How the Modem World Shaped the Internet
Paris Marx is joined by Kevin Driscoll to discuss the networks and services built by volunteers and hobbyists on top of the telephone network before the internet took over the in the 1990s, and what it can teach us about the internet and social media today.
Kevin Driscoll is the author of The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media and an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevindriscoll.
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Paris Marx: Kevin, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Kevin Driscoll: Thank you for having me back!
PM: Obviously, I was really happy to dig into the history of Minitel with you last time you were on, I think a history or a computing history and networking history that a lot of people don’t know very much about who are interested in technology and things like that. And so I think that gave us some really kind of important insights into, not just the history of these technologies, but also what’s happening today and how things could potentially be different. And your new book really takes a different aspect of this history, and gives us new questions to think about and to ponder about. And so to jump into this conversation to get us started, I wanted to compare your two books. As I was saying the last book looked at Minitel, this network in France, that was an alternative state approach to networking. If we think about what the United States did, and how the approach was here, and how France took a different approach until the intranet emerged, and that kind of took over. So why did you decide to turn your attention to this more decentralized online set of communities for this book?
KD: One aspect of the comparison between the two projects is that you could read Minitel, and learn about the experiences of people building networks in France, and say: Oh, wow, I get that. That’s different than how things went here in the US or North America. And except that you already know the story of how things went here, because there’s a very well-worn narrative about how the Internet developed out of Department of Defense Research and universities and things like that, mainly here in North America. And it turns out, there’s actually a lot of nuance and complexity to that story that’s missing also. And so it’s an in a way, turning back and overall seeing this period of the 1980s as a period of widespread parallel experimentation and development of different kinds of networks and network technologies, all across the globe. And the process of producing what we think of as the internet today was a process that was of interconnecting all those systems, somewhat imperfectly, and that involves political and social change, as well as technological innovation. But in many ways, the kind of wonder of that moment. And the range of possibilities that seem to lay in front of folks who are building networks in the 1980s, is not appreciated from the present. So whether you’re talking about people building Minitel services in 1980s, France, or dial up bulletin board systems and other commercial services here in the US, you have people who are sharing in possible network futures. And if you were to talk to them, you would get a really broad range of possibilities of what that might be. And over time, we’ve allowed that to narrow. So both projects are about expanding our sense of what’s possible, and what kinds of internets we might exist in now, and what might be possible for the future.
PM: Awesome. I love that. And I think that will kind of guide our conversation and be present through that conversation as we consider these points of this history and what we should learn from it. But as you were saying there, one of the key points of the book is to provide a challenge to the way the history of the Internet is usually told, focusing on the ARPANET, and its eventual privatization. And what came out of that, why does this history need to be complicated? And what does digging into the history of these bulletin board systems and similar services that were available, add to our understanding of the development of the internet and how we use it today?
KD: The Internet is is rather unique among new media technologies, because a lot of people who encountered it after the dot com boom into the present, they encounter it simultaneously as new — it’s always being presented as new and novel — and as old and having this deep history that has already been laid. And that’s pretty unusual. And unpacking that a little bit reveals something kind of notable, which is that the Internet is highly dynamic, and it’s always changing. And we talk about it as though there’s a stable continuity from who knows the 1960s to the present, when in fact, it’s constantly being reinvented and it’s even there in the name like Internet. It is a network of networks and the networks that compose the Internet are changing all the time. So I think if we’re going to look back at this period of time to understand it, there are certain stories that come up time and again. And initially, those were the stories that were being told at the moment that the Internet broke into popular culture, broke into everyday political discourse. And that’s around the early 1990s, and by 1995, 1996, it’s on the front covers of magazines that you would see at the grocery store in many parts of the world. So what histories were available then kind of got set in stone as the history of the Internet. But that was a history of a very particular understanding of the internet that explains some really important things about the infrastructure, what protocols we use, what kind of software is used to organize it. Also some of the early norms and habits that lead to the beginning of governing bodies that would be created after that period of time.
But it actually doesn’t explain most of what we think of when we say intranet. When folks talk about something happening on the internet, that story about the ARPANET, or TCP IP, the protocols that govern the movement of data around the network, it doesn’t tell us much about like online dating or arguing about politics, or paying your credit card bill online. All of that stuff develops through a different series of processes, building on different institutions and different social organizations that had their own values and their own motivating imaginaries behind them. So it is kind of this interesting problem of trying to have a stable history of something that keeps moving this moving target, had we somehow settled on a different name than the internet like matrix or something more science fictional or something really novel, then it wouldn’t have been tied so closely to this very particular history that brings it back to the ARPANET period. I think something that was a challenge in this book and sharing it and talking to people about it, is that a lot of times readers want to say: Ah, everything you know is wrong, and now I’m going to tell you the right story. And that’s actually not what’s going on in this book. Rather, it says what you know is right, but it can only explain a limited component of this much bigger sociotechnical phenomenon. So we’re going to give you another sliver that just reveals how much more there is for us to explore and to learn.
