Is Facebook a BBS for the Web?

Before you read further, please note that "BBS" here refers to dial-up (and telnet) bulletin board systems of the type that were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. If you're not familiar with them, the Wikipedia Bulletin Board System article is a good start. You might also be interested in the BBS Documentary, a very large documentary film project including multiple DVDs and even more content online. The term "BBS" here does not refer to typical Web-based message boards using software such as phpBB or vBulletin.


"Is Facebook a BBS for the web?"

This recent question arose from a discussion many years ago. Back then, the popularity of the BBS was starting to fade as popularity of the Web was growing rapidly. At that point, although I could see that there was a big future for the Web, I felt that it was missing something that was unique to the local BBS. That was in the mid-1990s, so, of course, much has changed on the Web since then. While there are other Web growth areas such as e-Commerce that merit discussion elsewhere, the development of Web-based social networking services such as Facebook is particularly relevant to how the Web might "compete" with the BBS community. After all, the dial-up BBS was the platform for the first virtual communities providing online social networking, whether at the local level within a small town or (as in the noteworthy example of The WELL) serving a national or even international population.


To determine whether Facebook classifies as a BBS for the Web, it helps to understand what a BBS offered. In terms of technical features, a BBS commonly offered...

  • ...a way to post messages for everyone to read and reply to
  • ...a more private area for specific sub-groups of users to exchange messages
  • ...a private, person-to-person message option
  • ...access to a "library" of files (often software — whether shareware/freeware or pirated) to download
  • ...system-wide bulletins (messages from the BBS owner, or "system operator" — commonly shortened to "SysOp")
  • games (often called "door" games because the games were separate software, not included in the BBS software itself, so access to the game involved leaving the BBS per se through an opening in the BBS software, analogous to a door)

Looking just at those features, it seems like Facebook offers the same thing as a dial-up BBS, with the exception of a file library, which would be redundant now, considering there are now other, more effective ways to find and download files (legally-distributed or otherwise). There are message facilities at the public, group, and person-to-person levels, enabling development of a sense of community. There are also online games for entertainment (including those that are not part of Facebook directly, just like "door" games that weren't part of the BBS software), and you can even receive system-wide bulletins from the site owner.

If these technical features and the social/community-building benefit are so similar to what was offered by a BBS, isn't that enough? This was my answer:

"Close, but no cigar."

To begin to explain my answer, I will ask a different question: When you log in to your Facebook account, do you feel like you're sitting down in the living room at your friend's house?

That might seem a preposterous and unfair analogy at first. Why would a BBS, which provided a virtual community, be at all similar to being physically present at your friend's house? I don't think it's preposterous or unfair, however, and it gets at the heart of what I feel a BBS (especially a local BBS) offered which I have yet to find on the Web: That is, a sense of being virtually present somewhere. There are specific components to that virtual presence, which I believe Facebook lacks. Those components include...


Many people might expect that Facebook, or any Web site, would be more immersive than a BBS. A BBS was often plain text, with no graphics, no sound, no video, no Flash... But immersion is not about engaging senses. It's about engaging the mind. The more point-and-click an interface is, the less mental power is needed to use it, and the less the mind is engaged by it. The more multi-tasking an interface provides, the more distractions are available, and the less the mind is engaged by any one task. When you are using Facebook, or any Web site, are you totally focused on just that site — or do you have other browser tabs open, your email open, an IM client open, maybe a document for your work... and so forth. The simplified and multi-tasking interface actually interferes with your sense of virtual presence.


Novice computer users may have had some difficulty at first in learning how to use a BBS, but eventually — if they didn't give up right away — they could wrap their mind around what the system had to offer and how to use it. There were messages, files, and games. While some sites really delved deeply into what could be offered in those areas, it was still a fairly basic structure. The scope of users on a local BBS was also easy to comprehend, because most people were within the local area. (Remember, this was when long distance was relatively expensive, unlike now, when you can often get it for free.)

The scope of Facebook, on the other hand, is beyond immense. Mentally grasping just the size of the user population on the site is challenging enough, considering how people often have difficulty comprehending large numbers. (Look how they react to massive government spending; but I digress...) Understanding everything that can be done on the site is virtually impossible, because the API provided by Facebook allows "extending" the site's functions according to the whims, creativity, and imagination of a planetful of developers. I've heard from many people who get confused just by the functionality provided by Facebook itself, without even delving into what third parties provide on the Facebook platform.

Individual Ownership

When a SysOp set up a BBS, the BBS almost always took on some "personality" from the SysOp. That personality might be heavily religious (or highly irreverant), or "geeky," or prurient, or anything else, depending on what interests and ideals the SysOp wanted to build into it. When you log in to Facebook and similar sites, do you get a personal feel from the interface, or does it strike you as something put together by the graphic design staff in a marketing department?

The "personality" of a BBS would also come across in the system-wide bulletins from the SysOp. When you get a system-wide bulletin on Facebook, does it strike you as a note from a friend, or as a memo from your boss that has been run past the legal and marketing departments to ensure it won't violate any laws or step on anybody's toes?

Another way that the individuality of a BBS would appear was through one-on-one chats with the SysOp. If you were to have a one-on-one chat with Facebook, who would it be with? The customer service department? Whether or not they gave you canned responses to your questions, do you think it's likely that you'd feel it was a chat with a friend? Would you get much satisfaction from talking about plans for the weekend, for example? (This is different from user-to-user chat. That was a feature provided by some BBS software that handled multiple phone lines or telnet access, just as it is a feature provided by Facebook. User-to-user chat does not define the personality of a BBS or Web site.)

