Introducer: Kevin Driscoll, that’s a name that’s well-known to many of us, not least because he is one of us, hav­ing grad­u­at­ed as you can see, Comparative Media Studies Masters Program in 2009. We’re pleased to have him around Boston again so that we can tap him for events like this, and pre­vi­ous­ly for a bit of PhD career advice.

Speaking of PhDs, Kevin received his from USC, where he did his dis­ser­ta­tion trac­ing the pop­u­lar his­to­ry of social com­put­ing through the dial-up bul­letin board sys­tems of the 1980s and 1990s, a top­ic that’s sus­pi­cious­ly like what he’ll be telling us about today. This talk will, accord­ing to the abstract that was cir­cu­lat­ed, map out the gen­er­a­tive con­di­tions that gave rise to ama­teur com­put­er net­work­ing at the end of the 1970s and trace the dif­fu­sion of BBSing across diverse cul­tur­al and geo­graph­ic ter­rain dur­ing the 1980s.”

In his dis­ser­ta­tion, Kevin takes a deep dive into the his­to­ry, tech­nol­o­gy, and cul­ture of bul­letin board sys­tems and their users in an attempt to reframe the his­to­ry of the Internet away from ARPA and Licklider and a sort of highly-structured nation­al enter­prise towards some­thing that takes into account the great impacts that ama­teur and hob­by­ist users had in the devel­op­ment of the Internet and its social sys­tems as we know them today.

Kevin is now at MSR, where he con­tin­ues his tech­no­cul­tur­al research. He’s also work­ing on a man­u­script based on his dis­ser­ta­tion, but ori­ent­ed around the theme of the pre-history of social media, and he’s design­ing a series of ped­a­gog­i­cal tools that com­bine machine learn­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions stud­ies through the process of data min­ing your­self, which is some­thing I’m sure he’d be hap­py to answer some ques­tions about after the talk.

We’re so pleased to have him here today to share his work with us. Please join me in wel­com­ing Kevin Driscoll.

Kevin Driscoll: I have a ques­tion. I haven’t said a word yet. Is this a record? [Response inaudi­ble.] Not the most sub­stan­tive ques­tion we could’ve asked.

I’m real­ly excit­ed to be here, for many rea­sons, some of which you can prob­a­bly imag­ine. But there’s an inter­est­ing loop­ing back, to me, sit­ting in the room and lis­ten­ing to oth­er peo­ple speak and try­ing to fig­ure out how to con­cep­tu­al­ize projects and how to do research and like, where a CMS per­son fits into the world of schol­ar­ly work. What do we learn as CMS stu­dents that we can then take into what I con­ceived of as more rigidly-structured dis­ci­pli­nary spaces like Com[?], although I was quick­ly dis­abused of that notion by peo­ple who are in things like soci­ol­o­gy and his­to­ry. But I think one thing that we bring when we do com­mu­ni­ca­tions research from a CMS per­spec­tive is an atten­tion to the bound­aries and the edges and the lit­tle nooks and cran­nies where oth­er lit­er­a­tures and oth­er per­spec­tives might creep in.

And so, we also are fond of ask­ing ridicu­lous­ly tricky ques­tions. So here’s a ques­tion that dri­ves out time today: Where did the Internet come from? And in order to answer that ques­tion, you would have to have a pret­ty clear idea of what you mean when you say the Internet.” I sus­pect that if we were to poll every­body in the room, we would have a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent, some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry, some­times incom­pat­i­ble, some­times over­lap­ping, def­i­n­i­tions of the Internet.”

What I know about the Internet is that it mat­ters a lot. Because when you ask peo­ple about Internet use, they will tell you that it mat­ters a lot to them. Internet use ( Whatever that means. We’ll leave it open-ended for a minute longer.) is inter­wo­ven with people’s every­day lives, all their activ­i­ties. And they will tell you if you ask them.

So of Internet users, near­ly half say that it would be very hard to impos­si­ble to give up, and if you gen­er­al­ize by look­ing at the data, that means one in four of peo­ple in America say this. So Internet mattes. That’s true. And here’s what I think we mean when we talk about the Internet. All the things that we do with it.

So my guess is that you prob­a­bly can’t read that in the back. But this axis right here is per­cent­ages. This is from the Pew Research Center data ask­ing peo­ple what they do when they go online, and I’ve col­lapsed some of that data here to focus on the prac­tices that they men­tion. What are the things that they do with the Internet? When they say Internet use” what are the uses that they’re talk­ing about? The things that you see are research­ing their hob­bies, look­ing up infor­ma­tion about the news, argu­ing about pol­i­tics, get­ting health data, dat­ing, find­ing jobs, fig­ur­ing out how to fix some­thing in their hous­es. All the things that peo­ple men­tion when they talk about the Internet are things that hap­pen at this cul­tur­al lev­el. It’s things that they do with it that the Internet facil­i­tates, that it enables them to do.

And yet in spite of how deeply woven it is into people’s every­day lives in all these dif­fer­ent areas of activ­i­ty, by and large we col­lec­tive­ly do not know very much about how it works, where it came from, what are the dif­fer­ent com­po­nents tech­ni­cal­ly or polit­i­cal­ly that make it up? And that gets to the place like this where a pret­ty over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of the users of the Internet, peo­ple who self-identified as Internet users, would be able to dis­tin­guish reli­ably between Internet” and World Wide Web.” They would just say that they are essen­tial­ly the same thing.

This is con­stant across ages, too. This isn’t a sto­ry about gen­er­a­tions. Young peo­ple are just as like­ly to have these ambigu­ous under­stand­ings of what they mean when they talk about Internet as old­er peo­ple. In fact, we’re start­ing to see some infor­ma­tion that sug­gests that even the term Internet” is falling out of use.

But I’m approach­ing this from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. I asked at the begin­ning where did the Internet come from?” So we know the Internet mat­ters. People tell us that it mat­ters, and they tell us all these dif­fer­ent things about it. And they must have some idea where it came from. So real­ly if you press peo­ple and you ask them, Okay, where does it come from? Just tell me where you think it comes from.” they would be able to give you some kind of sto­ry. And there’s lots of dif­fer­ent sto­ries. And the sto­ries that they tell mat­ter a lot.

This is where this kind of CMS-y per­spec­tive comes in, which is we can look at those sto­ries, no mat­ter how truthy they are or coun­ter­fac­tu­al they might be, and then think about what comes forth from that? If that’s what you think is the ori­gin of the Internet, then what does it mean for you when you’re doing all those things that are on that list, when you’re send­ing emails to your fam­i­ly or some­thing? How does the ori­gin sto­ry play in here?

And we’ve been lucky recent­ly to have oppor­tu­ni­ties to see this. In the dis­cus­sion of net neu­tral­i­ty, of how we should reg­u­late the Internet, what you see are key fig­ures in a par­tic­u­lar kind of hagiog­ra­phy of Internet his­to­ry, who are invit­ed to speak about how the Internet ought to work, how it ought to be reg­u­lat­ed and gov­erned. And when they do speak, whether it’s in a blog post or giv­ing tes­ti­mo­ny, they will always remind you of their place in a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal set­ting, in a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive.

So here you can see I’ve high­light­ed a part of this open­ing sen­tence to a blog post that appeared on the Google blog but authored by Vint Cerf, where he reminds you when my col­leagues and I pro­posed the tech­nol­o­gy behind the Internet” blah blah blah blah blah. So from a rhetor­i­cal point of view, you remind your listener—you are recall­ing a par­tic­u­lar his­to­ry and nar­ra­tive that they might not even have, but you’re say­ing, Come on, this is com­mon knowl­edge. I’m the guy. And so here, this is what I’ve got to say.” This is not unique. We see it over and over in this con­ver­sa­tion. When I invent­ed the web,” blah blah blah blah blah.

