Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz

Build a better BBS and the world will beat a path to your modem.

Since the early '80s, bulletin board systems -- or BBSs, -- have been a staple of community-oriented electronic communication. Folks from all over the world call up BBSs to discuss current events and hobbies, to exchange computer programs and pictures, or just to chew the rag with online friends. There are an estimated 64,000 computer bulletin boards scattered among these United States. The $64,000 question is: do you want to start your own BBS?

Starting a bulletin board system is like opening the doors of your computer to the world. People can call up your system . Folks can use a modem to call your BBS, to exchange shareware games, recipes, auto repair tips, political views, or anything else. Actually administrating the BBS software puts you in the driver's seat: you can set the stage and make the rules about what goes on in your electronic community. With that task comes responsibilities and rewards.

"To love the hobby, you have to like communicating--without a definite love for communications, you are not going to do this," says Darrell McDowell, system operator (SysOp in BBS parlance) of Macs BBS in Spokane, Washington. Running a BBS "fulfills a need for community development," he said.

What's it like to be SysOp of a bulletin board? "Its' not like anything, really, that I can think of. It is pretty unique," McDowell said. He confesses what many system operators might be pressed to admit: part of the hobby's charm is the ego trip. "Running a board is like being a figurehead, a point of contact. You're accessible, you're visible, you're a community leader." The "community" -- the people who call your BBS -- might encompass only a few of your closest friends, or thousands of callers from around the globe. Some of the nation's most popular BBSs have thousands of users who check in monthly. A more typical BBS might have from 100 to 500 regular users.

If you're thinking of starting a board, consider whether you're doing it for fun or profit. There's an old joke about how to make a small fortune running a BBS: start with a large fortune. The fact is, running a bulletin board is expensive: you'll need a computer dedicated to the task, as well as several modems, phone lines and the bulletin board software itself. Macintosh bulletin board software, with names like FirstClass, TeleFinder and NovaLink Pro, are light-years ahead of the BBS software popular just a few years ago. Most of today's software offer graphical user interfaces, easy set-up and low maintenance. There are several varieties of free BBS software if you're running a BBS on a MS-DOS computer; unfortunately, there aren't any robust but free BBS software packages for the Mac. The software can cost $500 or more.

BBSs were invented by hobbyists, and thousands of them are run by people who spend their own money maintain them. Some SysOps charge for membership, but usually the fee is low -- enough to defray operating expenses. Is running a BBS a great way to make a fortune? No, says McDowell, "you have to be ready and willing to lose money on the deal. you'll be lucky to break even." He does it for the love of the hobby.

Running a BBS can also be a full-time job. McDowell, an avid hacker, spends as many as 6 hours a day maintaining his system. Of course, you can be a system operator even if you don't have that kind of time to devote to a bulletin board. But it can, if you let it, be a full-time job. Rest assured that running a BBS will surely take up more time than you thought, especially when the system is brand new, or when it is plagued by inevitable hardware problems.

Pablo Rotter, a high school student who runs a bulletin board near Eureka, California, was a user of BBSs for several months before setting up his own board, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The Restaurant specializes in local message areas, where people in Rotter's local area chatting up a storm. Other boards specialize in national or international discussion forums by linking BBSs in a network -- such as OneNet or FidoNet. On networked boards, the messages you post can reach out to the world, rather than users on one lone system. Another popular (but expensive) option is to hook your board to the Internet. By doing this, you can provide worldwide electronic mail and access to Usenet, the ultimate international discussion forum.

Find Your Niche

McDowell estimates that there are close to 60 other BBSs in the Spokane area, which means a lot of competition, even among free BBSs. Whether your area has dozens of BBSs or none at all, your system needs to have a unique angle if it's to become popular among cyberspace denizens.

The key to a successful BBS is finding your niche. Users find BBSs without a "peg", or purpose, dull. An excellent way to differentiate your BBS from the others in your area is to make it a home to information and discussion about your other hobbies or interests. A board that's devoted to talk about hydroponics, or ham radio, or science fiction, or tax evasion -- or whatever interests you -- is sure to develop a more devout (and diverse) following than one that's perceived as "just another BBS for Macintosh users." As an added bonus, you can become an expert in your field, since your computer is a gathering place for others interested in your hobby.

"Do a market survey before thinking of running a board," McDowell says. "Check out other BBSs in your area." Find out who they cater to, and what they don't do, then fill a niche. "You need to have something people will want to call in for. If you don't have a focus, your board will go nowhere," he said.

For instance, Macs BBS is a community-oriented discussion board. "I try to service people interested in prepress, service bureaus, and home-based computer 'newbies'," McDowell said. (You can visit Macs BBS by dialing 1-509-326-9307 with your modem.)

A Day in the Life of a Sysop

A system operator's typical day usually goes something like this: check your electronic mail and answer questions from your users. If you've had any new callers, verify them and give them privileges to access the board. Then, peruse any new file uploads, making sure that everything your callers have uploaded is nice and legal -- two banes of SysOps everywhere are piracy and pornography, two of the many legal issues SysOps needs to be aware of.

Software piracy is illegal, and although hundreds of BBSs specialize as warehouses for bootlegged software, operating a pirate board is a sure way to find yourself in a legal headlock. Even well-behaved SysOps need to keep an eye out for illegal software, however -- recent court rulings have proclaimed that if it's on your BBS -- whether you knew it or not -- you can be liable.

The other "p" word, pornography on BBSs, has also come to light in the media recently. Many operators of adult-oriented BBSs are running scared after a count decision in which a California man was found guilty of distributing obscenity across state lines when a Tennessee postal worker dialed into the California BBS. It's evident that BBSs will force our definition of "community standards" to become more clear in coming months.

So, is running a BBS worth the time, money and hassle? That's up to you. If you start your own little home in cyberspace, you'll be in good company. Thousands of others know it's worth it.

Articles by Kevin Savetz