PM: It’s not saying ignore everything you already know. It’s saying: Here’s another piece of this that you should understand as well to properly comprehend what is going on and how we arrived at this moment that we’re in right now. One of the things that stood out to me, as you were discussing this in the book, and figuring out this history and unearthing this history in a certain way, was how the ARPANET history is one that is very well recorded. It was something that was developed with these government institutions; there was a lot of record keeping around it. So it was easy to know what was going on at different moments, because all of this is recorded. But whereas this history that you’re looking at, where it’s more oriented around these kinds of community projects, people who are doing volunteer activities, things that were just made available on the telephone network, and then eventually shut down. In many cases, it’s much harder to find those records. And so then it makes it much more difficult to present this history in a similar fashion as the ARPANET history.
KD: One of the early sparks that drove this project for me is that sometimes when you would read about bulletin board systems, these small scale community networks, you’d see them in isolation. So it’d be the story of this one system. And it was easy to say: Well, that’s fascinating; that’s a story of a few hundred people who did something together, we’re talking about the Internet over here, which is on this order of millions. But if you take a step back, and you look at the scale of like 15, or 20 years of experimentation, by, as you said, volunteers and hobbyists, and you look in aggregate, then we’re talking about over a 100,000 dial up bulletin board systems in North America alone, serving over, I estimate, two and a half million users. And now you have something that enables a kind of reasonable comparison. So something like more well known systems like Usenet or America Online, can be reasonably compared like apples and apples with these cooperatives systems that were built around the dial up bulletin board. So there’s this interesting little methodological move that you have to make and the problem and the reason that hadn’t been done.
So previously, is because the records are distributed in the same way that the network itself was distributed. And many of the systems that we’re talking about were things people did for fun, their hobbies or their experiments they ran on the side or an extension of a small business that lasted for a few years and went away or an after school program. And so there was no central record keeping organization. There is no NSF who asks you to renew your grant year on year and records your proposals and things like that. And likewise, there’s no cultural heritage institution responsible for maintaining all those records. So you can’t book a research trip to a particular library and then get all the records. However, the record keeping that is being done is being done by former users and enthusiasts. And so this, the research that went into this kind of book and some of the other research in the field is enabled through the labor of amateurs and enthusiast and former users who have gone through their own records, scanned materials, put them online. And so now repositories are available. The best known for this kind of material is textfiles.com. But more and more, we’re seeing not just documents, but also software and other kinds of born digital materials that turn up in places like the Internet Archive.
PM: That’s great. And it makes sense, because that was the way that these things operated, right. So I guess it’s kind of natural that at least that’s the way that the record keeping will get started. And then, maybe is taken on by a bigger organization later or something like that. So I want to start to discuss these networks, these services that were made available, so that people have an understanding of how these things work. The story you’re telling focuses on what was happening on the telephone network, largely, rather than these packet switching networks that were developing alongside them, and we’ll get to what happens when they converge. But how does this modem world, as you call it, get started? And what are the key elements that we need to understand?
KD: So right there in the title is the word modem, which many people know because if you have a home internet connection, you have a modem somewhere. But the modems that we’re talking about here are modems that connect the world of computers to the telephone network. And they do a simple job, which is to translate a stream of digital information, which we can imagine as ones and zeros, electronic pulses, into some sound that exists in the audible range of human hearing, so that it can piggyback on the existing telephone lines, which were not made to carry data, they were made to carry human voices. So by the end of the 1970s, in the US, the telephone network is really robust; it’s highly reliable; it had been built through this long-standing public private partnership. And AT&T had enjoyed a lot of benefits that allowed them to bring service to people who were in very remote places where it would not have been profitable to serve them. And so what that meant is almost anybody you met knew how to dial the telephone, probably had a home telephone number. If you rented an apartment, it might have a standard jack on the wall that you could plug a telephone into. You didn’t have to have an engineer come and wire your home for telephone service. And that was approaching something like saturation — there were not going to be lots of more people served, it was an almost universal communication system.
It was also in the process — a long, slow process — of privatization. It had not been fully dismantled yet and broken up as we come to talk about it later. But it was opened around the edges so that you can attach other devices to the system without permission. And one of those things you could attach was a modem. But what’s kind of funny to think about retrospectively is that if you bought a computer in the 1980s, number one, you are in a total minority, because very few people own home computers at the time. But if you did, it didn’t come with any networking or communication capability, which seems ridiculous now, but it would be like buying a laptop without a Wi-Fi card. And so you would have to additionally opt to purchase a modem which would allow you to connect to online services. And from the data that we have from surveys of consumers and things like that, we know modems were not at the top of someone’s list. What seems to be the case is that through word of mouth and seeing what other people were doing, some numbers of computer hobbyists many of whom were already engaged in clubs and other kinds of like computer enthusiast activities, got modems, and started experimenting with sending data over the telephone lines and connecting to some nascent commercial services that provided different kinds of access to databases or time sharing computers and things like that, that would give someone who had like a small home computer access to much bigger computing resources.