So ori­gin sto­ries mat­ter. And the place to start, if you’re going to do work like this is to ask about what is that sto­ry that these guys are refer­ring to? Because clear­ly they have some con­sen­sus with­in them­selves about how this story’s shaped and who fig­ures into it. Thom Streeter called that the stan­dard folk­lore.” He said yeah, if you look out there, there’s kind of a way of telling the sto­ry, it has cer­tain actors, cer­tain dra­mat­ic moments, con­flicts that sto­ried that are told over and over, and that forms some­thing of a folk­lore. It has some basis in the expe­ri­ence of cer­tain peo­ple form cer­tain per­spec­tives, but we shouldn’t assume that that is a uni­ver­sal his­to­ry.

So here is an image that I throw up here. I’m not going to spend too much time on it because this is a lit­tle bit of a side-quest from our main sto­ry right now. But in the process of doing a dis­ser­ta­tion you have lots of side-quests. So on this one I want­ed to know about this stan­dard folk­lore ques­tion. Here I’ve picked three rep­re­sen­ta­tive texts that were from a cor­pus of texts that I looked at. The rea­son I choose these to share with you is because they real­ly rep­re­sent the best, the most widely-read, schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar books. These are reg­u­lar­ly in print. You can usu­al­ly get them at libraries. If you were a high school stu­dent who was going to write about where the Internet came from and you went to the town librar­i­an, they may give you one of these two books. And this exam­ple you’ll see is dat­ed 1993, before the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the net. This was a mag­a­zine, Fantasy & Science Fiction that pub­lished a col­umn by mul­ti­ple peo­ple, and one of those authors is sci­ence fic­tion writer Bruce Sterling, and he had begun his­tori­ciz­ing the Net (as he was call­ing it at the time), before most peo­ple could even get on it. So you’ll see these num­bers refer to con­cepts and as a way to explain this in short­hand, they are prop­er nouns, events, or insti­tu­tions, or peo­ple. This over­lap is show­ing how dif­fer­ent ways of telling the sto­ry have cer­tain fea­tures in com­mon.

So the lit­tle ker­nel in the mid­dle, the lit­tle chunk where they all meet, that’s the seed of the stan­dard folk­lore. As I add more text to it, that thing more or less stays con­stant. You have cer­tain fig­ures, cer­tain events, that they are there. So this notion of the stan­dard folk­lore that Thom Streeter detect­ed, we can see empir­i­cal­ly how it is con­tin­u­al­ly renewed over time. That as the story’s told with years pass­ing in between, there are cer­tain char­ac­ters, cer­tain fea­tures that come back around and around.

So if we go back to this ori­gin sto­ry, the one rep­re­sent­ed by this stan­dard folk­lore, we can kind of pull out some char­ac­ter­is­tics. Here I’m refer­ring to it as the ARPANET ori­gin sto­ry. Show me with your thumbs, if you are not famil­iar at all with this ori­gin sto­ry you would put your thumb all the way down. If you know it super well and you could stand up here and tell every­body, then you would put your thumb all the way up. Give me a sense of your famil­iar­i­ty with this sto­ry so I can use my time wise­ly.

In the stan­dard way of telling this ori­gin sto­ry (and this is what we would see if we looked at those dif­fer­ent tales) what you see it the devel­op­ment of this real­ly inter­est­ing research net­work that brought togeth­er peo­ple from indus­try, from acad­e­mia, from the mil­i­tary, who were doing com­put­er net­work­ing research, and were par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in build­ing robust net­works that could con­nect machines that were using dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing sys­tems, dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tions hard­ware and infra­struc­ture, that would com­mu­ni­cate over long dis­tances, that would be reli­able. And they devel­oped the pro­to­cols and the tech­no­log­i­cal habits that con­tin­ue to under­gird the glob­al Internet today.

This table tells us a lit­tle bit about the cul­tur­al and tech­no­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of that milieu. We can see their host machines, the ones that are host­ing the ser­vices and the con­tent on the net­work, those tend­ed to be mini com­put­ers or main­frames. So you can imag­ine that at MIT there are time-sharing com­put­ers like one com­put­er with a room that has a bunch of ter­mi­nals attached to it. That would be a host. And that one com­put­er would be very expen­sive, and it would require sig­nif­i­cant exper­tise to man­age.

The clients in this con­text are either what we would call dumb ter­mi­nals” mean­ing not real­ly com­put­ers. A screen, a key­board, and some com­mu­ni­ca­tions hard­ware. Or they are work­sta­tions that are also used by say, a physi­cist who needs to be able to mod­el things ad hoc. All of these folks share a cer­tain kind of polit­i­cal econ­o­my. The mon­ey that pays for all this hard­ware (and prob­a­bly their food and rent) comes from grants, it comes from their salaries that they get from uni­ver­si­ties, it kind of comes from a sim­i­lar pot.

Likewise, they often have a social rela­tion­ship that exists out­side of this research. So it’s like the peo­ple you see at con­fer­ences every year. The peo­ple that you read their jour­nal arti­cles that you reviewed. There’s a kind of social homoge­ny that exists here that enables and facil­i­tates this research. It’s crit­i­cal to get­ting the work done. But it also means that when you go online on this net­work, you’re not expect­ing to encounter much dif­fer­ence. You go online and you kin­da know who’s there, because you’ve met them before. Behind the han­dles it’s like, That guy, I saw his paper. It was okay. Whatever.” You have some kind of fall­back social rela­tion­ship.

That’s kind of dif­fer­ent than the way that I expe­ri­ence the Web and that I have for a while. When I go online I tend to expe­ri­ence a lot of dif­fer­ence. Contact with strangers, with peo­ple from back­grounds that are unknown to me. So I’m not see­ing my social rela­tion­ships nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect­ed in this com­mu­ni­ty.

We’ve said a lit­tle bit about what’s miss­ing. Political econ­o­my, soci­o­log­i­cal­ly, we kin­da have some dimen­sions through which when we look at this we don’t real­ly see the Internet of today. One dimen­sion that we do see is the tech­no­log­i­cal dimen­sion, so sim­i­lar pro­to­cols and habits. But we real­ly don’t see the social shape that we expe­ri­ence today there. And we def­i­nite­ly do not see all of these pop­u­lar cul­ture activ­i­ties there. So you wouldn’t use the ARPANET to email with your par­ents, because they are not there. You wouldn’t be able to use it to buy tick­ets to the movies, because the movie tha­tre is not there. You couldn’t use it to pro­vide cus­tomer sup­port for your small busi­ness, because com­mer­cial activ­i­ties are not allowed.

So here again at the lay­er of prac­tices and cul­ture, it’s not a sat­is­fy­ing ori­gin sto­ry for us. It’s robust, and it is rich when it accounts for insti­tu­tion­al and tech­no­log­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions, but it’s very thin on the side of cul­ture. So where is pop­u­lar cul­ture, because you can’t write a book about the ear­ly Internet and not write about cul­ture. Indeed, when we look at the best books about Internet his­to­ry, they do their best to account for this. So one key recur­ring com­po­nent of the stan­dard folk­lore is the design of this ear­ly net­work, the ARPANET, was to enable researchers in one insti­tu­tion to access very expen­sive com­put­ing resources some­where else. And you can see from a gov­ern­ment point of view why that would be desir­able. You just gave mil­lions of dol­lars to the University of Illinois to put togeth­er a super­com­put­er and you’re like, Well, it’d be pret­ty good if uni­ver­si­ty researchers at oth­er loca­tions could use that com­put­er.” So the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the net­work is real­ly clear.

But in prac­tice what hap­pened is that every­body used it to exchange emails, which is kind of fun­ny because it’s a real­ly expen­sive way to have email, even at the time. One of the most pop­u­lar uses for email is not one-to-one com­mu­ni­ca­tions but many-to-many email forums or list­servs, mail­ing lists. So a recur­ring sto­ry in the stan­dard folk­lore is about the first email list to focus on pop­u­lar cul­ture, the SF-Lovers. I would nev­er have thought of this any­where else, but were there peo­ple in this room that were mem­bers of SF-Lovers? I feel like I always have to ask because one time there was some­body who was, and I was like okay, got to watch my words.

