join a discussion with US West's Tom Cullen in Mind to Mind!
The Virtual Community
by Howard Rheingold
"When you think of a title for a book, you are forced to think of something short and evocative, like, well, 'The Virtual Community,' even though a more accurate title might be: 'People who use computers to communicate, form friendships that sometimes form the basis of communities, but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as real community.'" - HLR
Chapter One: The Heart of the WELL
Chapter Two: Daily Life in Cyberspace: How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place
Chapter Three: Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net
Chapter Four: Grassroots Groupminds
Chapter Five: Multi-user Dungeons and Alternate Identities
Chapter Six: Real-time Tribes
Chapter Seven: Japan and the Net
Chapter Eight: Telematique and Messageries Rose: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities
Chapter Nine: Electronic Frontiers and Online Activists
Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy

Chapter Four: Grassroots Groupminds

"This is like a groupmind!" I remember blurting out something like that when I first visited the physical headquarters of the WELL and met Matthew McClure, the first WELL director, face-to-face. I might have startled him with my fervor, but he didn't disagree. The sensation of personally participating in an ongoing process of group problem-solving-- whether the problem is a tick on my daughter's head or an opportunity to help policymakers build a public network-- electrified me. The feeling of tapping into this multibrained organism of collective expertise reminds me of the conversion experience the ARPA pioneers describe when they recall their first encounters with interactive computers.

The experience has to do with the way groups of people are using CMC to rediscover the power of cooperation, turning cooperation into a game, a way of life--a merger of knowledge capital, social capital, and communion. The fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a painful irony. I'm not so sure myself anymore that tapping away on a keyboard and staring at a screen all day by necessity is "progress" compared to chopping logs and raising beans all day by necessity. While we've been gaining new technologies, we've been losing our sense of community, in many places in the world, and in most cases the technologies have precipitated that loss. But this does not make an effective argument against the premise that people can use computers to cooperate in new ways.

Computer-assisted teleconferencing continued to develop for as long as it did because it worked well for the people who developed it, the think-tank secret elite who spun nuclear war scenarios and the more mundane government bureaucracies who coordinate response to national emergencies. Computer-assisted groupminds were confined to these elites for many years, while the state of computer and network technology caught up with the demands of CMC systems. The computers were expensive, the software was strictly roll-your-own, and the tasks that the tools were used to accomplish were sensitive. Everything written about CMC in this paragraph was also true about computer technology itself thirty years ago.

In combination with a truly grassroots communications medium, however, such as Usenet's millions of reader-contributors and the computer bulletin-board systems that are springing up by the tens of thousands, the same many-to-many communications capabilities of CMC formerly reserved for the elites could catalyze the emergence of a formidable, far more populist kind of social organization. Grassroots groupminds and their impact on the material world could grow into one of the surprise technological issues of the coming decade.

Going back to the beginning of computer conferencing technology is essential if one is to understand where it ought to head in the future. Once again, we find that the new technology took the form it did because the technology's inventors believed that the tools they created should belong to citizens to help us solve problems together. There are other important parallels between the history of many-to-many communication tools and the history of other inspired inventions that made the Net possible. Like the other components of the Net, the facilities for structured group discussions evolved slowly until the convergence of key enabling technologies made explosive growth possible. Like the rest of the Net, access to these tools was originally restricted to government and military planning and research elites, then expanded first to defense-related researchers, then opened to other scientists in non-defense-related fields, and then again expanded to nonscience scholars, and finally, now, the focus of debate is whether and how access can be expanded to include educators, students, and citizens.

One of the pioneers in CMC technology dating back to Engelbart's group at SRI, Jacques Vallee, in his prophetic 1982 book The Network Revolution, claims that the first attempt to create a group communication medium was the Berlin crisis and airlift of 1948. An attempt was made to wire together telex machines from a dozen different countries, but with everybody trying to communicate at the same time in different languages, it didn't work out. By 1970, ARPANET was online and new tools were available for accomplishing the same task of geographically distributed, asynchronous, group decision making.

Like packet-switching, computer-mediated teleconferencing owes its birth, in part, to nuclear war planning. In the late 1960s, Murray Turoff was working on war games and other kinds of computer simulations for the Institute for Defense Analysis. Some of these games involved connecting several players at once via remote computing systems. As a result of this experience, Turoff started experimenting with computers as a way of mediating a special expert-consulting process developed at RAND, known as the Delphi method. Delphi was a formal method of soliciting anonymous ideas and critiques of those ideas from panels of experts--a combination of brainstorming and opinion polling. It was done by passing a lot of pieces of paper around in a specified order. Turoff started to computerize Delphi and ended up realizing that there were much wider horizons to the business of convening panels of experts to pass messages around via computer.

In the early 1970s, Turoff moved to the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness, where his job wasn't related to his continuing interest in teleconferencing via computer. His superiors found out that he was using his computer terminal to experiment with an unauthorized conference system, and there was some bureaucratic friction. But then history intervened in the form of the wage-price freeze of 1971, an action by the Nixon administration that required the overnight construction of a system for rapidly collecting and collating information from geographically dispersed branch offices. Turoff's prototype became an authorized project, and the computerized Delphi experiment turned into the Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index (EMISARI).

Along with parts of Engelbart's NLS (oNLineSystem), EMISARI was the original ancestor of today's CMC groupmind systems. It was used to monitor data from forty regional offices, the IRS, and the State and Treasury departments, and to conduct policy meetings among thirty to one hundred experts to determine how the wage-price regulations should be employed. EMISARI evolved into Resource Interruption Monitoring Systems (RIMS) and was used for years by the Federal Preparedness Agency as a form of geographically distributed decision making and crisis management.

In the process of designing EMISARI, the people who built it and the people who used it began to discover that some of the system's features were far more popular with the online community than were others, even though there was no official emphasis on these features and no obvious connection to the tasks at hand. There was, for example, a feature they simply called "messages." Anyone plugged into the system could leave a message for anyone else on a kind of computerized public blackboard space. As with a blackboard, participants could check their messages later to see if anybody else had appended a reply. Notes and replies proliferated so fast that people began to develop programs for sifting through them. When you create a public blackboard, you make everybody a publisher or broadcaster of text. When you begin to sort the messages, you get into groupmind territory, for what you are structuring is a collective memory for many people to communicate with many others.

Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center in California had been working in parallel since the 1960s, but ARC was a much larger project and grander scheme than EMISARI. When Engelbart gave a famous demonstration that literally changed the worldviews of computer designers in 1968, he used a system that linked people via keyboards and screens, and gave each member of the augmented knowledge workshop the ability to mix voice dialogue and even video windows in real time, while also sending text back and forth. It was all part of an integrated system Engelbart had in mind for turning computers into tools for thinking. That was sixteen years before the Apple Macintosh brought the most basic subset of these tools to consumers; and only a tiny minority of the the most sophisticated of the personal computer users in the 1990s have access to multimedia capabilities like those Engelbart demonstrated in 1968.

Turoff's research was sharply focused on one part of the idea of augmentation. The computer conferencing features of NLS were powerful, but there was more work to be done to turn online "journals" and "notebooks" into flexible conferencing systems. Turoff concentrated on structuring text messages into dialogues. ARPA continued to support Engelbart's work. After he completed EMISARI, Turoff moved from the Office of Emergency Preparedness to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where the National Science Foundation funded him to develop his CMC tool into something scientists, educators, and others could use.

Turoff noted in 1976:

I think the ultimate possibility of computerized conferencing is to provide a way for human groups to exercise a "collective intelligence" capability. The computer as a device to allow a human group to exhibit collective intelligence is a rather new concept. In principle, a group, if successful, would exhibit an intelligence higher than any member. Over the next decades, attempts to design computerized conferencing structures that allow a group to treat a particular complex problem with a single collective brain may well promise more benefit for mankind than all the artificial intelligence work to date.

Turoff's Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES --pronounced "Eyes") became operational in 1976, and it still lives as the lively great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities, now a node on the Net--predating the WELL by almost a decade. It was funded by NSF as "an electronic communication laboratory for use by geographically dispersed research communities." By July 1978, seven trial projects were under way, each part of an established research community of ten to fifty members. The system was set up to collect data on its own operations, in order to test the hypothesis that a teleconferencelike system could enhance the effectiveness of research communities. EIES, like ARPANET, was designed to be a testbed for experimenting with the nature of CMC.

