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.