Long before the Internet, computer hobbyists were surfing the online world, though in a completely different platform. Back in the late 70’s two men, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, created the BBS phenomena during a snowstorm. Essentially an electronic newsletter, BBSes, or Bulletin Board Systems, soon became a minor cultural mainstay that spawned its own elite subculture.
Essentially a chat room where people could shoot the breeze, and download and trade computer games, some shareware, some pirated, BBSes were reached via modem and spawned communities in which their members were fiercely loyal and territorial. Creating everything from intense political wars to feverish art contests once ANSI was introduced into the equation.
Director Jason Scott, a former BBS user and Sysop, or system operator, which was basically a BBS Webmaster, is a proven BBS junky who began this project in a completely different form years ago. With its origins in a website meant to cull together data from the old BBS days, Scott began to receive dozens of stories from users and sysops and decided to transform these stories he was receiving into a full blown documentary.
But the road he takes proves as fascinating as the subject he’s breaching. In lieu of presenting us with a dry, technical documentary, Scott gives us an epic 6 + hour documentary about BBS users and how it affected and molded their lives. Having interviewed well over 200 people, he gives us a complete picture of the community and the obsession these users and sysops had with a technology most outsiders considered a novelty.
Broken up into eight “episodes,” “BBS The Documentary” is a staggering 330-minute film that tracks the history of BBS from its humble beginnings to its quick demise with the rise of the Internet. But this isn’t a boring PBS-style documentary about technology most of us has never heard of; it is a love letter to BBSes and its users. Focusing on the human aspect, and filling in those unfamiliar with BBSes with on-screen explanations, examples, and definitions, it manages to teach a pretty thorough history of BBSes while entertaining us.
In the end it will appeal to anyone who has geek tendencies, not necessarily for BBSes, but for any cultural phenomena that swept them up and consumed their youth—from Star Wars toys to Beatles memorabilia; anyone who’s ever loved and appreciated something so thoroughly that it came to define a moment in time for them will enjoy this doc, not just users of BBSes.
A truly fascinating documentary about an increasingly obscure and obsolete technology. Prior to watching “BBS The Documentary” I had never heard of Bulletin Board Systems, let alone participated in that culture, yet by the end of this epic doc, I found myself longing for the BBS days, back before the Internet consumed and dominated the world.