Because it was built to be extensively self-documented and extendable to fit the needs of expert users, EIES, like NLS, wasn't the most user-friendly system. Today's computer conferencing systems, several software generations and decades later, aren't much better in that regard. In terms of usability by nonspecialists, CMC today is where personal computing was before computer graphics and the mouse pointing device made the "point and click" method of operating computers possible. Point-and-click tools that hide the complexities of the Net and get you to the information or people you seek were just beginning to emerge from the research-and-development phase by the early 1990s. The human interface problem aside, once you learn your way around a full-fledged conferencing system, you gain a lot of power. There are some things that can't be simplified to point-and-click. Human communication is the most complex system we know about. As Engelbart often said about NLS: "If ease of use was the only valid criterion, people would stick to tricycles and never try bicycles."

EIES, like ARPANET, was another one of those experiments that never shut themselves down because the experimental subjects just wouldn't let go of them. EIES quickly expanded from pure scientific research communities to legislative and medical researchers. Some of the EIES users concentrated on designing new generations of conferencing systems, based on what they had learned from their EIES participation. In this way EIES was the protocommunity that seeded the Net with CMC designers. Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz , for example, worked with Harry Stevens, another early EIES enthusiast, and others to develop a system for the Massachusetts state office of technology called legitecK/a> , created with the scripting language built into EIES. And in 1979, Harry Stevens and others created the Participate conferencing system for a new service called the Source. Stevens was an early advocate of inquiry networking, deliberately harnessing the living database powers of CMC via the architecture of the conferencing system. Participate was designed to structure short discussions, especially around questions and answers, that can later be searched for specific information. Parti on the Source turned out to be another pioneer public virtual community.

The Johnson-Lenzes coined the term groupware, which has been taken up by the business-oriented part of the software industry that is selling CMC products to business organizations. But these EIES veterans, based in Lake Oswego, Oregon, continued to pursue for decades the paradoxical goal of using CMC to find not only community but true spiritual communion. They lived on a shoestring for years, put their money into state-of-the-art hardware, programmed their own software, and created a series of specifically tailored CMC communities. Their goal was to combine the best of the soft communication techniques that had emerged from the human potential movement of the 1970s, with the capabilities of CMC. In the late 1980s, I participated in one of their experiments for several months. The Johnson-Lenzes called their community Awaken, and they included a nondenominational but explicitly spiritual dimension to it.

I knew Peter+Trudy, as their online friends know them, for years before I met them in the material world. When we shared a train to Kyoto from Oita, in the southernmost part of Japan, I had the opportunity to talk with them about their role as early CMC enthusiasts. They and their friends around the world had labored for years to use CMC as a means of achieving reconciliation, community, and enhanced communication. Judging by the state of the world today, almost two decades after EIES opened, CMC has yet to make the world a more peaceful place in any perceptible way.

"Is it worth continuing to try?" was the question we had arrived at by the time the train pulled into the last major station before our destination. We continued to talk with each other, but the three of us were looking out the window. It was another medium-large Japanese city with standard postwar architecture, hard to distinguish from any other, but something about the shape of the landscape that framed it was very familiar to me. I had seen that bowl of hills around the city, and that hill toward the center, in so many photographs. It was Hiroshima Station. We rode in silence for some minutes after that.

Utopian hopes for CMC
Utopian hopes for CMC go back to the heady early days of EIES. By 1978, policymakers, artists, long-range planners, and others began to join EIES. Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Turoff published a book that year, Network Nation --about a revolution that took more than another decade to break out beyond the small circles of enthusiasts--in which they predicted that the medium wouldn't be limited to a few laboratories and think tanks. They noted some of the well-known advantages and disadvantages of the medium. They forecast that people would use the medium to find others who shared their interests and values. They began the first systematic research of how different kinds of organizations use and fail to use CMC technology.

Another group that was developing CMC in the 1970s was a think tank in California called The Institute for the Future (IFTF), a few blocks away from SRI, that saw itself as a kind of tool shop for think tanks. The application of computer technology to bureaucratic planning was a possible strategic resource and potential growth industry in those days. DARPA and NSF funded a group at IFTF to develop a planning and forecasting tool. Jacques Vallee had worked with the original NLS project at SRI, but he, Roy Amara, Robert Johansen, and their colleagues were concerned about building something a policymaker, rather than a techie, would be able to use. The EIES and NLS systems were designed to explore the capabilities of computer systems as communication tools. But PLANET, the PLAnning NETwork designed by IFTF, was designed for easy use by planners in government and industry--most of whom had no previous computer experience. The command set was ultrasimplified to be operated by a few specially designated keys on a specially built portable telecommunications terminal. PLANET later evolved into Notepad, a private global conferencing system still used by a number of large clients such as Shell Oil. Johansen remains at the Institute for the Future, working on the field now known widely as groupware.

Several different events far beyond these laboratories began to add up in the late 1970s to the spontaneous emergence and rapid growth of grassroots networks in the 1980s. In 1977, programmers for Bell Laboratories created a Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) utility that was shipped along with future versions of the Unix operating system. This utility made it possible for any computer that uses Unix to automatically dial and connect via modem with any other computer using Unix, and exchange files from one computer to another. In an unrelated but convergent development, the Telecomputing Corporation of America opened for business in 1979 out of a host computer in Virginia. CMC was now available to anybody with a modem and the price of access. Reader's Digest bought the company in 1980 and renamed it Source Telecomputing Corporation. By the end of 1982, when I joined, the Source had more than twenty-five thousand subscribers and a growth rate of over one thousand subscribers a month.

My Source membership in 1982 cost me a $100 initiation fee and between $7 and $22 an hour, depending on the time of day. The Source, where many of us experienced conferencing for the first time with Participate, and its competitor, CompuServe, offered computer owners outside the military-industrial elite admission to an electronic community. The Source was absorbed by CompuServe, which now has hundreds of thousands of subscribers worldwide.

The years 1979 and 1980 were particularly crucial in the history of CMC. The large utility-company information services such as the Source and CompuServe began operation, the first MUDs appeared in England, the first BBSs started emerging in an entirely different part of the population, and two programmers in North Carolina began using elaborations of UUCP to exchange more structured messages, messages ordered by topic, into a kind of intercommunity conversation. Different communities that used the time-shared services of different computers on different campuses were able to participate in a kind of abstract community constructed from that structured interchange of messages. The first nodes in what has come to be known as the Usenet began in 1980. Like others before them, they had no idea that it would grow to cover the world.

This was a case of a technology that came from the fringes of the Net and emerged precisely because it was not the mainstream. ARPANET and its successors expanded access to communication and information-finding capabilities, as long as you were affiliated with one of the research institutions that ARPA or NSF authorized for network access. Duke University and the University of North Carolina in 1979 were not on Internet, but they did have UUCP. Graduate students Tom Truscott and James Ellis of Duke, working with graduate student Steve Bellovin of UNC, developed the first version of Usenet News in 1979 and circulated a leaflet about it at the winter 1980 Unix Users' Conference (known as Usenix). By the time of the 1980 summer Usenix conference, the News software was being distributed on computer tape to attendees. The News software, which evolved over the years into three progressively more sophisticated versions, was in the public domain; users were encouraged to copy and distribute the software that enables new computer communities to gain interactive access to all the others.

Usenet, meant to represent Unix Users Network, was designed as a forum for discussions about Unix and for Unix troubleshooting. Unix itself was deliberately designed to foster a professional community of programmers who used the Unix toolbox to create new tools that all the other Unix toolbuilders could use. The inventors of Usenet wanted to talk about their tools without having an ARPANET connection. They were surprised at how hungry people were for all kinds of conversations on a worldwide basis, once they caught on to this strange new idea of a conversation in text that floated from campus to campus around the globe. They thought local communities would use it most, but found out that as the network spread, people were more and more interested in participating in conversations on an international scale. The nature of Usenet as we know it today--an anarchic, unkillable, censorship-resistant, aggressively noncommercial, voraciously growing conversation among millions of people in dozens of countries--is largely a result of the way the system was designed.