So here’s an email (obvi­ous­ly you’re not going to read this), but this pul­lquote in the mid­dle that I’ve made quite large puts a real find point on the place of pop­u­lar cul­ture in the ARPANET. It was in hid­ing. It was not real­ly a good idea to talk too much about the SF-Lovers. Which was so unfor­tu­nate, because if you look at the archive of this mail­ing list, peo­ple are thrilled at the chance to talk and debate about the issues being raised in sci­ence fic­tion dur­ing a real gold­en era of sci­ence fic­tion, a peri­od of time where peo­ple are bring­ing in new ideas and new voic­es. They want to talk about it, peo­ple are dying to talk about it.

They’re say­ing, Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could give an account to this author? He lives in the town with me. I could teach him how to use it? Or maybe we could print out some of the best mes­sages and make a fanzine and dis­trib­ute it at this con­ven­tion.” This per­son, who’s one of many who says this is like, Folks, no. We can­not do that, because if the peo­ple in Congress who are cur­rent­ly in the process of dis­man­tling all pub­lic insti­tu­tions under the Reagan admin­is­tra­tion hear that we’re using the ARPANET to talk about sci­ence fic­tion, they are going to stop fund­ing the ARPANET, so zip it.”

When new infra­struc­tures and new net­works became avail­able to sup­port this kind of activ­i­ty, every­body moved. The SF-Lovers group, the com­mu­ni­ty, per­sist­ed, but it stopped using ARPANET as its com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­ture because of a political-economic char­ac­ter­is­tic of that ear­ly net­work.

So I think I’ve got you con­vinced that the ARPANET is a real­ly good sto­ry for telling us about tech­nol­o­gy and inter­est­ing ways that groups come togeth­er to build them, but it doesn’t tell us too much about cul­ture. So where else do peo­ple go? If we’re polling peo­ple Where did the Internet come from?” the oth­er place that they will tell you is Silicon Valley.

Again, I was lucky dur­ing this project that I had an event occur where peo­ple expressed their coun­ter­fac­tu­al beliefs about the his­to­ry of the Internet, and this was the death of Steve Jobs, where thou­sands of peo­ple thanked him for cre­at­ing the Internet. Even President Obama stopped just a hair short of say­ing the same when he says that Steve Jobs, indi­vid­u­al­ly, made the infor­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion acces­si­ble and fun.”

In these moments, peo­ple are reveal­ing some of their coun­ter­fac­tu­al his­to­ry, and it kin­da made sense. For some folks, they think okay, Bay Area…yeah there’s some cul­tur­al stuff going on there, and peo­ple val­ue their egal­i­tar­i­an cul­ture and that’s kin­da like how the web works. So, yeah, it makes sense.

However, if we actu­al­ly look at what prod­ucts and ser­vices were being bought and sold in the time, if you pur­chased an Apple com­put­er it did not come with any com­mu­ni­ca­tions devices or hard­ware. That was an addi­tion­al pur­chase, and kind of a hard sell. So for exam­ple, this is the pack­ag­ing for modem for the Commodore 64, which was a very afford­able home com­put­er of the time. You can see they’re try­ing real­ly hard to fig­ure out how to mar­ket this. It’s a chick­en and the egg prob­lem, because in order for the net­work to be valu­able, there have to be peo­ple already on the net­work that you want to talk to. So how do you get peo­ple on the net­work?

What we find is it’s a real word of mouth kind of thing, which is like, you go to your friend’s house; they’re already on; they show you; then you are con­vinced to get a modem. On the pop­u­lar cul­tur­al lev­el, it spreads in a real person-to-person way. So if we’re not talk­ing about modems and their absence, then we’re kind of mis­char­ac­ter­iz­ing this peri­od. It rais­es yet anoth­er inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal ques­tion, which is if you went to the Apple store today and you bought a device and found out that it costs extra for it to have WiFi, it would be a pre­pos­ter­ous this. It would be like it [cost­ing] extra for your car to have brakes. The com­mu­ni­ca­tions fea­tures are defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of how we imag­ine net­worked per­son­al com­put­ing today. But they were not at this time, as evi­denced by the fact that none of the major home com­put­er brands shipped with com­mu­ni­ca­tions hard­ware by default.

So not ARPANET, not Silicon Valley. Where can we go? And this is real­ly my inter­ven­tion. This is where the project begins to take a turn for the his­tor­i­cal. My argu­ment here is that if you want a rich ori­gin sto­ry for all of these pop­u­lar cul­ture prac­tices, the places you need to go are the small grass-roots bul­letin board sys­tems that dot­ted North America dur­ing the 1980s.

Tens of thou­sands of sys­tems run main­ly by vol­un­teers and hob­by­ists out of their homes or the offices of their small busi­ness­es. Church base­ments, or by after-school clubs. This is the place where peo­ple first start­ed to encounter dif­fer­ence, that they were argu­ing about pol­i­tics, or that they were exper­i­ment­ing with online dat­ing or ecom­merce, or all the defin­ing activ­i­ties of the con­tem­po­rary social web.

This is sort of how I con­cep­tu­al­ize this big messy project. We want to know the role of com­put­er hob­by­ists. What are the mate­r­i­al con­tri­bu­tions that they made to build­ing the net­works that we’ve come to think of as the Internet? Then we also want to know the impli­ca­tions of this sto­ry. If you restore this sto­ry, and this sto­ry had as much of a promi­nent place in the pop­u­lar imag­i­nary as the ARPANET sto­ry, what would that mean for us, polit­i­cal­ly? What new polit­i­cal pos­si­b­li­ties would become avail­able?

So here’s how I did it. The first thing is that there’s a rea­son that peo­ple haven’t done this work already, and it’s not because it’s not inter­est­ing. Almost every his­tor­i­cal book about the Internet will men­tion bul­letin board sys­tems along the way. Because every­body knows it mat­ters. The prob­lem is that it was insti­tu­tion­al­ly not very high­ly val­ued. In oth­er words, from the per­spec­tive of some­body who has access to those awe­some­ly pow­er­ful military-funded machines, it’s just not that inter­est­ing to look at dial-up bul­letin board sys­tems. So the folks that are leav­ing behind a lot of traces that are well-organized and placed in archives and libraries, those folks just weren’t mess­ing with these sys­tems.

In fact, there’s evi­dence from when bul­letin board sys­tems got real­ly big they would have con­ven­tions and invite folks who were big com­put­er net­work­ing researchers to come speak, and the peo­ple would admit they had nev­er called a bul­letin board sys­tem, ten or fif­teen years after they had become a dom­i­nant form of hob­by net­work­ing.

That’s one prob­lem. Another prob­lem is that the key thing that we care about, which is the mes­sages, the chats, the files, the things that peo­ple were actu­al­ly doing on the boards, were high­ly ephemer­al. So even if you want­ed to col­lect it, it was real­ly hard to col­lect it. People didn’t have the stor­age media need­ed. They just didn’t have big hard dri­ves. It was real­ly cost­ly to print out mes­sages, and it’s hard to know what would’ve been worth keep­ing.

Like, now we want to know the every­day expe­ri­ence of a bul­letin board, but from the con­tem­po­rary moment of look­ing at the bul­letin board sys­tem as a sys­tem oper­a­tor, how do you choose which mes­sages are worth sav­ing and not? Indeded, when I look at the code of the bul­letin board sys­tem host soft­ware, often it had a set num­ber of mes­sages that could be stored, and when you got to the last one it just went back and wrote over the first one. So the his­to­ries were being writ­ten over by the very activ­i­ty. The more live­ly the board is, the more like­ly it is that we don’t have a record of all that went on there.

So we’ve got a chal­lenge. But for­tu­nate­ly, the same kind of pop­u­lar cul­ture, the same tech­ni­cal cul­tures that we’re inter­est­ed in doc­u­ment­ing, have also grown to include a kind of ama­teur preser­va­tion­ist activ­i­ty.

