Hackers and hippies: The origins of social networking
TECHNOLOGY25 January 2011 Last updated at 08:16 GMTHackers and hippies: The origins of socialnetworkingBy Rory Cellan-JonesTechnology correspondent, BBC NewsPeople that have been to see last years blockbuster The Social Network, could beforgiven for thinking that the rise of sites like Facebook started just a few years ago.But to find the true origins of social networking you have to go further back than 2004.In a side street in Berkeley California, the epicentre of the counterculture in the 1960s and1970s, I found what could well be the birthplace of the phenomenon.Standing outside what was once a shop called Leopolds Records, former computerscientist Lee Felsenstein told me how, in 1973, he and some colleagues had placed acomputer terminal in the store next to a musicians bulletin board - of the analogue variety.They had invited passers-by, mainly students from the University of California, Berkeley, tocome and type a message in to the computer.Back then, it was the first time just about anybody who was not studying a scientificsubject had been allowed near a machine.
"We thought that there would be considerable resistance to computers invading what was,as we thought of it, the domain of the counterculture," Mr Felsenstein explained."We were wrong. People would walk up the stairs and we had a few seconds in which totell them, would you like to use our electronic bulletin board, were using a computer."And with the word computer their eyes would lighten, brighten up and theyd say: wow,can I use it?"Soon the machine was filling up with messages, everything from a poet promoting hisverses and musicians arranging gigs, to discussions of the best place to buy bagels.The project, called Community Memory, survived on and off for more than a decade,installing more computers across the San Francisco area. But it was not until the 1980sthat much of a crowd came to online life.Network crisisThe Well, another Californian community, was the result of the marriage between hippiesand hackers, counterculture and cyberculture.It was born as a result of a meeting between Dr Larry Brilliant, a doctor working for theWorld Health Organization (WHO), and Stewart Brand, originator of the original 1960shippie bible, the Whole Earth Catalog.Dr Brilliant had somehow pieced together a network to deal with a crisis when a helicoptercarrying out a WHO survey in the Himalayas needed a new engine.Using a very early Apple computer, supplied by his friend Steve Jobs, he had managed tostage perhaps the worlds first online tele-conference."Steve had given me an acoustic modem," he explained. "And we networked in andsuddenly we had a donation of a spare engine from Aerospatiale, Pan Am offered to flythe engine into Kathmandu, and the RAF volunteered to transport it over land to thedowned helicopter, and 72 hours later the engine was in Nepal."He decided this could be the foundation for a business, and when he took the idea toStewart Brand, he agreed.Soon, his Whole Earth Catolog had become the Well - the Whole Earth Lectronic Link.
"It turns out that we were one of the discoverers of what a low threshold things are on thenet," Mr Brand told me for the Radio 4 series The Secret History of Social Networking."You could just haul off and start something like this with nothing other than a leasedmachine which we got from Larry, and a bit of lousy software, and we were off andrunning."The Well brought together hackers, hippies and writers from across the San Francisco Bayarea in online conversation about everything from technology and politics to the meaningof life.After meeting online, they ended up holding parties; an early sign that the real and virtualworlds could merge."Unlike Facebook, we got to know each other online before we knew each other face-to-face," said Howard Rheingold, the writer who first coined the term virtual community andan influential member of the Well."A lot of face-to-face communication grew into relationships. People met and got married,and marriages broke up, when people got sick they got support, when people were dyingthey got help."Global villageThe Well was given added momentum because it became a meeting place for Deadheads,fans of the Grateful Dead.It also gave John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the band, and later founder of the ElectronicFrontier Foundation, his first introduction to online communities."I found a zone where people from all over the planet could have a conversation on a 24-hour basis."And after 30 years spent exploring virtual communities, he said, none come close to theoriginal."Facebook is more like the global suburbs than the global village," he said. "And what yousay on Twitter lasts 20 minutes. If Christ had tweeted the sermon on the mount, it mighthave lasted until nightfall."I think the last one I saw that really felt like it might become the real thing was what wasthere on the Well."
But it was not just in California that the idea of meeting and socialising online took root.In Europe, Britains Prestel and Frances Minitel - gave millions of telephone users theirfirst taste of online communication.In many other places, the Bulletin Board System (BBS) movement became a focus forintense communication about anything and everything for anyone who could afford apersonal computer and a modem to dial in.Jason Scott, who was a teenage BBS user in White Plains, New York, in the late 1980s,said the idea that BBS users were social misfits who lived their lives online is misplaced:"The computer was a means to an end," he explained."Because long-distance phone calls were so expensive, the BBS systems were very local.You would communicate with other people, send messages, upload files, inevitablysomeone would say hey, lets go down to the local pizza parlor."He is still friends with some of the people he met in this way more than twenty years ago.Like many users of early networks, Jason Scott is now a keen user of their modernequivalents - his cat Sockington is now the most popular pet on Twitter. But the pioneersdo not believe the story is over.Mr Felsenstein, who can claim to have started it all, says social networking has changedhis life. He met his wife online, and he went on after Community Memory to have a careerin computing."Mind you," he said, "theres lots of room for improvement. I dont believe that what we seeis the best that could ever be."The Secret History of Social Networking is a three-part series for BBC Radio 4, startingon Wednesday 26 January at 1100 GMT. Listen again via the BBC iPlayer or downloadthe podcast.More Technology stories Fujitsu offers UK fast rural net [/news/technology-13060548]