The fundamental unit of Usenet is the individual posting. Anyone with access to the network can send out a specific, signed, electronic message to the rest of Usenet. The address of the message, however, is not to an individual or even a mailing list, but is the topic of discussion, known as a newsgroup. If I want to contribute to a discussion of the risks of using computers, I compose a message, address it to the "comp.risks" newsgroup, and use the "postnews" software that comes with Usenet to put it in the mail queue. The next time my host computer communicates with another computer via UUCP, that message goes out as electronic mail. When the next computer in the network gets the message, it checks to see which newsgroups it carries, copies all those messages for its resident newsgroups, and then passes it along to the next site. Each message has a unique identifying number, so each site can discard messages it has received before.

At the receiving end, which could be somebody on the other side of the world, is a computer community that just received an electronic mailbag full of Usenet News from some site. That site subscribes to comp.risks, so your message is stored there for those who regularly read messages from that newsgroup. Instead of putting a separate copy of each new message in each subscriber's electronic mailbox, the way an electronic mailing list propagates, News puts one copy in a file that any user can read. Each user makes use of one of several kinds of software tools available at the host site, known as a news reader. The news reader searches through the local newsgroup database, compares it with each individual user's subscription list, and shows the local users new messages as they arrive, on the user's command.

A person halfway around the world, after reading your posting, can take one of several actions: The person can decide that you are a fool and he or she never wants to see anything you post ever again, and puts your name in what is called a kill file, also known as a bozo filter; the person can decide that he or she has the answer to your question or wants to congratulate you on what you said in your posting, and sends you personal electronic mail; the person can decide to reply publicly by posting a rebuttal. Usenet automatically routes your private e-mail or public reply to the appropriate destination; all the user needs to do is issue a one-keystroke command from a menu. This is a third level of power built into Usenet: not only is it distributed in an informal network, and every person who reads Usenet has the power to post to Usenet, but every person has the means to communicate directly and privately with anyone who states something publicly.

The word anarchy is frequently used to describe Usenet, not in the sense of chaotic and disorganized, but in the sense that the whole enterprise of moving all these words from all these people to all these other people is accomplished with no central governing hierarchy on either policy or technical levels. This grew directly out of the way Usenet postings were designed to be passed around the loosely coupled UUCP network. From the beginning, there was no emphasis on a central organization. All you had to do to join Usenet was to obtain the free software, find a site to feed you News and take your postings, and you were in action. The different newsgroups are arranged according to a branching hierarchy. The main branches (alt, biz, comp, misc, rec, sci, soc, and talk) have their own subbranches. Sites can choose which newsgroups or even which categories of newsgroup it makes available to local users. If your host site is outraged by the content of, alt.drugs, or alt.rock-and-roll, it can refuse to carry that newsgroup; other sites will carry the newsgroups that are taboo at yours, however, so there is always an alternate source for any person who is determined to get the information.

The economics of operating Usenet is automatically distributed, another key aspect of the decentralized architecture. If you are a large site and can afford it (like AT&T or Apple), your system administrator arranges to carry some of the communication costs from the smaller sites downstream that get their newsfeeds from your site (for years, Apple's Unix system would automatically call the WELL and transfer Usenet and e-mail, and the WELL fed the stream of messages to smaller local sites). If you weren't from one of the backbone sites that carried more than its share of Usenet traffic, especially in the early years, you paid for your own communication costs when you paid the telephone charges for dialing your Usenet newsfeed site every fifteen minutes or fifteen days.

The growth of Usenet was biological--slow at first, and then exponential. In 1979, there were 3 sites, passing around approximately 2 articles per day; in 1980, there were 15 sites and 10 articles per day; in 1981 there were 150 sites and 20 articles per day. By 1987 there were 5,000 sites, and the daily postings weighed in at 2.5 million bytes. By 1988, it grew to 11,000 sites and the daily mailbag was more than 4 million bytes. By 1992, Usenet was distributed to more than 2.5 million people and the daily News was up to 35 million bytes--thirty or forty times the number of words in this book.

The Usenet was nurtured in the beginning by a small group of dedicated individuals, some of whom happened to be system administrators at key commercial telecommunications sites. Tom Truscott, a creator of Usenet News, worked at Bell Labs in the summer, and he persuaded them to pick up the telephone charges for calling Duke regularly, collecting Usenet News, and relaying it to other sites. AT&T management benignly neglected to make a fuss about the small but growing amount of telecommunications traffic that the Usenet enthusiasts at Bell Labs were adding to their much larger daily communications traffic. It was a legitimate expense, considering the fact that here was a new communication medium emerging and the research charter of Bell Labs is communications research. Digital Equipment Corporation, the same DEC that made the PDP-1 at the beginning of the era of interactive computing, also picked up some of the costs of relaying Usenet. A few managers with some vision felt it was in the interests of DEC to maintain good relations with the Unix-using community.

At the beginning, there was a kind of quasi-anarchic ruling council known as the backbone cabal, consisting of the system administrators who ran the computers at the sites that were carrying most of the traffic for the UUCP-linked network. Erik Fair, the WELL's man on the Net from the earliest days, now the administrator of Apple's Internet site, always passed along cabal lore to fellow WELLites, but nothing was really secret, despite the mocking name. It was all hashed out endlessly in the appropriate newsgroups. The first major revisions of Usenet software were required by the enormous growth in the number of sites and the amount of messages transferred. Usenix conferences and endless online communications enabled the cabal to continue evolving the software as the system choked on its own success. But the backbone began to disappear when Usenet began to use Internet as well as the ad hoc UUCP network to pass along the electronic mailbag of newsgroup messages. The cabal is a historic artifact. Usenet continues to be ruled by norms, not individuals or organizations. If you violate one of the norms--for example, you blatantly propagate commercial traffic outside one of the specified commercial newsgroups--you'll get a lot of angry e-mail, and people might refuse to give you newsfeeds, but no Usenet cops are going to show up at the door.

Mark Horton plugged the ARPANET mailing lists into Usenet around 1981. The two most popular ARPANET mailing lists, SF-LOVERS and HUMAN-NETS, began to circulate among UUCP-linked as well as ARPANET sites. As more and more Internet sites began to carry Usenet News, this discussion medium with no central control began to gain popularity on the packet-switched networks that also had no central control. Usenet made the whole Internet into a kind of virtual metacommunity, and Internet brought Usenet to ever more sites at ever higher speeds. The powers that be at ARPANET first did not enforce old policies restricting interconnection of Internet with Usenet, and ultimately legitimized Usenet.

Eventually, a high-speed network protocol was created for Internet. That means that a very large number of newsgroups can be maintained at a very small number of sites and are available instantly through the high-speed Internet. By 1992, 60 percent of Usenet traffic was moving through the Net via the instantaneous access protocol and 40 percent still moved via the computer-to-computer slow-speed dial-up grapevine.

Newsgroups collect the comments of people around the world, in a way that enables people to address previous comments and thus conduct a kind of conversation. The conversation is less tightly coupled to serial order than in a computer conferencing system like the WELL, in which each response follows the preceding response in strict order. When you post something to the WELL, others on the WELL can read it instantly. In Usenet, because it used to take so long to distribute individual contributions to interested readers everywhere, the temporal continuity of a WELL-like topic structure wasn't possible. However, people on Usenet make use of automatic tools for "quoting" the responses they are replying to, and newsreaders help people group the responses to similar subtopics (threads) within a newsgroup. When I first started using Usenet, in the mid-1980s, it would take a week for a query or a statement to stir up a round of replies from around the world; the same cycle now takes minutes to hours. It is becoming less like a correspondence and more like a conversation as the Net's transmission speeds increase.

In many newsgroups, a crowd of regulars emerges, and that crowd can be very large in a forum that includes millions of people. Well-known cultures of very different kinds have grown up in different newsgroups. Over time, the ongoing conversations often create communities among the regulars of newsgroups. And other newsgroups are more like battlefields than communities, although they also have their regulars and their norms.

