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Hot on the Web

Almost a BBS

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 11, 2004
(Issue 2224, Seniors and Computers)

A recent dispute over annual elections with the San Diego Computer Society re-acquainted me with Yahoo Groups – and re-acquaintance that showed Yahoo Groups is pretty darn near a Web version of what a dial-up BBS was in the days before the 'Net.

Combining discussion areas, file collections and e-mail alerts, a Yahoo Group is a pretty effective way for a group of people to stay in touch.

Some history

While the Internet began life in the late 1960s (originally as a government-funded project known as ARPANET), it was restricted to government, university and military users until the early 1990s. Even when first opened up, it was remarkably unexciting for most folks – it was a Unix-based environment with a text-based line-command interface, and the only tools available were your basic networking utilities: FTP, telnet, e-mail. Searches were done with Gopher, but for the most part, the only files on the Internet then were university research papers and some government documents.

Then Timothy Berners-Lee released his World Wide Web protocol for the Internet, and everything began to change, leading us up to the present.

But plenty of folks were already online long before the 'Net was made available for general use. Dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs, proliferated from the early 1980s on. (The first modems for personal computers had appeared in the late '70s, shortly after the first personal computers had appeared.)

By 1990, there were more than a thousand public BBS systems listed in ComputorEdge every other week – about 1,200 when I was editing that list, as I recall.

While the BBSs were also mostly text-based, most BBS software packages used a menu system, so you had your choices laid out in front of you: F for files, say; G for games. M for mail.

The more popular BBSs had all the major components available then: a public message boards area, private e-mail, files for downloading, and online text-based games.

Updating for the Web

With tens of millions of people online with BBSs and/or CompuServe, AOL and other commercial services (which were not much more than a large BBS on steroids), the emergence of the Internet and the Web were seen as somewhat of a threat to the existing online communities.

The early Web had little functionality other than presenting images and text. The first generation of Web sites couldn't re-create the comprehensive environment of a BBS.

Plus, the entire model of the 'Net changed things. With the BBS system, you had to call each board individually. And with toll calls, most BBSs had memberships drawn from the immediate area.

Suddenly, with Internet service providers selling access to the 'Net, you could visit unlimited Web sites with one phone call. Geography didn't matter anymore. With the Usenet newsgroups, ftp file sites and Internet e-mail, the functionality of the BBS was being replicated on the Internet – just not in one place.

And so the online experience became more anonymous, less personal.

While a few BBSs hung on, it wasn't the same. Too many folks had migrated to the 'Net. The old sense of community was gone, and – given the limitations of the Web – had not been replaced.

Yahoo gets it right

All of this combined to make revisiting Yahoo groups an eye-opening experience. Each group is built around a specific interest – and there are, at minimum, tens of thousands of groups. Probably more.

Within each group, you can set up a message board area, an e-mail list, and a files download area.

That's pretty close to what a BBS offered, minus the online games.

Of course, has a ton of online games, and within your main greeting page, you can embed HTML so you could even link to Yahoo's free online games and add that component.

Oh – we're overlooking the best part here: Yahoo Groups is free. They paste advertisements on your pages, but you don't have to pay anything out of pocket.

Practical and easy

All that above sounds great in theory, but how does it actually work?

Well, as mentioned at the top of this column, the San Diego Computer Society held its annual board election in May. Afterward, the president of SDCS used the SDCS Yahoo Group to send out a mass e-mail saying that the results of the election were being challenged.

Now, SDCS has been around long enough to have had its own BBS at one time. And the group has its own web site at But neither of these options allowed the officers to communicate with the membership in as immediate a fashion as an e-mail blast.

Within an hour or less of the e-mail from the president, members of the SDCS began logging into the SDCS Yahoo Group (sdcs-talk) and discussing the election. Both the newly elected board and those challenging the election could reach the membership in real time via the group.

The upshot? It soon became clear that the election results had the support of the membership, and the organization was able to quickly move on.

Is Yahoo Groups for you?

While there are software packages out there that integrate with your web server to add message boards to any web site, and while you can now easily integrate an ftp file server with a web page, that all takes a little work.

A Yahoo group is easy to set up. You don't have a ny of the worries of integration or maintenance. There are limits on how much bandwidth you can use, as well as how much hard drive space is available to you.

But for small to medium organizations with modest needs, Yahoo Groups is a viable tool for helping create a sense of online community similar to what the old BBSs offered.