For millions of people around the globe, the Internet is a simple fact of life. We take for granted the invisible network that enables us to communicate, navigate, investigate, flirt, shop, and play. Early on, this network-of-networks connected only select companies and university campuses. Nowadays, it follows almost all of us into the most intimate areas of our lives. And yet, very few people know how the Internet became social.

To understand how the Internet became a medium for social life, you have to widen your view beyond networking technology and peer into the makeshift laboratories of microcomputer hobbyists of the 1970s and 1980s. That’s where many of the technical structures and cultural practices that we now recognize as social media were first developed by amateurs tinkering in their free time to build systems for computer-mediated collaboration and communication.

For years before the Internet became accessible to the general public, these pioneering computer enthusiasts chatted and exchanged files with one another using homespun “bulletin-board systems” or BBSs, which later linked a more diverse group of people and covered a wider range of interests and communities. These BBS operators blazed trails that would later be paved over in the construction of today’s information superhighway. So it takes some digging to reveal what came before.

 

How did it all start? During the snowy winter of 1978, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist’s Exchange (CACHE), began to assemble what would become the best known of the first small-scale BBSs. Members of CACHE were passionate about microcomputers, at the time an arcane endeavor, and so the club’s newsletters were an invaluable source of information. Christensen and Suess’s novel idea was to put together an online archive of club newsletters using a custom-built microcomputer and a hot new Hayes modem they had acquired.

 

Founding Father: Ward Christensen helped pioneer the computerized bulletin board.

Once a connection was established, the host program welcomed users to the system, provided a list of articles to read, and invited them to leave messages. Christensen and Suess dubbed the system “Ward and Randy’s Computerized Bulletin Board System,” or CBBS. It was, as the name suggested, an electronic version of the community bulletin boards that you still see in libraries, supermarkets, cafés, and churches.

Anyone with access to a teletype or video terminal could dial into CBBS. And after a few months, a small but lively community began to form around the system. In the hobbyist tradition of sharing information, Christensen and Suess wrote up a report about their project titled “Hobbyist Computerized Bulletin Board,” which appeared in the November 1978 issue of the influential computer magazine Byte.
In retrospect, 1983 proved to be a critical year for popular computing. In France, the state-sponsored Minitel system completed its first full year of operation in Paris, making online news, shopping, and chat accessible to every citizen in that city. In the United States, novel commercial systems gained traction, with CompuServe reporting more than 50,000 paying subscribers.

 

Early dial-up BBSs were mostly local affairs. And no wonder: In the early 1980s, most Americans paid a flat monthly fee for unlimited local phone calls, but calls to another city or state were billed according to duration, distance, and time of day. Even calls within the same state could be quite costly. For tenderfoot BBS users, running up a monstrous phone bill was considered a rite of passage. To avoid long-distance calling altogether, more seasoned users restricted their online activity to nearby systems that could be reached toll free.

The local nature of BBSing meant that users could reasonably assume that the people they met online lived nearby. Even though many BBSs encouraged the use of pseudonyms, or “handles,” it was entirely possible that the person you were chatting with online tonight could be bagging your groceries or coaching your daughter’s soccer team tomorrow.

Many BBS administrators, or “sysops,” reinforced this sense of community by hosting regular in-person get-togethers, often at local parks or favorite watering holes. Online disagreements—flame wars—could be kept in check as well, because the cost of being a jerk escalated with the likelihood of later seeing your interlocutor face to face.

 

Founding Father:Randy Suess helped Christensen create their highly influential BBS.

Experienced BBS users would visit the various systems in their areas, maintaining a separate profile on each one. In big metro areas like Atlanta, Minneapolis, or Houston, there might be a dozen or more local BBSs to tap. But folks in less populated areas were seldom so lucky. Rural users with particularly narrow interests—say, collecting antique clocks—may have had only one or two other people nearby to chat with. They longed for more.

To overcome the economic cost of long-distance calling and the social cost of isolation, BBS operators needed to find a way to interconnect their systems, to create a network of BBS networks—a people’s Internet. Christensen and Suess had floated the idea of a network of BBSs in the conclusion of their 1978 Byte article, but it was fellow amateur Tom Jennings who designed a real inter-network of BBSs.

In 1984, Jennings was distributing free of charge from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area a BBS host program for Microsoft’s operating system, MS-DOS. He called the program Fido. The popularity of the Fido BBS grew alongside that of MS-DOS, and soon there were a dozen or more BBS systems running the program.