So the twist, and what makes this all interesting to us now, is that hobbyists started to build their own networks using these machines. And so the earliest systems we’re talking about which are dial up bulletin board systems are literally a computerization of the community bulletin board — the same kind of cork and pins system that you would see outside a grocery store or in the foyer of a public school, where people post notices to each other. And so the earliest bulletin boards notably, CBBS, which is the Computerized Bulletin Board System in suburban Chicago, were extensions of existing clubs. Where a club might meet once a month, they often had an newsletter where they printed information for of interest other computer enthusiast, they could extend that social activity through the creation of a bulletin board. And in practice, it’s actually a pretty simple system, which is, you have one computer that’s connected to a phone line and has a modem. And it’s just sitting there 24/7. And when the phone rings, the computer answers the phone and a program on it wakes up and starts sending letters and numbers and symbols down the line to the person who called. And if they called from a computer terminal, then they would start seeing the words appear on their screen.
And so they would have this asynchronous interaction with the machine, which was basically asking them: Do you want to read the messages that other people posted? Or do you want to leave a message. So there’s this little system for posting up messages and reading what was there, and one at a time, people who are users of that system could get in, and it would create something like a modern forum, that kind of thing that you would see on a phpBB site or a subreddit or something today. In time, that really simple system can be adapted to serve all kinds of purposes, like sharing files and software with each other, sharing documents, health information, having gateways to internet, email, online gaming, other sorts of things. We could talk about the limits later. But I think in the beginning, it’s interesting to see how from this relatively simple setup, which is off the shelf parts and homebrew software, you could build a pretty robust community oriented computer network, by piggybacking on the existing telephone infrastructure.
PM: I think that’s a fantastic description of this space, so that people understand how it was working, how people connected the limitations, and what it looked like when this all got started. And I want to dig into that a bit more. But one of the things that came to mind, as you were talking was, it can seem like this just emerged out of nowhere. Personal computers started to become available, and then these clubs kind of developed around them, and wow, this whole culture developed around these technologies. But one of the important things that you described in the book is that it didn’t come from nowhere. It was yet another development, because a lot of the people who are into this in the beginning were into CB radios and Ham radios and these kind of amateur radio stations or networks or whatnot. And then, it was the computer and these digital networks piggybacking on the telephone network to create this modem world, was just a natural extension of what these people were already doing.
KD: Yes, so 1970s in the US, there is a pretty robust culture of tinkering and DIY electronics. That is primarily a men’s hobby, but it’s breaking through into popular culture in lots of different ways. So one of those is CB radio, or the Citizen’s Band, which is officially supposed to be licensed, but in practice is a mostly unlicensed, pretty chaotic communication space. And it is represented in movies like Smokey and The Bandit and Convoy. It is often seen as a way that people who are driving on the freeway would circumvent speed traps and get around the newly nationalized speed limit of 55 miles an hour. So the CB is really easy to understand, you can go to the store, you get the radio, and then you can start talking to other people. For us looking back, it’s really interesting to look at it because the CB is a semi-anonymous space, maybe somebody can identify you by your voice. But you can only talk to people that are within range. So you’re mostly talking to people that are nearby you either on the road or if you’re at home that live nearby you. And people can make some guesses about your identity, whether your race or ethnicity or your gender based on your voice. But you’re not actually disclosing anything. There’s no central registry; you don’t sign on; you don’t have a license. And so it is a forerunner of many of the kinds of semi-anonymous or anonymous communication spaces that we would later build on computer networks.
And in fact, some of the earliest multi-user chat systems in the 1980s were explicitly called CB simulators, because the CB was such a ready to hand metaphor. So CB is one pole of this moment of enthusiast communications in the 70s. And the other pole is amateur radio, which had gone through some rocky times, but was in a moment of like major revival in the 70s in part because micro electronics, the same manufacturing processes that were making home computers possible. We’re also making amateur radio equipment a lot more affordable. So clubs are building all kinds of things. And if you were someone who tinkered with radios, either by messing with the radios in your car, or your ham radio equipment at home, you were starting to be exposed to information about hobby computing. So lots of radio magazines and electronics publications would publish features on computers and they presented it as like: You’ve already built a home stereo, like a Hi-Fi; you’ve messed with your car — why don’t you try to build a computer? And the kit computer was this high bar. So a lot of men who were involved in these electronics hobbies were purchasing kit computers. And the kit computers were extremely frustrating and difficult to build. And you really needed to be in community with others to complete the project, it would be really challenging to complete it on your own. So most people remember building it with a friend or with the help of people in a club.
And so when you get into that club environment, when a lot of your electronics activities have been communication oriented, you see the computer as a potential communication device. And that’s so different than the ways that people who are in primarily in research settings or military settings might have seen it, which was principally as an information processing or data processing device, something that could automate or speed up routine mathematical processes. It’s really different to see the computer as a potential communication interface. So we have all these people who are engaged in these communication hobbies, building computers, and then they become the first kind of group to build these online systems, dial-up bulletin boards. Once they do, though, they lay the blueprint for how lots of other people who have a need to build some kind of communication space, could adopt these off the shelf components to do it themselves. And so by 1983 or so, there are a number of software packages that are available for free. And there are a few how-to books, like paperback books available from some of the tech publishers that describe exactly how to build these systems. And there’s a real culture of sharing and documenting your experiments in this space. That benefits not only the people in the relatively closed hobby community, but people who are outside of it, who might be involved in underground publishing, or mutual aid networks or other kinds of activist organizations who have a need to build independent or alternative media infrastructure.
