inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #0 of 212: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Fri 24 Jun 22 05:10
    
For the next two weeks, we'll be discussing Kevin Driscoll's book
_The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media_, published in May by
Yale University Books:
<https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300248142/the-modem-world/>. 

Kevin  is an assistant professor of media studies at the University
of Virginia. His research involves alternative histories of the
internet, the politics of amateur telecommunications, and the moral
economy of consumer software. In this episode, we discuss the
history of the Internet, media's impact upon popular culture, and
much more.

His book is a history of bulletin board systems (BBSs) and early
grassroots networks that preceded the privatization and
commercialization of the Internet.  He argues that "the modem world"
of BBSs was as relevant as ARPANET to the creation of the Internet
we have today, if not more so. 

It's fitting that we're having this discussion on The WELL, which
began as a BBS based in the Bay Area. 
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #1 of 212: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Fri 24 Jun 22 05:12
    
Kevin, welcome to Inkwell! I expect this will be a rich
conversation. Just to start, could you tell us how you came to write
this book? What piqued your 21st century interest in the BBS world?
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #2 of 212: Kevin Driscoll (driscoll) Mon 27 Jun 22 07:30
    
Hi! Thanks for inviting me.

I started working on this book as a grad student studying internet
culture and political communication. As I became immersed in the
field, I was surprised to find how little historical attention had
been paid to smaller-scale, community-oriented networks. 

I came online in the early 1990s. As a teen with a modem in suburban
Massachusetts, my friends and I had a long list of BBSs to call.
Later, an ISP opened in our town. They hung a sign up on Main St.
that said "INTERNET" with an arrow pointing down an alley to their
offices. So I encountered the online world as a local, tangible
thing. Reflecting on this, I wondered how these (very uncommon)
experiences shaped my beliefs about how the internet ought to work.

Of the billions of people who use social media today, relatively few
have any firsthand experience of online community before the
Facebook era. And our shared sense of internet history is
surprisingly narrow. If you ask folks where the internet came from,
most people can only tell you a few stories about the defense
industry or Silicon Valley. We don't have a strong collective memory
of how the internet came to be the way that it is.

This left me with a big question: What if the grassroots history of
the internet was more widely known? How would we think differently
about the problems of today's online world? Would we demand to be
treated better by the platforms? Would policy debates play out
differently? Would people be more resistant to surveillance or the
exploitation of our personal data? How would we talk about the
future?

My goal is that _The Modem World_ will provide an alternative
account of how the internet became social. Instead of particular
protocols or firms, it is about millions of people across North
America who came together to create their own experimental networks
during 1980s and 1990s. The stories in the book are not meant to be
definitive or exhaustive but rather a set of resources for imagining
a better future for the internet.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #3 of 212: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Mon 27 Jun 22 12:02
    
So, basically, how did the Internet become social? What's an
overview of that evolution?
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #4 of 212: Kevin Driscoll (driscoll) Mon 27 Jun 22 13:25
    
One place to start is in the mid-1970s. But before we talk about
computers or data networks, I like to think about the bigger
landscape of amateur media. Ham radio clubs were building VHF
repeaters, CB radio was all over popular culture, video enthusiasts
were swapping Betamax tapes by mail, underground comics and fanzines
were proliferating, and so on. When microcomputers entered the
picture, there was already a lot of excitement about appropriating
technology for the purposes of information sharing and community
building. 

In 1978, Byte magazine published a how-to article titled, "Hobbyist
Computerized Bulletin Board," by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess.
The authors explained how they used a microcomputer and modem to
create a space for members of their local computer club to ask
questions and swap technical tips. Within a few years, there were
hundreds of similar bulletin boards running around the country. By
the start of the 1990s, there were tens of thousands, many of which
exchanged messages with one another, as well as with university
networks and commercial services.

Taken together, we can think of these networks as a kind of
_people's internet_, a grassroots online world run mainly out of the
homes of hobbyists and volunteers. 

A key inflection point came in the 1990s with the privatization of
the internet and the growth of consumer online services. In this
pre-boom moment, BBS users and operators represented a vanguard.
They were some of the only people with firsthand experience living
and running online communities. Although the term "BBS" was
abandoned, the influence of BBS culture spread onto the Web and
beyond.

