Columbia University Computing History   

Electronic Bulletin Boards, A Case Study:
The Columbia University Center
for Computing Activities

Janet F. Asteroff

TX 4050Y
Professor C. Daiute
Teachers College, Columbia University

Spring, 1982

Spies wanted for new game of intrigue. Send one dollar for information. Spymaster, Box 903-H, Woodland Hills, California. 91365
December, 1981

Apartment to sublet: 4 rooms, 2 bths. Non-smokers only. $600/month June-August.

Butler Library Bulletin Board,
Columbia University May 1, 1982

Several makes of crt's for sale. PRICE: 30$ Complete cathode ray tube without interfacing or keyboard.

March, 1981


Computer conferencing is broadly defined by Hiltz and Turoff in The Network Nation (1978) as "any system that uses the computer to mediate communication among human begings." (p. xix) While their attempt to name this processes is admirable, like any catchall phrase, e.g. "the military mind," "computer conferencing," by lumping together many different forms of communication, obscures the differences among these forms of communication and thus inhibits analysis of a specific application. Although Hiltz and Turoff probe many aspects of computer conferencing, they are concerned mainly with private and controlled computer conferencing among scholars. They rarely consider the functions of the more limited application of electronic mail, and almost never address the issues of computer conferencing among many people. Moreover, they seem not to consider computer conferencing as an auxiliary or elective function, but rather as the users' main purpose.

Hiltz and Turoff should not be singled out however, since few scholars have examined the use of computer conferencing among large groups. Treu (1975) details the process of online student debate at the University of Pittsburgh, but this experiment was conducted using only 13 graduate students in computer science. Etzioni, (1972) examines the issues of public or large group participation, but he considers them only as a form of political participation realized through cable television and the telephone. Thus, little is known about how the computer is used as a communications device by a potentially large group of people, particularly when this group is using the computer primarily for programming and statistical analysis. This inquiry will attempt to shed some much needed light on this area by examining the history and development of the Columbia University Center for Computing Activities (CUCCA) DECSYSTEM-20 electronic bulletin board, popularly referred to as the "BBoard."

The computer is a communications device par excellence. Unlike other media, such as the telephone, print, and the mail (postal service), the computer stores unlimited amounts of information, and can conceivably distribute it among millions of people. (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). Computer conferencing removes time and distance barriers, permits group sizes to grow dynamically, and allows a user to participate at a time and date of his/her own choosing. Computer conferencing is less intimate than oral communication, since only written words are transmitted. Facial expressions, eye contact and visual information such as height, weight, and clothing are not factors in computer conferencing, as they are in face-to-face meetings. (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). Yet, because users cannot physically see one another they feel less threatened, and thus computer conferencing often promotes the exchange of the most intimate details.

The components of computer conferencing include private conferencing facilities, electronic mail, and electronic bulletin boards. Electronic bulletin boards allow users to post and read messages on the computer as a group, thus they act as media for the exchange of information among large groups of people. Electronic bulletin boards are a hybrid; they combine features of electronic mail with private computer conferencing. The concept of an electronic bulletin board began c. 1976 through ARPANET at schools such as the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, and Stanford University. Probably used first in the same manner as physical bulletin boards, i.e., help wanted, items for sale, public announcements, and more specifically information about computers, electronic bulletin boards soon became, because of the ability of the computer to store and disseminate information to many people in text form, a forum for user debates on many subjects. Herein lies the significant difference between physical bulletin boards and electronic bulletin boards; the computer's ability to store and disseminate information and thus act as a communications device promotes a wide range of communication among users separated by time and distance, and different in both age and background as well as field of expertise. However, not only information, but opinion is exchanged.


A local BBoard became available to CUCCA users, including staff and students, in April, 1978. (I am indebted to DECSYSTEM manager Frank da Cruz for background information about the BBoard. He often discussed with me many of the ideas presented in this paper. Thanks also to Mr. Andrew Koenig of Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, for sharing his knowledge of computer conferencing with me.) (BBoard entries were not kept until 1979, thus its earliest use cannot be determined. Much of the original BBoard text does remain online from 1979 to the present, and through the use of the computer itself, can be analyzed. There are however significant gaps in this record. Certain blocks of messages were accidently deleted, and some were deleted purposefully.) This paper examines a variety of issues, some raised by Hiltz and Turoff, and others which have come about thorough the practical use of the BBoard. Among these issues are censorship and freedom of speech; content; use of language; user abuse; frequency of participation; readership, and how the topics raised on the BBoard correlate to the news articles in the Columbia University student newspaper, The Spectator. It should be stressed however that the majority of users do not have communication as their main goal, but use the computer for course work. Thus, active participation in computer conferencing, either posting or reading messages on the BBoard, is completely elective.