PM: That’s so fascinating, and it’s great to hear you describe that. As you’re talking about the kind of software exchanges and how these files are being shared through these networks, especially as the speeds start to increase of the modems, it does also bring to mind that kind of dichotomy or debate around hobbyism, and volunteerism, versus commercialization, and sharing and piracy, and all of these topics that are still relevant today. Because in that moment, there’s also this debate around sharing the software — whether it’s okay to have these software’s available through these networks, instead of having someone actually buy the software pay for a license or what have you. Because the Gates letter to the hobbyists is in, I believe, the 70s, where he is saying: You shouldn’t be sharing the software; I’m trying to build a business by selling the software, and you’re making that difficult for me. How are those debates playing out in that moment? And how does that inform how things develop down the line?
KD: It’s a great question, because when we look back from the perspective of a enthusiast in 1976, or 77, or 78, there is no software industry to speak of. And in fact, Microsoft is very unusual in being a firm that’s trying to sell software to home computer owners. Number one, there are very few home computer owners. So already, they’re serving a relatively small group of people. And then number two, almost all software at that point exists in a gray space, it’s custom built. So if you’re a corporate customer of a firm like IBM, IBM is selling you consulting services, and trainings and other kinds of things, either, you’re gonna work out some customized version of a software program that they provide to you, or you’re gonna have staff that get trained to write custom software. So there is not Microsoft Office that you’re just going to buy for your firm. Almost all computers are running custom built software. And that’s true from the home up the corporate stack. So creating software as a separate industry is a new idea. And even the reception of Gates letter throughout the hobbyist community reveals how novel that is some number of people really resisted some of the accusations that they were stealing because the norms were not set in stone. But many others were like, Hmm, and step back from that to think about it. Like he does ask this question in the letter, which is, will there be quality software written for home computers, if people can’t get paid for their labor? And that’s a very reasonable question to ask because many people shared in this community a vision of computing, more broadly, computing to begin diffusing into society. They would have liked it if more people were using computers or if computers could be part of their work, rather than something that was only the domain of a small number of tinkerers and things like that.
So although the tone of a very young Bill Gates letter set people off, and we remember it as this cry against freedom and openness, there wa a norm, an explicit norm of freedom and openness. It provoked talk about something that wasn’t really talked about yet. And that debate carried on for many years to come, and in fact, is constantly being renewed as we change the terms of our engagement with the information environment. So by the time bulletin board systems become rather widely available in the mid to late 80s, then there’s been a decade of talk about software piracy, and licensing and copyright and all these kinds of things. And there’s a pretty robust and growing scene of people who competitively crack software and share it, not even to play the games, but because of this social metagame that they’ve created around it, that would become the wares scene. This is in many ways more part of creative artistic programming than having anything to do with just breaking copyright. So I think it’s interesting to think about that moment, because things are so unsettled. And it’s so uncertain how software ought to be made.
What’s notable is that the program that Gates and early Microsoft folks were complaining about, was an interpreter for Basic. So it was a program that just enabled people to write their own programs. And the norms around Basic was free and open sharing of code pretty broadly. Because there hadn’t been that many commercial programs. Something I touched on a little bit in the book is about how, in this period of openness, many of the people who are involved are pretty interested in commercial exploitation of computing and software, but the terms on which it will happen are not certain. So they experiment with a lot of different models on how to pay for their maintenance, labor, for the sunk costs of building these networks and other kinds of things. We can see reflected in it a range of commercial models, and ways to make sure that the lights stay on. That’s not only about software, but it’s also about many of the costs involved. And so something that has helped me a lot in doing this research, is you start to notice who talks about money and who doesn’t.
And one of the shortcomings of the ARPANET based internet story is that people actually don’t talk about money very often. Some of the times the networking activity is embedded in a much larger budget that could be the computer science or engineering department of a large university, or it’s the research arm of a big engineering firm or something like that. And your telephone bill is just one line in this huge budget. Whereas for a person who’s building a bulletin board system out of their home, the cost of running that system, they’re really sensitive to it. And so changes of 10s of dollars in one direction or another is going to determine whether they can keep running this system or not. So the bulletin board system operators who are known as system operators, or sis ops, would joke a lot about being like: Well, yes, you guys have like fast connections, and you have big computers, but we pay our own bills. And we pay our own bills — you can think of that in a lot of ways. But it’s an expression of independence. And it shapes all kinds of choices from the social organization of the system, the rules that people would be expected to follow, and how the software and hardware is written and set up.
