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Connecting Computers to People, BBS And Its Effect on the Web

Screenshot of a terminal accessing an early digital bulletin board system

The Internet does not begin and end with the World Wide Web. Sometimes, if we want to truly understand how the web developed, we need to step back to a world where it never existed at all. The Internet invigorated us with a new kind of spirit; it created a new way of seeing, feeling and interacting with the world. And though it began as a government experiment, and stayed mostly confined to the halls of large government buildings and academia for some time, the Internet eventually spread out into the hands of everybody. If you dig through the recesses of Internet history, you’ll find that only of the first major discoveries was that the Internet not only connected people to information, but to people to each other.

To that effect, there were a few interconnected, branching experiments with Internet-based communication (among them Gopher, which I’ve talked about before). Occam’s razor did lead one group of technologists to a relatively low-fi experiment konwn as a bulletin board system, or BBS for short. The key insight was the Internet allowed one to open up their computer to anyone in the world to come and look around, and maybe even drop in a message or two.

BBS required some know-how to get setup. It started with a single server that opened up access to the world through a connection protocol known as Telnet. But once there, users could leave text-only messages for others to find using their command line in a streaming thread of discussion meant for others to discover, explore, and continue on with. It transformed an ordinary server into a digital message board, akin to the forums and discussion boards of today. Anyone could setup a new BBS – the server could just as easily be hosted in the basement of a large corporation as the closet of any resident nerd.

Given some of the technical chops needed to even connect to a BBS, they were mostly limited to larger companies and particularly ambitious programmers when they first popped on the scene in the early 1980’s. It took a few years for the technology to spread into the hands of everyday Internet users. BBS really gained momentum when Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand decided to get lunch in California, not far from where they would soon set up their new joint venture.

Brand had made a name for himself among the technology-minded counterculture of his generation after publishing a semi-annual magazine called The Whole Earth Catalog. Contained inside were essays and articles ranging from the future of the human race to nifty new age tools culled from outside the mainstream, all tailored for the self-sufficient futurist. By the time he met with Brilliant, Brand had already gathered a full crowd of devotees to the Whole Earth brand.

Cover of the original "Whole Earth Catalog"

Brilliant, meanwhile, had spent several years traveling the world. A doctor by trade, he found himself drifting where he might be needed, from the protest at Alcatraz island by the Native American group Indians of All Tribes to relief efforts in the Himalayas as a medical officer for the World Health Organization. One thing quickly became apparent to Brilliant about technology. Its greatest strength lay in bringing people together. By the time he met with Brand, he already had a plan.

Brilliant believed that the Internet needed a better community, one with far less restrictions than current BBS platforms. His idea actually originated as videoconferencing software, but as he and Brand spoke they came up with something a bit more simple. They would create a BBS that anyone could join, one that focused on connecting the amateurs of the technology world together. Brilliant had already put together his own technology company, and had both the necessary funds and infrastructure for such an experiment. All he needed Brand for was an audience. After a bit of brainstorming, Brand came up with the name. The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or simply, the WELL.

In simply stated terms, the WELL was a BBS. But this one was not like the others. Conceptually modeled after french literary salons, a choice which spoke both to its ambition as well as its ideological roots, the WELL divided its bulletin board into various conferences. Each conference was focused on a different area of interest, Automotive, or Gardening, or even a conference that simply went by the moniker “Weird.” Conferences were led and guided by a host (or hosts), responsible for the creation of topics and threads created within, as well as the conduct of its users. For a fairly low monthly cost, users could log onto the WELL, take a look around, and join conferences to post to discussion threads centered around any topic you could think of. There were very few things considered off-limits, and though there were rules that governed discourse on the WELL, enforcement of these rules were generally left to conference hosts.

The website for the WELL, still in its early days

The WELL was a source of discovery and experimentation for its users, and featured a lively mix of high-minded conversations and low-brow humor. Users communicated a few different ways, including an early attempt directing messaging known as Send. But the main way to post to threads was through the oft-frustrating and brutally unforgiving messaging software Picospan. Picospan had more than a few quirks to it and had a fairly steep learning tool for what basically amounted to a text-only message form. But it’s design and functionality, a single thread of posts with a growing list of replies, was the precursor to more modern message boards and might feel right at home among the likes of Reddit or Discourse today.

