Imagining a Better Internet
A DISCUSSION OFA Prehistory of Social Media
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The future of technology is too often imagined and engineered by corporations and venture capitalists, foreclosing more radical possibilities. Today, it is Meta’s iteration of the Metaverse that dominates headlines, a riff on an old theme: the monetization of networked social life. Apparently the future includes stilted, legless avatars in VR versions of Microsoft Teams meetings. After the launch in 2016 of Facebook Live, its developer, Mark Zuckerberg, called for the formation of a twenty-first century “global community” through technology, harking back to Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” of the 1960s. But who and what is a community for? As critics such Safiya Noble, Virginia Eubanks, Ruha Benjamin, Sarah T. Roberts, and Siva Vaidhyanathan have long argued, the democratic ideal of “everybody” connecting to the internet through social media platforms is undermined by the narrow visions of elite technologists.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Kevin Driscoll’s “A Prehistory of Social Media” (Issues, Summer 2022) helps us reimagine internet futures by looking to the many nets of the past. Rather than drawing on a singular narrative—the straight line from ARPANET to the World Wide Web and, eventually, platform supremacy—Driscoll emphasizes the grassroots, locally situated networks that emerged from the growth of the personal computer. Individual enthusiasts started bulletin board systems, and rather than relying on opaque terms of service and precarious content moderators to manage people’s relationships to the network, you could contact the volunteer owner directly or perhaps even meet in her living room.
Web 2.0-era social media platforms are a departure from early community networks, a diverse ecology with subcultures that matched their location and participants: Amsterdam’s DDS, the Boulder Community Network, Montana’s Big Sky Telegraph, the Blacksburg Electronic Village, the Seattle Community Network, and Berkeley’s Community Memory project. Such community networks were tied to specific places, not anonymous cyberculture. Even for electronic communities that were mostly associated with online interactions, there were some in-person encounters. Members of the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, known more popularly as The WELL, for example, met at potluck dinners around the Bay Area, even if the early virtual community was open to anyone regardless of location.
As Driscoll notes, while a plethora of networks for queer and trans people, Black people, and others from marginalized communities flourished, even grassroots networks are plagued by the ills of society. From the earliest days of cyberculture, critics pointed out that race, gender, sexuality, and embodiment cannot be left behind in cyberspace. Rather, racism and sexism structure people’s experiences in virtual environments as they do IRL.
While the past wasn’t perfect, disenchantment with digital advertising and surveillance models has catalyzed nostalgia for earlier internets. GeoCities, founded in 1994 as “Beverly Hills Internet,” fostered community through web-based neighborhoods and user-generated content. GeoCities closed in 2009. Neocities, launched in 2013, is an unrelated homage website that calls for bringing back the independent, creative web. Similarly, SpaceHey, a reimagined version of MySpace, is intended to revive the original site’s ability to teach coding skills to young people. Folk histories of the internet provide an entry point for using many pasts to envision a multiplicity of futures beyond Big Tech.
Director of Developer Engagement
The article in Kevin Driscoll’s title is its most important part: a prehistory, not the. Some arguments narrow to closure, arriving at “the point.” In the course of convincing us, Driscoll’s argument instead opens out, welcoming us into the big country—literally and figuratively. He makes the case for modem culture and bulletin board systems as salient antecedents of contemporary online culture, and uses that point to bust right through the simple, received narrative of how “the internet” came about. In opening up the past, he opens up the future too: the history of networking computers together is a reservoir of alternatives. His history offers other technologies, other communities, other applications, other ways of being online—many of them better, for various values of better, than what we’ve got.
Other places too: the big country. Notice the geography of Driscoll’s prehistory, rattling off place names like a Johnny Cash song. Chicago, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, “Alaska to Bermuda, Puerto Rico to Saskatchewan.” Notice how much of it happens in people’s homes in cities and towns across the North American continent. You can count the locations of the popular narrative of the internet on one hand: the research powerhouses SRI International, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California Los Angeles, and in the corporate world maybe Bolt Beranek & Newman (now BBN Technologies) and Xerox. It does not detract from that history to point out that it was only one of many ways that people were networking computers together—and a highly specialized, idiosyncratic one at that, reflective of the agendas of big science, Cold War R&D, and the nascent tech industry. Driscoll reveals how people outside this domain were connecting their computers for their own purposes in ways that prefigure the internet’s broad adoption much more accurately than electrical engineers with security clearance. The engineers in Cambridge and Palo Alto created much of the fundamental infrastructure, but the way it is used can be better understood by starting with the modem on the kitchen table or the garage workshop in Baltimore or Grand Rapids: the laboratory of digital social media that came before the internet.