This is a snap­shot from a ham radio swap meet. There are ham radio swap meets in most big cities. There’s one at MIT on the cam­pus. This is a place where a dis­trib­uted archive of hob­by tech­nolo­gies comes togeth­er. It’s where it is man­i­fest. There are no find­ing aids, and there’s no easy index­es for us to use, but when we go to these places we meet peo­ple with exper­tise and expe­ri­ence and excite­ment, who have an inter­est in find­ing and pre­serv­ing these sorts of mate­ri­als. So in a way these are the kinds of archives that I have to work with, and I pre­sume some of you soon will work with when you see how impor­tant and inter­est­ing this research is. And this is reflect­ed also in online spaces where peo­ple build web sites that serve as kind of nodes in this dis­trib­uted archive, some of which are just lin­ger­ing. They were con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with Internet bul­letin board sys­tems of the 1990s, and some of which are more reflec­tive.

So if you see this top left cor­ner, the BBS Mates, that’s a data­base of bul­letin board sys­tems orga­nized by their names and their area codes, their dial-up phone num­bers. In the About page for it, the per­son says, Did you lose con­tact with your friends? Here’s a place for you to find each oth­er again.” So there is some mem­o­ry work that’s only recent­ly start­ed to hap­pen that we can inter­face with as researchers.

But the inter­face has some tricky eth­i­cal ter­ri­to­ry that comes along with it. It’s hard to know from a researcher point of view how we relate to this dis­trib­uted archive. The rela­tion­ship to a library archive is a lit­tle bit more clear.

But here’s a pic­ture that I took from someone’s home look­ing at just a piece of the col­lec­tion that they have amassed. When I encoun­tered this I was feel­ing like I should turn away and run, because it was fright­en­ing. It was like, whoa, there’s a lot of stuff here and it is not orga­nized and I don’t know what to do about it. Then what I learned through spend­ing time is that there are ways that these mate­ri­als cir­cu­late that have labor attached to them. So there become cer­tain fig­ures in these com­mu­ni­ties who are bear­ing a very large bur­den, who are kind of serv­ing a mid­dle role between the for­mal col­lect­ing insti­tu­tions catch­ing up and start­ing to build and house these things, and their ini­tial pro­duc­tion.

So in the case of this per­son, part of the way that their col­lec­tion grew so large is that they got a rep­u­ta­tion in the com­mu­ni­ty for some­one who val­ues and [pre­serves] these mate­ri­als. And oth­er peo­ple would send them unso­licit­ed box­es of stuff, along with notes that said things like, I know that you will take care of this. It was so impor­tant to me I held onto it for twen­ty years.” Just putting this incred­i­ble emo­tion­al bur­den on this per­son to be the stew­ard of a community’s his­to­ry.

This is anoth­er place that I vis­it­ed that is full of com­put­er ephemera. It is a stor­age con­tain­er that was fund­ed through the crowd­fund­ing plat­form Kickstarter, and this is a pic­ture of me inside of it where it was below freez­ing and we were going through all these mate­ri­als. While I was there and I was lit­er­al­ly freez­ing, to the point there was blood com­ing out of my fin­gers, I was think­ing about mate­ri­al­i­ty, sure. But also, what is my role in that moment? Am I just a researcher doing archival work? Because we’re hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion while we’re work­ing, there’s a lev­el of inti­ma­cy that’s going on here that was unex­pect­ed to me. I didn’t think of this as an inter­view or as an ethno­graph­ic moment. So this is a chal­lenge that we will have to con­tin­ue to take up.

And this slide is a bit of an invi­ta­tion because we’re in a local insti­tu­tion, so some of the mate­ri­als that I’ve col­lect­ed are now in a very small book­shelf that’s in the 1 Memorial Drive build­ing near­by. So if any of you are inter­est­ed in this work, you should let me know and you can come and vis­it and take a look at some of the mate­ri­als that I’ve col­lect­ed.

So I described a lot of work. Some of it was mine, a lot of it was oth­er people’s, but it enabled me to put togeth­er the pieces for what I think is a pret­ty com­pelling alter­na­tive ori­gin sto­ry.

All ori­gin sto­ries need to have some kind of start­ing moment, a con­text with­in which every­thing became pos­si­ble. For us I locate that in the mid-1970s, for a few dif­fer­ent rea­sons, some cul­tur­al, some polit­i­cal, some eco­nom­ic, some tech­no­log­i­cal.

Here is a blown-up snap­shot of the stan­dard tele­phone jack. It may be dif­fi­cult to rememe­ber, if you can remem­ber this far at all, but this was an inno­va­tion and it only came about through seri­ous polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion on the part of the gov­ern­ment into how the tele­phone com­pa­nies worked. It was only til the mid-1970s if you lived in a big city that when you rent­ed a new apart­ment you could assume that there would be a stan­dard­ized phone jack on the wall for you to plug into. Prior to that, you had to call some­body from the tele­phone com­pa­ny to come and wire you up. This was part and par­cel of a num­ber of moves that were around this junc­ture between the peri­od of time when the tele­phone net­work was a reg­u­lat­ed monop­oly and the peri­od of time where it became de-regulated. And both sides of that his­to­ry are essen­tial for cre­at­ing the con­di­tions with­in which dial-up bul­letin boards became pos­si­ble.

So when we think about the mid-1970s, we think about a project that had pub­lic inter­est at its heart which built an infra­struc­ture for com­mu­ni­ca­tion that con­nect­ed almost all of the homes in the US. Not only did it con­nect them, it also gave us a very robust and easy to under­stand address­ing sys­tem, which was the phone num­bers. The phone num­bers are real­ly inter­est­ing; they’re not ran­dom. You have the area code and the exchange, which gives you infor­ma­tion about how much it will cost to call that num­ber, and where on the map that num­ber is locat­ed. So if some­one gives you a phone num­ber, you learn over time, or you can look up in a book, that’s in Wyoming, and this is down the street, and this costs a lost, and this doesn’t cost any­thing. So we got this real­ly inter­est­ing sys­tem, and then through de-regulation it became pos­si­ble to exper­i­ment with that net­work. So not only did we have a net­work that con­nect­ed almost every­body, but it worked in a real­ly reli­able way and it was now legal for you with­out any pri­or approval to just con­nect some new toy to it, some­thing that you built your­self or you bought, so that’s why we got fax machines and answer machines, and the modem. But this goes by with­out most peo­ple notic­ing it. It’s like some­what more con­ve­nient, but if you’re just a tele­phone user it’s like, okay ther’s now a dif­fer­nt plug in the wall.

This is more inter­est­ing. This is the poster from Smokey and the Bandit, by all rights a mas­sive hit in pop­u­lar cin­e­ma. If you look in the logo for Smokey and the Bandit, you see the micro­phone for a CB radio. Also in the paint­ing, with all that’s going on, Burt Reynolds is still hold­ing on to the CB radio with his left hand and a Coors in his right hand as he’s truck­ing from Texarkana car­ry­ing all of the beer back to Texas where a big par­ty will take place.

So the CB radio has shift­ed ama­teur telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions from this kind of orga­nized rule-based ama­teur radio place where peo­ple are very inter­est­ed in doing it right and doing it well, to a pret­ty chaot­ic wild space of cow­boys and truck­ers and mus­cle car dri­vers who are out there just talk­ing, evad­ing police, try­ing to do all kinds of things. And the boom of the CB radio hap­pens across mul­ti­ple areas of pop­u­lar cul­ture. So there’s films like Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy, but there’s also songs on the radio that have the sounds of the CB radio in it. So for your every­day con­sumer of pop­u­lar cul­ture, the notion that tech­nolo­gies could be used for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­er peo­ple at a dis­tance in a way that’s fun, that’s plea­sur­able and maybe a lit­tle bit sub­ver­sive, is a pret­ty mass idea at this time. And it’s reflect­ed in the lit­er­a­ture of the tech­ni­cal hob­bies.

