Online social networks started years ago
May 10, 2010
by Mark Ollig

In early 1993, I was reading Howard Rheingold’s book “The Virtual Community.”

With the turn of each page I began to understand the potential benefits a “virtual online community” could bring, and how it would significantly change the way we interacted with each other.

So I was off and running – praising those pioneering online users while asking others the question: “Are you online yet?”

With today’s popular social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, how many of us take the time to think back to those earlier years – before Tim Berners-Lee created his web browser which would dramatically change how the Internet would be used.

Prior to today’s social networks and web sites, online socializing meant many of us were dialing into Bulletin Board Systems.

Logging on to a hobbyist dial-up computer Bulletin Board System or “BBS” required using communication software like ProComm.

Users of the BBS communicated with each other in virtual conference rooms via “text-mode” which meant we just used the QWERTY board.

BBSs were not using any video cams back then, either.

Users on the BBS communicated their personal viewpoints on a variety of discussion topics.

This new online BBS culture meant having a convenient venue for real-time interaction with other people. We were free to express our opinions on many issues – the true BBS culture recognized and respected opposite opinions as well.

Discussing new computer software and hardware were the purposes of some BBSs, others were dedicated to individual hobbies like astronomy, chess or genealogy.

In the days before websites, many companies started a dial-up BBS to allow customers online access to product information.

I recall schools and cities across the country starting BBSs in order to share their information and communicate with the growing online public.

By the early 1990s, yours truly was thinking of a new way to contribute and be a more active participant in the online “virtual community” scene.

I had talked with operators of other Bulletin Board Systems and decided to purchase a popular software program called “The Major BBS” which was made by Galacticomm. I installed some dedicated local telephone lines to my home computer via 19.2 kbps modems and started my own text-based (I later installed a Graphical User Interface) BBS called “WBBS OnLine!”

BBS hobbyists such as myself would spend many hours maintaining, promoting, and operating the BBS. Most did not charge any fees to access them.

The BBS System Operator or “SysOp” duties included moderating the real-time conference room chats, adding new menu choices, utilities, games, and caring for the software and hardware needs of the BBS.

I was so obsessed with starting and operating a successful BBS, I even published ads in the local paper and created flyers which I posted all over town.

Some folks in Winsted might remember when I changed my car’s license plates to “WBBS” in a shameless self-promotional effort on my part.

Did I mention how obsessed I was?

In a couple of past columns (June 12, 2006 and Dec. 3, 2007) this former SysOp wrote about how the BBS culture brought people together online and provided a venue for any type of topic or discussion.

Sometimes, users logged on to the BBS just to play the online games, check for messages from other users, and share “free-ware” software, which included mostly DOS utilities and games.

Many early BBS users were not only learning about the potential use of this new online medium, but were also finding mutual camaraderie in the world of the BBS community, which was one of the main attractions I discovered, along with the satisfaction of operating my own BBS.

Popular nationwide BBS services such as Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe charged a monthly subscription fee for access.

In 1990, I had subscribed to the Prodigy dialup service.

Prodigy incorporated a colorful Graphical User Interface (GUI) which required us to install Prodigy’s “client software” (from floppy disks) onto our computers.

Prodigy offered e-mail, active user participation forums, updated news, weather, sports ,and online shopping services.

Gosh, I still have my official Prodigy coffee mug in the shape of a monitor and keyboard.

Ah . . . memories.

I wonder what that mug would go for on eBay these days.

To see a snapshot of how Prodigy’s login screen looked around 1990, go to tinyurl.com/yjcdm9c.

Twenty-five years ago, Steward Brand and Larry Brilliant started one of the earliest and most popular online BBS communities called “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link” commonly known as “The WELL.”

In Howard Rheingold’s 1993 book, he says that after a year of participating as an active member on the WELL “. . . it seemed evident to me that the cultural experiment of a self-sustaining online salon was succeeding very well.”

Even today there are active dial-up BBSs operating. Some of them are strictly dial-up and not linked to the Internet at all.

A number of BBSs are reachable over the Internet via telnet protocols.

The virtual online community has come a long way.

Today, we are no longer tethered to a telephone modem and a desktop computer. We are able to stay connected with our online social networks in real-time via wireless mobile computing devices.

This past year, I was in contact with author Howard Rheingold and he personally acknowledged my appreciation for his 1993 book.

You can read the complete online electronic version of “The Virtual Community” at www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html.