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Newsonomics: What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming reality in the destruction of local news
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April 14, 2015, 2:54 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: cmsw.mit.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   April 14, 2015

Where does the culture of the Internet come from? One important origin point, according to Kevin Driscoll: the mid-1970s standardization of phone jacks.

While the core technology behind today’s Internet was developed through the U.S. government-backed ARPANET, the things that define the culture of today’s Internet — sharing information, connecting with new people, playing games, even shopping — developed more through the bulletin board systems that proliferated before the advent of the World Wide Web. As Driscoll, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, argued in a talk he gave at MIT last week:

We can think of this as a parallel world. There are parallel tracks here where the ARPANET is developing really robust ways of doing Internet working over a long distance with various types of media. Sometimes it goes over the wires, sometimes it goes over the airwaves, sometimes it goes through a satellite.

At the same time, there are hobbyists who are using just the telephone network that had been in place for decades — but they’re developing all this social technology on top of it. Figuring out how you should moderate the system, administer it. Who’s in charge? Who makes the rules? What are good rules? What are bad rules? How do you kick people off if they’re being a jerk? How do you get cool people to join you? All of this is happening on this “people’s Internet” layer.

According to Driscoll, the deregulation of the phone industry and the standardization of phone jacks allowed individuals to hook up things like fax machines and modems to the phone network and use it to communicate in new ways. Similarly, the popularity of CB radio in the 1970s helped introduce the concepts of communicating semi-anonymously over long distances — so as technology advanced, many avid CB radio users migrated to BBS.

The barriers to entry to BBS were relatively low. Computers were becoming more affordable, and it wasn’t too difficult to hook them up to the phone line, where you could find conversations relevant to your interests and, in many cases, safe spaces where you could discuss sensitive information that you couldn’t discuss elsewhere:

This was extremely important to communities who were using these systems and were otherwise facing oppression, or were marginalized, or their communication was being suppressed in other systematic sorts of ways. The Gay and Lesbian BBS list, which was compiled and circulated monthly, was organized by area code, so you can easily find and locate a system that’s near to you. You could think of lots of reasons why a system that is geared toward gay and lesbian users in the 1980s, it would be helpful to know if a system was nearby. Not only is it cheaper to call — you have an economic reason to do it — but there’s a chance that those people are dealing with conditions that are unique to that region.

And though bulletin boards eventually faded, those conversations and online social norms were carried elsewhere on the Internet. Even as the Internet continues to spread globally and splinter into countless messaging apps, social networks, and more, the DNA of those early bulletin boards lives on in today’s connected world.

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