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A Dream of the 90s – Bulletin Board Systems


February 13, 2019

Do you fondly recall the era where your enthusiasm regarding your Home PC’s modem was met with blank stares or possibly a comment like, “Your computer… has a phone in it?” It was a time before widespread adoption of the Internet, when communities of local Bulletin Board Systems ruled the day in all their ANSI-colored text-based glory.

If this all sounds completely foreign, there is an eight-part DVD documentary(“Surprisingly engrossing” – Wired) that’s worth a watch. Maybe when you need a break from the nonstop news cycle. In summary, a BBS was a system usually created by a hobbyist, accessible directly via modem phone line, providing message boards, online games, file transfer, and sometimes multi-line chat. Typically the entire experience consisted of text-based menus and text “graphics,” customized by the operator (“SysOp”) to create a uniquely themed environment.

While the World Wide Web has come to dominate online communication, you may be surprised to learn that bulletin boards still exist. So, whether you’re itching for some old time computer nostalgia, or intrigued by an online world you never knew, take a ride with Censys down some of the less travelled roads of the Information Superhighway where BBSes still await your call – this time over Telnet.

….Loading…..skateboards, JNCOs, hacky sack, Gushers…….Hack the Planet!…….Loading…

Searching for Telnet BBSes in the modern age is tricky. They typically won’t show up in a Google search unless they have some sort of associated web presence and websites that simply list BBSes can quickly become out of date as boards come and go. However, because Censys frequently scans the internet for open Telnet ports, our data can be used as an up-to-date index of Telnet BBSes! Simply searching Telnet banners for the word “BBS” yields dozens of systems.

Before you jump in, a word of caution. This should go without saying, but if you decide to use Telnet for this or any other type of communication, be aware that information transfer is in plaintext. So, while you’re having fun reliving the BBS glory days, just remember not to transmit any sensitive information.

Running active BBSes in 2019

So, what does the BBS scene look like today? As powerful as the internet is, one cannot telnet all the way back to 1992. Running a BBS in 2019 is no longer constrained by geographical area, or individual phone lines. That means no busy signals and no long distance charges on one hand, but also generally no locally focused community on the other, which was one of BBS’ charms. What usually remains, however, is the personal customization of an individual hobbyist.

Another convenience of the modern BBS scene is that users are no longer restricted to the extended ASCII fonts supported by the user’s specific architecture for the rendering of ANSI art. Modern BBS-oriented terminal software such as SyncTERM and NetRunneraccurately render glyphs associated with old school computers one would have used to call Bulletin Boards and even allow the server to specify which character set to use, be it Amiga, MS-DOS or even 8-bit Atari.

Sysops we talked to in researching this post had set up systems for the following reasons:

  • for the sake of playing old BBS games, such as Legend of The Red Dragon (there’s a fun throwback video on this) or Trade Wars
  • to participate in inter-BBS message relay networks such as FidoNet, which still have a surprisingly active user base
  • and/or simply because they appreciated the text-based do-it-yourself aesthetic and potential for community

Find BBSes with Censys

Simply searching for the string “BBS” within Telnet banners will result in BBS hits. Strings which match specific BBS software banners will result in fewer results, but are more likely to be actual Telnet Bulletin Board Systems.

We suggest starting with these two searches:

Finding Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) with Censys

As Internet adoption was taking the place of the dial-up BBS scene, access was still mostly text-based. Back then, Telnet for services was very popular, and the Web wasn’t necessarily widespread or even invented yet. Multi-User Dungeons (MUD) were native to this environment. These multi-user, real-time, text adventure games were the precursors to MMORPGs. Like Bulletin Board Systems, many were built by hobbyists simply for the sake of creating, in the hope that a community of users would show up and find themselves immersed in the environment.

Just like BBS, there are still people running these MUDs today and you can find them in Censys:

Keep exploring!

Because Censys scans broadly, seeing everything on the Internet, at least to some extent (we call these “broad, shallow scans”), we can locate all sorts of things like BBS and MUD that are active online. These were just a couple examples, but you could go exploring for days upon days and find some really cool stuff out there, beyond what you might expect. Tweet some of your findings and tag us so we can try to keep up, @censysio

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