You can get a good idea of what people talk about, and an eye-opening clue to how many of them are talking, by looking at the lists of newsgroups available at the nearest Internet site. The newsgroups are divided into several different types. The kinds that start with the prefix alt, for alternative, are the most varied and the least controlled. Anybody who can post messages to the rest of Usenet, and who knows how to use the programming tools, can propagate a newsgroup; college freshmen around the world seem to delight in propagating silly newsgroups (e.g., alt.multi-level-marketing.scam. scam.scam). Few sites decide to carry frivolous newsgroups, although the definition of frivolous is quite elastic. The biz, comp, misc, rec, soc, sci, and talk (business, computers, miscellaneous, recreation, societies and cultures, science, and general discussion) newsgroup hierarchies have very loose rules about creating new groups. There is a call for discussion, a discussion period, and a vote. If one hundred more people vote for a newsgroup than vote against it, the newsgroup is created.

Hierarchy in the Usenet sense means not a chain of command but a way of simplifying large complex groups of information by branching them as subcategories of fundamental categories. For example, here is how the hierarchy works:

Introduction to the Rec.Autos newsgroup hierarchy:

is intended for technical discussions of automobiles, their design, construction, diagnosis, and service. Other discussions are largely inappropriate, especially For Sale ads.

is intended for discussion of legal, organized competition involving automobiles. Technical discussions are appropriate insofar as they apply to competition vehicles. Discussion from either of two viewpoints, spectator and participant, is encouraged. Arguments about sports cars are largely inappropriate, as are most other discussions. For Sale ads are inappropriate unless they are for competition vehicles and/or equipment. Discussions of illegal events are marginal; one should probably avoid advocating breaking the law. (remember, the FBI reads Usenet!)

is intended for discussions related to the driving of automobiles. Also, if you must discuss 55 vs. 65, or radar detectors, or boneheads, do it here.

is intended for discussion of issues related to the use and ownership of automobiles manufactured by Volkswagen (this includes VWs, Audis, Seats, etc.) It was created on the grounds that the info-vw mailing list was very successful. It should not be presumed from the existence of this group that it is appropriate to create many groups to cover many different marques; groups specific to individual marques should only be created on demonstration of sufficient interest, via some avenue such as a mailing list.

is not properly part of the* hierarchy. it is, however, the correct place for discussion of automotive audio equipment, and so is mentioned here.

is not part of the hierarchy, but of potential interest to the reader; it is intended for the discussion of older cars (usually more than 25 years old, although this is not a hard-and-fast rule.)


is not part of the hierarchy, but also of potential interest to the reader. it is gatewayed to the moderated hotrod mailing list, and is for serious discussion of modifying and developing performance vehicles.

is intended to capture discussion on all other automotive topics.

The WELL carries about two hundred newsgroups, but there are thousands of newsgroups available around the world. Some of them are local to an organization, a city, a state, or a nation. Some are global. Most are in English, but newsgroups in many other languages are gaining circulation. A Usenet site in the San Francisco Bay area, Netcom, carries a list of newsgroups that is sixty-seven single-spaced pages long. Here is a small sample, a portion of that sixty-seven-page list, in alphabetical order, with very brief descriptions.

























Discussion about 3D imaging.

Activities for activists.

Space creatures ate my modem.

Anxiety in the modern world.

The aquarium & related as a hobby.

A newsgroup for people interested in archery.

Position announcements.

Artificial Intelligence Vision Research. (Moderated)

Spreadsheets on various platforms.

Consumer interests, product reviews, etc.

Forum for paramedics & other first responders.

Discussion on operating a business.

Physical fitness, exercise, etc.

Short, tasteful postings about items for sale.

Items of interest for/about the handicapped.

Postings of resumes and "situation wanted."

Children, their behavior and activities.

Discussing antiques and vintage items.

Discussion of various kinds of animation.

Tattoos and body decoration discussions.

Books of all genres, and the publishing industry.

Erotic fiction and verse. (Moderated)

Astronomy discussions and information.

Any topic relating to biotechnology.

All aspects of chemical engineering.

All sorts of discussions and arguments on abortion.

The unusual, bizarre, curious, and often stupid.

Discussion the state of the environment.

Evolution versus creationism (sometimes hot!).

The use and/or abuse of animals.

The politics of firearm ownership and (mis)use.

Discussions on stopping rape; not to be crossposted.

Soc.culture groups capture the truly global favor of Usenet. There are newsgroups for people to discuss the people, culture, and politics of Bulgaria, Canada, the Caribbean, China, Europe, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, the Jewish community, Korea, Latin America, Lebanon, Magyar, Mexico, Nepal, the Phillipines . . . the list continues through dozens more, all the way to Vietnam. Soc. culture.yugoslavia suffered the same fate of the nation of Yugoslavia. Even before armed conflict began making headlines, relations between the Serbian and Croatian factions of the newsgroup started flaming each other.

Postings on Usenet can run from three to three thousand lines. Here is an example, a posting from an authoritative source, about the political impact of Usenet:

From: avg@rodan.UU.NET (Vadim Antonov)

Newsgroups: alt.culture.usenet

Subject: Re: Usenet leakage into the Real World

Date: 2 Jul 1992 22:24:35 -0400

Organization: Berkeley Software Design

In article <> (Mark Anderson) writes:


>USENET is not as isolated as some people seem to


Surely. During the coup in Moscow, the information posted to USENET was used by Voice of America and CNN and (indirectly) by some other Western broadcasters and newspapers. In USSR, the USENET became one of the major information channels--the conventional phone and telex channels are fairly clobbered. You even can write an e-mail message to the Russian Supreme Council. Russian bureaus of UPI, Frans Press, Associated Press and a dozen of others get news from Interfax, Agency of Economical News (Russia) and Russian Information Agency (RIA) as USENET feed: it works better than faxes. Finally, the current Russian government experts rely on USENET heavily in discussing new legislative proposals with experts and executives from financial and regional groups. USENET works just fine for scientists; there is no reason why it can't be used as fruitfully by governments, mass-media and financial circles.

Vadim Antonov

Berkeley Software Design, Inc.

Here is a request for information, similar to the Experts on the WELL topic. Many postings like this use Usenet as a living database:

Newsgroups: rec.crafts.textiles,alt.sewing

Path: well!uunet!gatech!utkcs2!!vusl

From: (VU Science Library)

Subject: Social History of Sewing

Organization: Mathematics, Vanderbilt University, Nashville

I am interested in the history of creating clothing. I have seen several books on what clothes of a certain period looked like. I have seen some patterns try to reproduce these clothes.

But what I am interested in is more a social history of sewing. My area of interest here is the years 1066-1500. Who made the clothing the lady of the manor wore? What kind of needles were used? When was the button invented (during the Crusades?)? How did clothing get from the sheep onto the pages of these previously mentioned books on the history of costume? If you know of any books or references along these lines I would appreciate hearing about them. I will be glad to post a summary (if there's any interest!).



Here's the Usenet as an exotic flea-market:


From: (Barry Ronald Breffle)

Subject: Burmese Pythons FOR SALE

Organization: Iowa Computer Aided Engineering Network, University of Iowa

For Sale

I have several hatchling Burmese pythons for sale. They are captive bred offspring from a long line of captive bred. Burmese pythons and are beautiful and healthy. All are feeding well. They hatched May '92.

Normal pattern Burmese $100

Green (Patternless) phase Burmese $350

Anyone interested please e-mail:

Barry Breffle

(prices do not include shipping, if required)

Constant growth of Usenet means that newsgroups are constantly admitting newcomers. The value of any knowledge-based virtual community derives from the quality of conversation and the expertise of the pool of contributors. People in newsgroups that exchange serious information, tired of the same questions repeatedly asked by newcomers, started compiling and posting FAQs--lists of frequently asked questions. The volunteer editor of a FAQ reposts the latest version to the newsgroup every two weeks or two months, depending on the amount of traffic in the newsgroup. An entire newsgroup is devoted to periodic repostings of FAQs on a panoply of subjects.

Compiling, updating, and republishing a FAQ serves the immediate purpose of preventing the discussion from choking on reiteration of the same old stuff, but FAQs very quickly turn into a unique kind of resource of their own--collectively compiled and verified textbooks on the ten (or forty or one hundred) most important things a beginner ought to know about Unix or pedigreed dogs or Afghani culture or radio scanners or buying a bicycle.

FAQs usually are compiled by the kind of people who like to organize things. Usenet newsgroups are often archived, so anyone with ftp access to the Net can search through them, extract the most frequent questions and the best answers that emerged from the newsgroup, and organize them into a kind of online primer for the newcomer. Thus, the FAQ document keeps the conversation from bogging, provides a structure for a collective database on the subject of the conversation, and serves as an attraction and welcome to people who might want to join the subculture served by the newsgroup.