PM: It’s so fascinating, just to think about the debates that they were having at the time, and how this shaped the way that things developed. Before we continue on that path and discuss the commercialization, there’s a piece that you’ve hinted at and that you’ve kind of talked about, but we haven’t really dug into and I think is important to discuss in relation to these communities, these services. And that’s really their local nature. Sure, you could connect to a bulletin board system that was farther away and pay the long distance charges. But because it was expensive to do that, most people would be accessing local networks. And as a result, there was a distinct local culture to these networks to these services to these communities. You even say that they weren’t trying to escape to a “cyberspace?” That was not really desire for many of these people. Can you talk about that, and how you see it in relation to the social media networks that would follow in the Internet age?
KD: So this requires us to look back a little bit at the organization of the telephone network. And so this differs depending on where you are in the global telephonic infrastructure of the period. And so that specific organization of the telephone network in the US was such that most subscribers paid a flat monthly rate for unlimited calling within a local calling area. And that local calling area was defined differently, and it didn’t follow standard political boundaries. So it wouldn’t be your town or your state, necessarily. There is a different map that overlaid it that had to do with where the locations were of different switching stations and how many hops your telephone call would have to make. So for a long time, if you were placing a long distance call out of your area, you would have to talk to a human operator to place the call. So if you want you’d call dial zero from your phone, a person would answer and you’d say: I want to call Kentucky or something, and then they’d tell you how much per minute it was going to cost. And then you can make the call. So you started to learn there are variable rates for making long distance calls.
Around the 1960s or so there’s automated switching. And so then you can place long distance calls by dialing one, and then a three digit area code, and then the seven digits of the phone number that would get you to the person on the other end. That was great, because it was easier to make the call. But it also meant that you didn’t really know like, there is nothing about that process that tells you how much it was going to cost. So for a lot of people, they just didn’t place very many long distance calls at all. And even when long distance dialing was automated, many people were still in the habit of calling the operator to find out how much it was going to cost before they placed the call. So the norm was set that you didn’t really place very many long distance calls, aside from anything to do with building communication networks and things like that. But the flat rate local calling meant I could call you and we could stay on the phone for 24 hours a day for the entire month, and it wouldn’t change our bills at all. So from the point of view of someone running a bulletin board system that meant in a given day, they had that 24 hour block of time, and anything that was going to happen online or in the online space of their bulletin board would have to happen like within that one constraint.
So local dialing was the way and most bulletin board systems were local and meant that people that you were talking to on the board, while they might be using pseudonyms and handles and other kinds of ways to play on that space, it was very possible that they were people you went to school with or you worked with or otherwise had a connection with. And that in many cases was a strength, because what would happen is the person who operated the system would extend that online sociality into offline events. So they could have a house party or like a picnic in a park, go to a bowling alley, something like that. Lots of people, when you ask them about their bulletin board system memories, they remember the parties, they remember these like offline gatherings of people that they had relationships with online. And that really changes that dynamic that you have when you go to that online space. That doesn’t mean that everybody from the system came off, but it did alter the dynamic.
Another norm that enforced this kind of localness was that most bulletin board system operators were not trying to get as many people as possible to sign on to their systems. Rather, they wanted the right mix of people — trying to get good chemistry. So by default, almost all bulletin board system software would not allow new users to get on and post and read messages, their first time calling. The first time calling, you’re kind of just expressing your desire to be part of that system. And you’d be asked to fill out a little questionnaire maybe or send an email to the system operator, and you’d be added to a queue of unverified users. And it was quite common for a system operators to verify users by voice phone call. So they would come and see like someone has come they want to join the bulletin board, here’s their home phone number and give them a call and be like: Hey, I saw that you called the board; I’m Kevin, let me tell you a little bit about what we do. We talk about whatever astronomy and volleyball here. If you’re into that, that would be cool. And then you have this like initial contact with the system operator, before you’re ever allowed to post.
And that’s another aspect of this system that is almost counterintuitive, because we accept the logic of social media platforms which want to get as many new people on as quickly as possible and get them to start posting right away. They talk about having frictionless, seamless site on — get them there as quickly as they can. The bulletin board systems don’t have that they have a very different motivation and different stakes and what’s happening. So you might have a system in your local area that you call and you never get on. You can get to the login screen, and then that’s it. It would add to this air of mystery. So the way that people often would find out about where to call locally is an interesting question because bulletin board systems wouldn’t be listed in the white pages or the local directory. You couldn’t call the phone company and ask because the phone company doesn’t know which phone numbers are connected to computers and not. There is no requirement to register. So discovery is this huge problem. And by and large, people would learn from word of mouth.
Sometimes I’ve heard stories of people buying a modem at the computer store and them giving them a photocopy with a few local numbers to call, or my favorite is a real community bulletin board with cork and pins has a message on it that says: Call this number to get on the computerized bulletin board, a connection between the two. That was really common for like hobby shops and stores and other places where that would attract people of niche interests like an independent video store, something like that. Once you’re there, though, often the bulletin board system would have a post on it with the phone numbers of other bulletin board systems nearby. And so that creates this kind of an Internet, where even though each system is isolated from each other, the users are making the connections between them. So if there’s a really interesting file or image or program or something on one board, a person might download it, and then upload it to another board. And so there’s a way that ideas and resources diffuse throughout the network, by way of the users moving from place to place.
