After reading an article here about building a modern Bulletin Board System, and crafting my own brief response here about how the website already is a modern BBS, I decided I should write a short guide on how you can construct a modern equivalent of a BBS on the web using mostly free tools.
A computer & phone line
In the 1980s operating a BBS required a computer and at least one phone line. Back then a single phone line would cost $20 to $50 per month. Today, a phone line still costs a minimum of $20 a month (phone service is a racket!), but you don’t need to spend that much. For $5 per month you can rent a Virtual Server from Digital Ocean with a dedicated IP address. As far as quality and reliability are concerned Digital Ocean are the best in the marketplace, which is why I recommend them. The link I provide is a referral link which will give me credit toward my own hosting bill if you sign up.
It is true that you could build a website from scratch so you don’t actually need to use this software but that takes a lot of time and you’d be re-inventing the wheel. That’s okay if you’re a developer and you’ve got a great idea for a wheel that nobody has thought of before, but otherwise I recommend using WordPress. It’s free and mature, as well as very easy to start using.
In the 1980s, “Message Boards” are where people would post and discuss topics. Today we call these things “Forums” but they serve the same functionality. The best software for setting up a message board on a website is phpBB. Not only is it free, but it has a really excellent user interface that meets all of the common needs and is very intuitive. It is stand-alone software and it is loaded with features. Installation is pretty easy but configuration can feel a bit daunting. Just take your time and read the documentation and you should be fine.
One of the coolest features of a BBS in the 1980s was Door Games. These were computer games that ran externally from the BBS software. The term ‘door’ was a reference to how the BBS acts as a gateway to access these games. This technology has evolved in multiple ways and powers many of the advanced capabilities seen on the internet today.
There are many ways to run games on your website. Software such as Unity or HTML5 make it possible to build modern games for the browser. However because Nostalgia is a big part of this theme, I’m going to recommend EM-DOSBOX, which is a plugin that allows you to run actual DOS games from within a web browser. The Internet Archive uses this same software for it’s video game archive website.
Real Time Chat
In the 1980s operating a chat system on a BBS was extremely expensive. First most free BBS software didn’t support it well at all, so you probably had to pay for a commercial platform. Second, every user required their own phone line connection, so if you wanted a 10 person chatroom you had to pay for 10 separate phone lines. Today it’s so much easier and cheaper.
There’s a lot of ‘chat’ plugins available for WordPress. I am going to focus on Matrix.org and Riot.im. There isn’t an easy ‘plugin’ available to install these on your website, but you could use an iframe to embed a riot.im chatroom. The Matrix protocol is still very early in development and as time goes on you can expect there will be simpler and more elegant solutions for this purpose.
So there you have it all of the tools required to build a modern “BBS” on the web, and with the exception of server rental all of it is free. You could, in theory, do all of this on your own server running on your home internet connection but that introduces some challenges such as DNS addressing. It’s up to you if that’s worth the $5 saved.
You might notice I did not include detailed tutorials on each piece of this puzzle. That is intentional. This post is meant to be a starting point for people interested in this sort of project. There are already dozens of specific guides and tutorials available for each of the things I’ve linked. This kind of project represents an adventure and learning about the software is part of that adventure. Also, detailed information like installation procedures are likely to evolve over time. So if you’re looking for help with phpBB or WordPress, just do a web search for tutorials on those subjects and you’ll find dozens.
I hope you found this article helpful or useful. I welcome any comments on how to improve my recommendations.