FAQs are a distilled form of Usenet. A few key bytes from all the millions discarded daily are selected for archival. Sites all over Internet dedicate large amounts of their computer storage to keeping universally accessible resources, such as archives of FAQs. The FAQ becomes a dynamically updated part of the Net's information resource, although it emerged from the informal conversational flow of newsgroups. Here are two examples of the tables of contents of two popular FAQs--a sparse sample from a population of hundreds of different FAQs:


Q1: How is rec.aviation organized?

Q2: I'd like to learn to fly. How do I do it, how much does it cost, how long does it take?

Q3: I want to buy a headset. What should I buy?

Q4: OK, what about a portable intercom?

Q5: Tell me about mail-order.

Q6: I'm a private pilot. How should I log time in instrument conditions?

Q7: Tell me about DUATS on-line weather briefings.

Q8: Tell me about BITNET access and the aviation-digest list.

Q9: How do I start a brand-new thread of articles?

Q10: I'm a non-U.S. licensed private pilot. Can I fly in the U.S.?

Q11: What about hang-gliding? Ultralights?

Q12: Where can I get a copy of public-domain flight planning software and other good stuff on the net?

Q13: I'm considering buying an airplane. How much will it cost?

Q14: Can I use my cellular telephone in an airplane?

Q15: Can I use a radio, either a broadcast or aviation receiver, in an aircraft?

Q16: I have a physical disability and would like to learn to fly. How?

Q17: What are the alternatives for taking an FAA written examination?

Q18: Are slips with flaps prohibited in certain Cessnas?














Here is an example from a FAQ about cats that illustrates the extremely fine level of detail many of the FAQs have grown to include. They are, in effect, collectively written textbooks consisting of lore:

10. "Cat Grass."

Cats benefit from some vegetable matter in their diet. When devouring prey, the intestines, along with anything in them, will also be eaten. Many owners grow some grass for their cats to munch on, both for a healthy diet, and to distract them from other household plants!

In general, seeds that are OK to grow and give to your cats (but do not use treated seeds, identifiable by a dyed red, blue or awful green color): oats (cheap, easy, big), wheat (not wheatgrass) Japanese barnyard millet, bluegrass, fescue, rye (but beware of ergot, which is a fungal infection and produces LSD-like chemicals), ryegrass (annual ryegrass is cheap and easy to grow, but small), alfalfa sprouts or bean sprouts in SMALL amounts (these have anti-protein compounds that reduce the protein value of other things fed to the animal (or human!).

Seeds that are NOT okay: sorghum or sudangrass, which have cyanogenic glycosides, and can cause cyanide poisoning. These are commonly found in bird seed and look like smallish white,

yellow, orangish, or reddish BB's, or the shiny black, yellow or straw colored glumes may be intact.

Usenet is a place for conversation or publication, like a giant coffeehouse with a thousand rooms; it is also a worldwide digital version of the Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, an unedited collection of letters to the editor, a floating flea market, a huge vanity publisher, and a coalition of every odd special-interest group in the world. It is a mass medium because any piece of information put onto the Net has a potential worldwide reach of millions. But it differs from conventional mass media in several respects. Every individual who has the ability to read a Usenet posting has the ability to reply or to create a new posting. In television, newspapers, magazines, films, and radio, a small number of people have the power to determine which information should be made available to the mass audience. In Usenet, every member of the audience is also potentially a publisher. Students at universities in Taiwan who had Usenet access and telephone links to relatives in China became a network of correspondents during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

Some newsgroups contain digitally encoded sounds and pictures. Right now, it is possible to use easily-downloaded software tools to convert a scanned photograph or a digitized sound into a series of alphabetic characters. That set of characters can be posted to the Net like any other message, and people who have the software to decode it can turn it into an image or a sound that can be displayed or played on their desktop machines. Nothing you can do in the online universe feels so much like alchemy as connecting to the Net, performing the proper incantations, and watching a fresh satellite weather map of the Pacific pop up in full color on your screen. New standards for exchanging multimedia information, and tricks for compressing complex audiovisual information into easily communicated packages via Internet, will make this multimedia aspect of Usenet even more powerful in the coming years. Think of the impact that one amateur photojournalist had when he videotaped the Rodney King beating by the Los Angeles Police Department. Think of what the impact will be when anybody, anywhere with access to a cheap digital videocamera of the future will be able to upload eyewitness reports to the multimedia Citizen's Reporting Network of the future.

Usenet is an enormous volunteer effort. The people who created it did so voluntarily and put the software into the public domain. The growing megabytes of content are contributed by volunteers. The combination of free expression, lack of central control, many-to-many communication access, and volunteer effort has created a new kind of social organization. Much of this growth has benefitted from the way it has taken place outside the public eye. The first outbreaks of Usenet hysteria in the traditional mass media are beginning to break out. The existence of newsgroups that contain explicit sexual material, either text, graphics, or sounds, is something that is very hard to explain to conservative taxpayers, and the existence of such lurid corners of the Usenet is rarely revealed in the context of the very wide range of valuable information available through the same medium. Usenet libertarians argue that "community standards" is built into the architecture. If your local group does not want to carry a newsgroup, or wants to block access to Usenet by certain users, it is possible to do so. It is much harder for any locality to stop multiple other sites elsewhere in the world from carrying the same material.

Usenet is arguably the world's largest conversation. But it isn't the only grassroots network in the world. Other conversations, tens and hundreds of thousands of them, are taking place in the most local variation of virtual community technology--the BBS culture.

Grassroots: BBS Culture

If a BBS (computer Bulletin Board System) isn't a democratizing technology, there is no such thing. For less than the cost of a shotgun, a BBS turns an ordinary person anywhere in the world into a publisher, an eyewitness reporter, an advocate, an organizer, a student or teacher, and potential participant in a worldwide citizen-to-citizen conversation. The technology of personal telecommunications and the rich, diverse BBS culture that is growing on every continent today were created by citizens , not doomsday weapon designers or corporate researchers.

Like real grassroots, BBSs grow from the ground up, are self-propagating, and are difficult to eradicate. All the high-speed, government-financed internets in the world could turn to lime Jell-O tomorrow and the BBS community would continue to thrive, along with the parts of Usenet that don't propagate via Internet but are passed from computer to computer via modem. Increasingly, the BBSs are linked to the rest of the Net via gateways, but, by their nature, they are not dependent on the Net. There is no way to stamp out the BBS subcultures , unless you shut down the telephone system or go back to the 1970s and un-invent the microprocessor.

A BBS is a personal computer, not necessarily an expensive one, running inexpensive BBS software, plugged into an ordinary telephone line via a small electronic device called a modem. Reliable modems cost less than $100, and the price is dropping. Attach a modem to your computer, plug the modem into your telephone, create a name for your BBS, post the telephone number on a few existing BBSs, and you're in the virtual community business. People call your BBS number and leave private messages or public information. I know a fellow in Colorado Springs, Colonel Dave Hughes, who uses his BBS to fight city hall. I know a fellow in Zushi, Japan, Mayor Kichiro Tomino , who used to fight city hall and now runs the mayor's office via BBS. In the former Soviet Union, BBSs proved to be a potent political tool as well.

A BBS is also a kind of toolkit for creating different kinds of subcultures. You can use a BBS to organize a movement, run a business, coordinate a political campaign, find an audience for your art or political rants or religious sermons, and assemble with like-minded souls to discuss matters of mutual interest. You can let the callers create the place themselves, or you can run it like your own private fiefdom.

Much BBS culture is mundane or puerile or esoteric. It's a raw, unmediated alternative to mass-media culture. Few of the tens of thousands of BBS operators (known as sysops) are interested in how the mass media define reality. BBSs have something in common with "zines," the small-circulation, homemade, grassroots magazines that grew out of the "fanzines" of science-fiction enthusiasts. Zine publishers and BBS sysops are both channels for the direct manifestation of popular culture, unedited, often unpolished, sometimes offensive to traditional sensibilities.

