AOH :: BE-SYSOP.TXT|
Being a Bulletin Board Operator by Jason Mac Innes
Being a Bulletin Board Operator
By: Jason Mac Innes
The world of telecommunications is a wide and varied computer
hobby. Many people after being users of local bulletin board systems
(BBSs) for awhile decide they'd like to try to operate a BBS
themselves. The rate at which BBSs rise and fall is a good indicator
of how many new system operators (sysops) don't realize what they've
gotten themselves into. For anyone considering to setup their own BBS
there's a lot of things they need to think about first. It's not an
incredibly hard task, but a demanding one. Being a sysop myself for
eight years I decided to draw upon my experiences and those of fellow
sysops around me to give the would be sysop an idea of what he's
getting into. It's a challenging hobby, but if you're better aware of
all the time and effort it requires, you'll be better prepared for it
and enjoy it a lot more.
Before I continue I want to make it clear that I don't plan to
outline step by step how to setup and run a BBS. Several of the
articles mentioned in the end notes can help you do that. I'll assume
you've been a user for awhile, but I'll endeavour to clarify any
points that might be unclear to people new to telecommunications.
What motivates people to setup their own BBSs then? Huge
commercial online services are easy to understand; they operate to
make money. When a person starts up a BBS as a hobby offering his
equipment freely for use by the public the motivation is completely
different. Here is someone who spends money on equipment, a phone
line, software, and repairs. A person who takes time out of his day to
maintain and operate his BBS, all for free. All for the people that
call to use his system. But why do they do it? What is their
Or is there one? Darryl Marietta, sysop of the LBUG BBS, offers a
very common answer, "Why do I run a BBS? Well, I really can't say for
sure. In some respects, it's a lot of fun, but there's also a lot of
aggravation and work that goes along with it." 1
To help me better answer the question of motivation and others, I
approached two sysops of long standing BBSs for interviews. After all,
with all the years they've kept their BBSs operating they must have
solid reasons why they continue to run their boards. The two sysops in
question are Bill Akroyd of the Old Folks Home BBS at (905)271-2692
and Steve Punter of PSI Word Pro at (905)896-1446.
Bill's motivation was simple: He setup a BBS as a place for
friends to call and talk; a good place for them all to keep in touch.
As he put it, "I consider it more of a social club than anything
else." By setting up his own BBS he was able to create a stable
environment so friends wouldn't lose touch as BBSs came and went.
Steve's motivation was much similar to Darryl's, "Just an
interest. It was something that struck me as kind of neat... For the
fun of it." A very common motivation. Technology is fast, interesting
and full of broad new horizons. Being a sysop tends to be the next
logical step after being a user."
How about some other opinions then? In his article about being a
sysop Rick Lembree of the Harbour Lights BBS summed up his thoughts,
"With your own BBS, you can literally speak to the computing world via
your own little soapbox. You can use it to exchange programs and
files, to voice your own opinion, or to create your own fantasy
world."2 Since the possibilities and applications are vast, people are
attracted to it for a lot of different reasons.
Bill Maxwell of the Turbo BBS offers his assessment of sysop
It takes a special kind of crazy to make an otherwise
normal-looking human being choose to operate a bulletin
board system... very often (s)he's placing valuable
equipment at the mercy of others, and spending valuable
time, and not really minding a bit. A little
acknowledgement, the occasional ''thank you'', and periodic
uploads of fresh public domain software seem to keep these
types happy. 3
What about freedom? The idea of BBSs as a free uncensored medium
for expression has always been very popular. Quoted from Christine
Parkison of the Da Crazies Inn BBS, "I started the BBS in an attempt
to give all people freedom of speech via modem. We have some pretty
controversial text files. There are no limits, so cursing is allowed,
along with negative comments directed at anyone-including myself. I
believe this is the only way to run a BBS." 4
Steve Fink of the Abyss South BBS explains another common liking,
"I enjoy watching young and old alike communicating with one another.
It's absolutely refreshing to see a 14-year-old having an intelligent
conversation in the message area with a 50 year old. Remember that
most users don't know the age, race, or sometimes even sex of their
fellow callers. A BBS is the best barrier buster I've ever seen." 5
But what kind of person does it take to be a sysop? I asked Steve
and Bill if there was one key trait or quality required. I received
the same response: Patience. And a lot of it. As Bill said, "You meet
some really annoying people and you meet some really good people. You
have to ignore a lot of the bad stuff and really enjoy the good
stuff". Steve explained, "Patience to keep up with the same thing over
a long period of time. The other requirement would be that you really
have to want to do it, not just a passing fad." Being a user is easy
and fun with no responsibilities, but being a sysop takes a lot of
time and work. If you don't have the motivation and patience you'll
get bored or tired of it quickly. As Bill puts it:
You see an awful lot of boards put up by young people.
