What was magical about these systems was the sense of community that it could create. You felt like you had a real connection with the people you were participating with. I think the reason was that we were on the same page. It wasn't like Facebook, where everyone is spraying messages into the ether, hoping for acknowlegement. It was 10-20 people contributing to a single shared stream. It was much more like real conversation.
In contrast, I've never enjoyed IRC because I feel like it has no soul. The communities I've found there are too large and not tight-knit enough. Everything is in public and anyone can join. The conversation history is permanent via logger bots. What I loved about Hotline was using it with a small group. We shared stories, jokes, URLs of the day, proto-memes-- whatever. It was a medium for co-experiencing the Internet as it bloomed.
Google Reader's social features gave me the same good feeling (before they shut those down-- boo!). I used to share items on Reader with a small group of friends. We felt free to comment how we wanted, since comments were private. This made for much more lively discussion, political conversations, and sharing of silly guilty-pleasure websites. You felt safe there because it was such a small group. Alas, it is no more, and you can't reproduce how it felt with G+.
I've heard people describe their time on LiveJournal to be similar to this. I never used LiveJournal back in the day (though I knew kids who did) so I don't know. Generally it seems like some people have had this magical experience of community online, while most people haven't. I feel lucky to have tasted it, but I'm sad there's nothing like this for me anymore, and no way I can show people how good online community can be.
Anyways, I still haven't scratched my itch. I think the important attributes for creating that original BBS feel are:
- Co-experience groups through a shared view
- A single topic of discussion at a time
- Lightweight entry formatting
- Posts are ephemeral
- The small audience outlet is addictive
I'm convinced this mixture does not exist today. But maybe this is all bullshit and what I'm describing is nostalgia.