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A Quiet Revolution : Computer bulletin boards have captivated the attention of county users.

September 30, 1993|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The woman, a polio survivor, wanted to know where she could buy a pair of shoes, each shoe a different size.

The man wanted to tell someone, anyone, about his past as an abused child. The kid just wanted the latest video games.

About the only thing the three people shared in common was that they own computers connected to their telephones and they routinely use them to call bulletin board services to find what they were looking for.

Someone told the polio survivor about an organization that provides shoes paired in different sizes.

The man added to his public testament recollections of a wicked stepmother.

And the kid, well the kid eventually got arrested for hacking, but that's an unusual event given the thousands of Ventura County residents who call computer bulletin boards weekly without incident.

Nationwide more than 12 million Americans regularly log on. By making selections on their keyboard, they can find updated news and information, call up directories of conferences on a galaxy of topics or send electronic letters around the world. The current mailing time between Malibu and Madrid is about 10 seconds.

Most people call one of the big commercial information services with names that have become the McDonald's and Burger King of the bulletin board services (BBS) industry, CompuServe and Prodigy.

On the other end of the BBS food chain are small, local boards scattered throughout living rooms and bedrooms in Ventura County. Many of them are free and open to the public, some charge a fee. Like their cork-and-thumbtack namesakes, the boards often communicate pretty ordinary stuff, finding dates, getting jobs and selling things. There's an ample portion of wackiness, too. Agricultural bulletins on mutant cantaloupes, novels written by committee and titillating missives distributed on a connection called ThrobNet--the variety of material available for the price of a local call is simply astounding.

Although the boards often feel like CB radios for obsessive typists, they are quietly revolutionizing the way people communicate.

Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, one of about a half dozen such publications that have cropped up in recent years, explains it this way: Personal communications are usually one to one. Pick up a telephone, talk to a friend. If you want to tell the same thing to another friend, you have to make another call.

Of course if you own a newspaper or TV station, you can reach lots of people at once. That is called "one-to-many" communication, but it's beyond the means of most people. A bulletin board system makes the power of "one to many" communication available to virtually anyone.

It's called "many to many," and some say it's the purest form of communication since smoke signals because it's instant, rarely edited and inexpensive.

Nobody is even sure how many bulletin boards exist nationwide. The estimates vary from 40,000 to 80,000. Hobos have their own BBS, as does Spam, the mystery meat. God and Ross Perot are both represented on BBSs locally, each through his respective fans.

In all, Ventura County is home to about 70 boards. The majority are operated as a hobby by their owners and without charge to their users. All it takes to set up such a system is a computer with a hard disk, a modem, a telephone line and bulletin board software that ranges in price from free to about $500.

Mark Zschiegner, of MegaHertZ in Oxnard, is typical of the hobbyist. He worked as software analyst for a government contractor before he was laid off in November, 1992.

"I got bored and started calling boards. I got interested and decided to host my own. I've got one telephone line and my computer is on a board that's laid across a pair of filing cabinets. I do it strictly as a hobby. It's a free service."

The computer he uses, a 286 IBM-compatible, is an Edsel compared to many that can be bought today for $1,000.

Despite the enthusiasm of proponents, there is a limit to how complete BBS interaction can be. Many boards host outings for their members, "real time physical interfaces," so they can get to know each other. Perhaps most telling, CompuServe, the king of on-line information, mails subscribers a magazine printed and bound in a format that's changed little since the invention of the transistor.

SEX AND THE CPU

Among the most popular uses for BBSs are singles chat lines. Bill Doersam, a Navy technician from Pt. Hueneme, met his wife that way. Both were members of Surfside, a now-defunct board.

"I was out on a bowling night with a bunch of people from the board. I saw her a couple of lanes over and thought she was cute. I didn't talk to her that night. Shy or whatever, but I sent her a message saying that I thought she was sexy."

It worked. The couple had their first child Sept. 20.

Doersam said he has two friends who found their wives on the same board.

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