2.1. Community and Facilities

Currently there are approximately 5,000 DEC-20 ID's at Columbia University distributed among three machines, DEC-20A, DEC-20B, DEC-20C, which are all linked with DECnet. (Since users may have multiple ID's, the actual number of individual users is smaller than 5,000.) This includes administrative staff (CUCCA and general University), students, faculty, and outside users (those not affiliated with the University). Most users are undergraduate and graduate students in computer science courses, although there are many users in the humanities and social sciences who use the system for statistical analysis as well as for programming. The greatest age concentration is between 18 and 22.

Several bulletin boards are distributed among the three DEC-20 systems, however there is one main BBoard for each computer, all of which can be only be read by users of that specific system, i.e., by logging in. Topical BBoards or files devoted to specific topics, also can only be read after logging in. DECnet users however can read any BBoard without logging in. Messages can only be posted by users of a specific system, but they can be posted to all systems through DECnet. These features make CUCCA's policy of access to the BBoard extremely liberal, and encourage communication. Unlike other universities which have no bulletin boards at all, or like Carnegie-Mellon, which has no central bulletin board, and does not keep messages after two weeks, CUCCA allows the broadest practical use of this facility, and by retaining old BBoard messages provides the evidence for analyses. Since the DEC-20A is the oldest machine, and thus traditionally has had the most active BBoard, the BBoard on the DEC-20A machine will be the focus of this inquiry.

All BBoard messages can be ignored or be read at a later time. Once the BBoard facility is invoked, the user-header of the sender is displayed, as well the subject and the number of characters of the message and the date it was posted. What follows is a sample session. (The name and message are fictitious. No user names have been used in this paper.)

BBoard>read (from) bboard (beginning at) final-message
 1 May 82 Robert Morris<BUS3202$.R-MORRIS at CU20C>, The Budget
--105 chars More?--y

I created the national debt in 1783 to bind the states
together. Sorry. I didn't think it would go this far.


2.2. BBoard Usage Statistics

Two four-month time periods will be considered: April 2, 1979-July 30, 1979, and January 4, 1981- April 24, 1982. (It should be noted however that the earlier period includes summer usage which is significantly lower than usage during the semester, and that in both periods not all messages were kept, thus the actual numbers are somewhat higher. This is however the earliest and only block of BBoard mail available. It should also be noted that there were far fewer ID's on the system in the earlier period.)

April 2, 1979 through July 30, 1979

January, 1982 through April 24, 1982

BBoard usage increases considerably with the addition of more ID's to the system. Yet, both groups indicate that only a very small minority--between 2-5% of the total number of users, ever post messages on the BBoard. The significant difference between these two groups is the higher number of messages posted by only a few users. The 3 highest users in the latter period, when considered with 2 others who posted 14 messages each, posted 145 messages out of total of approximately 490. When these statistics are subtracted from the total, the picture is somewhat different. If the total number of users is 125 (the 5 highest users subtracted), and the total number of messages is 345 (145 messages subtracted), the average posting per user is 2.

2.3. BBoard Content

Messages posted on the BBoard reflect the wide-ranging interests of the University community. Messages were posted on: El Salvador; jobs; jokes; student elections; baseball information; television, abortion; the use and abuse of the BBoard; the use of terminal rooms; poems; concert announcements, and technical queries and answers. Topical BBoards include EMACS, micros, jobs and movies. Occasionally, a user will post the AP or UPI newswire. In short, users can and do post almost anything on the BBoard. Clearly more than information is exchanged, opinion on a variety of subject is also present.

There is little or no correlation between BBoard postings and news articles in the campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, although one or two users did address certain issues covered in feature stories. The coeducation of Columbia College rated only two messages of an informative nature, but dominated the Columbia Spectator for months. This lack of interest was due in part to the fact that most students who use the computer are engineering students, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science is already coeducational. Exceptions are special events which are advertised in the Columbia Spectator and also are advertised through the BBoard. National news stories, i.e., recent proposed cuts in student financial aid, was a topic on the BBoard, but where also covered in-depth by several newspapers as well as the Columbia Spectator.