A good amount of WELL users were active ones, and it wasn’t at all uncommon for some to log on at an almost constant clip throughout the day. At the core was the platform’s most avid users, many of whom eventually became conference hosts. Radiating out from this center were concentric circles of user activity, each layer less active than the one before but no less devoted to the discussions that raged near endlessly on the WELL. There were more than a few lifelong friendships, and even marriages, that originated in one conference or another.

And as they talked, discussed, and debated users of the WELL developed a unique nomenclature and shorthand in their online conversations, an amalgamation of abbreviations and deeply referential callbacks that required an in-depth knowledge of other topics and conversations. They were experimenting with a new kind of digital familiarity that was deeply rooted in divergent language and shared understanding in an anonymous yet somehow limitless digital world.

The WELL would change hands more than a few times over the years, a story which is well documented (and would require another post on its own). It passed through the hands of Rockport shoe manufacturer founder Bruce Katz, and Salon magazine, before eventually back in the hands of the community through a shadow group of long-time WELL users turned investors. The history of the WELL is a history of owner’s ambition growing well beyond the needs and wishes of a dedicated and fiercely passionate user base trying to wrestle control for themselves.

Stacy Horn was one of these passionate users. From the first time she logged on to the WELL, she felt a deep connection to the platform, its users, and the mostly rewarding discussions that took place there. Of course, that didn’t mean there couldn’t be some improvements.

At the time, Horn worked at Mobil corporation and even pitched a version of BBS to the company as a supplement for internal communications. Her proposal was rejected. When Horn eventually did leave Mobil, she took her severance money, bought a server and spun up a BBS of her own in 1990. A bulletin board that would take the approach and model of the WELL and work to improve its inner machinations. Her goal was to create a platform and atmosphere that was a welcoming to its users as its users were devoted to the platform. She called it East Coast Hang Out. Or Echo for short.

Accessing Echo, which you can still do to this day

Technically, Echo mirrored the infrastructure and format of the WELL. At the heart of Echo were its conferences, as varied and dynamic as its precursor. Horn’s chief insight was to restructure the ideological underpinnings of the community to make it at once more welcoming and inclusive.

She mostly kept the community small. There wasn’t some number that represented an upper limit of users, but Horn was careful about where she spread the word about her board and who could participate in discussions. And every decision she made was for the good of the community. Conferences, for instance, were hosted by both a male and female member of the community, each accountable to one another, to ensure a lack of homogeneity in conversations. Horn, who was concerned about the under representation of women in the tech industry, offered a free year to any woman who wanted to sign up.

Horn was not above going the extra mile to ensure her users felt safe, comfortable, and happy. When a new user signed up, she would reach out to them directly, sometimes going as far as to write a welcome poem. If for some reason a user decided to leave, Horn would ask them why. Safe and private spaces were personally designed by Horn so users could report issues of harassment, and harassment of a personal nature was simply not tolerated.  Many tried to get past her, and she dealt head on with stalkers, harassers, and Nazi agitators. But she didn’t spend hours and days and weeks deliberating about an abusive user’s “right” to stir the pot and make her users feel unsafe. She just got rid of them. It was that simple.

Echo never went through the tech industry’s much-coveted hockey stick growth. At its peak, it reached a couple of thousand members, who often went by the moniker “Echoids”. That was a conscious choice to prevent the community from sagging under the weight of its own ambition. It was a tight knit group, and they got each other through more than a few bumps in our country’s history. And it certainly didn’t stop Echo from being massively influential. Many of the movers and shakers of the digital world were among the community’s most dedicated members, and some of the principles rooted in the Echo’s core mission found their way onto other online platforms.

Echo survives to this day, and though its user base has greatly dwindled from its heyday, there are more than a few passionate members that remain. Horn might not have build the world’s largest community, but she did build one of the longest-standing ones. And she’s still hopeful about the kind of community the digital world can bring.

When the web hit the general public a few years later, bulletin boards weren’t far beyond. A number of different systems, platforms, and technologies were scaled up to bring the message board to the web. But by then, scale was the name of the game. A world of fierce competition and the massive valuations of the dot-com era encouraged community’s that appealed to the lowest common denominator, and more importantly, let anyone through the door. Rules loosened as communities grew. Hosts were remodeled as much more limited moderators. Conferences converted to a sprawling single board inundated with posts. Anyone was let in and no on was shown the door. But we should remember the lessons of BBS. They taught us what a digital community could be at a time when the digital world was still new.