I have found 4 general types of messaging systems/networks which are
available to many computer users:
1. Commercial networks
2. Academic networks
3. Public BBS networks
4. Individual BBS systems
Each of these types of systems has different advantages, limitations, and
1. Commercial networks.
This includes services such as Compuserve, Prodigy, Delphi, and other
services which charge for time or resources on their own proprietary
network. Generally, the e-mail is very secure, and many message bases
exist for discussion on a wide number of topics. Bases for public
discussions may, however, be limited or removed at the whim of the
network company, as the Prodigy service has recently done. Although
long-established networks such as Compuserve may have a large number of
users, it has been my experience that there is a large turnover in the
number of hobbyist users due to the relatively high cost; only people
who have some business or consultant interest tend to keep these accounts
and use them on a consistent basis. These networks are well-maintained,
and locally available from most areas.
2. Academic networks.
Most universities and many industries and government agencies are
connected and cross-connected through a number of networks. These
include BITNET (academic), USENET (UNIX, mixed), ARPAnet (military),
and others. Access and use of these networks is free, and generally an
incidence of classwork-assigned accounts or employment in a participating
company. As such, the free access is somewhat volatile, as people graduate
or move on to other jobs. There are, however, a number of public-access
UNIX systems which may be used for a nominal fee. Any account on any of
these networks can send e-mail to other accounts on any connected network,
which is world-wide. There are also a large number of message conferences,
which are available to the majority of users in these networks. The
majority of sites receive all of the conferences, however some industrial
sites limit them to technical groups only. These groups are read by an
estimated 325,000+ people around the world, with the vast bulk of this
audience in the technical and academic fields. This network is fairly fast
and stable, despite the somewhat unstable network topography. E-mail is
reliable, however security is dependant upon the sites involved in the
transfer. It is rumored that the NSA scans outgoing mail from the US, and
that the FBI regularly receives a copy of all of the messages groups.
Currently, the primary group for public discussion of religious ideas is
a newsgroup called talk.religion.misc. Atheists are well represented in
this group, as well as other groups with religious tie-ins, such as
talk.origins (primarily evolution vs. creationism) and sci.skeptic.
The religious apologists have a very rough time in the public forum, as
their diatribes are rebuffed by many Atheists, agnostics, and even other
stripes of theists. So far, I have only been able to find one other
member of American Atheists, Doug Linder, who participates in these
newsgroups. I have found a great deal of animosity toward Madalyn O'Hair
even from other people who profess atheistic views, some even calling her
the "Jerry Falwell" of Atheism. I can only assume that this opinion is
a consequence of the smear campaigns conducted by both religious
institutions and other atheist groups like FFRF who want their share of
the limelight. Doug and I have been posting a number of ideas and facts
about American Atheists, such as the "What is an Atheist?" passage from
the Murray vs. Curlett lawsuit, as well as the numbers to Dial-An-Atheist
phone messages. We hope that by exposing people to the real sources and
materials instead of the distorted opinions still prevalent in this
society, we can change many of the negative opinions. Starting next year,
we will also try again to start a new newsgroup devoted exclusively to
Atheism. We are also considering starting an e-mail mailing list
for Atheist topics, as well as an electronic magazine/newsletter.
The academic networks are for non-commercial use only, supposedly for
"official business", but they have generally turned into a free-for-all.
Cause organizations also use this network for their communications. I
have talked to the network administrator for Amnesty International about
procedures for access to the net, but he wasn't very helpful. The only
official way to get access is to ask a local university if they would
donate an account; barring that, a public-access UNIX could be used.
3. Public BBS networks.
The only significant difference between BBS networks and the first two
network types is the machines that are used. Whereas the first two
generally use large to medium-sized mainframes owned by government
institutions or private industry, these networks are run solely on
privately owned microcomputers using privately owned phone lines.
As such, the reliability and security of these systems are dependent
on the competence and discretion of the individuals running them.
Despite this, these systems seem to be at least, if not more, reliable
and secure as the expensive commercial networks.
The primary BBS network is FidoNet, which is gatewayed to other smaller
networks such as AlterNet and GoodEggNet. There is a wide diversity
in the types and functions of BBS systems available for microcomputers;
not all of them support networking functions and not all networks are
compatible. The FidoNet standard is compatible with many types of
BBS systems; most other networks are only compatible with a single type
of BBS software, such as the WWIVnet which only runs on WWIV boards.