OK! So that's my very high-level gloss on some complex historical
events. :) I'm curious to hear how it resonates with your
experiences and happy to dig in to the details.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #5 of 212: Kevin Driscoll (driscoll) Mon 27 Jun 22 13:30
    
Also, one neat thing about this book is that many of the primary
sources are available on the public Web. Whenever I can, I'll drop
some links into the thread. For example, the 1978 article by
Christensen and Suess is up on the Internet Archive:
<https://archive.org/details/byte-magazine-1978-11-rescan/page/n151/mode/1up>
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #6 of 212: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Tue 28 Jun 22 01:00
    
You've made a great point about how the Internet of today exists
because of a convergence of systems and intentions. I was in the
middle of it, but I didn't see it clearly until I read your book. I
bought a computer specifically to access the WELL, having been
influenced for years by Whole Earth Catalog and all the related
publications. When I found out about the WELL, I saw it as a way for
me to connect with the community I'd been experiencing remotely
through those publications. I bought a computer and a modem, but
then the question was how to connect. I had to use phone lines to
dial in, and the WELL was based in Sausalito - an expensive long
distance call at the time. How did the constraint of working through
POTS ("plain old telephone service") have an impact on the evolution
of BBS systems?
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #7 of 212: Administrivia (jonl) Tue 28 Jun 22 06:59
    
Public link for this conversation for those who are not members of
the WELL is
<https://people.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/520/Kevin-Driscoll-The-Modem-W
orld-A-page01.html>. Short link is <https://bit.ly/modem-world>.  Readers who are not members of the WELL can't post comments and questions directly, but can email them to inkwell at well.com. We'll try to get all the comments and questions posted. 

Plutopia News Network has posted two audio interviews with Kevin at
<https://plutopia.io/kevin-driscoll-the-modem-world/> and
<https://plutopia.io/kevin-driscoll-modem-world-convergence/>.
Kevin's website is at <https://kevindriscoll.info/>. Kevin on
Twitter: <https://twitter.com/kevindriscoll?lang=en> 
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #8 of 212: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 28 Jun 22 07:15
    
This is a fascinating subject in many ways. I was among those early
hobbyists who first went online with my CompuPro system and modem
software that had to be recompiled each time I decided to change a
keyboard preference. 

My initial goal was to get software for said system, but I remember
the lightbulb going on in late 1984/early 1985 when I posted an
account of what a group of Witness for Peace folks with whom I
traveled to Nicaragua had found, and immediately found an audience
of people I had never met. From there I experimented with hosting my
own BBS, then a Fido node.

But, I have to say that I came to loathe what passed for discussion
on those boards. From my perspective, there was a lot of
bad-to-toxic fundamentalism online, from the bad jokes, right-wing
assholery, and of course, the ever-present "you have to get the
latest version of MyApp23 or you are deficient" conversation.

I found Usenet much richer, once I discovered it (although that had
its own sad fate as access opened up to a torrent of people who had
not been acculturated--and who were far more representative of
communities, overall, than the academics who initially owned the
system), and the example of the WELL far more interesting.

For decades I have looked back at BBS's the way that I look back at
S-100 bus computers - an exciting stop on the way to more
interesting systems, but not a phase or an environment for which I
feel any nostalgia.

Clearly, you are seeing things differently. I'm looking forward to
reading about what you experienced through very different eyes than
mine.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #9 of 212: Nancy White (choco) Tue 28 Jun 22 07:18
    
Hey, Kevin, welcome and thanks for writing the book. I feel
similarly about the undiscovered/lost history of how communities
discover and appropriate technology for their own uses. Right from
the start of the book, the passages I started marking were ones
where you talk about "amateurs" and hobbyists which later seems to
morph into those wanting to support community and those who wanted
to make money. That line or gradient across the range of intentions
fascinates me. 

Most of those "amateurs" and "hobbyists" were/are skilled
professionals. The difference was they weren't paid to do the work.
Do you think the labels they carried somehow diminished how the
larger world saw them and subsequently relegated their history to
the odd print out and ancient disk here and there? Our cultures
respect seems to sit on how much money someone made/sold for... 

I feel my inner curmudgeon show its face when so many never know or
hear the stories that shaped where we are today. So thanks for
writing the book. I'll form a post that is more like a question
after I get my coffee!! <Ari> slipped - Ari, my sister was deeply
involved with Witness for Peace, but not the online side of it.
Cool!
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #10 of 212: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 28 Jun 22 07:23
    
Interesting point, Nancy. I do remember that in the early hobbyist
community (this is where folks like <lee> should chip in - I was a
sprat and have minimal direct knowledge) it was a point of pride to
donate code - not yet an open source movement, per se, but getting
there. When the PC operating systems became dominant, the model
changed to shareware, and worse, commercial plays. (I actually liked
the idea of paying money to keep the people solvent who made the
software that made my life easier, but that's a dynamic still
playing out.)
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #11 of 212: Scott Underwood (esau) Tue 28 Jun 22 09:42
    
> Ham radio clubs were building VHF
 repeaters, CB radio was all over popular culture

I was in high school in the late '70s and my girlfriend showed me her
afterschool hobby: sitting in her dad's truck and talking on the CB
radio to strangers in the neighborhood, usually adult men (but she said
it never got weird). I knew about CBs among truckers (and that was its
own community) but this seemed more like using a public payphone that
was also a party line.