2.4. The Use of Language

In 1975 Turoff observed that "computer conferencing helps those who communicate better in writing than they do orally." (p. 185) While this statement is correct, we do not know to what degree poor writers are discouraged from using this facility--if indeed they perceive themselves to be poor writers. It is probably true that low BBoard participation is in part directly attributable to those users who believe they do not write well, or fear public criticism of their writing, although several interviews would have to be conducted to support this conclusion.

Before analyzing the various aspects of language presented by these written messages, it must be stressed that most BBoard users who post messages do not know how to use the computer's facilities to either: (a) edit their message before it is posted, or, (b) create a message with a text editor in a separate file, and by using the "insert" command place the previously created and edited text directly into the BBoard. Thus, many users, after typing in their message, would like to change misspellings or grammatical errors, but simply do not know how to do so.

Nevertheless, there exists--even among the most literate users--a very liberal attitude toward the proper appearance of electronic text in general, particularly when transmitted through the mail facility. Perhaps because of the non-permanent nature of the text, the rapidity of transmission, and the frequency of communication, users do not feel compelled to change every typographical error or incorrect spelling. Indeed, the important thing is to communicate, and thus few people are judged by their ability to manipulate electronic text. This writing appears as screen text--impermanent images on a crt terminal--not "printed" text produced by a typewriter, the latter requiring more attention to detail because of its permanent appearance. BBoard users are no exception to this general trend. Even among those who know how to use the editing facilities, misspellings and typographical errors abound. There also is some similarity in language patterns. One user will pick up a word used by another, and then several users will begin to use the same word. Ironically however, even though the first appearance of this word might be spelled incorrectly, it is duplicated verbatim by users who do not consult dictionaries. At what point can we attribute incorrect agreements, sentence fragments and misplaced paragraphs in BBoard messages to not thinking before writing instead of to the frequency and rapidity of communication and the casual attitude toward screen text? There are of course some longer BBoard messages that are extremely well written, but most do not indicate that any measure of care has been taken with language.

2.5. Theoretical Issues

It is clear from the statistics that only 2-5% of all users ever post messages on the BBoard, and that most post more than one message. User complaints however have centered upon the domination of the BBoard by only a few users posting long messages, and by the posting of messages by those who have stolen passwords of other ID's. It must be understood however that Columbia University is not alone in the area of computer abuse. Many universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Michigan have problems more serious than those at Columbia.(The New York Times, April 17, 1982.) Periodically there are BBoard debates about the use of the BBoard. This evidences a particularly thoughtful and healthy attitude by users towards the use of the resource. Special BBoards for debates have been suggested, but others have complained that this defeats the purpose of the BBoard.

CUCCA has no official policy on the use of the BBoard. The manager of the DECSYSTEM, Frank da Cruz, as well as other members of the systems staff, delete messages which they find to be offensive, i.e., personal attacks, messages containing four-letter words, and advertisements of a highly personal nature from those seeking romantic company. Deletion of these messages prompted considerable BBoard debate over the issues of free speech and censorship. Most users approved of the right of the systems staff to delete messages-- particularly those fraudulently posted--on the grounds that the staff has exercised good judgment in the past, and that CUCCA owns the resource. Some users however, disagreed with the removal of any messages from the BBoard , as an abridgment of free speech and questioned CUCCA's ownership of the resource if users pay tuition. da Cruz has declined to set a formal policy, since he believes it would be much more rigid than any unofficial policy. He has posted several messages in the past few months about responsible use of the BBoard.

Several issues are raised by the frequent use of the BBoard by certain users as well as the deletion of messages. Turoff's position supports those who oppose long messages because it inhibits the communications process:

Computer conferencing puts a unique psychological pressure on a person whose messages tend to be verbose, irrelevant, or filled with bureaucratic jargon. He will soon notice that no one is paying attention to his messages. In a face-to-face conference, people have to give an appearance of listening to the speaker, but there is no way you can force a guy to read your messages on his computer terminal. (Turoff, 1975, p. 183)

Thus, frequent use of the BBoard by only a few users posting long messages discourages others from reading the BBoard entirely. (Random interviews were conducted with 8 users. These findings do not purport to be a scientific sampling.) Although it is possible to ignore a message by typing "NO" to the read prompt, many users feel discouraged when seeing so many messages from only a few users, and are reluctant to ignore a message for fear that the subject header did not really indicate the true nature of the message. Moreover, users are afraid that the messages they did post would be obscured by the messages posted by the user-abusers. (This term refers to those users who frequently post long messages on the BBoard. In computer jargon these people are usually referred to as "flamers" a derivative of "flaming off" or being verbose.)

