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A history of digital communities… in seven minutes

I’m moderating a panel this afternoon at Beyond Broadcast about “the community dimension of media”. The panelists are people applying community technologies to public media, social change and video production – because they’re working on new, cutting edge technology, I wanted to challenge the idea that digital community is a new thing.

Hence, I’m going to take seven minutes at the start of the panel to offer a quick history of digital community. This can be hard to do, because geeks are bad at history. We have a bad habit of assuming that any clever idea we have is the first time anyone’s ever had that idea and that there’s nothing to learn from the folks who were working on similar problems twenty years earlier. What this means is that while everyone recognizes names like Murrow or Bernstein, many geeks can’t tell you who Vint Cerf or Leonard Kleinrock is… (The talk opens with pictures of Edward Murrow, and then of the team at BBN who built the Interface Message Processor, the first ARPAnet-connected device.)

(Doing any Internet history work basically requires Robert Zakon’s internet timeline – almost everything that follows footnotes back to this work…)

The Internet, as we know it, was invented in 1969, as ARPAnet. Email – the first great digital community application – precedes the Internet by at least four years – the MAILBOX system at MIT. By 1971, email connected the users of 23 computers at 15 universities. By 1973, 75% of the traffic on ARPANet was email… If you give people the opportunity to use technology to talk to each other, they’ll take advantage of it, even if that wasn’t the purpose of the network.

By 1975, mailing lists were invented – MsgGroup by Steve Walker was the first, and, wonderfully, the second archived message from the list is an apology from the sysadmin for his lack of responsiveness… a wonderful trend that continues to today. Shortly after, a list called SF-Lovers emerged as the most popular list – geek culture trumping pure technical geekery, as it still tends to today.

Those of us who encountered digital communities for the first time via bulletin board services owe thanks to Ward Christensen, who reportedly created the first bulletin board system in 1978, in two weeks, because he was stuck in his house due to a snowstorm. For those of us who mis-spent our youth sharing illegally copied software for our machines, BBSs weren’t just the precursor to Napster, but to the idea of being a “member” of an online community.

1979 brought Usenet, the Internet’s much maligned, abused and ignored distributed discussion system, to the world. If you were learning how to use the Internet in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you lived on Usenet. Many old Usenet hands think that the threaded messaging systems that became common on the web in the late 1990s lack the technical elegance and sheer diversity that Usenet featured a decade earlier. (You can get a sense of the Usenet experience at Google Groups,spam and all. Google purchased the Dejanews internet archive and presents Usenet groups as if they were Google groups.)

1979 also brought the first MUD – Multi-User Dungeon – to the world. (The emoticon also made its first appearance in 1979 – ” -) “, used by Kevin MacKenzie to signify that a remark was “tongue in cheek”.) MUDs were my first internet love, and we can now see a direct line from MUDs to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft… One of the first MUDs – British Legends – can be played online either through a java applet (heresy!) or through a telnet window.

Chat is another technology whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time. Unix users had the “write” command, which let them write messages on other user’s screens – this evolved into “talk” and “ntalk” in Berkeley Unix, which allowed users on different systems to chat via their consoles. But the history of public, anonymous chat owes a debt to Minitel, a system built by France Telecom to let users check train schedules and the phone directory through free terminals.

According to a story I heard at a recent conference, Minitel’s first release included a single game – chess – and the opportunity for people to chat as they played. Very quickly, users realized that they could sit at a chess board, not play chess, and chat anonymously. This quickly led to “pink minitel” – Minitel used for anonymous, erotic chat. According to the storyteller, you merely need to say “3615” – the number that called up the chat services – to evoke a slightly embarrased blush…

While the web entered most people’s consciousness around 1997, the first webpage appeared on Tim Berners-Lee’s computer in 1990 – a 1992 edition page is still mirrored on the CERN server. In 1995, Geocities and its rival, Tripod (a company I helped found) launched tools to let mere mortals build webpages… usually really, really bad webpages. By 1997, bloggers started sites to track other interesting websites, or offer personal reflections several times a day. Somewhere in the links between all these pages is a conversation, people pointing at one another and commenting on each other’s ideas.

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, Ward Cunningham decided it was important that anyone be able to edit a webpage, collaboratively, inventing the wiki. Which was useful mostly for small gangs of geeks creating tech documentation, until Jimmy Wales thought it would be a clever idea to compile an encyclopedia – or perhaps a whole mess of encyclopedias – using one.

In other words: the vast majority of digital community tools aren’t new. Many are very, very old, older than many of the people who use them.

So why are groups like public radio stations starting to pay attention to digital communities today?

The simple answer – the net is now too big to ignore. 68.6% of Americans are online. An increasing number of these users expect to be able to talk back to the media they’re encountering. Which is why we’re seeing NPR partnering with gather.com, Radio Open Source using blogs to find guests and the largest room at Harvard Law School packed with broadcasters trying to figure out this new medium…

The talk went well, I think, as did the panel – five of us live on stage and Jonathan Zittrain appearing via videoconference. The slides are here, if you’re interested…

8 thoughts on “A history of digital communities… in seven minutes”

  1. Damn, that was the most entertaining explication of the history of the internet I’ve heard. I would love to see on Broadway.

    Thanks for being concise, clear and engaging.

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