Run by early pioneers of computer technology, BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) started in 1978 and still exist today. A BBS is a computer connected to a phone line, via a modem, which other people could dial into and leave messages. Online message boards have become more and more complex on the internet, but these early BBS providers were sort of the “grandfathers” of the concept.
Directed by Jason Scott, “BBS: The Documentary” is a long-form series that takes a look at the history of the BBS phenomena, with Scott going across the country from 2001 to 2004 to interview over 200 people and grab hundreds of hours of footage. The community banded together to help Scott, providing rides, meals and more in the hopes of capturing this early technology that many today that have grown up with the internet are now probably unfamiliar with.
This multi-part documentary, which runs over a series of three discs, starts off taking a look at the early days of computers, with BBS inventors and others discussing the moment when they were able to get one of the first early personal computers. That’s when modems, which were invented in the 60’s, came onto the computer scene, with the first modems becoming available in computers in the late 70’s. In January of 1978, a couple of guys who were stuck in a snowstorm happened to come up with an idea for a process that would allow people in their club to leave messages. They wrote an article about it, and started giving away copies of the software. From there, the whole BBS community kept spreading outwards.
The next chunk of the documentary takes a look at “sysops” (System Operators). Once more and more BBS came online, there eventually came the need for people to police the systems, and they became “God-like” figures in the community, and even became sort of the “popular crowd”. The participants discuss the kind of amazement that people were using your computer and that you had created something that was developing on its own. We also hear about difficulties in keeping boards free of arguments and the growing popularity of multi-player online games, such as “Trade Wars”. Women also enter the picture, and get an outpouring of attention from the male users.
The second platter starts off with “Make it Pay”, which chronicles the rise BBSs around the world, including services that taught people how to run BBS and some people began to charge for BBS services. There was major debate with users regarding getting paid, as many in the social group thought that the whole thing was started as a hobby, where people could get together and share information. The whole thing became more business-oriented, and there became a divide between people who were doing it as a hobby and boards that were charging, the latter of which were able to get more lines and better technology. However, many of the pay services were seen as not really different in content versus the hobby-run BBS. Of course, this was the time when adult BBS started to flood the market, much to the dismay of those who were there when the whole thing started. This section also looks into competition between BBS companies and the very pricey BBS convention. In the 90’s, when the internet rises in popularity, use of BBS drops off.
Next, the program covers “Fidonet”, which many considered a return for the BBS community, and we get interview footage with the creator, Tom Jennings. Fidonet was a non-commercial network that became immensely popular and supportive of the BBS community. Fidonet still exists today, although with BBS users decreasing, its size has come down. But for years, it was an incredible success and made for very easy electronic communication.
Finally on the second disc, we get “Artscene”, a segment devoted to ANSI art and the BBS.
The final third starts with “HPAC” – Hacking, Phreaking, Anarchy and Cracking. In it, interviews discuss the whole “hacking” phenomenon and the thought process behind hacking and not harming, but getting past “the wall”. There are many discussions and stories here, many of which are quite entertaining and give an insight into the culture. We also hear more about “Phreaking”, which can entail anything from “getting someone’s calling card number to getting change to come out of a pay phone”. Teenagers who were constantly getting in trouble due to high phone bills that were coming to their parents started turning to this in order to try and continue getting online without their parents getting phone bills into the hundreds.
“No Carrier” takes a look at the thoughts of many people who shut down their BBS after the internet became bigger and the traffic to BBS became less and less frequent. Some companies were able to switch over to the internet, while others found themselves going from making thousands to making nothing within months. We also hear from people who decided to keep it going. Finally, the program ends with a look at the important “SEA vs PKWARE” controversy.
As a whole, it’s obvious that this was an enormous labor of love for director Jason Scott, and the results are very exceptional for a project that he apparently got off the ground himself. As previously mentioned, the director went around the country and interviewed more than a couple of hundred people, resulting in hundreds of hours of footage. I went into the program thinking that this would be a “home-done” project; hours and hours of dry footage, kind of pieced together in an awkward way.
Well, the surprising thing is that it wasn’t like that at all. “BBS” is actually quite smoothly done, a documentary feature that looks professional, is smoothly edited with great transitions between interviews and sections and, most of all – it’s definitely not dry. The people involved are definite characters and, even for those unfamiliar with it all, it’s interesting to see the rise and fall-off of the BBS community and all of the issues that eventually lead to the drop-off in popularity, which we are shown playing out on a rather epic scale. It’s a fascinating piece of work – one that should certainly be viewed by heavy computer users, but one that more casual users certainly should not be intimidated by, either.
VIDEO: “BBS” was shot using a Canon XL-1 video camera and despite not being the highest end camera, the footage here still looks terrific. Presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio, the picture appears bright and fairly crisp (while not razor sharp or consistent, most of the picture at least appeared more well-defined than I’d expected from a fairly low-budget production.) Aside from a little bit of shimmer and some slight traces of pixelation, the presentation remained crisp and clear. Colors came across as natural and accurate, with no concerns.
Final Thoughts: “BBS” offers an incredibly engrossing look at the rise and fall of the BBS community, culture and business through the eyes of over 200 fascinating and varied participants. It’s marvelously done, with excellent camerawork and editing for a documentary that was essentially built from scratch. The DVD edition is terrific, offering a lot of supplemental features and fine audio/video quality.