Also, one of the fathers in our neighborhood was a serious ham radio
buff who had a huge antenna and a wall of electronic gear -- sometimes
his signal would interfere with my guitar amp. On the opposite wall was
a world map and he marked places where he'd made contact with others. I
asked what they talked about and he said, "Radio gear, mostly."

I thought of both these things when I discovered Usenet and BMUG in the
late '80s.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #12 of 212: Nancy White (choco) Tue 28 Jun 22 09:51
    
Funny, my brother in law and his son are still HUGE ham folk and the
BIL needs to move soon and one criteria is the ability to have his
antenna! My dad used to love the CB when he and mom did a lot of
RVing. When I moved west, he installed a CB in my car. It was a
yellow VW rabbit and my handle was sunflower. He thought that would
keep me safe! :-)
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #13 of 212: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 28 Jun 22 09:51
    
Yes, the most common discussion on BBS's was computers and computer
gear.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #14 of 212: Craig Maudlin (clm) Tue 28 Jun 22 10:14
    
I would have posted sooner, but for that link to the Byte article --
as a Byte subscriber, I read that article when it first appeared. And
as a 'magazine' of many ideas and interests, there are amazing
similarities to what we see going on today.

One thing I enjoyed about this book, Kevin, was the human-level details
of how it all evolved. I'm always fascinated by the contrast between
lived experience and the stories we tell about that after the fact.
Sort of 'history' vs. 'reality.' Telling stories is such an integral
part of how we think, so much so that story selection very much directs
our thinking overall. So I'm with you on the importance of multiple
perspectives.

But also, like Nancy, I'm interested in the 'line or gradient across
the range of intentions' -- not just the statistical average intention
that aggregated stories suggest.

Each individual was following their own, complex set of impulses -- and
yet it's impossible for us to fully know them all. But the more we can
see of them, the better we can think.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #15 of 212: Craig Maudlin (clm) Tue 28 Jun 22 10:42
    
I'm another example of one who started with amateur radio before
touching a computer. The direct technical path to the 'modem world' 
was via the Carterphone -- the device needed to link a network of 
HAM radio operators to the telephone network: a 'phone-patch.'

The first-order intentions here were completely modest: just improve on
having the radio operator hold the telephone handset up to the radio's
microphone and speaker. But these modest intentions were foundational.

The other path from radios to computing was psychological: there was
a significant overlap in terms of the types of people interested in
both.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #16 of 212: I was oilers1972, now going by (mct67) Tue 28 Jun 22 12:19
    
"But, I have to say that I came to loathe what passed for discussion
on those boards. From my perspective, there was a lot of
bad-to-toxic fundamentalism online, from the bad jokes, right-wing
assholery"

'Twas ever thus.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #17 of 212: tom jennings (tomj) Tue 28 Jun 22 15:58
    
I'm here lurking, not really clear to me where to begin, but ask and
I'll likely answer :-)
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #18 of 212: Kevin Driscoll (driscoll) Tue 28 Jun 22 16:01
    
Ack! I'm playing catch up here! Let me start with <jonl>'s question
in <6>:

> How did the constraint of working through POTS ("plain old
telephone service") have an impact on the evolution of BBS systems?

The plain old telephone service played a huge role in the culture
and structure of dial-up BBSs. By the late 1970s, telephone service
was ubiquitous across most of the US. This meant that nearly
everyone you met had a telephone number and knew how to make calls.
And with the shift toward deregulation/privatization, the Bell
System was being opened up at the edges. Retrospectively, Ma Bell
was a common carrier accessible from millions of standardized wall
sockets. By the start of the 1980s, it was effectively becoming a
public platform for telecom experimentation.

The catch was that the cost of a telephone call varied by time and
distance. The North American Numbering Plan (NANP) sliced up the
continent into regions. So calling The WELL at night from across the
Bay cost a lot less than it did during the day from across the
country. The exception--and this was rather uncommon outside of the
US--was that local calls were billed at a flat rate. As a result,
most BBS activity stayed within a local calling area to avoid a big
phone bill. (And almost everyone has a horror story about That One
Big Bill!)

You can also see the effect of long-distance dialing costs reflected
in historical BBS lists which tended to be organized by three-digit
area code, rather than by interest or function, e.g.
<http://bbslist.textfiles.com/>

So, over the years, BBS enthusiasts figured out lots of ways to
circumvent or reduce the cost of long distance calling-- <tomj>,
your ears might be burning. But, for the most part, dial-up BBSs
served users who lived or worked nearby. For some folks, the area
code even became a marker of shared identity. You might see someone
brandishing their area code as a point of pride-- "Don't mess with
434!"