Driscoll’s story reminds us that internet is a verb as well as a noun: internetworking the many and varied networks of computers together. Networking and internetworking comprise the labor of making BBSs, launching AOL, getting onto Usenet, rolling out ATMs in banks and convenience stores, tying satellites and radio telescopes into a computation grid, or setting up servers. How the networks work is an expression of agendas, ideologies, and expectations, and the “modem world” clarifies how different such agendas could be from our era of platform dominance and vertical integration of industry. There is no “history of the internet,” in other words, only histories of all the ways computers were and are networked and internetworked. Histories, and possible futures such as the one Driscoll gives us here: social media that are local, personal, inventive, messy, communal, and do-it-yourself.
Science and Technology Studies
University of California, Davis
Kevin Driscoll offers a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the bulletin board system (BBS), in the process highlighting an important path not taken in the history of digital communication and the internet. Unlike government-funded networks of the era, BBSs were spaces for experimentation and innovation driven not by funders’ goals but users’ own idiosyncratic interests and desires. In the process, they found new ways to work within the limitations of the existing phone infrastructure to create truly international connections.
As Driscoll recounts, whatever their reason for joining the “modem world,” users of a local BBS were able to make social connections and build community with other users well beyond their immediate social circles. For some users, pseudonymity allowed them to explore aspects of their identities, such as sexuality and gender identity, that they didn’t feel safe discussing anywhere else. In their governance and design, individual BBSs and associated software reflected their system operators’—or sysops’—own personal and political investments. The time that Tom Jennings spent in queer punk spaces shaped his focus on repurposing existing infrastructure to develop DIY solutions—a foundational aspect of his “Fido” software that, as Driscoll notes, became an open standard for exchanging files and messages between BBSs. Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, who founded AEGIS to carry information about living with HIV and AIDS, brought what she’d learned about information dissemination during her years as a transgender advocate and activist to her work at AEGIS.
Beyond how it shifts our focus away from ARPANET and other state-sponsored internet infrastructure, Driscoll’s essay also provides fertile new ground for reimagining what the internet could be. As he shows, most BBSs operated on a far smaller scale than current platform monopolies. With that smaller scale came a distinctly different sense of sociality. For many people, socializing online via a BBS became a conduit for building community offline. Unlike current platforms, community moderation disputes were settled not by a faceless corporate entity, but by an identifiable member of the community invested in its continued success. As she recounts in her book Cyberville, Stacy Horn, the sysop of EchoNYC, encouraged users, at different points, to be active participants in her decisionmaking process regarding board governance and moderation.
This smaller scale and sense of community investment can be particularly potent for individuals who are often the targets of harassment and abuse online. What would communities created by and specifically for these individuals look like? How could their design use key features of the BBS, like pseudonymity, locality, and accountable governance, in ways that not only meet these users’ specific needs, but also ensure that they feel comfortable communicating online? Moreover, the history of the BBS includes a variety of models for monetary support not based on harvesting and reselling user data. Focusing on sustainable models of maintenance, as opposed to growth at all costs, opens up room for the kinds of experimentation and play needed to imagine a more equitable future online.
Founder, Queer Digital History Project
Lecturer, Women’s and Gender Studies, Gonzaga University
As the internet landscape of social media becomes increasingly embedded in day-to-day lives, many contemporary thinkers and critics have decried that the internet is broken. When Twitter and Facebook posts fuel widespread misinformation campaigns or inspire tumultuous market conditions, it might be difficult to recall the deeply intimate and personal roots of internet technologies.
Kevin Driscoll paints a vivid picture of those electric early days of networked computing, when a modem was a luxurious add-on and PC enthusiasts convened in homebrew clubs to discuss the latest microprocessor. Driscoll explains how the advent of the internet was really a collage of computer networking efforts rather than one seminal development by Department of Defense military researchers or the standardization of the internet protocol suite commonly known as TCP/IP. Most important to Driscoll’s internet history is the BBS, the bulletin board systems that facilitated widespread communication between tech-hobbyists and amateurs alike. It was this fervor for BBSs, Driscoll explains, that allowed the “modem world” to flourish.
