Back in the 1990s we ran a BBS (bulletin board system) and whenever we attended a BBS conferences were often asked “People pay you to learn how to fix their leaky toilet?” Our HouseNet BBS was about the cost of home improvements, a spinoff of our syndicated newspaper column Do It Yourself or Not. Along with content HouseNet featured message boards for subscribers – contractors and homeowners – to communicate with each other. When we gave contractors – electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters – free membership, they agreed to answer questions of our homeowners perplexed by the choices and challenges of owning and maintaining a home. Sounds a lot like what we call social media today.
At that time a BBS was commonplace in the world of business when companies used a BBS to communicate with branch offices, to order parts and services, and initially by U.S. government agencies who developed the software. It didn’t take long before entrepreneurs recognized the value of creating an online community of special interest boards and charging users a monthly membership fee to participate. All they needed was a modem and phone line. These niche groups evolved into thousands of boards people paid to join. Not surprisingly, some of the most lucrative were those with illicit material like porn. Of course, at the slow speed a BBS operated there was no live content, just downloads, often very slow downloads.
Early software was not well protected so it was easy to copy making the focus of many boards commercial software to download. Another popular type of software was called shareware; great fully functional programs that authors hoped people would buy if they liked it. Following that the mass amount of pirated software available created the phenomenal growth of software how-to books that took over bookstore shelves. What good was the software without the instruction manual to use it?
The BBS conferences attracted 500-plus attendees – board creators, software producers and the tech pioneers of the digital revolution that made the exchange of information unlimited. The budding industry of simple ANSI and ASCII screens led to more processing power, but the leap to 56 kbit/s modems led to dial up Internet services forecasting the end of bulletin board systems. Before that many BBSs became the first ISP services (Internet Service Providers).
This explosive growth of the Personal computer and the BBS industry supported three magazines with news of software and developments. A behemoth Computer Shopper, an 800-page monthly tabloid with listings of thousands of special interest boards, soon became a doorstop replacement for the Yellow Pages.
Was the BBS the beginning of social media or was it the WELL, an early online community, or America Online? While many attribute the beginnings of social media to college boys rating their dates, I suggest the real genesis was the bulletin board system, which led to AOL where chat rooms encouraged users to talk to each other. In the mid-1990s HouseNet became AOL’s Home Improvement channel as part of their Greenhouse Program with other newbies to the online world like The Motley Fool and The Knot. HouseNet.com was sold to a large publishing company but its humble beginnings in an extra bedroom – like many other bulletin board systems – evolved into a major content, commerce and communication site.
Does what we call “social media” today have its roots in a bulletin board system? I think so and I doubt the phenomena might have happened without the early coders and developers in the tech departments and communities of the U.S. government and universities and of course, the homegrown tech-heads looking for a challenge.
Katie Hamilton, columnist Tribune Content Agency Do It Yourself or Not