PM: I think it’s so interesting to hear you describe it that way And to think about how these communities were local, and how that localness was enforced, or kind of structurally enforced, just because of the way that the network was developed at the time and the way that these services worked. And then what the comparison of that is today, when we think about social networks, and how people communicate online. When we talk about this history of bulletin board systems, one of the ones that often comes up in discussions of this period, and the histories that people tell is the WELL, or the Whole Earth Electronic Link. That is held out as this example from this period of how things work before the Internet itself came along, and there was this migration over to those services instead. But you argue that The Whole Earth Link, The WELL was more of an exception than a rule, in part because it was so distinctly commercial, but also because of other practices that it developed. Can you talk about that?
KD: Yeah, I have struggled to figure out how to fit the WELL into my mental model of what a bulletin board system is, in part, because on a technical level, it looks really different. So whereas most of the systems we were talking about ran on home computer or personal computer equipment, the same machine that a user would use to call was what was hosting the system. There was a real parity between both ends of the connection. In the case of the WELL, they have a time sharing machine, which is more like an institutional machine costing maybe one order of magnitude more than a home computer. We’re still not talking about massive America Online level infrastructure, but a bigger machine than most people would have in their home. And founded with the ambition to be a commercial system that would have subscribers who paid a fee to access a system that had staff keeping it up.
It was kind of built a little bit on the model of a magazine, in part because Whole Earth was publishing the Whole Earth Review and other print publications. So a lot of the ways that the WELL was organized, that’s the shorthand for Whole Earth Electronic Link was based on prior experience in the media business. Yet at the same time, if you read anything about bulletin board system history, whether in the popular press or in academic literature, you would hear about the well. So it’s interesting because for me, it was like: Oh, this is either the biggest bulletin board or it’s the smallest of the nationwide commercial services. And you see it written about in both places. Sometimes it’s like CompuServe, America Online, these big nationwide and international systems. And then the WELL is like the the small fry in that. And then other times you’d hear people talk about the well is like the biggest BBs in the US. So I’m allowing it to sit in that ambiguity and accept it on on its face, for what it is, which is a dial-up system that you could access that offered conferencing forums, the same kinds of activities where people post a discussion topic and other people join in.
The WELL is organized in a clever way where there are conferences that are on specific topics, and they may be parenting or sports or some of them are organized by age or other kinds of interests. And then those have their own moderators who helped keep things going. And they can have their own cultures within them. And because of that hands on moderation, it cultivated a really special community. And a lot of people valued that. And many of those people were drawn from the local media industries. They were magazine writers and others and so they would write about their experiences. Most notably Howard Rheingold’s account of the WELL in virtual community became a kind of paradigmatic account of what online community could be at its best: people supporting each other through crisis, your good times and bad, forming, unmistakeably, genuine friendships. And it is true in the past as it is now that there was some fascination in the popular press about people having relationships with people they met online. So here in the case of the WELL, you had just unambiguous, tight bonds being formed through this electronic communication.
Yet at the same time for us historically, if we’re trying to sit it alongside these other 100,000 or so bulletin board systems, it looks really different. People were paying; there was some startup capital there; they could reasonably look like a business to a bank and ask for a loan, something that would have been more challenging for others. So in broad terms, what we’re talking about is a monthly fee and then a per hour or per minute fee to connect. These are not generally all-you-can-eat systems, and that would be on top of whatever telephone charges you might incur. So despite the fact that the WELL had an international ambitions, it also had an intensely local culture, which was based on the Bay Area and kind of legacies of the counterculture, certainly tied to its relationship to Whole Earth. And lots of people discovered it, because they read about it in the Whole Earth Review or other Whole Earth related publications. So as a place, you could go and meet people who were interested in those same kinds of things. The Grateful Dead fandom is a hugely important component of the WELL population. There’s so much Grateful Dead knowledge information on the web today, and a lot of the roots of that come from the community that was organized through the WELL.
But that was not obviously the only way to run a system. And many of those same community qualities and genuine relationships and forms of mutual support that were evident on the WELL in the accounts of people like Howard Rheingold and Katie Hafner and others, were evident on many of these other systems, but not documented. They were not populated by magazine writers and others. And so they were experiences that people had privately and they might have recognized their experiences in the accounts that they read in Wired magazine, or other places. But their stories were not recorded systematically, and many of them still exist in the mists of memory. They are not recorded in any systematic way in archive. So in the book, I compare a system to the WELL, that was called the TARDIS and it was in Indianapolis in Indiana. It was run on much more modest hardware, an Apple 2 computer that was not upgraded for the almost 10 years of the life of the system. Yet it had this big personality. There was four people, four friends who were moderators of the system. They created a women’s only area, and in order to access it, you had to have some face-to-face interaction with one of the women who moderated this system. Lots of former users have posted online about their memories of how much they appreciated it and what how different it felt from some of the more male-oriented or systems dominated by men that were prevalent other places. So you can see some of the same real genuine personal investment and support and fun that was happening on the WELL happening in this other place that operated under really different economic and political circumstances.
