Thank you for taking a deeper interest in this project. Whether you're a potential interviewee, staff member, or just an innocent bystander, I appreciate you taking the time to read what I have to write.

You don't just wake up one day and decide that you want to do a massive documentary about all aspects of something like the history of Bulletin Board Systems. In my case, it's the next stop in a journey of nostalgia that has turned into a bit of a crusade to save a piece of my past, and the past of many others.

Introducing Again: The BBS

A Bulletin Board System, if you've not encountered one before, was originally a single computer hooked up via a modem to a phone line. It had special software running on it such that anyone calling the phone line with their modem would be connected to the computer. Once logged in, this user could leave and read messages, download files, and generally have a place to hang their hat and meet other people. The first BBS was started in 1978 and it has continued to the present day, although the Internet has done an excellent job of diverting the BBS audience elsewhere. Most BBSes that were around during the 1980's have disappeared or mutated into something completely different.

I started logging into BBSes around 1981 and continued to do so for many years, stopping pretty much for good around 1990, when the Internet finally took my own interest completely away from the world of one-line, one-user BBSes and into the world of international networking, multi-user communication, and ultimately, the World Wide Web.

Years passed. In 1998 I suddenly wondered what happened to a BBS that I used to log onto in the 1980's called Sherwood Forest II. I'd spent many hours on this BBS, leaving and reading messages, getting involved in discussions, and most importantly, downloading all the neat and informative textfiles that they had up for their users to read. I figured that pretty much everything had moved onto the Internet at this point, and if you couldn't find it on the web, it probably wasn't worth knowing.

A Horrible Gap

A few hours later, I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong. As far as the Web was concerned, it was if Sherwood Forest II had never existed. In fact, it was like most of the BBSes I'd ever known had never existed! I'd strained to remember this System Operator, or that user, and my searches were coming up absolutely fruitless. This didn't make any sense to me; I knew that many of the people now running the machines of the Internet had cut their teeth on Bulletin Boards; where had the information gone? Where were the stories? Was anyone even trying to save the history?

The answer, in a general sense, was yes; over time, people had put up a few memories in the form of textfiles from their youth. In the occasional paragraph of someone telling an autobiographical story, you might see a mention of a BBS in that person's past. You might even find a page or two by a group of people who had met on a BBS, and who all kept their webpages linked together so they could continue to find each other. But a wholecloth, This Is What The BBS Was Like page with all the wonderful writings and messages and title screens and flotsam of twenty years just didn't exist. And many BBSes were falling in between the massive cracks, never to be heard from.

Within a short time, I started working on a web site that would be different. I grabbed a cool domain name, started writing cataloging scripts, and scrambled through my old 5 1/4" floppies to find every last file I'd saved from my childhood.

Thus was born textfiles.com, one of the largest sources of BBS-era textfiles on the web. Now at over 30,000 textfiles, I get thousands of visitors a day, some looking to relive the past, others who are discovering this whole new subculture for the first time. I have recieved hundreds of letters from people who tell me about their favorite file, or how glad they are to find the site. It's very energizing, and part of what drives me to continue finding and adding new files.

The Infinite BBS List

In 2001, well into the project of collecting textfiles, and after getting some attention from other websites about my efforts, I suddenly had a very odd idea. It occurred to me that throughout the thousands of textfiles, I had the phone numbers and related information for many of the BBSes that I called when I was young. Maybe if I wrote some program to yank this information out and present it as one big list.....

It was too neat a thought to put down. A couple of days later, bbslist.textfiles.com was born, and I started collecting the thousands of numbers of BBSes that I could find both on my site and elsewhere. While nowhere near complete, the site is well past 80,000 BBSes listed and continues to be improved and expanded.

This site also, got some significat attention, this time from a much, much wider audience of BBS users and system operators from the 1980's and early 1990's. Soon, my mailbox was flooded with hundreds of messages giving me corrections, updates, suggestions for improvement...

....and stories.

So many stories! People who were sysops told me of the times they had running their BBSes. People who called BBSes let me know which boards were their favorites, and how they missed those times. Emotional stories of a time past, and excited, poorly-written letters to let me know that while the writer had missed out on the BBS era, they wish they could know more.

While I did my best to ask folks who had written letters if I could put their writing up in a special section I'd set up for just that purpose, I knew that I'd never get all of the story out of them, or be able to inspire them to generate the tomes of memories they had from that time.

So I had another neat idea.

A Documentary Begins

I currently work as a UNIX System Administrator for a company in Boston, a direct result of the years of computer experience I'd gained from my youth. Before I got into "the industry", however, I attended Emerson College in Boston (Class of 1992) and graduated with a film degree. Needless to say, I'd always thought it an amazing waste that I'd spent so many years learning about the process of making a film and then never actually used it outside of a number of small projects. While I always thought it would be nice to make films, the cost of doing so always seemed prohibitive for what would inevitably be a lark, a sort of high-end home movie. So I shelved my training and got deep into RAID arrays, network performance, scripting, and all the other gimgaws of the computer geek.