This book is titled Hobby Computers are Here, and it is pub­lished by 73, which was a pub­lish­er of ama­teur radio books and mag­a­zines, and edit­ed by Wayne Green, who pro­vides his call sign. Green was pub­lish­ing columns in ama­teur radio mag­a­zines entreat­ing the read­ers to get involved in hob­by com­put­ing, say­ing, This makes a lot of sense. If you like radio, you’re going to like com­put­ing.” Then he went on to found a num­ber of mag­a­zines, includ­ing Byte, which became one of the most wide­ly read and dis­trib­uted hob­by com­put­ing mag­a­zines. So from that orig­i­nal moment, the con­nec­tion between telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, ama­teur telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, and hob­by com­put­ing was pret­ty clear.

Here’s a group of peo­ple that cap­i­tal­ized on it quite ear­ly. In February of 1978 there was like two friends who were mem­bers of the same com­put­er club, and they got snowed in and decid­ed to do a project. This was the [Great] Blizzard of 1978 win­ter. The project they con­ceived of was sim­i­lar to oth­er projects that were get­ting under way by dif­fer­ent com­put­er clubs, but they called it CBBS, which is help­ful for us because they bor­rowed the rhetor­i­cal struc­ture of com­put­er­i­za­tion of some­thing, which was very com­mon for the two decades pri­or. There had been the com­put­er­i­za­tion of finance, and the com­put­er­i­za­tion of air trav­el, and com­put­er­i­za­tion of vot­ing. And here there is com­put­er­i­za­tion of bul­letin boards.

So they kind of paired this super high-tech thing, com­put­er­i­za­tion, with one of the most low-tech com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies that would be famil­iar to every­day folks: the com­mu­ni­ty bul­letin board that’s in the local gro­cery store or the church, that any­body can post a mes­sage on. The mes­sages can be all sorts of things, they could be art, they could be announc­ing events and oth­er things. They imag­ined a com­put­er based sys­tem, just sit­ting in one of their homes con­nect­ed to the wall, and it invites you to come in and leave mes­sages. And I’m very inten­tion­al with my use of the verb invite” here because they real­ly did con­ceive of it almost like an open house. The callers that were call­ing into the bul­letin board were vis­it­ing the home of Randy Suess, and like­wise they kind of expect­ed them to fol­low cer­tain social pro­to­col like, Don’t be a jerk and mess up the place. I’m wel­com­ing you to take con­trol of my com­put­er tem­porar­i­ly.”

So there’s this kind of infor­mal friend­li­ness. And this appealed to a lot of folks who are already in lit­tle net­works of com­put­er hob­by­ists, local com­put­er groups and things like that. So quick­ly, bul­letin board sys­tems pro­lif­er­at­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas where the area codes were large enough that you could make a lot of cheap calls. So it’s actu­al­ly inter­est­ing because if you’re in a super-dense area, they were chop­ping up the areas so you couldn’t call as far with a toll-free call. So you may be liv­ing in a place like this hypo­thet­i­cal per­son where you have two bul­letin boards near­by. You could have dif­fer­ent accounts on them, dif­fer­ent names, you could have a total­ly dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ty. So the bul­letin board notion, this net­work of small net­works, an inter­net of sorts, gave peo­ple a lot of flex­i­bil­i­ty about how they pre­sent­ed them­selves and how they engaged dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties.

This is a chart (and I use this chart instead of mak­ing my own because this was made by Jason Scott, who’s a well-known enthu­si­ast of bul­letin boards and also a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er who made a doc­u­men­tary about them) and he esti­mates that there are over 90,000 BBSs at peak time. But this chart also invites us to spec­u­late, because a bul­letin could be three friends who just for fun make a bul­letin board sys­tem and hang out a shin­gle, or it could be three thou­sand peo­ple who are rou­tine­ly call­ing in and trad­ing soft­ware and doing all kinds of things.

So it’s anoth­er his­tor­i­cal chal­lenge for us to esti­mate how many peo­ple were involved in this. But I think we get to this point where we can think of this as a par­al­lel world. There are par­al­lel tracks here where the ARPANET is devel­op­ing real­ly robust ways of doing inter­net­work­ing over long dis­tance with var­i­ous types of media. Sometimes it goes over the wires, some­times it goes over the air­waves, some­times it goes to a satel­lite. And at the same time there are hob­by­ists who are using just the tele­phone net­work that had been in place for decades, but they’re devel­op­ing all this social tech­nol­o­gy on top of it, fig­ur­ing out how you should mod­er­ate the sys­tem, admin­is­ter it, who’s in charge, who makes the rules, what are good rules, what are bad rules, how do you kick peo­ple off if they’re being a jerk, how do you get more cool peo­ple to join you? All of that is hap­pen­ing on this kind of people’s Internet lay­er.

So we can expand our table and put them togeth­er, and we’ll come back to the impli­ca­tions of this in a moment. But the peo­ple at the time con­ceived of it as this oth­er space, and own­ing a modem and using a modem was real­ly a mark of dis­tinc­tion. People would say, I’m a modemer.I’m not just any com­put­er user, I have a modem. I’m part of the modem world. I go modem­ing. I do this thing that’s dif­fer­ent, that’s unusu­al.” And so the modem world had cer­tain fea­tures that would be rec­og­niz­able regard­less of where you hap­pened to be in the net­work.

One is that there were low bar­ri­ers to get­ting involved, but also to leav­ing. So if you didn’t like the way it was going, you could get out. Part of that has to do with polit­i­cal econ­o­my. There’s sym­me­try between the hosts and the clients in these net­works. So where­as in ARPANET the hosts are real­ly expen­sive mini­com­put­ers and the clients are dumb ter­mi­nals in this time-sharing par­a­digm, on these bul­letin board sys­tems, the com­put­er you use to call a bul­letin board could be used to host a bul­letin board. So there is a real par­i­ty there.

I put these num­bers here to give some con­text for when I say that things are afford­able. Because when I say afford­able I do mean a very con­ven­tion­al notion of what middle-class 1980s American looks like. But we tend to col­lapse all the com­put­ers togeth­er when the pric­ing was an area of eco­nom­ic inter­est. It wasn’t clear how to price these machines yet. So you can see this is the Nintendo Entertainment System, which few peo­ple peo­ple thing of as an elite tech­nol­o­gy; it seems like quite a pop­ulist sys­tem. And yet it was more expen­sive at launch than the Commodore 64, which also was a game-playing device but had these addi­tion­al affor­dances of being a thing you could learn to pro­gram on or con­nect to bul­letin boards. There were, of course, very expen­sive sys­tems like the IBM PC, which trad­ed on the busi­ness rep­u­ta­tion of the IBM brand, and the Apple PC which did aspire to be this very expen­sive elite cul­tur­al prod­uct. So both of those cost as much as a used car would.


This low cost had caught the inter­est of folks who build net­works. One group of those are polit­i­cal activists. Here is a book that caused some con­tro­ver­sy upon its release among folks who hoped that BBSes would achieve some Wall Street legit­i­ma­cy, The Anarchist’s Guide to the BBS, where the author says that the BBS is the five hun­dred dol­lar anar­chy machine” and specif­i­cal­ly men­tions that you should go to thrift shops or busi­ness­es that are clos­ing and see if you can buy old machines. He’s like, the cen­tral activ­i­ty you want to do here is chat­ting and shar­ing mes­sages with peo­ple, and he even says amber let­ters read as nice­ly as red, blue, and pur­ple, and a mono­chrome sys­tem is much cheap­er.”

So there was this aware­ness that even when we do this kind of eco­nom­ic look at the his­to­ry and look at the prices, there’s a sec­ond life that a lot of machines had that’s invis­i­ble from the industry-level met­rics that are avail­able. This low cost led to a dis­tri­b­u­tion of own­er­ship over the infra­struc­ture.