OK! I need to digest these other comments... back in a flash. :)
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #19 of 212: Kevin Driscoll (driscoll) Tue 28 Jun 22 16:06
    
Side note: it's funny trying to figure out the tone for this
conversation. I'm so accustomed to talking to students or at least
folks with a lot less first-hand knowledge. Please forgive me if
this is all old hat!
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #20 of 212: Axon (axon) Tue 28 Jun 22 17:07
    
A couple of notes; the early, predigital, social technology networks
must include mixtapes and trading thereof.

And the constraints of long distance also gave rise to <crunch> and
the Phreaks. An indispensable contribution to the wild west ethos of
the emerging datasphere. Bypassing tolls extended the reach of the
early BBS sites.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #21 of 212: Craig Maudlin (clm) Tue 28 Jun 22 17:32
    
Greetings, Tom! Glad you are here.

And hi Alan:

> A couple of notes; the early, predigital, social technology networks
> must include mixtapes and trading thereof.

This sort of gets at the heart of the matter: *what* EXACTLY must we
include?

While reading the book I was reminded of what were called APA (Amateur
Publishing Associations) -- yet another way that people with the drive
to *make contact* were reaching out.

It seems that what needs including depends a great deal on what our
purpose may be. How rich and complete do our stories need to be?
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #22 of 212: masked and ready! (jet) Tue 28 Jun 22 20:19
    
Also coming in a bit late due to some family issues.

This is a great book and I'm glad it's so well researched and
written.  My design brain is still cranky about putting all the
footnotes in the afterpages instead on the page, but we can have a
duel about that at dawn. :-)

I got on BBSes in late 1985 during my freshman year in college. I
quickly got *off* BBSes after being invited to join Roundtable, one of
the first CB simulators.  (CB simulators are almost their own topic, I
was sad to not see these featured as a chapter of the modem world.)

While I was in college I was introduced to BRC, IRC, and USENET so I
never really got in to the local BBS scene.  Our CB sim had a BBS that
we used mostly for coordinating things like group dinners or brunches.

The CB sim Roundtable (and PennyNet, its economy sibling) were each
two Apple IIs bussed together with a total of 16 modems.  That is, up
to 16 people could dial up, chat in real time (like IRC) or a single
person could go to the BBS and post/read notes.

From there I discovered USENET and that I could access that on my
University of Houston student account.  I got a job at the startup
"Integrated BancSystems", made us a USENET node, we tanked when the
market crashed.

In lieu of pay, they let me take home my AT&T 3B1 (Safari) and I
continued to run a USENET node out of my apartment for a few years.

One intersting thing about Houston was that the zip code was
physically vast.  I remember there being several hundred BBS systems
that were all a local, toll-free call.  I wonder if I still have a
saved file of all the BBSes.

I have printouts in the basement and saved files on my other computer
from those years.  I even wrote a term paper my freshman year on a
stats analysis of CB sim traffic!  Time to go digging in history...

For those of you who remember RT, my handle was often "Eric (0 Trump)"
where the "0" was often replaced by the Tarot card that reflected my
mood.
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #23 of 212: Nancy White (choco) Wed 29 Jun 22 06:32
    
<clm> and how we define "social media!"
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #24 of 212: Susan Carley Oliver (ohbejoyful) Wed 29 Jun 22 15:28
    
Greetings Tom! For a good and proper wellcome, and pointers to
places and people you might be interested in, check out the Wellcome
conference.  And of course, let us know a bit about you, fill out
your bio a bit, so that we don't point you to the surfing conference
when your real interest is in pre-Renaissance poetry.  :) 
  
inkwell.vue.520 : Kevin Driscoll: The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
permalink #25 of 212: Alan Turner (arturner) Wed 29 Jun 22 16:47
    
I'm Alan, and if I remember right my first experience online was through
Compuserve, when I moved to an office that used AutoCAD.  Compuserve hosted
the user's group for ACAD, and a free month (or something) of C-serve was
included in the box.  I had a primitive computer (A Coleco Adam, if you
must know) and got a modem for it which surely was 300 baud.  I didn't
find the ACAD user group very useful, but discovered the CB simulator
(two channels!) and I spent an absurd amount of time with that.

When that machine died (poor reliability killed that product quickly)
and I replaced it with a used Mac, but never got a modem.

A bit later I was allowed to lug an IBM 5150 home and was determined to
make into a more modern computer, from a 386 motherboard up.  I guess
that made me a tinkerer, kinda sorta. MAybe little league, at best.
Howard Rheingold's book Virtual Reality was published in 1991, and it
looked like an interesting idea and possibly a future technology for
computer designed architecture.  There was a brief mention of The WeLL
in it, and it sounded interesting. A little like the CB simulator, but
with topics sorted by interest. Some months later there was a tiny ad
for The WeLL in some computer magazine, and I dove in head first.

The timeline you paint in your book felt a bit like my own.  If someone
had explained it to a Martian and he translated it back.
  

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