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.
Perhaps that’s because most histories of the Internet focus on technical innovations: packet switching, dynamic routing, addressing, and hypertext, for example. But when anyone other than a network engineer talks about the Internet, he or she is rarely thinking about such things. For most folks, the Internet is principally a medium through which we chat with friends, share pictures, read the news, and do our shopping. Indeed, for those who’ve been online only for the last decade or so, the Internet is just social media’s plumbing—a vital infrastructure that we don’t think much about, except perhaps when it breaks down.
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.
This modem included an auto-answer feature, to which Christensen and Suess added a custom hardware interface between the modem and the hard-reset switch. Every time the telephone rang, the modem would detect the incoming call and then “cold boot” their system directly into a special host program written in Intel 8080 assembly language. Restarting the system with every call offered a blunt but effective means of recovering from hardware and software crashes—a common occurrence on home-brew hardware of the time.
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.
The article provided details about the hardware they used and how they organized and implemented their software. The authors even included their phone numbers and invited readers to take CBBS for a spin. Acknowledging the experimental nature of the system, they encouraged readers to “feel free to hang up and try several times if you have problems.” After the issue hit newsstands, calls to their computer started pouring in.
Over the next few years, hundreds of small-scale systems like CBBS popped up around the country. Perhaps inspired by the Byte article, many of these new systems were organized by local computer clubs. In 1983, TAB Books, publisher of numerous DIY electronics guides, published How to Create Your Own Computer Bulletin Board, by Lary L. Myers. In addition to explaining the concept and motivation behind online services, Myers’s book included complete source code in the BASIC programming language for host software. The back of the book also listed the telephone numbers of more than 275 public bulletin-board systems in 43 U.S. states. Some charged a nominal membership fee, while most were free to use. The roots of social media were beginning to take hold.
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.
Even Hollywood took interest in cyberspace. The 1983 movie WarGames, featuring a teenage hacker who explored remote computer networks from his bedroom, became an unlikely box-office smash. Although the IMSAI microcomputer and acoustic-coupler modem depicted in the movie once cost as much as a cheap used car, curious computer users inspired by the film could buy serviceable alternatives at the nearest Radio Shack for roughly the cost of a good-quality hi-fi stereo. And as the decade progressed, the online universe expanded rapidly from its original core of microcomputer hobbyists to encompass a much wider group.
See also BBS Documentary