apple 2 computer showing bbs screen

How to build a Modern BBS

Preface

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.

Digital Ocean Hosting

Website Software

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.

WordPress.org

Message Boards

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.

phpBB

DOOR Games

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.

EM-DOSBOX

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.

Matrix.org
Riot.im

Summary

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.

The website is the modern equivalent of a dialup BBS

Preface

Today I read a really cool and nostalgia article about the BBS, which stands for Bulletin Board System. BBSes were what the cool kids used to communicate online before there was a consumer internet. You can read that article here

I just had to comment, because BBSes played a significant role in my teenage life. I spent more time online than I did in the classroom. Seriously I failed several classes in high school because I never attended, I was at home playing Legend of the Red Dragon or responding to posts in the forums. I’ve included my response below:

My response

I think it’s awesome what you’re doing, I grew up on BBSes and I didn’t think they were weird at all, but everyone at school thought I was weird. Then the internet hit their living rooms and I don’t talk to those people anymore. Too busy getting paid $100/hr to build and support their websites.

While I love the nostalgia of this project, I think it’s worth noting that the “Modern BBS” is called a website. I know I know, ‘it’s not the same!’, believe me I get it. But from a purely end-user functionality standpoint, a website is exactly the same as a BBS, only improved.

Forums are handled by software such as phpBB (hands down the best UX in forums), you can play all sorts of web based games including dosbox classics with some java plugin, chat rooms are easy to embed especially with the new Matrix.org protocol, and of course we have various ‘wiki’ software to handle documents.

Best of all, an IP address is cheaper than a phone line ($5/mo droplets from Digital Ocean are the way to go) and the cheapest solutions can still handle 5–20 simultaneous visitors.

One of the things I always thought was really great about BBSes is how they empower “regular” people to organize and communicate ideas. Literally anybody can set one up, you don’t need a license or permit and the costs aren’t prohibitive. Websites are the same. We’ve been seeing the results of this anarchy for the past 30 years as corporations are no longer able to monopolize the distribution of information.

When I was a kid I ran my own BBS using the Renegade software. I had wicked ASCII art I found on pirate sites when you logged in, I forget what but it was probably a grim reaper or something. Now I have tailpuff.net and the first thing you see are high resolution full color graphics. It doesn’t tweak the nostalgia but it definitely is an improvement of the model first presented by the BBS.

How to Build a Modern BBS

I thought people might be interested in this idea, and so I decided I would provide some links to software and resources you can use to re-create all of the features of a BBS from your own blog website. These are not the only solutions, just my personal favorites.

Full disclosure: The Digital Ocean link is a referral link, if you sign up I will get credit toward my own hosting bill.