Sysops are more interested in how the people who communicate in clusters of ten to one hundred via the tens of thousands of BBSs around the world define their own realities. (Boardwatch magazine estimates that sixty-thousand BBSs existed in the United States alone by 1993.) These communities are small specks in a virtual universe full of much larger groups. But there are so many of them. And they are beginning to organize collectively. One BBS is a community of one hundred. Fifty thousand BBSs represent up to half a million people--who can spread the word very quickly. Just ask the FCC, which is deluged with mail every time somebody floats the rumor about a proposed modem tax.

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess had no way of knowing in 1978 that they were creating a potent political and educational tool as well as a new medium for community-building. At first, they merely wanted to transfer microcomputer programs from place to place via the telephone system. Christensen started to lay the foundations for the grassroots telecommunications culture in 1977, when he created and released to the public domain a microcomputer program called MODEM. MODEM allowed two microcomputers in different locations to use a telephone line to exchange files.

People at both ends had to perform arcane synchronized rituals in order to make MODEM work. First, the human operators at each end of the line had to make voice contact, and then they would put the telephone headsets into an acoustic coupler, a device the size of a shoebox that would link their telephones with the computer; the acoustic coupler communicated with the computer via a modem (MOdulator-DEModulator) that would turn the electronic impulses coming out of the computer into the audio tones that could travel over the telephone network, as well as convert incoming audio tones into electronic impulses. Once their computers were communicating with one another, the operators had to issue commands to transfer the file. That's a long way from the kind of automated communication afforded by electronic mail or networks like ARPANET. But it was a start.

In 1979, Keith Peterson and Ward Christensen released a new version of the software that would perform error correction, a bit of hobbyist high technology that made it possible to transmit files without error, even on noisy telephone lines. Error-corrected transmission is important when sending computer programs such as MODEM itself, because such transmission errors can render the program unusable at the receiving end. They called their new microcomputer file transfer protocol XMODEM. Although 1979 was almost as long ago as the Jurassic age in terms of contemporary technology, the original XMODEM protocol is still the way millions of personal computer users transfer files. Because of the large number of different kinds of computers it has been transferred to, Christensen believes it is "the single most modified program in computing history."

The act of putting that software into the public domain at the very beginning of the era of hobbyist telecommunications technology had a profound effect on BBS culture. Not only did Christensen give away a tool that would make BBSs valuable (by allowing them to act as publishing houses for public-domain software that could be uploaded and downloaded), he prevented anybody from trying to establish exclusive ownership of the tool.

Christensen and others were interested in storing and forwarding text messages as well as transferring files. In 1978, Christensen and Randy Suess created Computer Bulletin Board System (CBBS). It all started, according to Christensen, on January 16, 1978, a very snowy day in Chicago, when he decided to do the software, and Suess decided to do the hardware, for a simple microcomputer communication system. The November 1978 issue of Byte magazine, a publication that had heralded the microelectronics and microcomputer revolutions, published "Hobbyist Computerized Bulletin Boards," by Christensen and Suess. Not only did these pioneers create a new technology, they immediately told everybody else how to do it. A whole new way of using personal computers became available; new territories beckoned those early adopters of PC technology who were tired of games and graphics and databases.

In 1989, when Christensen recalled the original chain of events in a posting to Chinet, a Chicago-area conferencing system, he noted: "XMODEM was born of the necessity of transferring files mostly between Randy and myself, at some means faster than mailing cassettes (if we'd lived less than the 30 miles apart we did, XMODEM might not have been born). CBBS was born of the conditions, `all the pieces are there, it is snowing like @#$%, lets hack.'"

In 1979, CBBS went online to the public in Chicago, enabling individuals to read and write messages to and from many other individuals, like a standard bulletin board in the nonvirtual world, where people tack up notices of community interest on a piece of corkboard in a public place. Modems were expensive and slow, and messages weren't structured in terms of topics or conferences, but people were using their PCs and their telephones to communicate, and that in itself was exciting for the first cadres of enthusiasts. Equally important was the fact that neither the communications nor the computer companies had any idea what people like Christensen were up to.

In 1979, the BBS community was restricted almost exclusively to microcomputer hobbyists, and their interests included all kinds of questions--as long as the questions had something to do with how to make personal computers work. People who used the technology to talk about pets and politics and religion would come later. There was one significant exception, however: the CommuniTree BBS in Santa Cruz, California, went online in 1978, paralleling Christensen and Suess's efforts in Chicago. I stumbled onto CommuniTree myself when I first started BBS-hopping, and what I found there impressed me enough to save some of the postings for ten years.

CommuniTree, starting with its name, was specifically focused on the notion of using BBSs to build community, at a time when most other BBSers were still more interested in the technology itself. The Tree was still active in 1982-1983, when I first started exploring the online world. The item that caught my interest enough to print and file it had to do with some people who were designing a new kind of community based on spiritual practice of a nontheological nature. They called it ORIGINS.

ORIGINS started in the "create your own religion" discussion area. In the midst of an overcrowded northern California marketplace for high-priced, highly organized enlightenment for sale or rent, I liked their declaration that "ORIGINS has no leaders, no official existence, nothing for sale. Because it started in an open computer conference, no one knows who all the creators are." The central tenets of the movement were "practices"--actions to be remembered and undertaken in everyday life in the material world. The kind of world the originators of ORIGINS had in mind is wryly evident in the practices its adherents promised to do every day: "Leverage a favor, Ask for help and get it, Use charisma, Finish a job, Use magic, Observe yourself, Share Grace."

I often wondered what had become of them. At the First Conference on Cyberspace in 1990 in Austin, Texas, I ran into somebody who remembered. The CommuniTree BBS had a chance of being the seed for an entire network, but according to one observer who participated in its heyday, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, it fell victim to a problem that continues to plague the BBS community--people who use BBSs as an arena for acting out antisocial impulses. "The students, at first mostly boys and with the linguistic proclivities of pubescent males, discovered the Tree's phone number and wasted no time in logging onto the conferences," Stone recalled, in her presentation to the Austin conference.

They appeared uninspired by the relatively intellectual and spiritual air of the ongoing debates, and proceeded to express their dissatisfaction in ways appropriate to their age, sex, and language abilities. Within a short time the Tree was jammed with obscene and scatological messages. There was no easy way to monitor them as they arrived, and no easy way to remove them once they were in the system. . . .

Within a few months, the Tree had expired, choked to death with what one participant called `the consequences of freedom of expression.' During the years of its operation, however, several young participants took the lessons and implications of such a community away with them, and proceeded to write their own systems. Within a few years there was a proliferation of on-line virtual communities of somewhat less visionary character but vastly superior message-handling capability. . . .

The visionary character of CommuniTree's electronic ontology proved an obstacle to the Tree's survival. Ensuring privacy in all aspects of the Tree's structure and enabling unlimited access to all conferences did not work in a context of increasing availability of terminals to young men who did not necessarily share the Tree gods' ideas of what counted as community. As one Tree veteran put it, `The barbarian hordes mowed us down.' Thus, in practice, surveillance and control proved necessary adjuncts to maintaining order in the virtual community.

CommuniTree's focus on social and spiritual matters was an exception for the era. The first generations of BBSers were the home brewers who had a lot of technical knowledge about how their medium worked. People in a few cities began to set up BBSs. The prices for modems in the early 1980s were high--$500 or more for anything faster than a glacially slow 300 bits per second (most adults can read faster than that). Home-brew telecommunications was still a province for hands-on hobbyists who could debug their own software and configure their own hardware. Then Tom Jennings came along.

Jennings, a programmer for a small computer software company in Boston, started using an acoustic coupler to call up CBBS in 1980 and 1981. When he moved to San Francisco in 1983, Jennings found himself with a few weeks of leisure before he had to start working again, so he decided to write a BBS program. Jennings had Fido BBS #1 online by December 1983.

Jennings and his partner-in-home-brew-networking, Tim Pozar, and I spent an afternoon in 1991 talking about the origins and evolution of FidoNet. Pozar and I had met via the WELL, and I was curious about the history of home-brew BBS networks, so Pozar and Jennings shoehorned into my minuscule and densely packed office at Whole Earth Review to explain how it had all happened. You can tell from ten feet away that Jennings is not a conventional programmer or conventional anything. The day we talked, his hair was purple, and he had a number of metal appliances piercing his leather jacket, his ears, and his nose. He's a skateboarder, a gay activist, and an anarchist who hates the idea of suppressing any kind of free expression of ideas.

