Back in 1996, my first experience with any sort of computer-to-computer communication on my first home computer was not through the internet, but via a direct modem connection to a local Bulletin Board System. By the last week of December that year, I had learned enough about them that I was myself interested in running a BBS.
I configured that thing like crazy for days on end, for hours and hours and late into the night most nights. I would unplug our home phone (I was only 14 at the time) and advertised on a couple of the other local BBS systems that I was online from 10PM to 7AM 7 days a week. Back then, that seemed to work, as I usually had 2-3 calls a night from then until I stopped running it that way about 5 months later.
I went through at least 3 incarnations of the Backwood Realm BBS back then before I gave it up for a while, and then in 1999 I put it up 24/7 at a friend's house on their 2nd phone line with permission, and we had some fun with it. The calls were even fewer by then. What I didn't realize at the time was that not only were the boards dying out locally (There were none by spring 1999 in my local calling area), they were dying out worldwide as the internet took a strong foothold.
Fast forward to 2008. I had access to a decent full time internet connection that I could manipulate as I pleased, and I had discovered the Synchronet BBS software a few years prior, which was a nice, simple package that ran on modern operating systems. In all honesty, I had hoped to setup using something like Wildcat 4 or Spitfire BBS, but Synchronet is doing the job. Not as easy to customize as WC4, but it works.
The Backwood Realm BBS has been online for over a year now continuously. I have had around 140 unique "callers", if that term still fits at all. All connecting via telnet. About 30 of them have been regular callers for at least a month or two at a time, often daily in some cases. While it's still fun to play Legend of The Red Dragon against other people you don't know, the BBS has little to no local following. When I started into the old school BBS scene, it was local folks for the most part calling a local board, you knew some of the names from around town or school, and that made it that much more fun.
When I first got BWR BBS online, I contacted the locals that I remembered that I could find on Facebook, and several of them did log in and did so daily for the first few months. Before long, they tired of it and were never seen again (to the point in time of this writing.) The BBS just doesn't hold the power it used to as the online hub for the local community now that the internet, and particularly the internet technologies that make sites like Facebook possible, have come into their own.
In all honesty, Facebook is a successful wide-area implementation of the 1980s and 1990s BBS concept...all of your friends are generally close to you geographically, much like the BBS era. You can message, share information and data, as well as play games...the three major draws to a general purpose BBS in the early/mid 1990s.
So where does the BBS and it's Sysop fit in today? Nostalgia and hobby computing. The BBS no longer has a professional use. Modern technologies have caused it to become obsolete. The internet and all the technologies founded upon it have broken the long-distance call barriers that kept the local BBS local. Community websites with forums have replaced the BBS.
I run a BBS because it keeps my skills sharp, and I still enjoy getting into a real command prompt and hacking around and customizing my setup, writing programs and scripts to automate and build my own portions of it, and the feeling I get when I see someone launch L.O.R.D. from the console side and see it initializing and checking for a RIP terminal...it's like I'm 14 again. I still purposely from time to time go out to other's BBSes and download files that I used to play with 12 or 13 years ago thru telnet via Z-MODEM. Then, I upload them the same way to my own board.
I don't see many calls, it's true, but by keeping the thing out there and occasionally telling people about it, I see at least two new users a month. I have particularly enjoyed marrying this site and the BBS together using an ingenious Adobe Flash-based telnet terminal that users can use to telnet into the BBS with just one click...things like that keep the board alive too.
I don't know how long people will run BBSes, or how long the BBS scene will remain, but I intend to be there until I'm an old man, if even to just be the last one. The idea of a guy running an entire online system from a beat-up, cracked case computer in his basement or in his closet is sure a heck of a lot more interesting to explore than a website on a generic server, stacked in racks with hundreds of others just like it, maintained remotely by a whole team of IT professionals.
Where's the personality in that? Long live BBS!