When a user signs up for Big Boring System, the site doesn't ask for an email, name, age, or gender, and it doesn't request access to location information. It just asks for a phone number. A four digit PIN is then sent to the user's cell phone, allowing them to log in. It's a weirdly anachronistic introduction to an unconventional social network.
Big Boring System is an open-source social network spearheaded by iconoclastic web developer Jen Fong-Adwent, better known by her online pseudonym Edna Piranha. The name itself is both a piss-take at big players like Facebook and Twitter and a reference to the text-based Bulletin Board Systems popular during the dialup days of the internet.
The site allows users to make text-only posts on their public pages and chat in real-time. There are no images, no GIFs, no videos, no comments, no likes, and no friends. You can call yourself whatever you want, and messages sent in the chatroom are automatically deleted from the server after a short period of time.
The platform is aggressive in its internet-age retro-future minimalism, like the synth-punk of social networks. As a result, it lies in stark contrast to its feature-stuffed competition.
"To compensate for this lack of [real-time conversation] a lot of these systems contained features such as 'likes,' 'faves,' 'reblogs,' 'retweets,' and 'comments,' to try and keep users interested," Fong-Adwent told me. "There are many flaws with these features and they have never in my mind created anything of real value to a community."
The original Bulletin Board Systems were often run on private servers owned by their system operators and had to be dialed into using modems hooked up to phone lines, making them de facto local communities unless users wanted to incur long distance charges.
Big Boring System, which Fong-Adwent runs on her home server and moderates along with several other system operators, aims to mimic the communal experience of those original online hubs.
"By removing features and only focusing on the content someone writes with minimal interaction in replying to posts, and also providing a simple chat mechanism for interacting with other writers in the system," Fong-Adwent explained, "[Big Boring System] encourages communities and trust to develop more often than not."
Unlike other upstart social networks like Ello, which explicitly positioned itself as an alternative to Facebook, Big Boring System shouldn't be thought of a replacement for any of your existing networks. The stripped-down format is more likely to appeal to people who still use BBS boards—here's a directory of (mostly) active BBSs and a dedicated subreddit—or have fond memories of them.
Internet forums and message boards, the spiritual successors to BBSs, are still going strong as well. Forums with a local focus like Williamsboard, which is all about life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or contain discussion on niche interests like realistic sex dolls (NSFW), often have a community vibe and layouts that would dovetail nicely with Big Boring System's.
To be sure, Fong-Adwent isn't a novice when it comes to engaging with alternative modes of online communication. She recently presented Meatspace, a chat chat forum she designed, at the 2014 XOXO conference. Meatspace is a barebones chat room where members make GIFs of themselves, shoot the shit, and listen to dance music. Big Boring System is a similar experiment in new arenas of online community formation.
"Throughout this process, I always ask the following questions over and over," Fong-Adwent said, "what makes things work and what doesn't? How much can you take away before it is useless? What makes communities form and how do they stay together?"
But a community is only as robust as the dedication of its members. Whether people will actually want to use a site that does away with so many of the familiar features of major social media networks remains to be seen.
However, Fong-Adwent noted, a huge amount of traffic was driven to the site last week after a shout-out in science writer Alexis Madrigal's popular email newsletter, 5 Interesting Things.
"I cannot predict what will become of [Big Boring System]," Fong-Adwent told me, "because it is an open source project and there are now others involved, not just myself, what will become of it is what the community wants it to be."