[The T.A.R.D.I.S BBS] is a BBS that I came across dur­ing my archival peri­od of research. This one ran for ten years on the same Appke II, but yet it was live­ly and it was beloved by its users. It was not inter­est­ed in tech­ni­cal inno­va­tion but the four peo­ple who found­ed it, two men and two women, were real­ly inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing a sys­tem that was acces­si­ble by many def­i­n­i­tions of the word. Accessible both in terms of dis­abil­i­ty, and acces­si­ble to peo­ple from dif­fer­ent social stra­ta. So when they real­ized that women who were going on oth­er bul­letin board sys­tems where they were sound­ly out­num­bered (this was an over­whelm­ing­ly male pur­suit) they cre­at­ed a women’s-only area on their bul­letin board sys­tem, and in order to enter the area you had to be ver­i­fied by a voice phone call or a face-to-face meet­ing with the women who were in charge of mod­er­at­ing the area.

In reflect­ing on this peri­od of time, the founder of the board said to me, Still to this day I have no idea what went on in there.” It’s inter­est­ing for him to say that con­sid­er­ing that the machine was in his home. So there’s the disk whirring away, and there’s phone calls com­ing in, and peo­ple are access­ing this women-only area, and he can­not see it because he has locked him­self out of it pro­gram­mat­i­cal­ly. This is a sys­tem that peo­ple remem­ber fond­ly because of that. It also encour­aged them to meet offline. Many of the peo­ple here lived around Indianapolis and they would get togeth­er month­ly for piz­za par­ties and stuff like that.

So there was a real move for the online and offline dis­tinc­tion to be con­tin­u­ous. That reflects an affor­dance here that’s not imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous, which is because of those low bar­ri­ers and because there were peo­ple own­ing dif­fer­ent nodes of the net­work and man­ag­ing them dif­fer­ent­ly, you had a lot more auton­o­my over how you behaved and how you expe­ri­enced this sys­tem. When you vis­it the home of some­body who’s host­ing a BBS, there is noth­ing abstract about where you’re data is stored. You know where it is, it’s lit­er­al­ly on that brown desk in the cor­ner of that room in that house, and I know the address and I might’ve even vis­it­ed it. Which is such a con­trast to the way that our data is evap­o­rat­ed into a kind of cloud imag­i­nary that we are hope­ful­ly think­ing is ubiq­ui­tous. There were advan­tages to know­ing exact­ly where your data was stored. So you might choose to con­duct cer­tain types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on this node that you wouldn’t on that node, and vice ver­sa.

And of course this was extreme­ly impor­tant to com­mu­ni­ties who were using these sys­tems who were oth­er­wise fac­ing oppres­sion, or were mar­gin­al­ized, or their com­mu­ni­ca­tion was being sup­pressed in oth­er syst­mat­ic sorts of ways. The gay and les­bian BBS list, which was com­piled and cir­cu­lat­ed month­ly, was orga­nized by area code so that you could eas­i­ly locate a sys­tem that is near to you. You can think of lots of rea­sons why it would be help­ful to know if a sys­tem that is geared towards gay and les­bian users in the 1980s is near­by. Not only is it cheap­er to call (you have an eco­nom­ic rea­son to do it) but there’s also a chance that those peo­ple are deal­ing with con­di­tions that are unique to that region. There may be laws in place that are not in place in oth­er states, there may be com­mer­cials on TV that are offen­sive to you and you want to talk to peo­ple that are near­by about it. So it cre­ates this safe space to go where you can assume that the oth­er peo­ple there are fac­ing sim­i­lar regionally-specific con­di­tions.

So with these kind of char­ac­ter­is­tics in mind, let’s go back just as a way to con­clude and think about this recent peri­od we’ve gone through of sav­ing the Internet. Here’s an image of activists protest­ing out­side the FCC in advance of the rul­ing about net neu­tral­i­ty, who are say­ing keep the Internet free. And of course after lis­ten­ing to be gab for 45 min­utes, you’re ask­ing your­selves, Oh well, what is the Internet that you’re talk­ing about here?” Is it the Internet of bul­letin board sys­tems with all these locally-specific, tightly-managed, very hands-on face-to-face type rela­tion­ships, or is it the highly-centralized, vertically-integrated walled gar­dens that we tend to com­mit our very valu­able inti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tions to today?

I’m going to go one step fur­ther and show a mate­r­i­al link that exists between these two worlds. Some of the biggest bul­letin board sys­tems that were thriv­ing in the mid-1990s were pro­vid­ing some lim­it­ed Internet ser­vices. So you could dial in and then you could send email. Sometimes you could use what’s known as SLIP and cre­ate a kind of IP con­nec­tion so you could use Mosaic or Netscape or some­thing like that.

And what’s so fun­ny is that many of these bul­letin board oper­a­tors saw that there was poten­tial to make mon­ey with this new infor­ma­tion super­high­way bub­ble. So they would cre­ate cor­po­ra­tions and give them much more staid names. So Crazy House BBS became the first Internet Service Provider to serve the west coast of Florida around St. Petersburg [as Florida Network Technologies, Inc.”], and they def­i­nite­ly didn’t mar­ket them­selves as Crazy House” when they did that. It was a business-friendly ISP. They grew through this peri­od, and the bul­letin board sys­tem stayed, but it also facil­i­tat­ed this Internet access. So the big entrenched tele­com com­pa­nies, it was not a pri­or­i­ty to bring high-speed Internet access to St. Petersburg. So the guys that ran Crazy House were the Internet. There’s no dis­tinc­tion or rhetor­i­cal moves that we have to make. They pro­vid­ed Internet ser­vice to the communities—large communities—along the Gulf Coast.

And there was mon­ey in it, because the big ISPs when they decid­ed to come in, would see that this small grass­roots ISP was already there, and it made a lot more sense to buy them out. There’s lots of good eco­nom­ic rea­sons to have these huge monop­o­lis­tic ISPs because they can take advan­tage of net­work exter­nal­i­ties and oth­er sorts of things. But what that moment of acqui­si­tion does is that it rup­tures the clear mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al con­nec­tion between the 1980s grass­roots sys­tems and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems we val­ue now.

So here we are back at our keep­ing the Internet free. And we can move for­ward with our activism and our advo­ca­cy with this enlarged imag­i­nary, and we can ask for an Internet that looks a lit­tle more like the col­umn on the right. Where there’s a place for community-run sys­tems. Where nodes can be oper­at­ed by small and medium-size enter­pris­es. And where there can be more locally-specific con­trol and mod­er­a­tion.

So I’ve giv­en you this provoca­tive pic­ture, and let’s talk about it for the time that we have left.


[It seems no microphone was passed around, so audience questions were extremely faint to inaudible. Kevin's responses are included below, and are generally detailed enough to get a sense of what the questions were.]

Response 1: That's a really good question, and there's two answers. There's implicit connections, which is almost like reinventing the wheel, in a way. I think for example, Yik Yak recreates some of the regionally-specific conversation that happens on a BBS, but it's not because the founders of Yik Yak used BBSes. They were children at the time that this was really thriving.

That's one answer. Another answer is where people moved and they took their experiences forward. So there you can see it more in the discussion of larger-scale systems where…and in a way this happens more in places where the BBS period lingered longer— So I have Google alerts for tons of keywords related to my research, and something that's really striking is that there's a lot more memory work happening among Russian-language computer hobbyists than among English-language computer hobbyists of remembering some of the big BBS networks.

Even simple things such as putting the Russian-language Wikipedia pages for certain big networks and the English-language pages side by side, there is so much more memory work going on. So what happened there is sometimes people use the exact same handles or names from their dial-up systems in a web-based forum, or a subreddit, or something like that. They have a continuous identity that hops as the infrastructures beneath them change.

So yeah, there's some implicit and some explicit connections.

