As I was in the Cleveland area, there was a large BBS-like system run by Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) that I (along with many others) used, by the name of Cleveland Freenet (my username was ec373 - my email was presumably firstname.lastname@example.org). Freenets were designed for hundreds of users (or more), and typically had a minimal text-interface - a list of numbered options people would choose from to give them access to all kinds of information. Because they were often backed by a university, they were highly networked to other sites, and their goals were to empower their users as much as possible. Telnet, some suitably restricted email client (giving people real email addresses), IRC (then in its first incarnation), gopher, and several other tools were available. File transfer was not generally part of Freenet - it was possible to send files to friends, but the goal of freenet was more empowerment-through-education than empowerment-through-enabling-people-to-d
Another system worth noting was APK - a unix-based BBS run by a polish guy named Zbigniew Tyrlik (Akadensia P... something, I think) - it had a menu system that let people switch to "expert mode", instead giving them a unix shell if they wanted, and also had good connectivity to the outside world. This eventually became my one of the many ISPs my family experimented with. I ended up using this system (among others) for a number of my more hacker-ish indiscretions - communicating with other people to learn to write viruses, hacking a few sites, etc, things I eventually outgrew in late high school. For a computer club I started in my high school, I tried to convince everyone to get together for a bulk discount from them as an ISP, although many of them decided to go with en.com instead.
At some point, a company called Telegrafix upset the status quo by releasing two things at the same time - specifications for a new graphics protocol for bulletin boards (remember, most BBSs had ANSI graphics with a fallback to text - there were a few scarcely-used alternatives to ANSI that were theoretically better but saw scant use) called RIPScrip, and a new terminal program called RIPTerm that would recognise the handshaking protocol and display them when appropriate. RIPTerm was also one of the only terminal programs that was itself written in the EGA graphics it allowed - almost all other terminal programs had interfaces that made use of ANSI graphics. RIPTerm immediately captured a certain crowd of BBSers and slowly (grudgingly) was accepted/adopted by others - it was fancy, and because it used an EGA mode rather than the standard text modes, more stuff could fit on the screen. More importantly, it let BBS operators (and eventually door designers) express themselves more with the RIP version of their menus. RIPTerm was free, but the editor for RIP screens Telegrafix made cost money (about $200, if I remember correctly) - the release of cheap and eventually free RIP editors sped its adoption. Not all BBS software was capable of doing RIP - it was enabled by flashing (in ANSI? I don't recall the details) a string on the screen for a moment, which would cause RIPTerm to send back a version string, after which the alternative RIP content would be sent instead. Searchlight BBS was one of the first BBSs to have good RIP support, giving it a big boost as before that it was just a slightly friendlier-than-most BBS (the crowd that used the Telix terminal generally preferred fast, terse BBS interfaces) - several releases later several other BBS software implemented varying degrees of RIP support too, although by then Searchlight had become very large by this technical decision. Helping this was the fact that although it was happy to let BBS operators write their own RIP screens, it could autogenerate simple RIP menus based on the existing ANSI menus and the sysop's style choice.
It was about this time that I opened my own BBS - I had experimented for quite some time with demo BBS software, but I convinced my parents to let me use the spare phone line, during certain hours, to run one (helped no doubt by my dad also being into BBSs), and after ordering a single-node version of SLBBS, I was up and running. Being a star trek fan at the time, I made the QCBBS, and needing a logo, I drew (using one of the RIP editors) an image that has frequented my dreams (now recognisable as my sigil) as a motif for the board. Eventually I ran it all hours (and my parents got a third phone line for my sisters, leaving me that one for the board), I got some doors, and had a fair number of people both from the local school system and the local area dialing up. I was proud to eventually be listed in Boardwatch's BBS directory.
Telegrafix failed in two stages - first, while the 1.x versions were widely popular and solid (1.54 was the last version I recall in this line), they began to talk about 2.0 very early in its development, indicating that instead of being freeware, it would be either commercial or shareware. The RIPScrip 2.0 specifications, unlike the 1.x specifications, were made available early to companies that paid, with everyone else being told "eventually" (I once called their tech support line requesting the docs, and had the distinction of being passed around between the founders of the company to be laughed at and mocked). A beta of 2.0 was leaked by one of the testers (beta testing was almost never open back then, with some people paying extra for the privilege - one exception was with IBM, where I beta-tested many versions of PC-DOS, which was kind of cool), and it did not go over well with the community, being both slow and prone to lock up the system. 1.54 being freeware, the BBS community that was on the RIP bandwagon generally decided that 2.x wasn't so interesting (when 2.0 finally hit release, it was still prone to occasionally lock the machine, likely due either to it using a DOS extender badly (DPMI) or problems with it switching into/supporting VGA modes. Also, while RIPTerm 1.54 had a fixed resolution it was supposed to be displayed at, RIPTerm/Scrip's support for different resolutions using vector scaling broke a lot of existing RIP content when what used to be a closed area suitable for bucket fill ended up being a bit off in the higher resolutions and leaking all over the screen. Eventually the second failure came when what hit the entire industry (the emergence of the web) hit RIP even harder - many BBSs survived because their content was still accessible through telnet (or automatically gateway-able into web content), but a telnet client that could handle RIP was developed only much later and nobody took the time to make a translator for RIP scenes into animated GIFs/imagemaps (not difficult in theory, but it probably would've been a lot of work).