They get a modem, they discover it, and they think, "Hey,
this is really fun and I'm going to do it too." And a week
or two later they go, "Gee, I don't get to play my games
very much any more because this board is always up." Before
you know it, it's gone. It can be a passing fancy for a lot
You need to be sure you have the patience and dedication to stay with
it. It's a hobby, but there's a lot of work involved when you're at
the sysop end of it.
Your reasons for becoming a sysop may be plainly obvious to you,
but your BBS also needs a focus. What will it offer to callers? The
focus can be anything since it's your board. For example, a place for
friends to meet, a place for debates and discussions on general or
specific issues, transferring of files, or particular hobbies (such as
fantasy novels, cycling, fishing, animal care, etc). Just because the
board is a computer based medium for conversation doesn't mean your
board has to have computer/technical oriented message areas. It is
merely a platform for communication, so you can target your board to
any idea, concept or hobby you like. On the other hand, you may not
even want a focus - some boards exist simply as general conversation
forums. Bill offers some advice, "It's a good idea to experience
several different boards. See who's doing what. See what works. See
what doesn't work. Get an idea of just what you want to do. One
person's idea of a great board is another person's idea of a dud."
Once your board is finally setup and open to the public, you'll
still have to spend time on daily maintenance. Each day you need to
spend time checking on your BBS and the activities of your users.
Keeping track of the message areas, new users requesting membership,
and new file uploads all take time. You need to be able to put around
thirty minutes each day into your board. When asked how difficult it
is Steve explained in detail:
Actually it begins to become so routine. It's no worse
than having to shave every morning. It's not really that
bad... Take the average thing I would do when I get on. I
would sign on and read whatever new messages that are on the
main section of the board and then I'd look to see if anyone
sent me anything in any of the conferences I'm interested
in. Other than that I just have to see if there are any new
users. See if they're using fake names or something, delete
the ones I don't think are real and validate those that
are... That's really all it amounts to in terms of daily
Steve warns though:
I think if you're going to run a bulletin board you should
at least...put the 10 or 15 minutes a day into it. Otherwise
you're just going to let it sit there and things will go
wrong and it will come down and you won't notice. You've got
to occasionally make sure things are running properly; put
it back up if it comes down for any reasons.... I think that
some people think that they can put up a board and literally
forget about it for three or four weeks in a row and not
look at it. You may be able to get away with it, but you're
going to get people running amuck on your board.
Along with patience you also need dedication.
George Campbell in his article "How to start a BBS" suggests even
One need often ignored by would be sysops is time.
Running a busy BBS takes a minimum of one hour each day just
to answer E-Mail and to keep the BBS running smoothly. Once
a week or so, a typical hobby BBS sysop spends additional
time backing up the system hard disk, either to floppy disks
or to a tape backup system. If your BBS will offer public
domain software and shareware, you can count on spending an
additional few hours per week adding and updating files.
Finally, you'll spend an occasional day...dealing with the
inevitable hardware crash. 6
Bill agrees with George's back up suggestions, "The most
important thing is regular back ups of your system. Back it up at
least once a week. That way even if the very worst happens, all that
happens is you're a week behind." Even the most top notch equipment
can fail; or the unforeseen such as power outages/surges, computer
virsuses or hackers/crackers can damage your system. Back it up as
regularly as you have time for. Weekly at best, or every two weeks is
fine. That way your board will always endure.
It is a hobby, but is also work. Steve Fink offers his
observation, "I've seen many people try to setup a system only to get
discouraged because they didn't realize how much work goes into
maintaining a busy BBS. If it doesn't get maintained, it degenerates
fairly quickly and people stop using it." 7
It's not all brutal work, of course, as Bill is quick to point
out, "I really find it more of a relaxing little pastime than work. If
I had to do it, then it would be work, but it's something I'm doing
voluntarily." This is what explains the hobby sysop and the amount of
work he freely puts into his board. But sometimes it does get boring,
as Bill continues with, "There are times when I just think ''I don't
want to do this,'' but fortunately I have several very excellent
assistants who help me a lot." That brings in the idea of assistants -
friends who help operate the board remotely with you. Assistants ,even
new ones themselves to running a BBS, can be a great help. However,
make sure they're trustworthy. Assistants with sysop access can do a
lot of damage to your board. Bill explains how he picked his, "They're
people that have been on the board a long time, or I've known for a
really long time. You learn, hopefully, whether or not you can trust
them. I would not give sysop access to anyone I didn't trust 100%".