PM: I appreciate that comparison that you made in the book to draw the distinctions between these different models of approaching it. If we move to the early 1990s, that’s a period that I think many listeners will be familiar with when the Internet itself is being commercialized and popularized, this packet switching network, which is largely the one that we use today, as opposed to what many of these bulletin board systems were running on, which was the telephone network connected through these modems. How did the bulletin board system operators try to adapt their services? And what impediments did they face when investment capital and venture capitalists obviously took a very different approach to what they wanted to fund and what they wanted to see happen on this nascent internet?
KD: Well, one really important historical fact to understand is the structural separation between the activities on the bulletin board system side and on the internet side. While there were some people who crossed over between these two worlds, they were quite distinct from each other. By and large, people who are working in universities or in research centers, were experiencing a very different computing environment. They might have been using home computers, but dialing into time sharing systems or accessing Unix workstations. They had high speed connections, if they were on campus, they were wired in directly. They weren’t using dial up modems, by and large, they just didn’t know about, in many ways the richness of this modem world that had unfolded out of their view. It kind of makes sense, and you can imagine someone thinking like: Well, I have this big like workstation over here, I’m not going to play around with these rinky dink networks. It wasn’t possible for people on the other side to make that decision. So a simple example of that is, there really was not widespread availability of TCP IP for home computers until 1995, or 1996. You could get it if you were highly motivated. But it was not easy to make a packet switch connection over the telephone line — that required some technique and some learning that really wasn’t widespread until the early 1990s.
So it’s around 1990 to 1992, that you see a little bit more of a convergence of the worlds of home personal computing and institutional computing. Evidence of that would be Linux, which is a Unix compatible operating system that runs on home computer hardware. That was the beginning of some merging of these two worlds. That’s partly why the free and open source software conversation and the free sharing conversation that we talked about before weren’t really connected because they weren’t quite structurally distinct. So a result of that is for the most part bulletin board system operators and enthusiast and advocates were not included in the conversation around commercialization and privatization of the internet at all. And internet advocates, people building regional and University and Research Networks wouldn’t have seen bulletin board systems as part of the internet in any meaningful way. They did not use the same protocols. They weren’t part of the same institutions. They had no organizational affiliation. They were other networks, and they were interesting. But they weren’t given a seat at the table. It’s not that they were actively rejected as they were just overlooked or neglected or not even seen. And there are anecdotal cases of people writing being kind of surprised to discover how much activity is happening out in the bulletin board system world.
So my preferred perspective is to look from the view of someone who’s running a big popular bulletin board in like 1991. And what did they make of the emerging Information superhighway rhetoric? And what many of them saw was an Internet that looked more like an Internet of BBSs. So they can imagine replacing the constraints of the dial up telephone network with some kind of high speed digital packet switch connection. And once you have that, it’s like: Wow, now, people from other localities can visit my local board, and I can go visit their board. And I’m going to be free to traverse this network of bulletin boards and see what all these local cultures look like. That’s a really different view than one where we’re going to all move into a one universal, other cyberspace that’s apart from our local. And so some of the initial experimentation with internet enabled bulletin boards was just that it was a bulletin board with an internet connection that went in two ways. So local users could dial into the bulletin board and then get through the Internet Gateway out to other Internet services, or people who had an Internet connection from elsewhere could come in. That version of what the Internet was going to look like, lasted only for a short period of time, although never quite went away. So to the present, there are many bulletin board systems that are still available, and you can access them over the Internet. And that is the sustained materialization of that vision from the early 1990s.
But what tends to happen is a redefinition of Internet that is more inclusive, that is like all online activity is internet activity. And it makes sense because if you connect your bulletin board system to the internet, you become one more network and that network of networks. You are the internet — your bulletin board system is indistinguishable from the Internet. You kind of get eaten up by the mass, which is a totally exciting thing for the moment. So it’s not seen by people at the time as necessarily negative. The big change, I think, is one that has to do with how we imagine where we are when we’re online. Once you start using the web, which it must be said was a novelty for most people up until 1996 or so. It was not made to run on personal computers very well. And it certainly wasn’t made for people using dial-up modem. So it was very slow and creaky. But it was cool. And it was the closest thing people had seen to something that looks kind of like interactive TV or video games or something. So people were willing to tolerate some pretty janky connections in order to try out the web. But the web suggests that everything on the Internet is equidistant from everything else, every resource is one click away, which is the real contribution of the web is the hyperlink or the Universal Resource locators. So you don’t have that experience of like dialing one machine, then jumping to another and jumping to another one. Instead, you’re clicking from one place to the next.
