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Long live the humble BBS, and the current state of file sharing

32 years ago today, the first electronic bulletin board system -- or BBS -- was born. As the brainchild of a nerd stuck in the Great Blizzard of 1978, the first BBS was created as a way to circumvent the fundamental, age-old rules of socializing -- it was merely a a digital version of the bulletin boards found in the foyers of libraries and churches around the world. We had been making use of the telephone to communicate with out-of-reach friends and family for decade -- so why not use your phone line to make new friends?

That nerd (Ward Christensen) who invented the first BBS -- the CBBS in Chicago -- probably had a thought that went something like this: 'Why should we be forced to leave the house to make new friends?' It's not a rare thought; I bet most geeks have pondered the same thing -- in fact, that's why we now have Windows Messenger and Facebook and Twitter and thousands of other 'chat rooms'. We're already interconnected with billions of other people via the telephone network -- why bother walking somewhere, when you can just double click?

But rather than mirroring the meet-and-greet and services-offered format of real-world bulletin boards, BBSes very quickly became forums. Questions were asked and anonymously answered. Data was shared, guides were written and porn found its first safe haven. Little did they know, the early BBSers were playing in a sandbox that would soon become the World Wide Web.

In just three decades, the online world shifted from modems capable of 300 bits per second to fiber switches handling terabytes per minute. The cost of entry has plummeted from an expensive computer and extortionate telephone rates (you had to pay per minute!), to just a few hundred dollars for unlimited Internet access. BBSes have gradually died out, their telephone lines replaced by Telnet, or a website with a forum. They are now just the fondly-remembered ghosts of yesteryear, but they've left one hell of a legacy. Today there are more ways than ever to share data and files, and that's what the rest of this feature is about.

You all know about BitTorrent and other P2P networks like Kazaa or Limewire, but there is a massively diverse range of other networks and protocols out there too. BitTorrent is fast, but not the fastest. It's also fairly secure, but certainly not the most secure! Let's get started with the alternatives.

1. Fire and forget -- RapidShare, Megaupload, et al.

These web-based solutions are ideal for sharing with a group of online friends, be it via Facebook, Twitter or any kind of forum. If you're worried about privacy/safety, you can easily use a proxy server (but I'm not going to walk you through that here). As 'the cloud' grows in strength and the need to transfer large files across the Internet increases, freebie versions of these services are always going to be available.

If you're not getting great speeds from torrents, you might be very surprised at what kind of files you can find on RapidShare too.

2. Small, insular, secure hubs -- Direct Connect!

Perhaps the true spiritual successors to BBSes, Direct Connect hubs are an incredibly popular way of sharing files. Due to their often-draconian access requirements, they tend to be very fast, and very complete. The best hubs have a very elite guest list, so security is really top-notch.

Most DC hubs are localized: you might have a DC hub at your university, or within the local neighborhood. Sweden is quite famous for its '100mbit only' hubs, and I'm sure similar groups exist wherever there are fast fiber networks in America, Europe and the Far East. If you think you've seen quick torrent downloads... you've seen nothing yet.
Grab the open-source DC++ to get started -- but I'm serious when I say that the best hubs are hard to get into. You better have a lot to share and a very fat connection. Just connect to a hub (obey the rules!), search... and off you go!

3. Forums and other private networks

A lot of 'pro' BitTorrent users don't use public sites like The Pirate Bay or EZTV -- they use private forums to get their fix. Again it's all about quality, and it can be very hard to appease the tyrannical forum moderators, but the wealth of data and files available on private networks is immense. The actual method of distribution varies between torrents, RapidShare/Megaupload or even secure FTP.

Last time I named specific sites I got into trouble, but I can speak in generalities: there are networks with every major PC game in the last two decades, or every PlayStation game. There are sites with TV archives so vast that it would take the rest of your life to watch it all. Unfortunately the only real way in to such networks is through friends, or friends of friends.

I also want to mention TeamSpeak 3, which has a 'file sharing' function that I recently discovered. With a lot of online time now dedicated to multiplayer games, and voice communication growing in popularity, it makes sense to have the ability to share files among their clan and guild members. TS3 is in beta testing at the moment, but the implementation is already impressive. You can expect Ventrilo and other voice communication providers to follow suit.
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I'm sure I missed a popular method of sharing files, so feel free to add your hints/tips in the comments!

Tags: BBS, bittorrent, direct connect, DirectConnect, file sharing, FileSharing, history, megaupload, p2p, piracy, rapidshare