The name "Fido" went back to an incident at a small company that Jennings worked for in the late 1980s. The company computer belonged to Jennings; it was a mongrel collection of different parts, "including a ten-billion amp power supply and a fan that would blow it away from the wall," Jennings recalled. One night, drinking beer after work, somebody wrote "Fido" on a business card and taped it to the machine. The name migrated to the BBS. The nose-thumbing informality of the name of the BBS was a harbinger of the cultural flavor of the virtual community that began to grow around it.

From the beginning, Jennings wanted to run an extremely loose ship, in which the people who used the BBS would determine the norms. On the first version of Fido, Jennings had included a free-for-all area called "anarchy." "I said to the users that they could do anything they wanted," Jennings told me. "I've maintained that attitude for eight years now, and I have never had problems running BBSs. It's the fascist control freaks who have the troubles. I think if you make it clear that the callers are doing the policing--even to put it in those terms disgusts me--if the callers are determining the content, they can provide the feedback to the assholes."

Jennings asserts that Fido sysops remain "viciously independent." To this day, the philosophy shared by most Fido sysops is usually stated in these words: "Thou shalt not offend; thou shalt not be easily offended." An attitude like that just asks for people who have problems with authority to test the sysop's level of tolerance. Flames--outbursts of angry personal attacks--are not unknown events on Fido boards. Scatological invasions such as the one that shut down CommuniTree are not unknown. The signal-to-noise ratio on a Fido system can be low, especially in comparison with scholarly electronic mailing lists; other Fido neighborhoods are as congenial and intellectually stimulating as you are likely to find anywhere on the Net. Fido is raw, uncut, street-level telecom. And as William Gibson wrote in Neuromancer, the book that gave us the word cyberspace, "the street finds its own uses for technology."

Fido started to propagate when a Fido user from Baltimore persuaded Jennings to help him make a version that was compatible with another brand of computer. In January 1984, Fido #2 started operating in Baltimore. Fidos began proliferating rapidly at that point because the software for running your own Fido system was one of the files that callers could transfer (download) from Fido BBSs: the technology was self-propagating. Jennings recalls that Fido software accounted for about 10 percent of the software downloaded at that time. By the end of 1984, several dozen Fidos were operating.

Jennings has an unusual price structure for those who want to obtain a copy of Fido and put themselves in the BBS business: "For a hundred and ninety-nine bucks, my current price, I'll sell you the commercial package to use in your business. For forty dollars, I'll sell you the same package as a hobbyist. And for forty you can download it. Just don't ask me many questions. You pick where you want to be on the tier. If you want to be upscale and official, you can mail me two hundred bucks and what you'll get is your own credibility in your own head. I don't tell people that. Actually, I do tell people that and they do it anyway." The BBS business wasn't Jennings's highest priority. He had a grander plan. If he could home-brew self-propagating BBS software, could he home-brew an entire network?

"I had this bug in my head," Jennings recalled, "from years and years before that, about having a network of BBSs that all dialed each other toll-free, local call to local call, all the way across the country. It sounds great for about five minutes, until you realize how many thousands of calls it would take to get across the country. You'd need full saturation, a BBS every twenty miles."

The idea wouldn't go away, even though the dozens of Fidos that existed at the time were far from the continental network required to make Jennings's scheme feasible. So he calculated what long distance calls in the middle of the night might cost in relation to the amount of material that could be transferred. By 1985, personal computer modems capable of transmitting 1,200 bits per second were becoming affordable. At that time, he figured it would cost roughly twenty-five cents to send three single-spaced pages of text across the continent. "So you don't need to hop across the country," Jennings realized. "You just direct dial, and you do it in the middle of the night when the rates are cheapest."

That was the beginning of National Fido Hour. Between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m., Fido BBSs shut down for dial-in users, and the BBSs call each other. Jennings gave each BBS a unique node number, and people were able to send mail to each other from any node of the network; the network would forward messages according to the node numbers attached to them, and nodes would keep track of the telephone numbers of other nodes via a nodelist that was also distributed by Jennings via e-mail. As nodes began to cluster in major cities, Jennings upgraded the system to include local gateways. Instead of making seventeen calls to St. Louis, a Baltimore Fido could make one call to St. Louis, and the St. Louis gateway would redistribute in the local area.

One characteristic of networks is that events at local nodes can quickly ripple out to the entire group. In 1985 and 1986, several developments, some coming from Jennings, some originating from sysops and users at the nodes, began to expand the growth of Fidonet, as it was coming to be known. A fellow in Dallas came up with a scheme to ride on Fidomail, called Echomail, a tool that made something more like computer conferencing possible. Fido boards at the beginning distributed mail to one another, but other than the newsletter Jennings sent out with the nodelists and e-mail, there was no distributed conferencing system. Echomail made that possible. By 1986, several hundred Fido sysops showed up at the first Fido users convention, now known as Fidocon, in Colorado Springs. By late 1986, network growth and use started exploding.

By the end of 1986, there were about one thousand nodes. Estimating conservatively at ten users per node, that meant about ten thousand people were on the network. All the telephone bills were paid by the sysops, who also had total control of whether to make usage of that board free or commercial. By 1991, there were over ten thousand nodes, with a conservative estimate of one hundred thousand Fidonet users. When the connectivity issues began to get interesting--there were gateways to Europe, Australia, and Asia by 1991--Tim Pozar began working on the ultimate connection.

"I joined the WELL and I had seen the conferences there and the Usenet newsgroups that came there, so I had always known there was another world to connect to," Pozar explained. Around 1986 and 1987, Pozar started working, via Fidonet, with programmers in Florida and Wisconsin, on a scheme to convert Fido electronic messages to a form that could be read by other networks. "I also worked with Ken Harrington at SRI on mapping Fidonet onto Internet. He was excited about the idea of being able to make the Internet accessible by ordinary citizens. He helped us with a lot of the monetary and administrative bullshit." That was probably a key element in the success of the venture. SRI was the latest incarnation of Stanford Research Institute, where the Department of Defense had funded the original ARPANET's first Network Information Center in the late 1960s. By the late 1980s, Net techies at SRI still had a lot of pull.

Pozar set up the first FidoNet-Internet gateway at the radio station in San Francisco where he worked as a technician. By 1991, there were forty gateways around the world. Internet's worldwide nodes communicate with each other at very high speeds, so if you can use the Rube-Goldbergesque National Fido Hour scheme to get a message into Internet at one node, it will pop up at the speed of light on another Internet node in Australia or Amsterdam, where it reverts to the old late-night-relay style of distribution.

There are many different kinds of Fido boards, and many different boards outside the Fido cosmos. Like Usenet, the sheer variety of BBSs gives the newcomer a glimpse at the dizzying varieties of subcultures that are popping up all over. Most boards are free and don't require a registration procedure, so it is possible to log onto one board, find its list of other boards, and spend an evening hopping from one board to another.

The best way to get a sense of what people talk about on BBSs is to see for yourself. Even looking at the introductory menus of different boards can reveal something about the diversity of the BBS world. Here is a glimpse of a BBS that attracted me because of its name. BBSs are used by people of every political stripe. The far right, the far left, pagans and Presbyterians, activists and publicists, have BBSs. The COMBAT ARMS BBS is one example of what is out there. You can make some good guesses about the nature of the community a BBS nourishes by browsing the menus of information and discussion available.

The log-in banner of COMBAT ARMS announces, among other things:




PLEASE. . . Use real names only!

This BBS is geared toward firearms, law, aviation and science.





rrr: If you want a reward (if available), sign your crime report with a unique 9 digit number. You can safely use your Social Security number if you wish. It will remain confidential.

Some of the regular discussions ("echoes," in Fidospeke) in the menu of COMBAT ARMS attracted my attention. There are echoes for questions and answers to and from law enforcement personnel, for discussions of the civil war, questions and answers about firearms and homeschooling, civil liberties and real estate, setting up a BBS and participating in search and rescue operations. This BBS appears to be something of a soapbox for the sysop, who includes an extensive collection of essays and texts for free downloading. Here are a few of the bulletins available.

\\Combat Arms BBS Bulletin Menu



\\ 1-What the Combat Arms BBS is all about.

\\ 5-Getting ready for a disaster.

\\ 6-Bay Area legislators to contact to let them know you are

\\ opposed to gun control moves on their part.