With the first user requesting membership on your BBS you must
consider validation - the act of confirming their identity. This is
done by calling them up with the number they supply. Confirming their
identity may seem trivial, but it gives you some control over the
people who use your system. Steve told me of how he doesn't voice
validate and doesn't have much troubles. I myself don't, but for a new
sysop it'll give you much more control over who can access your BBS.
Bill confirms that with, "If you have their voice number they're less
inclined to cause a lot of trouble because you have some contact
besides a name on a screen." Rick Lembree concurs and suggests you
don't give callers full access to your board until they've proven
they're not there to abuse it. Peter Jones, Darryl Marietta, and Lynne
Miller (The Wale Zoo) all agree. Steve Fink adds, "One of the worst
duties a sysop has to perform is voice validating, calling the number
left by the user in order to confirm his or identity. Although I don't
like this chore and don't do it all the time, the sysop who doesn't do
it is inviting trouble." 8
If the idea of voice validating bothers you, then I suggest
stating in your new user welcome message that you don't normally voice
validate, but on occasion do if you feel it's necessary. Tell them to
call back in 48 hours if they haven't received a call from you. That
way you leave the door open for validation, but don't have to unless
you feel it's necessary.
Abusers. Dealing with people who seek to destroy or damage your
BBS can be quite difficult for new sysops. Fortunately Steve and Bill
are more than ready with advice.
Steve offers his policy:
I have a long standing rule about people who sign on
and leave abusive messages or fake names or whatever: I
simply delete their names and any messages they send. I
don't say anything to them. I don't show any signs of
aggravation. If they come back and do it again I simply
delete them again. I find that if you do this a couple of
times to most people they just go away. It's just like
bullies, if a bully aggravates you, and you give him the
pleasure of showing him you're aggravated, then he's going
to latch onto you. He's getting what he wants out of you.
He's getting you aggravated by what he does. So if some
people come on your board and they start aggravating you,
and you start sending them messages saying, "How dare you"
etc, then you're giving them exactly what they want. You're
showing aggravation. You're responding to them. That's what
they want. They get their kicks out of it. If you don't
respond, all you do is delete their stuff, and every time
they come back all their fancy work is gone, and no notes,
no messages, nobody getting upset with them, well it's not
worth the trouble. They might as well go elsewhere where you
can get people aggravated.
Bill adds, "You have to realize who, and what, you're dealing with. If
you start slinging the mud back you lower yourself to the level of the
person who's bothering you."
Keep in mind it's a two way street; if you want your users to be
nice to you, you have to be nice to them. Rick Lembree comments, "A
BBS is merely a form of communication between you, the sysop, and the
users. Bear in mind the importance of interaction between users. The
spirit of a BBS is the sharing of knowledge among fellow computer
Something you need to consider is guidelines; a set of rules or
principles that your users must follow. These can be as simple as
telling new users to use common sense when on the board to specific
things they can not do or say online. Or you can simply have none.
Steve offers his key rules, "First of all, I only accept real names...
I also have very strict rules concerning uploading, trying to get
people to only upload legitimate stuff. And I do have a set of
guidelines concerning your behavior. If you go around insulting
people, or making racial slurs, things like that, you're asked to stop
or else you're kicked off."
Bill was more firm about his key rule, "The only main enforced
rule is no profanity. Don't want it and we won't have it. Beyond that,
be nice to everybody. Or if you don't want to be nice to somebody then
just don't bother with them."
If you plan to operate a file transfer section consider how much
a user can download before he needs to upload (or write a message).
Peter Jones comments:
My biggest peeve is the user who does nothing but build
a personal software collection. That user will tie up the
board for hours each day and give nothing in return. My
answer has been to install an unofficial download-to-upload
ratio of 15:1. The user gets a warning first, and if he
continues, I just cut his download access. Users who are
active in the message bases are not restricted. They
participate and do a lot to insure the success of the board.
Many software programs allow you to set such ratios, employ a bytes
transferred total restriction, or something along those lines.