Parallel with much of this, non-internet-based national services were growing - while some BBSs (like the Well) managed to acquire acclaim and kept growing upwards, Prodigy and AOL gave users a new experience by planning this kind of thing while aiming to be used by non-technical people. My family went with Prodigy (my family was txjc28 and I was txjc28b). Initially they felt like a very large ANSI based BBS with local numbers in a few major cities - eventually they switched to an EGA (later VGA) interface that felt (and drew itself) much like RIPScrip. They had forums, games, internal email, etc. One of the things I spent a lot of time on the forums doing was discussing disassembly and modification of Sid Meier's Civilization, editing both the game itself and save files. Most of this modification was blind, particularly for save files - take a save file, make a few edits at random parts of the file (noting where on paper), trying to load the file, if it loaded notice anything different, then try to figure out which edits did what, and anything reproducible went to the board. In one of many things that I now consider a bit embarassing, I chose a handle there of "Kruton of the Salads", in style of that most people on that board went with a Civ-style name "MisterJake of the Romans". Eventually we made some major finds - ways to "play" as the barbarians, editing the map, etc. My dad mainly used Compuserve - I didn't use it much because its interface was like a far less friendly version of CFN and its email syntax was baroque (123546576,2314324 was an example of an inner email address - the commas provided major problems when they, like all these services, established a gateway to the internet). Delphi was an ISP we got for the sole purpose of internet connectivity - we stuck with them (parallel with Prodigy) at least until I left for University.
The biggest shifts I can think of between bulletin boards and modern websites:
- In the BBS era, locality was much more important - one could dial remote boards (sometimes necessary), but they felt distant and were expensive. You'd normally spend a lot more time on very local boards, and occasionally you'd meet people face-to-face in meetups (I only went to a few of these)
- Any given board would have a lot more generic content on it, with content-specific sites being more rare. The anarchist's cookbook, popular games, pictures of Cindy Crawford, and MOD files of popular music were on a very large percentage of BBSs
- You could not multitask. Some BBSs would let you queue files for download, but once that started, you'd walk away for a bit and hope it worked
- File transfers often took a very long time - downloading all the disk images of each version of Minux and later SLS (later yet Slackware) Linux took a long time
*No matter what you were doing, in a BBS the sysop could be watching you do whatever you're doing and could even yank you into chat if he/she liked (some door games did not support this)
- None of this was as robust as things are today
- While there were still trolls on BBSs, usually sysops would boot them off, and the community engagement meant that the undersocialised geek would be rejected (or pushed to shape up) from BBS society only moderately slower than real life. Likewise, at least early on Prodigy and AOL had community managers who would perform largely the same task there. The popularisation of the internet provided the environment combining uncaring ISPs and later-era Prodigy/AOL that allowed undersocialised (often mentally ill) geeks consequence-free turf that allowed for an explosion of trolls (initially mostly on unmoderated Usenet groups)
Not sure if this will be remotely interesting to anyone.. was lightly inspired by an odd dream..
I was at CMU and a sysadmin of some sort (this is the dream version of my CMU campus - much much busier, active at all times of the day, combining the usual elements of social decay and high technology/awesome architecture present in most dream versions of places I know), and noticed that someone was hacking one of my systems that I had been lax on updating.. and then noticed that it was happening from the cluster and the person had made themselves an account with their real name. Although the person is a mild acquaintance with whom I'm friendly in real life, in the dream I had a moderate dislike for them and their enthusiastic talk of hacking computers on campus (I don't think they've said anything of the sort in real life - gotta love dreams for the ability to layer theoreticals like this onto us). After seeing a rootkit land in their homedir, I started killing their processes, eventually disabling logins. I then stomped over to the (word-I-don't-remember) office to file a complaint to try to get them expelled (in a not-RL-existing offshoot from a much larger Wean-NSH bridge that also had some classrooms on its not-RL-existing second floor) and then went to the cluster (which was largely the same as it did before the Mac cluster's recent conquest), logged into the machine to see if I wanted to try to remove the rootkit or reinstall, and noticed that they were in the cluster with me. I walked over, they didn't see me, and I took a nice swing, hitting them right in the eye with my fist. Their response: "Don't ever hit me again!", after which I said "Don't ever hack into one of my systems again!", after which I yelled at them a bit. Initially the rest of the cluster was just irritated and surprised that I raised my voice, but then they mostly looked mad at him too. Eventually a cluster person came in and asked us to keep it down, and the person I was yelling at gathered his stuff and left, saying something about making trouble for me. I regretted not recording the dialogue, because when I let him get some words in, he did say things acknowledging what he had done. I did vaguely wonder if I might get in some kind of legal trouble for assault, but decided, as I largely have in real life, that there are some circumstances where what's legally kosher (even in ideal) and what one should do may be quite different. We might feel comfortable saying that people should not strike another except in self-defense or to defend another as a legal norm and yet still think that as a personal norm it's normal to land a first blow if someone comes up to them with agressive body language and insults them for a bit.... and so on. I doubt the situation will ever come up in real life for me though, for a number of reasons.