May 25, 2005

Documenting the Boards

by Nick Montfort · , 11:32 pm

Jason Scott has just shipped his epic BBS (Bulletin Board System) documentary, a set of three DVDs which has video from more than 200 interviews with BBS pioneers, “new school” latecomers to the scene, sysops, users, and others involved in the huge, headless social computing project of the BBS during the 1970s and 1980s.

On Tuesday, I saw on Slashdot that the documentary was shipping. And I got my copy today. Hanna and I just watched the first episode. Without having seeing the whole production, it’s still clear to me that anyone interested in the material and social history of computing should watch this documentary, and it would be useful to show parts of it to classes that deal with the topic.

In “Baud,” the first episode of BBS: The Documentary, people show off and discuss the actual hardware and media that they’ve used to run BBSs and to access them. We learn about print terminals that were used in the early days, see visualizations and hear discussion of what it means to connect at 300 baud, and get a look of the original computer that ran CBBS, the first bulletin board system. We’re given a view of a (large) basement lined with computer manuals and 5 1/4″ disks. There’s even some discussion of how telegraph messages were routed by hand in the days before electronic computing. Many of the contemporary computer setups of people who were BBSers are also seen during interviews.

Such video documentation of the material nature of computing is extremely important, but the documentary also makes a great contribution by revealing some of what BBSs meant to people socially and how they affected their lives. In the first episode, people discuss the exorbitant cost of computing and long-distance telephone service, and give some hints about what online communities meant to them and what their dynamics were. For instance, there was the newbie flood that came the day after Christmas, not unlike the influx of USENET users at the beginning of each semester or at the point when AOL began providing access to newsgroups. While the nature of online conversations isn’t completely laid out in the first part, I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more about it in the rest of the documentary.

The documentary is offered under a Creative Commons license. Given the nature of the project, the amount of the video, and the nice packaging job that was done on the DVDs, I’d suggest that interested parties lay out the bucks, as I did, and order the BBS documentary. Before you ask: no, I’m not saying this just because Jason says he’s going to put me in his next movie, or only because my nostalgia for the mid-1980 and my personal experiences as a “modem user” has been awakened, although those are certainly decent reasons to pimp a project. Beyond that, this documentary really looks to be a great resource for scholars and teachers, and it looks like it communicates a lot of aspects of the BBS years that get left out of the books.