I believe that, despite some efforts to add "personality" to large, business-run social networking sites, a site like Facebook will never have the same personal feel that a privately-run BBS had. This is because a business can't afford the potential risks from letting such personality be communicated on its site as a representation of the site itself or its owners.

Each Account a BBS?

One way to look at Facebook possibly serving the role of BBS would be to consider each person's account as a BBS, hosted by Facebook on the Web instead of a hosted on a computer connected to the phone line (or telnet). To some degree this addresses the personality aspect (although, from what I've seen, less so than on MySpace), but it does very little or nothing to improve immersion or limit the conceptual scope of the overall service. A personal Web site — a real Web site, not an account on a site like Facebook or MySpace — addresses immersion, scope, and individual ownership better than a Facebook account.


While I did entertain the fantasy for a few years that people might return to the BBS community after finding the Web lacking, I no longer think that is even remotely likely. I believe a significant resurgence of BBS usage would only come about if two conditions were met. First, the Web would have to become unsuitable for the average person's wants and needs, such as in the case of government crackdowns or corporate strong-arming that took away too much freedom. Second, the average computer user would need to have ready access to the tools (e.g., dial-up modems) and knowledge ("what's a terminal program?") to actually use a dial-up BBS.

Even if those conditions were met, I doubt the result would be anything like the BBS community of the 1980s and early 1990s. The point-and-click and multi-tasking environments we now take for granted, and which people might expect to continue using on a BBS (which is already possible with some BBS software, such as Wildcat! Interactive Net Server), do not lend themselves to a sense of virtual presence. As a result, the sensation of sitting down with a friend in his living room — just by connecting your computer to his via the phone line — may be lost forever.


Just think in a few years people will be asking "What is a phone line?".

I've never got the chance to be on a BBS my self but found this informative. I kinda get the feeling of "sitting down in the living room at your friend's house" from forums that are just starting out with a small user base, you know before the spambots and trolls find it or they let "That Guy" become a moderator.

Yea, I had a the feeling about 1995 when the internet started taking off that we were losing something. I could never quite put my finger on it, but I think the immersion thing is really key. That's really observant if you ask me. I don't find the web nearly as satisfying as the BBS, but hey i guess it leaves room for something to take its place

I totally agree! Good posting! Most of the ideas of these social networking sites were stolen from BBS'es back in the '80s and '90s. They just use newer technologies, like AJAX, HTML and server-side processing. The same idea and concept, though. And, the guys are filthy rich! I wish I would have done this. Such a basic idea!

Your thoughts are very similar to comments I appended to a report I wrote comparing the MUD and MMORPG communities. I have no idea where the report is now, but the central idea was that with an MMORPS like WoW the player feels like they are interacting primarily with the environment and as an added bonus play the same game with friends in a persistent world. This contrasts enormously with strong MUD communities (in particular places like, for example) where the users feel they are playing each other and as an added bonus the environmental factors are interesting and handled in an automated fashion by the software.

I'm not exactly sure the effect of interface on all of this, though. I agree that the modern desktop and even smartphone platforms are fabulously distracting (and irritating) telnetting into a MUD still gives a feeling of immersion despite my terminal screen occupying only a small part of my overall desktop space and something like WoW going fullscreen. On the other hand WoW also grants a feeling of immersion, but its an immersion in a virtual world of digital composition as opposed to immersion in a community of actual people.

Interesting read. I feel like there are a few aspects of this that neither of us have considered yet -- and they are things I'll never have time to think about much or write about. But we're missing something about immersion and community and only randomly getting it right in modern software. As a side note, the motivation for the MUD-MMORPG study was the statistical observation that MUD communities seemed to actually grow as WoW, Legend, Silk Road, Runescape and EverQuest II gained in popularity, which was not what anyone expected.

Thanks for your comments. It's a good point that you can be immersed in something even when it takes up only a small portion of your overall interface, in the presence of other things vying for your attention, as long as you're mentally engaged by it. I find this true in games (although I don't allow myself much time for them anymore) as well as other things — reading an ebook, posting a message as part of a thought-provoking discussion, etc. There's more to immersion / mental engagement than the interface, but the interface can play a part by offering (or avoiding) those distractions.

Depth of user interaction is a vital element, but it's still just one element. I think Facebook does a particularly poor job of promoting "quality conversations" (see "Of Pinterest And The Importance Of Quality Conversations") and it encourages users to have very shallow interactions. However, even though I think Google+ does a better job of drawing user interaction to greater depth, I still don't think it approaches the "sense of being virtually present somewhere." I may be mentally engaged by my interaction with it, but I don't feel like I'm "in" Google+, I'm just using it. It's a 2D reflection to look at instead of a mental environment with depth; it's modern-day TV instead of the Star Trek® "Holodeck." (Visually, of course, the ASCII art of a BBS was nothing like the Holodeck!)

At least for a personally-run, single-computer, often-single-line BBS, I think part of the sense of being virtually present somewhere was augmented by knowing that I was quite literally using a computer that was sitting in somebody's house. In several cases it was a computer I'd seen in person while visiting a friend "in real life." There's no escaping the awareness that Facebook, MySpace, Google+, etc. are definitely not running on a single PC sitting on some guy's kitchen counter.

Things keep changing, though, offering more to ponder. For example, a Google+ Hangout offers something far beyond what we could have enjoyed on a BBS in the 90s. I'm not sure how, or even if, that factors into this sort of comparison.