\\ 7-Information on ballistics for police officers (& others).

\\ 8-Here is a list of gun related BBS systems nationwide!

\\ 9-Some of the events that preceded the American

\\ Revolutionary War. Read this and LEARN. Most people do

not understand this!

\\ 10-How to hunt for wild pigs in California. This applies to

\\\ most all other states as well (except the regulations)

\\11-Here is the text from the California gun ban that explains

\\ which guns are banned. It went into effect on January 1, 1990.

\\12-How to qualify for an M1 Garand and receive it direct from

\\ the U.S. Army. This is the Director of Civilian Marks-

\\ manship (D.C.M.) program.

\\ 14-B.A.T.F. explanation of "straw purchases" of firearms. It is

\\ important that all dealers and customers understand this.

\\ 15-What to know what an "assault rifle" really is? Here is a

\\ report by Dr. Edward C. Ezell from the Smithsonian Insti-

\\ tution to Congressman Dingell on the subject. This is very

\\ valuable information for researchers and those shooters

\\ who need technical information for the ignorant media

reporters. This may be downloaded as EZELL.ZIP.

\\ 16-Tips on the proper display of the American Flag.

\\ 17-Results of UCLA study on condoms. Some they tested are

NO good whatsoever and will not keep you safe from AIDS.

\\ 18-The news summary for the Gulf War from January 18th

through March 3rd. This bulletin is 231,808 bytes long.

\\ 19-How to get upgraded to a higher access level on this BBS.

\\ 21-Excellent article on Springfield Armory's 1911-A1 pistols.

\\ Please be sure to read this before buying one.

\\ 24-How to write an article and upload it as a message on the

\\ Combat Arms BBS. This method generally works on other

\\ bulletin boards as well.

\\ 26-This is the actual text of the Supreme Court ruling in the

\\ classic case of U.S. versus Miller. Also included are your

\\ SysOp's comments as well as those of a pro-gun attorney.

37-How to make a long distance call when your regular long

distance carrier is inoperative. This is very, very useful info.

\\ 33-The entirety of Patrick Henry's famous "Give me Liberty

\\ or give me death!" speech of March, 1775. Read this and

\\ ponder America's present political situation.

\\ 42-Are you seriously interested in the science of ballistics?

\\ If so, here is some information on a graduate program in the

\\ field of ballistics at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

\\ I would consider providing scholarship money to any user

\\ Level 10 or higher) who later enrolls in this program.

Note menu item 19. This is a common feature of BBSs. The BBS is open to anybody who wants to call in. You have to stick around for a while, perhaps meet the sysop in person, to be granted access to more restricted discussions that take place among an inner circle in the same BBS.

In one telephone call, it is possible to BBS-hop from survivalists to theologians. It didn't take me long to discover there isn't enough time in the day to keep up with what is happening in religious BBSs of the San Francisco Bay area. Some are connected with real-life congregations, others are free-form and come in sixteen shades of unorthodox. The role of communications media in shaping religion has been central since the time of the Epistles, and perhaps the most important change in organized religion to take place in the twentieth century has been the advent of television congregations. Mass-market religion in the style of television evangelists is thoroughly a product of the old broadcast paradigm that has dominated institutions in recent decades. The grassroots dynamism within the world's major religions is an unusually promising environment for a many-to-many paradigm, where coreligionists can find each other, stay in touch between services, and even commune in traditional ways via nontraditional media.

The Catholic Information Network (CIN) has four nodes in the bay area and six others around the country; CIN message areas include a main area, prayer, ecumen, "Ask Father," Bible, ethics, and homeschooling. LDSnet, a sixteen-node national network for Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints (Mormon) believers, has two nodes in Colorado that are located in churches. CompuPal BBS message area provides access to several Christian Fido echos, an online Bible search program, and a Bible text available for downloading. NewLife Christian Network includes around thirty-five active BBSs nationwide and includes echos for Christian media, creationism, spiritual warfare, and sports. There is also the Orthodox Christian BBS, Corpus Christi BBS, the Computers for Christ network of about thirty nodes in the United States, Canada, and England, AgapeNet, and Christian Fellowship Net. This is a sample, not an exhaustive listing, of the Christian BBSs available in just the San Francisco Bay area. Like Deadheads and computer programmers, people with strong religious beliefs are members of communities who want to stay in touch with one another between face-to-face communions. There's a lot more to the BBS culture than cyberpunks and computer nerds.

Christian BBSs are prominent, but far from the only denomination available within my area code. Keshernet is a Jewish network (Kesher means "connect" in Hebrew) of different Jewish FidoNet echoes, including Judaica, Interfaith, and Jewish Genealogy. Body Dharma online devotes message areas to the entire spectrum of Eastern, Western, and pagan traditions. Zen Connection is a Fido board. PODS, the Pagan/Occult Distribution Network, carries interfaith information as well as Goddess spirituality information. There are boards such as Bay Area Skeptic for people who are skeptical about religion. Or dozens of BBSs like the Temple of the Screaming Electron if you want to step entirely off the scale.

BBSs devoted to health and medical discussions also abound. Body Dharma, in addition to spiritual material, offers resources and discussion areas in medical, disability, and alternative therapies. ADAnet is a Fidonet-wide echo that includes message areas for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and post-polio syndrome. Sponsored by the Disability Law Foundation, ADAnet makes information available to employers who need information about the Americans with Disability Act of 1991. The Grateful Med BBS carries medical and alternative health echoes, including echoes devoted to biomedical engineering and search and rescue medicine. Blink Connection BBS is a forum for exchanging information in support of blind and visually impaired computer users (who can use print-to-voice and large-print technologies to "read" BBS text). There is an AIDS Info BBS, as well.

Earthquakes are a bay area special interest, but BBSs devoted to disaster preparedness are nationwide. In the bay area, there is the Public Seismic Network, a four-node BBS network spread between Menlo Park, San Jose, Pasadena, and Memphis, Tennessee; U.S. Geological Survey volunteers staff the Menlo Park node. Rising Storm BBS is oriented toward general emergency preparation and survival, including message areas in self-sufficiency, self-defense, law and order, firearms, and civil liberties. Rising Storm is the California node of Survnet, a small survivalist network that includes information and discussion about survival politics as well as survival techniques. SALEMDUG is a BBS for state, local, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) workers.

And, of course, there's always sex. Kinky Komputer was one of the first BBSs in the San Francisco Bay area, a mostly straight sex-oriented BBS that was going full swing, so to speak, when Tom Jennings arrived in the area and started boardsurfing. A communications medium that allows people to make connections without revealing their true name, age, gender, or physical appearance is certain to evolve erotic variants. Some sex BBSs are all talk and little action--playgrounds for sex fantasies with strangers who don't know where to find you. Other sex BBSs are more like pickup bars than theaters. Some sex BBSs ask participants to fill out detailed sex questionnaires. And in most sex BBSs, the place always seemed to be filled with manly men and womanly women and no end of people who have no apparent inhibitions--at least in this medium--about describing their sexual preferences in precise detail.

Although my research into BBSs has been confined to the San Francisco region, most BBSs contain lists of other BBSs in other parts of the world. If you find one special-interest BBS, they usually have a list of others. A BBS known as Linkages leads to dozens of African-American BBSs. There is an entire network of MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) boards that all point to each other. There are networks of boards devoted to recovery from substance abuse or sexual or physical abuse. I've also found BBSs for fat people (THE BIG BOARD, associated with the National Association for Fat Acceptance), photographers, Trekkies (there are many BBSs for Star Trek fans, including the splinter groups of fans who are convinced that Spock and Kirk are secretly lovers--known as K/S enthusiasts), veterans, Zionists, white supremacists, environmentalists, feminists, libertarians, animal rights activists, Asian-Americans. When you walk down the street in your city or town, it is likely that at least one of the people you see every day is a BBSer.

From the WELL to the world's largest conversation to the wild and woolly reaches of BBSdom, the universe of virtual communities seems to grow larger and larger as one's imagination stretches to accommodate the knowledge of what is happening right now. Discovering the existence and depth of this worldwide subculture is a little like discovering a previously unknown continent, teeming with unfamiliar forms of life.

read on to
Chapter Five:
Multi-user Dungeons and Alternate Identities

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