In 1986, Jeff Rush, a BBS operator in Dallas, created a conferencing mechanism for FidoNet. Rush’s system, dubbed Echomail, worked similarly to the forums on CompuServe or the newsgroups on Usenet: You could post a comment, and anyone on the network could reply to it. But participation in those earlier forums required either a costly monthly subscription or access to a public Unix system, whereas anyone with a PC and a modem could access FidoNet’s Echomail. As a result, Echomail became hugely popular and was particularly useful for people living in rural areas or those with niche interests. For the first time, the whole population of BBS users could engage in discussion together.

Beyond the United States, BBSs seemed to spring up anywhere that a microcomputer could be connected to a telephone line. In 1987, Pablo Kleinman, a sysop in Buenos Aires, helped to connect the first four FidoNet nodes in Argentina, and a year later, Juan Dávila, a sysop in Puerto Rico, announced the creation of Latino Net, a Spanish-language conference. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a FidoNet user based in the United States circulated technical information about reading and writing Cyrillic messages and encouraged fellow FidoNet enthusiasts to reach out to the “overwhelming” number of Russian users joining the network.

The growth of FidoNet during the 1980s was part of a larger movement toward greater connectivity among computer networks. Those interconnections were made using special gateways that translated messages between otherwise incompatible networks. In 1986, the administrators of several institutional Unix systems opened gateways to nearby BBSs, thereby enabling the exchange of messages among users of FidoNet, Usenet, and the nascent Internet. Indeed, several Usenet newsgroups began as automatically created copies of material posted in popular FidoNet Echomail conferences.

It’s tempting to imagine that these gateways introduced BBS users to the Internet. But the Internet at that point held no particular appeal for most BBS users, who were already enmeshed in their own lively online worlds. The early Internet was limited to people with access to a large university or research center, whereas BBSs were open to anyone. As a result, they could be wacky and weird—independent free agents in cyberspace. Indeed, it may be more accurate to say that gateways exposed the relatively staid Internet to the wild ways of BBSers.
Free from the staggering size and profit imperative of commercial services, such small-scale community-oriented BBSs were sites of experimentation. Given the preponderance of men in the early BBS culture, many sysops endeavored to create welcoming environments for the relatively few women who called in. Stacy Horn, proprietor of the long-running Echo BBS in New York City, was especially tenacious in her appeals to women, offering new female users 12 months of free service and women-only online conferences. “I thought it would be a cooler place if there were women there,” she remarked in an interview from 1996. “Who cares to talk to 20-year-old white guys all the time?”

Unlike with social-media services today, it was common for small-scale BBSs to vet new users before granting them full access. The TARDIS BBS in Indiana, for example, verified all of its users with a voice telephone call. Users claiming to be women were invited into the “Ladies Only” sections of the board only after being cleared by one of its female moderators. Even the board’s male founder, Tom O’Nan, was shut out. “To this day,” he recently joked, “I don’t know what went on in that room!”

Founding Father: Tom Jennings created FidoNet, allowing distant BBSs to link up.

For communities in crisis, a BBS could be an important hub for sharing information. At the outset of the AIDS epidemic, as thousands were dying amid media coverage that was mostly suspicious or hostile, BBSs provided an invaluable source of health information and social support. Between 1985 and 1993, more than 100 computer bulletin boards were set up to share information regarding HIV and AIDS.

One cornerstone in this network was the AIDS Education General Information System (AEGIS) operated by Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark out of her home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Each day, Clark searched medical databases for the latest research about treatment and prevention and then used FidoNet to circulate this information to BBSs in more than 40 countries throughout North America, Europe, and Africa. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church’s Computerized AIDS Ministries Network (CAM) in New York City helped combat the isolation faced by many people affected by the crisis, by answering visitors’ questions and generally providing support.
In December 1995, Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, noted that the available statistics on Internet usage didn’t add up: The major ISPs, like UUNET, Netcom, PSINet, and InternetMCI, were not reporting enough subscribers to account for the total number of active users online.

Using a database compiled by his magazine, Rickard estimated that more than 95 percent of the 3,240 ISPs created in the previous two years were former BBSs operating under new names. The same telephone lines and modems that once connected local callers to one another were now being used to provide direct connections to the global Internet. The dial-up BBSs were bulldozed, it seems, to build Internet on-ramps.

For Internet users today, there is more to the BBS story than mere nostalgia. As our online lives are channeled through an ever-smaller number of service providers, reflecting on the long-forgotten dial-up era can open our eyes to the value of diversity and local control.

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After all, people often get frustrated that today’s social-media platforms can’t deal with small-scale disputes or apply different policies to different constituencies. BBS users of the past could complain directly to the sysop—maybe even with a phone call—and he or she could act immediately and unilaterally on their behalf. Try that with Twitter or Facebook. You’ll gain a much better appreciation for the systems often running on little more than solder, duct tape, and a dream that first enabled regular people to connect with one another through their computers.

 

About the Author

Kevin Driscoll is an assistant professor in the department of media studies at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.