40 years of walled gardens & open platforms: Part II

Here are some developments in late 70s and early 80s where I started to become aware/involved in “Online” things that eventually evolved into today’s Social Media: Modems1, BBS systems, TOPS-20 Bulletin Boards, Usenet News and the birth of CompuServe.

Figure 1: Desktop Dial-up

Figure 1: Desktop Dial-up

Post 21 #100DaysToOffload https://100daystooffload.com/

Dialup BBS Systems
Once upon a time it was illegal to connect modems (or anything else but AT&T equipment) to the phone network. And that was, basically, the only network. Some time after that changed, dialup Bullitin Board Systems (BBS) arrived. You could dial up and connect to a BBS running in someone’s house often connected to the only line (the home phone). Mom and Dad may have wondered at first why they picked up a call and heard awful electronic squawking noises rather than someone saying “Hello”. Once on, you could leave messages, read messages, etc. Communities formed this way.
TOPS-20 Bulletin Boards
I’m not sure, but my first exposure to bulletin boards and email (“social media”) was probably on the Ohio State DecSystem-20. I had friends who worked there, and we later went to school there and thus had a “legitimate” accounts. The world and software I remember is describe well here http://www.columbia.edu/kermit/dec20.html. Kermit (the project that the authors of this article ran) was a very important piece of software for 10-15 years, a workhorse of moving files across dial-up phone connections.
Usenet News
Social media c.a. 1980. Usenet was (is) a system that moves messages (posts) between connected computers. In the beginning this was dial-up lines. Mostly between universities and research institutions and, of course, AT&T/Bell Labs etc. For a while the USENET “backbone” (the long haul links, the well connected sites) were run by an unofficial cabal internally at AT&T (because they had free access to “long lines”) and traffic was farmed out to local sites (universities) for further distribution. It was the quintessential “old boy” network. To connect, you had to know someone and convince them to “give you a feed”. I was on sometime from the mid-80s on. A few ?representative? newsgroups: comp.sources.amiga, rec.humor.funny alt.ensign.wesley.die.die.die
CompuServe: Dialup+Network+Dec10s == Information Service
CompuServe (“Online Services”) was born in this world. People started having “Personal Computers” in the late 70s and early 80s. Modems started becoming a thing. While Usenet, BBS systems, Fido-net and friends started using these technologies to connect people in non-commercial settings, Compu$erve started to do so in a commercial setting. CompuServe had been running a nationwide packet switching network since 1972 (take that, ARPANET !), had been selling business oriented computing services, and time sharing on its DecSystem10’s accessed via that network as well as growing raft of dial-up modem pools, conveniently located in H&R Block offices around the country at a time when having “Local” numbers was important (long distance was expensive). This was the 1970s version of “Cloud Computing”. Business use slacked off at night, so what was a good time-sharing company to do? Why start an Information Service that grew into the familiar lineup of “Forums” (BBS), “InfoPlex” (email), “CB” (chat/Aim/IRC), and the recurring services that every online service, search engine and social network eventually devolves to: News, Weather, and Sports. I think the online service started around 1980. I began working there in 1985. More from the CompuPerspective as these posts progress.

  1. Modem picture courtesy of: “Dial-a-Grue” by Digital Game Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ ↩︎