Response 2: I'm interested in Reddit, and Lana [Swartz] and I have been talking about Reddit a lot recently. Lana, who's another CMS alumn and I have a paper that is about interest-driven message boards, like independent web sites that people go to talk about a shared interest. It could be sports; in the case we looked at it was about gem collectors. ["'I hate your politics but I love your diamonds': The Web-based Interest-driven Messageboard as DIY Infrastructure" (Google Books preview) in DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media] There, we suggested that it was theoretically useful to imagine all web forums as a single socio-technical phenomenon that we called "the decentralized social web." That gave us a reasonably-shaped unit of analysis to compare that against something like Facebook.

What's interesting to me about Reddit is that it occupies this middle space, where to me Reddit is like economic enclosure of that decentralized activity. Reddit provides the tools for you to start a forum and it looks a lot like bulletin board systems. In fact one of the places I go to see retrocomputing enthusiasts talk about BBSes is on a subreddit called r/bbs, which is just too recursive for me to manage.

But there you see that could be administered in a decentralized sort of way that allows some of the full autonomy of the dial-up system, but there's an economic reason that it is fully enclosed and owned, and that's partly to centralize all the data in a common store that's accessible to only a small number of people. So I can see why that is happening, and I don't expect that to stop soon. But I do expect that people will start to fragment their conversations across many different platforms.

And that's not really a prediction because that already happens. You look at your phone and you have like nine apps that you can send me a message on, and you decide in the moment, " Well, Kevin and I talk about sports on this app and we talk about work on GMail and so I click on that and I send the message." I have many different channels, and channels have different symbolic meaning attached to them, and the messages that come through them are shot through and laden with those meanings.

Response 3: It's interesting from both a critical art and technology point of view, and scholarship of maybe ten or fifteen years ago, people were really excited about peer-to-peer, and it seemed like peer-to-peer was going to be the answer. Peer-to-peer systems are generally described as distributed, meaning every node can connect to every other node, that's like a radically distributed system. I'm pretty critical about my choice of "decentralized," which is there are still centers, it's just that the centers happen at a much more local scale, and there are many many more centers, and there are redundancies among the centers so that if one of them takes a turn away from your cultural values, you can opt to choose a different center. So in a way, we used to think a lot about barriers of entry and we want to lower the barriers of entry. That was a big concern for all media scholarship. We want to see like, we went from film to video and the barriers of entry went down with some costs associated with them.

But now I'm really concerned about barriers to exit, because the barrier to exit for something like Facebook is ridiculously high. So tons of people stay no matter how unhappy they are with the way that the system is governed and the poor stewardship of our public culture that happens in that place. So I want to think about systems that have lower barriers to exit, even if their barriers to entry are a little bit higher, which really is the case for some of these kind of things.

Response 4: So the term "network" is generative for scholars because it has mobility across all of these different domains, and so we can imagine that any humans that lived in as densely-settled communities as we do now had social networks that proliferated the way that yours have. The difference that we face now (and this almost bridges to your other question) is that they are often inscribed in socio-technical systems in ways that they might not have been before. So you might have met the basketball group informally and you agree each time you meet when to meet the next time and share information about what Ben Gay sub-brand is the best. But now that conversation can carry through in between meetings, and it leaves behind digital traces of a sort.

So there is a question then about what media you choose to use for different networks. That's a little bit what I'm pointing to with having the different apps and things like that. Some of the social networks that you are engaged with will opt to use one system or another, and it does seem to me that there are cases where people's social networks have moments of breakdown or conflict over disagreements over which medium to use to have their conversations on. My interest then is really more about both the technical affordances and values associated with those media, and also the political-economic dimensions of them. So if your basketball ball group is having small but not insignificant economic externalities for this corporation that is sending its profits overseas so as not to pay the taxes that will then make sure that there are nets on the hoops at the public basketball ball court, that has some significance that is historically unusual.

So that would be one answer. The other thing about history, which I love talking about with hobbyists because some of what drives the computer hobbyists is a sense of loss, which is like, "This thing was so important and I was part of this big network and it was huge and there was thousands of people there, I swear." And you will even see when you start looking at say, blog posts that are about violations of privacy on Facebook, I hesitate to say that there is a law, but I would almost predict that when the comments get above a thousand or so, someone will eventually say, "Boy, I wish we could go back to those BBSes, ha ha. I bet I'm the only one who remembers that."

There's this very unusual social memory thing that's happening with folks there. So sometimes the people that would be likely to utter something like that would be like, "Oh, we're losing it but at least you're engaged in documenting or saving it." And it's like, we might be losing it but we're losing it a lot less than people who are in disadvantaged positions of various kinds ever did before. So doing social history of computers of the 80s, it's like we've got tons of stuff.

Response 5: That's kind of what I'm saying. Things that never left a trace do leave traces now, and in fact overwhelming traces. From the point of view of if there was a professional archivist here, they would say— Actually I have an empirical quote. I visited another archive that was the Microsoft corporate archive, and the archivist there told me that from her perspective managing very very large institutional archives, her biggest skill that she developed was what to throw away, because every time they released a product, there was like fifty language versions of it. So did she need to preserve Excel for each different market that they sold it in, or was it okay to have one version, or should she make a digital copy of each and just save one box? Very unusual kinds of archival questions which are not scarcity-driven, but are driven by abundance.

So that's from a corporate history point of view. But from a social history point of view, it's similar. There's a lot of evidence, but the shape of the evidence is very unusual. Thinking about this is almost a statistical way, we've got these bits of data and we're kind of trying to fit them to a curve but we're missing all these different parts. An example of that is the materials that I rely on are often preserved by video game enthusiasts whose sole goal is to be able to play old games. And on the road to being able to play an old game, they may produce some knowledge or technology or software that I can then use to recreate or simulate an old bulletin board system. That was not at all the goal of that community. So if people like that become aware that BBSes are important, they may come across the software and save it, but by and large you can go and get a torrent that has every single Commodore 64 game known to man, but try to find all the Commodore 64 communications software and it's a much trickier terrain.

So there's some interesting stuff that goes on in terms of what gets saved, and it doesn't fit previous models of deciding what was worth saving, but it doesn't mean that it's wholly egalitarian or universal, either. There is a dialectic at play in the Internet at large, which is the Internet is forever and it will embarrass you thirty years from now and it never forgets. That's one strand of conversation. And the other strand is you can't find things twice and it's gone and there's too much stuff and it's infoglut. These are polar opposite, totally contradicting perspectives that people hold at once in their mind as they use the… They both can be true.

Response 6: There's generations within this BBSing community, and there was a clear period around 1990 where there was a young people/teenager/hacker land, people who are sharing a lot of games and stuff, and then there's older folks who maybe had a business interest or they'd been talking to the same people about Doctor Who for ten years and they didn't want to teach somebody how to use a bulletin board. And people intuitively knew this is a board for adults, and this is a board for teens and some of the teens of the time would have said "this is boring" to go to this place. "All the people talk about their jobs" or whatever.

however, there's an interesting space which people called slam boards or flame boards where you would just go and talk smack to each other. It seems to have recurred across many different regional communities, that teens would just create a bulletin board system. And creating a bulletin board system can be as simple as running the software for a few hours and calling your friend and being like, "Okay, call me in fifteen minutes," then hanging up and starting it then you can talk on the board. So the definition of a running board is actually pretty loose.

There were even games and other sorts of things. Formalized games that encouraged board versus board wars where people, almost grafitti crews fighting with each other go and try to crash the other person's board. Actually a sad end to the T.A.R.D.I.S. BBS that I mentioned was that there were some local kids who figured out a way that you could break their bulletin board and take it offline, and it's almost too perfect for me to tell. I'm afraid you won't believe me that this is the story, which is that newer modems were so fast that when they connected, the handshake sound confused the modem that was being used by the T.A.R.D.I.S. BBS and would make it hang up and then crash the board. So merely calling at it with a 9600 bps modem would crash this board by a quirk, and at that time the person who was running it didn't have the technical expertise or the time to fix this problem.

Kids broke it and took it down week after week, and he even called their parents and was like, "Please stop your child from doing this," and the parents got really mad at him and said no. Then were were threats of police and stuff. Eventually the callers assumed that the board went offline so they stopped calling, and that was this petering out point for that community. It's really sad.