The 1970s and ’80s represented an increase in the adoption of personal computers, a shift from business to pleasure. What was previously found only in university research labs or government buildings was now available for citizen-consumers. Off-the-shelf computer kits made it easier than ever before to build an impressive piece of computing technology right in a person’s sitting room. Add to that the dropping price of modems and the increased exposure to computer networking through timeshare programs or hyperlocal BBS terminals, and the novelty of electronic communication became commonplace for those with the inclination and the means to pay for it. Driscoll shows how these developments snowballed through the late ’70s and early ’80s, paving the way for the BBS.
BBSs were an important, and distinct, precursor to the commercial internet and World Wide Web of the 1990s. Calling one computer to another had the added draw of being a one-to-one connection, an intimate sensation of dialing right into someone’s home. Even multiline systems, reliant on multiple phone lines, lent the cozy feeling of a cocktail party. In most narratives about the development of the internet, there’s a neat line from the ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network developed by the Defense Department) to the World Wide Web. These stories neglect the individual roots, and the personal touches, of a communally built public network like the modem world. Overlooking the history of the BBS presents the false notion that the reins of the internet have always been out of reach for the average computer-owner, better left to the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world. In reality, computer networking technologies are historically a people’s technology.
Today, the expectation of ubiquitous internet access is rampant. Conditions brought on by COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns highlighted the need for high-speed at-home connections to facilitate schooling, work, and community connection. At the same time, the lockdowns brought inequities in the digital divide to the fore. As the internet morphs into increasingly partitioned spaces, funneling users between the same five mega-websites, it has become more urgent than ever to reexamine the stakes of internet ownership. When these extant structures seem inevitable, it’s helpful to remember how things got started—for people, by people.
PhD Candidate, University of California, Irvine
Kevin Driscoll insightfully notes that to reenvision the possibilities of the internet today, we need to recast its past. For Driscoll, that involves looking not to the mythologized narrative of ARPANET as a Cold War-era, US-built communications infrastructure for surviving nuclear war, one built by eccentric computer “wizards.” Rather, we might look to the networked links of bulletin board systems (BBSs) connected by telephone lines that were at their peak popularity in the 1970s through the 1990s.
“Why haven’t our histories kept up?” Driscoll asks. It’s an important question. As a scholar curious about the narratives told about technology, I might phrase it differently: What are those mythical tales of the internet doing? What hangs in the balance when they are repeated? When public and scholarly discourse leaves out other narratives of the networked past, what’s at stake? In other words, what do our histories of the internet do?
Driscoll rightfully notes that internet histories such as the ARPANET mythology have effects: these stories represent and reentrench values and are used in turn to advance arguments (for better or worse) from public policy to corporate conduct. Origin stories like these often act as a sort of founding document, taken as a blueprint for how the rest of the story should unfold.
Dominant narratives also inevitably perpetuate notions of who belongs—in this case, who belongs in the realms of high technology. Popular images of computing’s foundations are largely mapped to subjects typically white, male, and American. But looking to the world of BBSs instead supports a vision of the internet that is less commercial, more community-based, and more representative of the variety of people who created the sociotechnical basis for the online world as it is experienced today.
Along with the question of what current histories of the internet do, there’s also the question of what they can do, especially when conceptualized outside of typical paradigms. Driscoll suggests that stories such as those of BBSs can help tell a more accurate backstory for the internet—and give a foundation for imagining a better future. In my own research, where I have gotten lost is in attempting to draw this line directly between the recast past and a better future.
Instead, I want to suggest that stories that look outside the ARPANET mythology can help us view more clearly the social and technical entanglements of the internet as they stand today. The “internet,” after all, is a useful if inexact shorthand for the social and technical, the virtual and physical, the governmental and corporate and grassroots layers of networked computing. That is to say, what the internet is, what its problems are, and how to go about solving those problems are notoriously tricky to grasp. It might be one reason we rely on the well-worn ARPANET story that focuses on a few machines and a few people.
Understanding the internet of today is partly why I have researched its history myself: the past can offer a less volatile scenario while highlighting contemporary aspects that otherwise appear natural, that fade into the background and thus appear to be unchangeable. Looking to the rise and fall of BBSs’ popularity, for instance, accentuates the commercial consolidation of the internet that has resulted in conglomerate platforms such as Facebook or Google or Amazon, companies that in turn exercise and reentrench their overwhelming political, cultural, and economic power. Recognizing these realities is maybe one of the best things internet histories can do, and perhaps the first step in drawing that line between the internet’s past and some possibilities of a more hopeful future.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center on Digital Culture and Society
University of Pennsylvania