Fri, May 12, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Taiwan's low-tech youth net


A Taiwanese student gets to grips with BBS at university.


Fred Yeh (葉凱承), 23, graduated from university last year and now works as a public servant in the Taoyuan County Government. Like many young men in their 20s, his first choice when looking for information is to go online. But rather than surfing the World Wide Web, his first stop is the BBS (Bulletin Board System), with its countless "boards" catering to every interest under the sun.

In many ways the BBS, which first appeared in the online world in 1978, is a technological relic of a bygone age. It is the precursor of current messaging systems such as MSN, blogs and chatrooms, and provides similar functions, though without the fancy interface.

The emergence of the WWW and easy-to-use browsers such as Internet Explorer led to the virtual disappearance of BBS in many parts of the developed world. But in Asia, and especially Taiwan and China, it morphed into a semi-underground networking system for tech-savvy youths.

A visit to PTT, one of Taiwan's biggest BBS sites, which has tens of thousands of online users at any one time, is sufficient to understand its appeal. Thousands of special interest boards ranging from the useful (university course boards categorized by class, professor and student reviews of both) to the entertaining (multiple TV and movie boards provide the latest gossip, movie trailers and otherwise hard-to-find cut scenes) to the downright shocking (porn boards with graphic comparisons of Japanese adult films) provide valuable information to anyone who is interested. Indeed, Chinese-language media is increasingly citing BBS as their source for stories, cementing its place as the mouthpiece of Taiwan's youth.

For example, a BBS "exam board" has collected almost every exam set by certain professors notorious for setting the same questions every year. This board has grown to become invaluable to students, who naturally visit it at exam time. The result? Classes with low attendance yet remarkably high grades come finals.

"The boards I often visit are the movie boards and groups boards such as the graduating class board of my department," Yeh said. "There, old classmates post their recent happenings and if we run into each other online, it helps us catch up."

When asked of the longevity of BBS in technologically advanced Taiwan, Yeh said that the "primitive vertical-scrolling interface, which can be so annoying when working in English, especially for longer postings, actually works very well in Chinese."

Yeh said the fact that BBS interfaces are relatively hard to use compared to aggressively user-friendly browsers such as Internet Explorer is also part of its appeal to students. Parents and teachers are unlikely to browse the BBS and so secrets are kept intact.

Despite the surge of blogging, Yeh believes that the volume and value of the information on the BBS means that it is unlikely to be superceded. "The large amount of valuable info stored away in the BBS archives and the fact that our generation has made a habit of routinely visiting it almost every day guarantees that it won't be replaced any time soon. Ours may actually become the first and last generation in Taiwan that will have a significant dependence on BBS continuing well into our adult lives."

Computer Science Professor Wang Tsung-ming (王宗銘) of National Chung Hsing University provides another interesting perspective. "The survival of BBS in Taiwan and China is no coincidence. In western countries where students are taught from a young age to bravely voice their opinions, BBS has less of an impact. But for Asian students, BBS provides that rare opportunity for everyone to anonymously voice their opinions, preferences and even launch personal attacks. The valuable information and comments stored on the boards provide great insight on Taiwan's youth. Blogs are a great technical advancement yet are often more personal sites run by an individual promoting a singular storyline. Therefore BBS, though technically a relic, plays a very significant role in Taiwan society."

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