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The Web grows up

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 22, 2002
(Issue 2008, Socializing by Computer)

When the World Wide Web first began proliferating across the Internet some 10 years ago, it – quite frankly – did not compare well with the then-dominant dial-up Bulletin Board Systems.

But the Web had two built-in and huge advantages that soon made it far more popular than the BBSs: You only had to dial and connect once in order to visit many different sites, and it didn't matter where a Web site was physically located.

With BBSs, you had to dial up and log in to each of them. And unless the system operator (sysop) of a BBS had a toll-free 800 number, you either made local calls or paid a huge monthly phone bill.

Before the Internet was opened to the public by Congress in the early '90s (what Al Gore was referring to when he claimed he "invented the Internet"), those of us who were online were there by and large through BBSs. We sent and received e-mail, downloaded demo versions of new software, even played online games.

But more than anything else, we used BBSs to post public messages in what were known as "subs" – shorthand for conversation subgroups. The larger BBSs often had hundreds of subs, which were no different from Usenet newsgroups except that they were generally local to that single BBS hosting them.

As with Usenet newsgroups, BBS subs were online forums where you could read postings by others, and then respond to them if you liked – or post your own message on a new topic (thread).

In the late '80s, an innovative community-based project to link BBSs together began to take off. At that time, the Internet was still closed to private individuals, but the BBS community developed and supported the FidoNet – an automated method in which each BBS in the FidoNet would call the next BBS downstream and send and receive e-mail each day or even twice a day. Thus, if you had an account on a BBS on the FidoNet, you could send and receive e-mail from anyone else on the FidoNet. It often took a day or two for a message to make it across the country, but it was still cheaper than the Postal Service.

The FidoNet also led to an even greater explosion in the conversation subs as many BBSs began carrying FidoNet conversation groups – so that you were no longer just communicating with folks in your geographical area, but nationally and internationally.

Just as the FidoNet was really beginning to develop both as a community and technologically, the much larger Internet was opened to the public and the Web was created by Timothy Berners-Lee.

The BBS couldn't really compete against this, but there were things that the BBS had done far better than the Web could do at first. Chief among these was create an online space that had the feel and characteristics of a real community.

In the Web's first years, there was little software available for adding conversation forums to Web sites – so even though hundreds of thousands of folks might visit a Web site each day (compared to hundreds or perhaps thousands for a popular multi-line BBS), they had no real way of interacting with one another.

Most BBSs – like most Web sites – had a theme, an overall set of interests or values that tied the users together. It might have been an affinity for Star Trek or the fact that the BBS supported Amiga computers. But whatever that theme was, it would be reinforced by having a collection of files and conversation subs grouped around that topic.

The Web has always been able to easily and graphically link together file collections (generally residing on an ftp server, but listed on the Web site) and content. But that third component – online conversations or forums clearly identified with that Web site – was missing.

There were, of course, hundreds, then thousands – and now tens of thousands – of Usenet newsgroups. And it was always possible to provide a link to them from a Web page.

But not everyone had access to the Usenet. Given the proliferation of child pornography on the Usenet, some Internet Service Providers simply chose not to provide access to it (AOL at first). Others didn't have the bandwidth or storage capacity for the millions of Usenet postings each day.

Besides, in the early years most browsers didn't include a newsgroup reader – you couldn't simply read the newsgroups in the same window as the Web page appeared in.

So it was bulky and most webmasters simply didn't make the effort to add forums to their sites.

Which meant that for a few years after the birth of the Web, BBSs continued to exist as a viable part of the online world.

But in the past few years, the number and quality of packages to add forums directly to a Web site has reached critical mass so that it is now possible for a Web site to create that same sense of community that a BBS could. It's no coincidence, then, that the BBS has again reverted to its status in the early 1980s – a small niche for hobbyists.

There are still dial-up BBSs out there, but the large-scale development of BBS software and utilities is gone. Where in the late '80s you had all kinds of innovation – from off-line mail readers (so you didn't tie up a BBS' phone lines while reading your e-mail) to multiplayer online games (Trade Wars 2002, Barren Realms Elite) – programmers today by and large save their efforts for where potential users are.

And that's the Web.