Web pages, you don't see the kind of comprehensive file collections that BBSs housed. During the height of the BBS era, a good sysop would have a collection of files that represented both her/his own interests, as well as those of the BBS callers. While a lot of folks hated upload/download ratios, it was a good way for a sysop to build and keep a current collection of files on a BBS.

On a Web page, you're more likely to find a very specialized set of files – say, golf courses for Accolade's "Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition" or clip art for "WordPerfect" or photographs of old Timex-Sinclair computers (or even something interesting, since my taste when hunting for software is admittedly too weird for most people).

But what I've yet to find on a Web page is a comprehensive collection of current patches, shareware/freeware, game demos, public domain fonts, FAQ files, clip art and conspiracy theories. (Actually, I did find one such collection in South Africa about six months ago, but my bookmarks file crashed and burned and I haven't been able to find it again.)

Heck, just two years ago nearly every BBS in this county had a collection not too different from what I've just described (and many also had GIF files of naked cheerleaders, but the Web has taken very good care of that part of online life). So the idea of having a single source where you could go to find a patch, an upgrade or just keep up on what was hot by perusing the list of new demos is no longer realistic.

Building a community

Most BBSs also had conversation areas, often but not always netted through various BBS-based networks – FidoNet being the largest and best-known. While the USENET is expanding as never before (what, something like 22,000 USENET subgroups now?), it lacks the warm coziness of a BBS-based sub and without the local flavor (excepting the SDNET – see next week's column).

Again, in their heyday, BBSs helped build a sense of community that has been lost in the pell-mell rush to the Web. No doubt, technological advances will eventually (or, better yet, soon) make it easier to set up and interact with conversations tied to a Web page, but right now those Web pages that are trying to fill the shoes of the BBS systems are hampered by what's possible. The webmasters either link to a related USENET feed or set up a "guestbook" where visitors can read comments from previous visitors and post their own. But the system is not nearly as conducive to creating a dialogue as BBS conversation subs are, where you can follow a specific topic thread, and a single BBS might host a couple hundred different themed topics ("Star Trek" to line dancing, abortion to Bible study).

Where to go next?

Obviously, the Web is here to stay. And it's still in its infancy, so it's impossible to say where the technology and culture of the Web and the Internet are headed. But the most popular areas of a BBS were the file areas and conversation subs – I can't imagine that the demand for them has disappeared. I do think that everybody's so caught up in the hype of the fancy graphics, sounds and other bells and whistles of the Web that some of the more basic issues are still being overlooked.

It's the lack of a sense of community that I think people will most miss. By its combination of conversation areas, the kinds of files it stocked and its online games, a BBS gained personality. Each BBS – or at least those with a regular base of callers – was unique. As a new BBS built up a community of callers, it began to become a family – the dorky term "virtual community" was coined to describe this. A lot of BBSs used to have monthly or annual get-togethers where regular callers could meet and put a face on the online handle.

A good BBS was like the TV show "Cheers" – it was a place where everybody knew your name. The Web is much more anonymous, more impersonal – ultimately, less fulfilling.

If those who operate Web pages don't move to meet those needs, then I think there will be a permanent, albeit smaller, role for BBSs to fill in the online world: Providing a safe haven for callers to go to when they're in need of friendship and reassurance, a local nest where we can make contact with our neighbors and remind ourselves that we do have a place in this world.