BBS Documentary

I was ten years old back in 1983, the year my father put his first Bulletin Board System (BBS) online. To this day I can still remember sneaking into the living room in the middle of the night and watching users navigate their way through his menu system. It seemed like magic back then to think that someone sitting in the comfort of his or her own home could connect to our own home computer simply by using a telephone line.

Throughout the 80s and half of the 90s, BBSs were THE place for computer users to meet, talk, and exchange ideas, information, and programs. It was the birth of online culture. Those who didnt call BBSs could never understand the idea of talking to and making friends with people you had never met in real life before. The BBS world had its own culture, customs, and even language. And yet after a run of almost fifteen years, BBSs virtually disappeared overnight, submitting to a new technology — the Internet.

BBS: The Documentary tells the complete story of BBSs, starting with the birth of the first one in 1978 and ending with their demise. If it sounds dry, it isnt; the story is told by people who were there over 200 of them, in fact. For four years, amateur filmmaker Jason Scott traveled thousands of miles interviewing users, SysOps (System Operators, the people who ran BBSs) and many of the movers and shakers of the BBS scene. The material was then grouped by subject and divided up into eight separate episodes, all of which are included in the three-disc set.

Each of the eight episodes average forty minutes in length. As you make your way through the episodes, youll quickly notice that the documentary focuses on people over technical details. As the details of the first BBS are unveiled, youll get to meet the people who created it, and the circumstances surrounding the event. And for the technical historians out there, the segment ends with the inventor of the first BBS digging it out of the back of his closet and showing it to the camera. In fact, many of the people appearing throughout the DVDs are a virtual whos who of computer history. Its literally thrilling to see peoples names pop up as theyre speaking. As one man speaks, a title slowly appears at the bottom of the screen. Vinton Cert, Co-Creator of TCP/IP. Vintage computer fans will recognize many of the interviewees contained within: creator of Punter protocol Steve Punter, infamous hacker Cheshire Catalyst, several members of the counter-culture group The Cult of the Dead Cow, Atari collector and historian Curt Vendel, and dozens more. While not all of the people interviewed are famous, they all have interesting stories to tell.

The discs and episodes follow a logical chronological progression. The first disc contains two programs: Baud, which chronicles the beginning of the BBS, and Sysops and Users, featuring stories from both points of view. The second and third discs contain three episodes each. Disc two contains Make It Pay (the rise of the BBS industry), FidoNet (the BBS Network that Changed Everything) and Artscene (the history of the BBS art world, with interviews from several members of Ice, Acid, and Titan). Disc three consists of HPAC (the world of Hacking/Phreaking/Anarchy/Cracking boards), No Carrier (the end of the BBS) and Compression (the ARC-ZIP battle). Watching all three discs in one setting is probably too much for even the most hardcore hacker. Fortunately, each episode stands on its own so they set can be watched at your own pace.

In addition to the five and a half hours of episodes, there are an additional 80 minutes of bonus footage sprinkled across the discs. Most of these clips are short anecdotes that would of slowed the pace of the documentary, but were still good enough to include and are enjoyable to click through. The third disc of the set is also a DVD-Rom disc which, along with the episodes mentioned, also contains thousands of photos taken throughout the authors journeys, and a few audio speeches in MP3 format.

If you spent any amount of your youth calling BBSs, these DVDs will instantly take you back 20 years. I heard so many stories that I could relate to during these episodes that it was almost like sitting around a campfire, listening to old friends share stories about the good old days. Jason Scott has done a superb job of capturing the passion and excitement of the BBS era and presenting that to viewers. BBS: The Documentary is both informative and entertaining. Those who were there will watch the episodes constantly grinning and nodding, while those who werent will listen to the stories in awe. My wife, who is decidedly non-technical, enjoyed the documentary almost as much as I did. At one point during the program, she turned to me and said, Who knew there were people out there just like you? Highly recommended to everyone even remotely interested in computers and technology.

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