The issues of freedom of speech and censorship eventually will be decided in the courts, as are other issues of computer abuse and computer crime. Currently, one user, who was a candidate for a college-wide student post, is considering suing another user for slander after he was called an "asshole." This offending message was deleted by CUCCA staff. Federal laws prohibit obscene telephone calls, and computer information is transmitted over telephone lines; whether the same regulation applies to computers is unclear. (United States Code, Annotated, 47, 223.) But if this specific case reaches litigation, also at issue will be the liability of Columbia University, who owns the resource through which the alleged slander was committed.

Solutions may be found in the structuring of the BBoard. Experiments at CMU included allowing each user to set up bulletin boards in their own directories, but this is impractical because of the limited amount of disk space allocated to each user. Also, topical BBoards in place of a main BBoard fragments the user community by dividing the communications device, tax the resources of both the staff who must create them and the machine which must store them. Limiting the frequency and length of postings would undoubtedly lead users to find ways to subvert the system, and might result in more abuse than under the present system. For those who believe this abridges freedom of speech, it should be remembered that restrictions on facilities are certainly not new or entirely dictatorial. Most newspapers and magazines reserve the right to reject classified advertisements if deemed inappropriate by the management. The reader subsidizes part of the total price of the periodical, as well as pays for the classified advertisement. It is clear from the activities at other universities that CUCCA will soon have to adopt a policy concerning the use of the BBoard.


For those whose main purpose is not to use the computer as a communications device, but rather for programming, statistical analysis, or text processing, computer conferencing, in this case the BBoard, is largely unimportant. Electronic mail is probably more important to these users. Many users only want to complete their work, or simply have nothing to say to others. Limits on connect time precludes many from leisurely perusing the BBoard. However it is clear that many users who would like to use the BBoard do not have the technical competence to do so, either because they are not instructed in its use or are afraid to learn how to use it by themselves. Low BBoard participation is also attributable to the fact that people would rather speak than write, and thus because of poor writing skills shy away from the BBoard. All of these variables, lack of interest, technical competence and attitudes toward writing should be isolated and examined.

Those who post messages on the BBoard have expressed the thought that it is certainly a facility which allows one to "know what is going on" on the system, as well as in the community, and have further stated that it is a form of relaxation, somewhat akin to settling down with a newspaper or magazine. How many people read the BBoard? Extrapolating from the 2-5% figure for those who post messages, this writer offers 10-20% of the total user population as regular BBoard readers. The wide range of interest expressed through the BBoard is encouraging, although it is unfortunate that many do not to participate actively by posting messages, which could possibly raise the level of discussion.

The number of users who continually post long messages fortunately is small-- only 3-5--but it is large enough to discourage many other users and in part subvert the purpose of the BBoard--that is, the exchange of information among large groups of people. Other abuses of the BBoard indicate that formal policies are necessary--if for no other reason than to forcefully discourage users from abusing the resource. With the growth of the user community, abuses not only will continue, but become more serious. A formal policy regarding length of messages, frequency of postings, and use of language may to some extent abridge free speech, but it is the inevitable result of the use of a system by large numbers of people. Free speech is, after all, a personal judgment; but it is legislated by law, and thus becomes in a very real and fundamental sense an abstraction: it does not exist. These policies may inhibit communication and discourage use of the resource, but hopefully they will not prove any worse than the current abuse.

Despite these and other problems, CUCCA's liberal attitude allows the BBoard to function very successfully as a means for exchanging information and opinion on an abundance of subjects. The BBoard binds together those members of the community who participate either through posting messages or by reading them. We are still finding our way in what only can be described as the infancy of computer conferencing, and the BBoard at Columbia University should continue to be watched closely as an indicator of the course of personal communication through the computer.


Etzioni, Amitai. MINERVA: An Electronic Town Hall. Policy Sciences. vol. 3, 1972, 457-74.

Hiltz, Roxanne Starr and Turoff, Murray. The Network Nation. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1978.

Richardson, Jerry. The Future of Computer Conferencing: An Interview with Murray Turoff. The Futurist. August, 1975, 182-90.

True, Siegfried. On-line Student Debate: An Experiment in Communication Using Computer Networks. International Journal of Computing and Information Sciences. vol. 4, 1975, 39-51.

Vallee, Jacques, Johansen, Robert, and Spangler, Kathleen. The Computer Conference: An Altered State of Communication? The Futurist. June, 1975, 116-21.

Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: 4 February 2001 Last update: 27 March 2021