FidoNet systems reach a very large and diversified audience, however it
is possible for any group to set up its own private network using the
same store-and-forward mailer software. The communications functions
available are nearly identical to the other networks; a large number of
topic-segregated message bases called echo conferences are available for
free use, and e-mail between users on different systems is supported,
though this latter function generally requires a nominal fee to help pay
for the long-distance calls. Any message entered into an echo conference
on any system in the network will be forwarded, or "echoed" to the
corresponding echo conference on every other board in the network during
the National Mail Hour each day at 4am. There are large number of echo
conferences on various subjects, but not all boards carry even most of
them; each board must subscribe to the particular conferences it wishes to
Many boards specialize on particular topics or themes, and many religious
groups have taken the opportunity to coordinate their efforts as well as
proselytize using a combination of echo conferences in the FidoNet and
their own private networks. A quick scan through two of the most
comprehensive (although pitifully incomplete) national BBS listings showed
at least 12 religion-based BBS's. There is also a public FidoNet standard,
though separate, network called Computers for Christ is used primarily
for their own discussion and evangelism.
4. Individual BBS Systems.
These are by far the most common types of microcomputer BBS systems.
They offer the same services- e-mail, message bases for discussion,
games, file downloads- as other BBS systems, but they lack the ability
to automatically forward messages to other systems. They share the
same limitations that networked BBS's have compared to the private and
commercial networks; generally, only one user at a time can access a
BBS, and mail forwarding, when available, is performed only once per
day at a specific time, as opposed to the instantaneous transfer on
mainframe networks. Despite this, isolated BBS systems are still a very
effective method of transferring information, as long as the bulk of the
information is kept on a single system which a number of users share.
In this arrangement, it is not necessary that each "node" of the network
must maintain a functional BBS and network; all of the work is done at
the central BBS and a communications program or terminal/printer is all
that each user needs. It may take much longer for a user to read and
respond to mail manually than it takes for a networked system to transfer
incoming and outgoing mail, but the reduced phone rates for non-business
hours make the difference negligible. Network services such as
PC-Pursuit by Telenet can provide low-cost access to BBS's in many major
U.S. metropolitan areas.
It is difficult to estimate the size of the rapidly expanding audience
for BBS's. During the 3 years that I have operated my BBS, I have
received over 41,000 calls from at least 8000 different people. This
is a single-line non-networked BBS. I would estimate that over 1/2
million people have at least seen, or tried a public BBS once. Anyone
with a computer and a modem can, and often does, set up a BBS. Although
relatively few of them are exclusively or overtly religious, there is
widespread discussion in the message bases on these boards. On BBS's
where the sysop doesn't censor the messages, the theists usually fare
little better than the more sophisticated and educated apologists on the
academic networks. While some are overtly religiously oriented, such
as this one: (title screen)
On line KJV BIBLE with * * * || * * *
word search program!!! * * * || * * *
* * * || * * *
======== ########## * * * || * * *
= = # # * * * || * * *
= = # # * * * || * * * TM
======== # ######## ||
= ====== ==== # ## ###### ###### || # # ###### ####
= = = = # ## # # # # || # # # # #
= = ==== # ## ###### ###### || # # # ####
= = = # ## # # # || # # # #
= = ==== # ## # # # || ###### # ####
PreRapture(tm) Productions BBS 8,N,1 3/12/2400 Durham NC 24hr
PCP-NCRTP Sysop: Steve Winter WWIV-BBS (919) 286-3962
Great shareware!..Bible Quiz(on line)..False Doctrine expose'...
...I haven't yet seen any BBS which is overtly Atheist oriented, or
which offers specific message bases dealing with Atheism, other than
part of a general religious message base. Some, like the BBS above,
are for apologists only- anyone who criticizes or questions his
religion are kicked off the system.
The primary advantages of commercial and academic networks are that they
generally have a larger and more educated audience, they are faster, and
the cost of using them is minimal or free in most cases. Microcomputer
BBS networks have the advantage that, depending on the system
administrator, they can be more secure, plus the administrator has direct
control over the format and direction of the system. Although message
bases on the mainframe networks are read by more people, BBS networks
are more easily accessible by a larger number of people; access to the
mainframe networks is much more involved than dialing a local BBS.
For inter-organizational work, I would recommend the use of a private
microcomputer-based system. Many large companies have their own internal
messaging networks, and the primary advantage of this is security.
For "getting the word out", the best way is to use one of the existing
networks. Doug and I have been doing this on the academic network,
although direct advertisements are generally frowned upon by network