Social networking is bread and butter stuff now, with any number of ways to connect digitally to friends, share interests and poke fun at each other. But back in the 90’s, long before Facebook and Twitter, people used Bulletin Boards.
Originating in the late 70’s, these were online communities of their own, often consisting of no more than a chat room and a forum, with a handful of people, though some with many thousands of registered users.
As the Internet and the Web became ubiquitous, these text-based communities looked archaic compared to more whizzy forums and methods of communicating. But Monochrome BBS (Mono, to it’s users) is still active, with 30 or so people active at any time on a typical day, occasional “meets”, and dozens of active discussions on diverse topics.
When I joined during it’s heyday in 1994, users online at peak times were approaching 200, and the big 90’s meets in various student-friendly locations would take over entire pubs and nightclubs. A big drop, but the fact that something so “old-fashioned” is still active and in development will surprise many people.
Monochrome was written from scratch, unlike many BBS’s that used a standard package like Synchronet. It started off as a 3rd year CS project at City University in 1990, later used as their main BBS and finally opened to external accounts in 1991.
Over time more features were added, such as the talker, off-line messaging, ASCII animation scripts and menus, automated menus, ability to identify friends and admins online easily. The simplicity of the interface and modularity of code meant that processing power and storage were minimal, hardware upgrades often coming from user hardware donations.
User Interface leads to communication, community
I think navigation was key to the success of Mono – movement within the menus and within discussion files was easy compared to other BBS’s, and within a discussion file you could search quickly for a word, date, skip backwards and forwards through the conversation. Coupled with scanning, whereby you could quickly search through each file that you were interested in for new comments, this meant that you could be active in several conversations on different topics at the same time. This meant that very active discussion files were somewhere between synchronous and asynchronous conversation, far more than I have seen on web-based bulletin boards.
The ability to use colour and animation allowed section moderators to make menus customisable and give a distinct look and feel to their topic. Sections also developed their own customs, especially as they could be made invite-only, x-rated or anonymous. The walled-garden nature of Mono also allowed people to collect their thoughts in diaries, well before blogging became popular.
Life moves on
Whilst there’s a certain truth to the Diary of a Spod (the meets sound very familiar), there were enough “normal” people having conversations about non-techy stuff, which I think also contributed to Mono’s popularity and longevity. There was a fairly sizable female population, who often as not could out-geek the boys, but still hold their own. Inevitably, relationships formed, often became marriages and then families. There’s still many files about computing and other tech subjects, but there’s also files about being in management, work-life balance, family and domestic life.
Over the years there has been much debate within the Mono community about whether to move to a web based forum, and a couple of years ago we started to realise that we liked Mono as it is, that it still was working for us as a platform and that between us we had the expertise to make it relevant and extend functionality. Many Mono users were CS students, now experienced developers and sysadmins and more recent developments have included integration with external calendars and Twitter.
There’s another debate as to whether the community will change if it tries to attract new users, but I think there’s enough space for that. For my part, I’m interested in seeing how people use the platform, how sub-communities form, and how we can retain them as we try to prune redundant and dead files and reorganise the structure to make it more welcoming to new users.
I also want to find ways to demonstrate how Mono works to new users such as video and explanation posts like this. We can’t really do it like the olden days, when people were usually introduced to Mono in student labs, hearing someone sniggering or furiously banging the keyboard, or looking over the shoulder and seeing something colourful and animated in a very black and white world.