And so most people who have ever used the internet who are living today, started using it after the web had become the Universal Interface for the Internet, such that most people cannot distinguish the web from the internet. They don’t see the web as an application running on top of the Internet as they are like one fused thing. We don’t open another email program, we open up a website that has email in it. And so as a result, you lose that sense of traversing this global information infrastructure. And that has a lot of benefits. So this isn’t a lament about the loss. But rather that there was a moment in time where a bulletin board system operators could articulate a vision of the future internet that looked really, really different and maintained a lot of that local control and autonomy for all of the system operators who ran the nodes around the edges.
PM: I love that description. And I think it’s so interesting to think about what could have been and how things got to that point. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I want to wrap a few thoughts that I had as I was reading the book into a final question for you. When we look at that period when the commercialization is happening, there are also a lot of big ideas about what this Internet could be — people like John Perry Barlow who are talking about how it can be an online world free of bias and the talks about the cyberspace as being this kind of separate environment. But then there are also people like you described a black woman who went to the 1992 Fido Kohn, who said that you know this this world free of bias that they’re talking about isn’t really on display. You can see that this isn’t actually how things are going to play out. And you discussed how there was this idea that there could be this internet of BBSs, of separate BBSs is that could work in this more localized way.
But capital had a different idea. This hobbyist computing and sharing of software before it could exist for this moment, because capital hadn’t moved in, to turn it into something that they wanted to generate significant profits from, even though as we talked about in this conversation, there were always these pressures that were existing. But I guess it’s not until the Internet and this global connectivity that you’re talking about where it can reach the scale, where it’s really of Interest to these capitalists. And so for me, that helps to shape how I think about how things could exist then. And then what does that mean for the future? What can we take from it? What can we learn from it as we seek to make the Internet better for everybody? So what does your research what is your experience writing about this modem world, teach us about social media, but also, you know what the future of the Internet could be?
KD: I think when you are able to contrast present social media and platform economy, with a real working alternative from the past, and allows for a more robust consideration of what trade-offs we’re making. So the main trade-off that I see in the comparison is that the barriers to entry for the bulletin board systems were very high. And they were high in a really particular way that excluded groups of people who were systematically excluded in other ways. And that’s why, by and large, the bulletin board system community, especially in the 1980s, was predominantly me. It was predominantly access from people of means who had the leisure time and monetary resources — it was in most places predominantly white. And that was a reflection in many ways of how it spread through word of mouth and existing enthusiast networks that had their roots in, decades prior, postwar men’s hobbies. So you can have a really strong community that is nonetheless gatekeeping, is not inclusive. It doesn’t model the kind of social justice that we’re pursuing in the present that we would hope an Internet after platforms would possess. So this is never a call to go back, but rather, a search for real models of living systems that we could use to expand how we think about the present.
So the trade-off in the present seems to be, we’ve allowed a model for commercialization of our activity on this consumer oriented Internet through advertising, collection of personal data and the speculation of venture capital, which lowers the barrier of entry to almost nothing. And the trade-off there is that now we have a much more inclusive internet. In the last 10 or 15 years or so, the use of the Internet for everyday social activity spread far beyond any kind of enthusiast community, and spread across many different demographic categories that you might be interested in. And that has enabled really important kinds of social and political organizing cultural formations like access to media, people able to make claims on access to more mainstream media sources. We wouldn’t necessarily see the range of representations that we do on streaming media, if it weren’t for the visibility of audiences live tweeting particular TV shows 10 years or so. So would I give that up? Not necessarily. It’s not a call to say we want to have a fee oriented or a subscription based service, but rather to see that there are these trade-offs that are being made. And to recover some of what was possible in the visions of people who saw earlier versions of the Internet.
One key way to think about that is that bulletin board system community, that modem world was enabled by the pre-existing, very robust, reliable, largely public telephone infrastructure, which gave everybody an address like a telephone number and a simple way to send information from one point to another point. And in the transition to a commercial Internet, we largely gave that up. And rather than wiring everybody’s homes with fiber optics, or some other kind of digital information, we use the wires that were already on the poles. And so cable TV companies came to be Internet service providers, which for some group of Internet advocates is like upside down world because they were saying kill your TV, go on the web. And they’re like: Oh, what if the web is TV? Which is effectively what we’ve allowed to happen now since a lion’s share of bandwidth on the Internet is just TV programming. So some of the things that people were talking about and envisioning in their most utopian was talking about an Internet that’s really different, that still exists in the Internet today, but it’s there alongside of the shopping mall and the televisions and public services and all kinds of other things that are also occupying our online spaces. So it’s an invitation for us to see the Internet as always multiple. And to think about how to carve out our own spaces within them on our own terms, whether that means verifying people or proactively building community with intention, and with explicitly stated values and norms from the outset. We have a pretty robust history of different kinds of communities that have been built around these different communication media. And we can use those to think more clearly about how we want to build community online in the future.
PM: I love that, and I think any opportunity that we have to kind of rethink the way that the Internet works and who it works for is always important, and that’s certainly a contribution that that your book makes. Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I enjoyed it, as always.
KD: Thanks again for having me. It’s really cool.