Meanwhile, the cost of filming and editing a rather good-looking film has come down dramatically. Assuming you can live with something appearing nearly professional as opposed to undoubtedly professional, you can make a film for what used to be the price of a camera. As a matter of inspiration, I kept finding myself browsing a site of homemade Star Wars films and looking over the process that these filmmakers were using to shoot, edit, and add special effects. Some of these short films truly rival what you would see in a theatre. But what would I make a film about? (These folks have the whole "Star Wars Next Chapter" market all sewed up...)

And sometime in June of 2001, the thought hit me. Take the incredible story of the rise of the Bulletin Board System and use all my learned skills to make the best documentary possible about it. I'd already done tons of research in the process of making the textfiles.com site, and I now had the addresses of hundreds of BBS sysops who had professed an interest either in talking about their past or wanting to remember it with me. It all just clicked together, like a puzzle that was chaos moments before and now presented the clearest picture I could imagine.

I sat on the idea for a while and thought about the pros and cons of the process. It meant a lot of time, but it was time I knew I'd enjoy. It meant a lot of travel and the gruelling schedule of a filmmaker, but I know I need the excercise and to get out of the house more on weekends. And it meant a single-minded purpose for a good portion of my waking hours as I scheduled times, places, people, and all the other tiny details of putting this project together.

It would be tough, but I could do it. With a lot of help, a lot of favors, and an awful lot of time. Years, it would be. I'd have some sort of results nearly immediately after the first few interviews came in, though, so it wouldn't be so bad. And think of the things I would capture on film! Think of the people I'd meet! This will be so exciting!

The General Idea for This Site

Besides being energetic and excited about the project, I am also a realist. I know that there will be times that I'm pushed to the edge of despair or sadness as this opportunity falls though, or that financial or technical factor works against me, and I know I can't do this alone. So I've registered the BBSDOCUMENTARY.COM domain and have created this site, a kit of information and explanation for what I want to accomplish with this documentary, and a way for people to check on the project as it progresses. As I pursue interview subjects and track down information, I want a central place where I can refer folks so they'll have all they need to make decisions about whether to participate.

A Little Bit about the Actual Documentary

In this early stage, it's very hard to tell where the road will take me; I intend to put a ton of energy into the project and infect a lot of other people as well. I'm not a "professional" at documentary filmmaking, so that might work in my favor as this isn't just another job; this is a story I want to tell right.

I have a very strong opinion at this point that the BBS story needs to be told in parallel, not as a linear story. This means that the documentary will very likely have different separate parts. It is distracting and unhelpful to go into depth about the large UFO/Conspiracy/Science BBSes that populated the landscape in the same linear story that discusses the underground BBSes and piracy/hacker boards that have been around almost since the beginning. It would be better for everyone if I treat them as different lines along the same general "meta-story". So this means I can fit everything in without having to "shoehorn" an unrelated individual or chapter. For example, I know that I want to tell about the advances in Modem technology and how they led to BBSes. I want to start with the telephone system, go into the earliest modems, segue into the first of the BBSes, and maybe bring together some of those pioneering spirits and both have them talk about the past and weigh in on the present. This means tracking down a lot of those pioneers, who have scattered to the four winds (and in some cases, died) and do my best to piece them all together again. One of the things I'm very concerned about is achieving as complete a picture as I can about BBSes and all the ways they affected people. I have my own personal interests (I liked Apple II BBSes, "Phone Phreak" boards, and a specific subset of machines in the San Jose area) and I'll be sure to get them in, but there's simply so much that happened that I have to keep a real open mind and spend a lot of effort on research. It would break my heart to wrap up filming and discover that an entire huge subset of BBSes were completely looked over. It also won't surprise me if it happens regardless of my efforts and good intentions as a researcher. But I can do my best anyway.

One way to prevent this is to be very, very OPEN with my research and facts that I'm finding, and that will happen on this website. As I and my cohorts discover new facts about a BBS subject or subset, I will post some reference to it on this site. I am working to make companion sites that give the sort of information that bbslist.textfiles.com does; a good global sense of the way things were, with people able to contribute improvements or changes as they see fit or know better than I.

Into the Fray

So now I'm standing at the head of a multi-year project, and I feel both scared and excited about what this will lead to. I'll be seeing a lot more of the world (via travel), maybe meeting some personal idols, and hopefully I can help bring to life some of the things that made the Bulletin Board System so special to so many thousands of people.

There's a lot to do on both my side and the side of anyone crazy enough to get involved with me; but this is work I will enjoy and I intend to make the best documentary I can. I want something that will last, that will let the next generation after the "Napster and Broadband" generation understand where this all came from. I think it's going to be great.

Thank You For Reading This Far

I appreciate you reading the longer version of the pitch. If this sounds at all like something you want to get involved with, in any way, be sure to contact me. My e-mail address is jason@textfiles.com and I have a phone number set up at 617-269-8696 (COW-TOWN). I look forward to hearing from you.

Also, feel free to browse the rest of the site for additional information and opportunities for input.

Jason Scott

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