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Hot on the Web

The BBS – improved

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 22, 2006
(Issue 2438, The Best of Times)

Longtime readers of this column – which goes back to when future "DOS for Dummies" author Dan Gookin first started writing about cyberspace under the banner San Diego On-Line almost 20 years ago – will be familiar with my kvetch that the Web has yet to do some things as well as the old dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs.

Chief among my complaints has been that the old BBSs – with their integrated menus leading users to files to download, conversation areas to post on, e-mail to read, and games to play – were better designed to foster a sense of community among their visitors.

While software to add forums to Web sites has improved dramatically, there still isn't that same integrated wholeness to most Web sites. Even environments like phpBB, which allows Webmasters (is that still a word?) to be more like the old BBS system operators, better tying the forums capability into the overall experience.

Recently, the blog-specific software packages and services on the market have branched the Web out into new areas of communication that BBSs didn't have. Still, blogs tend to be closer to a monologue with rebuttals than a true conversation.

Enter Wetpaint, which again takes the way we communicate in entirely new directions – but in so doing, may come closer than any other technology to recapturing the spirit of the old BBS.

What it is

Wetpaint is a cross between a blog and a forums area; it might be best described as a group blog.

In the appearance of its editing functions, it's close to a wiki (as in the Wikipedia).

In fact, if you wish, you can use Wetpaint as a wiki. When you first set up your Wetpaint site, you can set your site's permissions in terms of who is allowed to contribute. You can open it up to everyone, including anonymous posters, or tighten it down to only those you invite (and then leave it in your own hands by not inviting anyone). Of course, if you limit contributors to yourself, you'd be using Wetpaint as a blog.

It's somewhere in between where it seems Wetpaint is likely to find its best use: Creating an online community.

Which means Wetpaint is probably not the ideal environment for a general use forum. Rather, Wetpaint was designed (and seems to function best) as a topic-based hub. You can add images, link to video on, and even do some basic formatting, like tables.

But you can't really tweak the layout much – you have to use the Wetpaint Web-based editor. You can't presently edit the stylesheets, although there are more than a dozen templates to choose from.

While Wetpaint's FAQs say it is only available to build sites on their servers, some of the examples they offer on their home page of how Webpaint is being used go to domains other than (like, for instance).

So apparently you can license Wetpaint to run on your own server. Or perhaps they also offer DNS services as well, so you can assign your existing URL to your Wetpaint site. Their FAQs and terms of service didn't really explain how you can have a URL that doesn't have in it.

It's free

Did I mention that Wetpaint is free? They feed ads to your Wetpaint pages, however, and there doesn't seem to be any way to, say, ban ads from outfits you find morally objectionable (not that I saw any ads anyone would be likely to be offended by).

Webpaint is also fairly new as this is written, having launched in the past few weeks. And so the features it will have when mature are still being worked out.

In their FAQs, the Webpaint folks say they may offer universal Webpaint functionality, CSS editing and Webpaint e-mail addresses. They may also have to impose a limit on the amount of storage space any one site uses – right now, you can upload as many images as you want. That seems unlikely to last forever.

But if the features are still being worked out, the service as is already works pretty well.

With last year's demise of the Computer Museum of America, I've got no outlet for my collector's bug. So I created a Wetpaint site dedicated to computer history: Took me less than five minutes to set up a rough site – just a simple welcome page and my own profile. Yeah, as a veteran Web designer, I'd like more control over layout and all. But you can't beat the simplicity of the site: Adding new pages, putting content on them – it's all a click of the mouse button away.

Hopefully some of you reading this who were there with me in living through the PC Revolution will log in and help flesh out the site.