So there were these things where sometimes technology and social norms met in this case. So flooding a chat room is an example of that. Or uploading disgusting pictures of victims of crimes or something like that, where you're intentionally taking advantage of the affordances of the system in order to make it work less well for other users.

And there are text files that circulated that were somewhere between an FAQ or a guide that suggested things you might do as a system operator or moderator to prevent those things from happening, and verifying callers by voice was a really common one. In fact, later bulletin board system software implemented the feature, which is really neat, where you'd call in and say, "I'd like to become a member of this community," and you'd just leave your name and phone number. Then when the person who ran the board came home there'd be a queue waiting that these three people called in, and then you just call them like, "Oh yeah, I'm Jim. The board is about video games." Then they would get brought in and people at the time didn't really speculate explicitly about this, but I think it's a reasonable assumption to make that there is something that occurs with people in a social/psychological way that if they've heard your voice it alters the experience rather than just coming in anonymously and you have no orientation into what the purpose of that system is at all.

And there are a small number (I have them in my little library, if anybody's curious about this moderation stuff) of books that are about running bulletin board systems. So this one is how to create your bulletin board system and it's one of the first ones. It includes a lot of code to bring it online, but says nothing about how to get callers or how to treat them. Then within ten years, later books that came out that are much longer and look kind of like they're in the genre of How to Learn Java in 20 Days-type books, those would have all kinds of stuff about advertising and how to charge fees. There's a ton of discussion about pricing and payment and how to receive payment and pay the bills, because it wasn't free to run a bulletin board system. Then they sometimes include things, sometimes in a legalistic way and then occasionally more in a hands-on socio-cultural kind of way, on how to run a board, like what it means to be a system operator beyond the technical stuff.

Response 7: Scoping it down to North America was just something I had to do to make the project manageable, and in fact it's a very transnational story and like I mentioned with that anecdote about Wikipedia pages, in many ways the story is much richer in Europe and especially Eastern Europe. Part of the reason is that, as I understand it, behind the Iron Curtain in certain countries telecommunications developed differently. So there was not the same private investment in building high-speed data and networks. So in the US, high-speed data networks were being built by MCI and these newly-deregulated long line telecom companies. So when it became politically feasible to interconnect the systems, it was like "the wires are already on the poles, so we can do that" whereas in other places the early encounter of the net is bulletin board systems.

For example, it was a bulletin board system network that brought Internet email to South Africa. This we know for sure. Then there's more stories that I've been having a more difficult time substantiating, but a kind of folklore among the bulletin board system enthusiasts is that there were NGOs who were in different places who were exchanging health information that was coming out of US research institutions, but was not yet available in places like Northern Africa for reasons of government censorship and surveillance. So in a way the bulletin board system architecture enabled some amount of subversive communication because the connections are intermittent.

Now I'm getting into the weeds a little bit of what would be a whole other hour, but there was a way of internetworking the bulletin board systems where the boards themselves would call each other and so in the middle of the night two boards would call and then exchange messages and synchronize their forums. What that means was if you were at Board A, you could talk to someone at Board B without having to make that long-distance call. That technology was extended to trans-oceanic links, so there were a small number of bulletin boards on the East Coast of the US that made calls into Western Europe and then the files and messages dispersed. And getting to David's comparison, that structure, that way of making a communication network is exactly as a hundred years before when amateur radio operators created trans-continental messaging networks using store and forward links, which is basically it takes a few hops to get your message there, but the message travels across the cheapest route. So you always want your message to go through the cheapest link.

There were also some wealthy people that were involved that just footed the bill. There was a very wealthy person who was very concerned about the health of queer people and the ability of queer people in different parts of the country and in different parts of the world to get access to information about HIV and AIDS. They used their personal wealth to call into the Department of Health and access new health papers each week, and then they used their personal funds to call a whole bunch of other nodes and redistribute the information. There is a really great story there and I'm looking forward to reading somebody else's book that is about it, but you're totally right that it is tricky to talk about a thing in its global implications without losing a lot of really important detail around the edges.

Response 8: You're pointing to a really interesting aspect of denaturalizing the way that the technologies work now. I think often about the smartphone as this really interesting radio that has multiple antennas, and it can transmit and receive on a surprising array of frequencies. I can talk on Bluetooth, and I can talk to the 3G networks, and I can talk to WiFi, and that's pretty wild, that I can jump between those different types of radio communications. But there's no standard app in my phone that when I want to transfer something it suggests to me the optimal medium to use in that moment. There's no way for me to create some logics in it that would say, if I'm messaging with this person wait until I'm on this type of network, because I don't want this message to go over T-Mobile; I only want it to go over the MIT network, or something like that.

So in a way, what we're talking about is maybe detecting preferences that say "You only ever message these people when you're on WiFi. Should I delay them?" This is not a priority in terms of our design, and it isn't about Moore's Law, or creating faster networks or something like that. It's about organizing the technologies that we already have in a different way so that when they communicate, the types of communication are reflecting some of the values of the users differently.

In a way it does point back to this idealized research network that was being developed in the 1980s that really did hope that it would work in a certain way, but it's hard to have a communications network that crosses huge, vast tracts of land that doesn't involve any corporations at all. And especially politically intractable in the 1980, when we were in the project of creating more for-profit enterprises within the world of telecommunications. So I mean, I love that way of identifying the conflicts between the ideal way that the network ought to work, the way that it does, and how sometimes there can be mismatches there, but they work fine, and they kind of get along fine. It seems like that was happening for most of the early history of the Internet.

The turning point really is when almost all Internet users in North America shifted from a mix of different ways of getting onto the Internet to just four or five different broadband Internet service providers. Then we fundamentally changed what we mean by "Internet" and we're de-emphasizing the network. A lot of our communications never leave our internet service provider. We never actually do the inter-networking of going to other networks. We're always inside of Comcast or whatever it is.

So yeah, I'm very curious about futures that have more inter-networking involved in them, where I know that my communications are traveling across different kinds of networks and I have some sense of the values and purposes associated with those different communication media.

Response 9: All sexting, all the time. Exclusively sexting. [More from the audience member.] It's very interesting to play the role of both scholar and political activist or advocate. So from a political point of view, save the Internet. I want to have net neutrality rules in place.

But from a scholarly point of view, I can see that political campaign made strange bedfellows, where I'm sitting alongside of major media corporations. That's weird. I wouldn't have thought that that would necessarily have happened. And why should the Internet be neutral for television companies to send television shows to me? We already have networks and means of sending television shows around, so why is the use of the Internet for television now crowding out all of those popular cultural activities that you just mentioned, be it sexting or texting with a family member?

So I do think that there is a way that we can operate on both levels, and there's expediency and instrumental practical realities that we have to confront as political actors, and there's also theoretical dreams and imagination that we have to bring into the picture to imagine what an ideal system would be. And in an ideal system, Netflix is seen as an extension of television, it is a mass medium, it is not the same as point-to-point communication. YouTube seems to occupy different spaces, but YouTube caters through its structures and policies to entrenched mass media companies.

This isn't to say that mass media companies are bad or something like that, but they are fundamentally different political actors than individuals or non-profit groups or church organizations, and treating them all the same seems to be a radical shift from the way we've managed media in the past.

Response 10: I think sexting is extremely meaningful communication. I don't know what to say about that. I would not want a cessation of sexual content online. And it's funny, I'm engaged in another project about Minitel, which was a French state-run network that's often remembered as a highly-censored network, but the state had no interest in the sexual activities of its users and in fact that was the first major system for online sexual content. And lots of people had really nice affairs through that, I'm sure, and they wrote songs about it that you could hear in the club and stuff like that. So, people are going to use the media for whatever social needs that they have. It could be transferring data files, it could be finding somebody to hook up with. Those are both really important valuable uses. So I don't know what will come from that.


Further Reference

Original event listing at the MIT CMS/W site.

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