Monday, October 29th, 2012 at 11:40pm

The key to the perfect social network lies in the past – with the BBS

Posted by Jordan Erickson

Innerlink BBS main menuOver the past months I have thought a lot about how social networking websites such as Myspace and Facebook (and the newer Google+) always seem to have their “golden age” of popularity – and then steadily decline.

I’ve thought about when I switched from Myspace to Facebook. There just seemed to be a specific point where it would have been more productive to invest my time in my (newly created) Facebook profile – and a majority of my flock of friends and family I had connected with had migrated as well.

And then I’ve thought about my transition from Friendster to Myspace. Friendster was one of the very first generalized social networking websites. It was great in its own regard, though it was primitive compared to what Facebook and Google+ are today. At its core, though, it was a beautiful creation and a great idea to bring casual conversation to a worldwide audience.

Going back further, I reminisce about the rise of the Internet and the subsequent decline of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems. Anyone who knows me personally from the mid-90’s and earlier knows how nostalgiac I am about BBSes even today. There has always been something about them that Internet-based social networking websites today can’t seem to hold a candle to – something I could never put my finger on.

Just the other night I was reading a paper called “The Temporary Autonomous Zone”, which describes communities of past and present – all different types from 18th century pirate utopias to the (then) modern computerized communities of Bulletin Board Systems. It described the social aspects of these communities and their decentralized (some would say anarchy-based) nature. Though most of them hold no place in history books, their ideals were always the cornerstone of their purpose. Many of them were actually meant to be temporary; the lifespan of the community was inherent to its validity.

Myspace, Facebook and Google+ all have the same idea – connecting and socializing with people you know in real life. What seems to be the common decline with these sites in general is quite simply that once your userbase reaches a certain threshold, the communal foundation itself starts to wobble and eventually comes tumbling down on top of itself. More specifically, once your “friends” list becomes more than you can handle, you start to question the validity and value of the people you have connected with as well as the community as a whole.

For me, it started with a “friend sweep” – going through my list and removing the friends who I didn’t find completely necessary to communicate with. My first sweep list consisted people I knew in school and past jobs, but never really conversed with anyway. Then came the ones who I did genuinely care about, but just couldn’t stand to see one more post about their political stance/life story/band/business happenings. After many months and multiple sweeps, however, the stale smell of wasted time still hung in the air for me. This resulted in me leaving the site for a time, declaring my independence and recaptured freedom and liberty. (Dramatic, aren’t I?) Of course, I have come back and left a few times, repeating the same shenanigans. The desire to communicate with those I care about draws me back. The feeling of distance, the feeling that people are screaming through a bullhorn at a ginormous crowd (i.e. their friends list) makes me leave because I feel like I have no real connection with them.

With all of this back and forth came a realization to me that old-school dialup Bulletin Board Systems rarely encountered these kinds of issues. For the most part, BBSes always seemed to hold a small, passionate community that kept themselves on target with what they were trying to accomplish (which was the same goal as modern social networks – informal human to human communication). “How,” I would ask myself, “could a seemingly ancient technology hold the true key to social networking when modern equivalents seem to keep getting it wrong?”

And it suddenly came to me – It’s the community, stupid!

A small, strongly connected group of individuals who share a common trait(s) or interest will always genuinely care about the community they are involved in. They will work hard, without any more reward than keeping the community valid and prosperous. This is apparent in many independently run web-based message forums (which are probably the closest Internet-based equivelant to a BBS). But as soon as you start trying to cater to those outside of this specific group, the essence of the commuinity itself devalues. People will lose faith in the direction of the community. They will start looking elsewhere, somewhere that caters more to their specific motivations for human to human communication.

Dial-up BBSes always had the inherent quality of being location-based. Back in the days before the Internet and free, unlimited nationwide calling, BBSers were restricted to calling boards in their own geographical area to avoid long-distance charges. When you fired up your terminal emulation program, you usually had a list of commonly called boards, most of which would reside in your own area code. These were your communities. They were all their own separate islands in the respect that they were each governed by their own “SysOps” (system operators). SysOps were simply people (like myself when I operated one in Sonoma County) that ran BBS software on their computers which were hooked up to a dedicated phone line. Each BBS would have its own message section, private e-mail system, file repository, and online game section. Each BBS would have its own set of users, or members. With the exception of BBS message “nets” such as Fidonet and Metronet (both of which still exist today), no cross-board communications were possible.

Because the size of a BBS userbase was restricted to those in the same geographical area, their communities always had their natural ‘cap’. With this, BBSes never experienced the problems world-wide Internet social networking sites currently have. The biggest thing SysOps ever had to worry about were flamewars from a heated discussion gone awry.

So what can modern social networking giants learn from all of this? One thing I can say is that Google had it right when they first launched GMail and Google+ in that both platforms were initially on an invite-only basis. This created a huge curiosity and demand for being a part of the “exclusivity” of it all. Quite possibly creating an artificial limit to your network will help it thrive – be it restricted to family members, friends from school, specific workplaces… you get the idea. The key is to harness the power of the quality of your community and not the quantity.


– Jordan Erickson

© 2012 Logical Networking Solutions: I.T. and Networking Specialist, Lake County, CA