Computer bulletin boards are a low-cost alternative to on-line services.
Does the information highway seem a bit too fast and impersonal? You may want to try a local computer bulletin board instead. One user says it's like a virtual reality ``Cheers.'
They're small, comfortable, everybody knows your name, and you might even run into one of the regulars at the local mall.Computer bulletin board systems have been around since the early 1980s. And despite the growth of the Internet and commercial on-line services like Compuserve and America Online, they're as popular as ever.
No one knows for sure how many BBSs there are, but in his book, 'Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier,' Howard Rheingold estimated the number at 60,000.
At least 30 are scattered throughout the Triad, providing games, electronic mail, graphics and text files, and discussion groups. While they can't compare with the Internet in scope or the commercial on-lines in eye appeal and ease of use, they provide an affordable way for anyone with a modem to experience the on-line world.
``The main thing people use it for is files,' says Chris Knight, 20, a college student and regular contributor to NEXUS, a Reidsville BBS. ``You can download entire books. Games are also real popular. Then there's Fidonet, a world wide collection of bulletin boards that send messages to each other. They're just like Internet newsgroups, except these are moderated.'
Games range from the warlike DOOM to cutthroat corporate maneuvering in TradeWars. And unlike the off-the-shelf games from Nintendo, you can customize them, too. If you get tired of blasting away at DOOM's warriors, you can change them into Barney or Bill Clinton.
The Bible and ``Moby Dick' are among the books you might find on-line. You can download short movies and the software program needed to view them. Thanks to the sound files he's downloaded from BBSs, Knight's computer now signs off with a sound bite from ``Monty Python and the Holy Grail.'
Some bulletin boards are free, while others charge anywhere from $20 to $50 per year - a pittance compared to Internet gateway services, which may cost that much per month. And some people prefer them because they'd rather be talking to someone across town than someone across the country.
``With the Internet you're dealing with the world,' says Thomas Baird, systems operator for a Greensboro BBS called Outernet. ``On a BBS, you're mainly dealing with local folks. It seems more warm. You know your neighbor is doing this instead of someone in Cleveland that you'll never meet.'
Outernet is one of the larger local BBSs with about 400 regular users. It also offers some of the more sophisticated services, such as ``chat' and ``teleconferencing.' Both allow users to communicate simultaneously, with one being able to see the other's messages as they're being typed. Chat is a private, one-to-one exchange, while teleconferencing is more like a group discussion.
Outernet has more than 100 Internet news groups on-line, and thousands of files for downloading.
``On-line games are the biggest thing that's hit Greensboro, because it's multiuser,' Baird says. ``The hottest game we have right now is TradeWars. You can have three or four other players on at once. It's a whole new world.'
KCS BBS is more modest, but it's also free. Games, files, shareware and electronic mail services are all available. Ken Blankenship, a quadriplegic, started his BBS as a hobby after sampling several others.
``I can't get out, so I have a way of communicating,' says Blankenship, 46, of Reidsville. ``The BBS helps keep me active, and I've met a lot of nice people.'
Making friends - with people you actually have a chance to meet - is one of the big attractions to BBSs.
``I've met a lot of people I wouldn't have otherwise,' says Knight, who calls the BBS a virtual town square.
``Bulletin boards have their own personalities, and I think that's great,' Knight says. ``A lot of the big stuff out there is cold and impersonal. We send each other messages, and sometimes we meet. It's sort of odd at first, when you only see people as letters on a screen. But when you actually meet them, that's great.'
Knight maintains an area on the NEXUS board called Knight's Corner, with recipes, a humor column, even a photo. He also enjoys the debate forums.
``The topics change all the time, and since most people use an alias, you can say whatever you want,' says Knight, who lives in Reidsville. ``The topics are everything from health care reform to hemorrhoid commercials airing at dinner time - I started that one myself.'
Be forewarned that not all content on BBSs is G-rated. Some of the graphics available for downloading may be of a slightly more adult nature, and so may the the discussions. Carolina Computer News, a free publication that carries an extensive list of BBSs throughout the region, has a number system indicating whether boards are aimed at general audiences, teenage audiences or adult audiences.
While Knight considers NEXUS his home ground, he also dials up bulletin boards all over the country. Many BBSs have 800 numbers, and while many are recreational, there are also government sponsored information bases, such as the Small Business Administration BBS.
Some of the larger BBSs, like digitalNATION of Alexandria, Va., offer sophisticated graphics and a point-and-click interface that rivals high-dollar commercial services like America Online.
DigitalNATION offers 30 minutes per day free time on the BBS. It doesn't have an 800 number, so users pay the cost of the long-distance call. FirstClass Client, the graphical front-end software needed to access digitalNATION and many other BBSs, is shareware - available free through many on-line file libraries.
``People in Rockingham County don't have Internet access, and even if we did, it would run $30 a month or so,' Blankenship says. ``The Internet will not replace local bulletin boards. First of all, because of cost. And with the Internet, you really have to learn your way around.'
Bulletin boards are cheap, easy to access, and relatively easy to use. If you have a computer with a modem and any basic communications software, you can dial in. If you find yourself floundering around, there's often a system operator who will step in and help you out.
Many people who use BBSs end up starting their own. The start-up process doesn't have to be expensive, but it can be. To start your own BBS, you need a computer with a fair amount of storage space for files, a modem, a phone line and bulletin board software. Some BBS software is free, while some of the more sophisticated programs cost $300 or more.
Kevin Steed, 16, started his first bulletin board two years ago. His current BBS, Familiar Anomalies, has logged 2,817 calls since July.
``I didn't really know what I was getting into when I started,' says Steed, an Eden resident. ``Even though it can be frustrating at times, I still like doing it. In the initial month or two, it takes a whole lot of time. But after the set-up, it really will run on its own.'
But like anything dependent on machinery, it can and will break down from time to time. Recently, Steed's 1-gigabite hard drive crashed, taking with it a library of files that took approximately 1,000 computer hours to collect. He's asking members who downloaded files in the past to upload a copy back into his system.
``Communicating, interfacing with people is what I like best,' Steed says. ``I like being able to provide the service. I started mine because I didn't think there were enough bulletin boards where people could really get involved.'
Steed hopes to take the system with him when he goes to college in a few years, hopefully to a larger area, where even more people can become part of his computer community. After all, the attraction of BBSs isn't just what's on the screen, but finding someone on the other end of the line.
``The best thing I love is meeting new people,' Baird says. ``I'll talk to anyone.'
HOW TO USE BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEMS
To log on to a bulletin board system, you need a computer, a 2400 baud or better modem, a phone line and and basic communications software. Standard settings for most bulletin boards are: 8 data bits, 1 stop bit, and no parity. Fill in the phone number of the BBS and open the connection. Most BBS begin with a welcome screen and registration information for new users.
This is just a sampling of local BBSs. Carolina Computer News, a free publication available at many local computer and book stores, carries extensive listings of BBS throughout the state.
The Key Board: (910) 282-6957.
Outernet: (910) 632-9362.
Triad Computer Club: (910) 288-0415.
Programmer's Paragon: (910) 852-2336.
The Answer Board: (910) 632-8943.
Familiar Anomalies: (910) 623-8180.
KCS: (910) 342-6612.
The NEXUS: (910) 626-0570.
Mayberry BBS: (910) 789-8183.
digitalNATION: (703) 642-0453.