Whatever your choice, make it realistic. Users will expect something
from your BBS just as you should expect interaction and participation
Things may be slow at first, but that's to be expected - your
board is new! George Campbell offers the classic advice, "If it's a
public hobby system, one of the best techniques is to place messages
on other BBSs in your area, announcing your new system."11 On most
BBSs you'll find a "BBS ads" message base or special add-on bulletin
section. Work up an ad that would attract you if you were the user and
leave it on all the boards you're on, but don't repeat yourself. If
you leave it once, don't leave another until it's gone or it's been a
good number of weeks. Remember, you're using another sysop's BBS to
attract his users to yours.
Rick Lembree adds:
...sysops can get discouraged if people don't call. Don't
expect your BBS to overflow with callers the minute you put
it online. If you decide to go public, advertise your
board's number on other BBSs; make leaflets with The
PrintShop, PrintMaster, or a similar package [Printer
Utility Programs]; and distribute copies to bookstores,
computer stores, schools, and libraries. During summer
months especially, expect a slow down in logons. Not too
many people sit at home calling a BBS on a bright summer
day; don't let it discourage you. 12
The last thing you need to think about is the legal matters.
Previously I mentioned George Campbell's arcticle "How to Start a
BBS". In it he outlined legal matters to remember. I'll sum up his key
points here. First is Privacy. Your BBS program will offer private or
confidential mail between users (often call E-Mail). But it's not
really private as you can read it. It's much more important in the
U.S. where the laws are much more specific, but it is important you
state somewhere on your BBS that the mail is not entirely private and
that you and your assistants are able to read it. Second, is Piracy.
If a user uploads a commercial program to your BBS without your
knowledge you can still be held responsible for it. It is your BBS and
you will be held responsible for any copyright software being illegal
distribute by your system. Using a Virus scanner on all upload
programs is also important. Although it hasn't happened it's very
probable that a sysop could be held responsible if a user downloads a
virus that affects his system. Next is identifying users. More so true
in the States than here, you must be able to prove the identities of
all callers on demand by the courts. It is considered your
responsibility to know this, making voice validating more important.
Lastly, logs of BBS activity can also be demanded under court order.
You are again expected to keep them. All logs are kept automatically
by your BBS program. If you run a very large and active BBS keep the
back ups of your logs on a separate disk when you back up your BBS
weekly. That way they're all together if you should ever need them.
Hopefully I've impressed upon you the fact that running a BBS is
a hobby, but it takes a good deal of time, patience, desire, and
dedication to operate a BBS. If you have these requirements, then you
will find it an easy and enjoyable pastime. If what I've said sounds
too much like work to you then I suggest you reconsider about being a
sysop. If you have any friends who operate boards, see if you can lend
a hand as assistant on their board. That can help you get an idea if
the sysop game is for you.
There's a big jump between user and sysop. Being a sysop isn't
for everyone. Keep it in mind no matter what decision you make.
Jason Mac Innes
Coffee Break Spies BBS
Netsel, Tom, ed. "From the other side," Compute!'s Gazette, April
1990, p. 29.
Lembree, Rick. "So you want to be a Sysop?" Compute (Gazette
Edition), March 1991, p. G8.
Maxwell, Bob. "A Sysop's Peeves," Turbo Bulletin Board System,
1986, p.p. 1.
Netsel, p. 29.
Netsel, p. 29.
Campbell, George. "How to start a BBS," Compute, October 1992, p.
Netsel, p. 29.
Netsel, p. 29.
Lembree, p. G8.
Netsel, p. 28.
Campbell, p. 14.
Lembree, p. G14.
Campbell, p. 12.
Akroyd, Bill. Personal Interview. 20 April 1994.
Campbell, George. "How to start a BBS," Compute, October 1992,
Lembree, Rick. "So you want to be a Sysop?" Compute (Gazette
Edition), March 1991, pp. G7-G14.
Maxwell, Bob. "A Sysop's Peeves," Turbo Bulletin Board System
Netsel, Tom, ed. "From the other side," Compute!'s Gazette, April
1990, pp. 28-30.
Punter, Steve. Personal Interview. 17 April 1994.
The entire AOH site is optimized to look best in Firefox® 3 on a widescreen monitor (1440x900 or better).
Site design & layout copyright © 1986- AOH
We do not send spam. If you have received spam bearing an artofhacking.com email address, please forward it with full headers to firstname.lastname@example.org.