TextFiles.com gives us a unique view into the pre-Internet days where the BBS reigned supreme

Today I was reading through Y Combinator’s Hacker News and found a mention of textfiles.com so thought I’d take a look. What I found, was, well, not exactly what I expected, but it turned out to be beyond fascinating.

I’m old enough that when I was a kid, the Internet didn’t exist, neither did cellphones. Phew, now I sound old! Anyways, back then, before the Internet, there still technically was a way to “go online” but you would connect to a specific BBS, aka Bulletin Board System.

I can still remember getting my first modem and finding information about local BBS numbers (because you couldn’t call long distance!) in a local magazine. When you were logged-into a BBS, there was a pretty finite list of things you can do, remember, there’s no Google, no web, you’ve got what the BBS has.

Early email, before email was a thing, text-based chat, online games, a lot of it dates back to BBS days. So what the heck did it look like when you used your modem to connect to a BBS? Well, it kinda looked like this:

What you see above is actually a pretty well-designed menu for a hip BBS…or at least it would have seemed that way. You’ll notice things like “Read Messages” and “Enter Message” – yup, that’s early email. Then you’ll see “List Files” and “New Files” along with the option to search files, download, and upload them.

You might notice that the concept of files, in this case textfiles, was a core part of the BBS experience…and for good reason. This essentially represented an early version of the web. The more files people upload, the more search results come up and the more information a BBS can make available their members.

By uploading new files to a BBS, users were helping to build a database of information, some might say, a web of information. But remember, no images really existed online at this point, these are still the early days of computers. That means that unlike the rich content selections we have today, text, audio, video, VR, AR – back then it was just text files.

TextFiles.com was started by a guy named Jason Scott who was involved in the early pre-Internet days where BBS reined supreme. Here’s the idea behind TextFiles.com:

A wonderful thing happened in the 1980s: Life started to go online. And as the world continues this trend, everyone finding themselves drawn online should know what happened before, to see where it all really started to come together and to know what went on, before it’s forgotten.

When a historian or reporter tries to capture the feelings and themes that proliferated through the BBS Scene of the early 1980’s, the reader nearly always experiences a mere glimpse of what went on. This is probably true of most any third-party reporting, but when the culture is your own, and when the experiences were your own, the gap between story and reality is that much wider, and it’s that much harder to sit back and let the cliche-filled summary become “The Way It Was.” You want to do something, anything so that the people who stumble onto the part of history that was yours know what it was like to grow up through it, to meet the people you did, to do the things you enjoyed doing. Maybe, you hope, they might even see the broader picture and the conclusions that you yourself couldn’t see at the time. This is history the way the chronicled want it to be.(Source – TextFiles.com)

I personally spent some time in the gaming section, they had a text file I couldn’t help but read through about some of my favorite childhood arcade games. Remember Centipede?

It’s hard to think of a better use-case for TextFiles.com, and it’s fascinating to look back at the pre-Internet world where the concept of instant access to boundless information was just beginning. All that data was just text, and now you can enjoy your own little blast from the past in its original form. Interesting stuff!

Morgan Linton

Morgan Linton