Is “Personal Computing” what we really need?

Tilde Club is fun and has kicked up some old memories for me. I got online just around the time of the passing of the BBS and just before the decline of the shared Unix box.

I was bummed at missing out on the BBS, and watched Jason Scott’s BBS Documentary from start to finish. It strikes me that we’re probably due a documentary on 90's web culture, but I guess you can watch cringe-inducing episodes of Nerds 2.0.1 on Netflix for that.

Maybe there are kids out there who were born too late and feel they missed out on the 90's web explosion. I guess you had to be there.

Ancient History

I did BBS, a little. I don’t think that there was ever a big scene in Ireland, and I wasn’t up for long distance charges, and really I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t that welcoming by the mid-90's, having the feeling of a minor ghost town that was mainly there for the regulars.

While earlier Internet users talk about droves of new students getting net access in September, and the eventual “September that never ended”, me and my IRC cohort had Christmas. Every Christmas a new set of entitled kids got bought modems by their parents and intruded on our space. Some years, they even installed Comic Chat.

From the Comic Chat Wikipedia page, used with permission of Microsoft

Through exposure to Linux, IRC and to Ireland On-Line’s IRC-USERS ListServ, I ended up wanting to get involved in running servers. Having your own server connected 24/7 to the Internet wasn’t a thing that mere mortals did.

A Question of Access

Even though Linux and BSD had successfully democratised Unix access at this point, PC hardware was still very costly, “spare” machines were impossible to come by and Internet access was super expensive.

At one point two other friends and I were sending $5, in cash, by post, to America every month to pay for shell accounts on a Linux box running from someone’s bedroom and connected by 24/7 modem connection. Predictably, this got hacked. Later, we used a machine more or less hidden in a cupboard at a cybercafé.

At university, there was Redbrick, a set of Solaris, BSD and Linux machines that the Networking Society looked after. This was better again. I wasn’t an administrator, but here were machines with dozens of people logged in at any one time.

Our social tool was an improved version of write called hey — hey wrote a message straight onto another users terminal, and improved over write by letting you define custom ASCII art borders, and word-wrapping your input.

An example hey session

Redbrick had a local Usenet spool, internal email and chat, and despite being connected to the Internet, wasn’t really of the Internet, in the way things are now.

Almost all of these users were students at the same campus, and when you accessed it from the computer labs, you could see where they were sat based on their hostname. (Of course, I realise now how that’s really open to abuse, but permit me some rose-tinted glasses as I reminisce).

The people who you talked to on the computer were the people who you talked to in real life, too.

Plenty

DSL and cable modems changed all of this. When broadband rolled out in America (we were years away from getting it in Ireland), it became possible for an individual with a spare machine to run a server.

Phishy.net — the IRC network most of us migrated to after irc.iol.ie’s demise — was partly built from servers running on donated Linux and Windows NT hosts. One of these, Xevion.net, was a machine I installed and administrated remotely — doing this is my actual job now, but at the time I was essentially paid in access to a Linux machine on the Internet that was under my command (as long as I made it do the things that the person who owned it wanted, too).

It had a group of users on there. who(1) would show them all, editing documents, reading their email, or hanging out on IRC. This was my first experience of having users to look after.

I had to protect their data, make sure that their email was delivered, and their sites didn’t go down. No one really asked me to do these things: I doubt they even thought about if their stuff was even backed up. Some things haven’t changed since the 90's.

Because of increasing broadband access, most of my technically minded American friends ended up running their own servers. As DSL rolled out in the UK, similar things happened there, too.

These machines were still comparatively rare, but personal computing had finally come for Unix and killed that culture. When everyone can have their own Unix computer, why would you share one?

Social Media

So, my argument is that social media is caused by personal computing.

When we used shared computing resource, paid for by users or benevolent volunteers, everyone was a stake-holder, and computing came with a built-in social network: the people you shared the computers with.

Usenet existed, email existed, IRC existed — it’s not that people never left their bubble before ubiquitous computing, it’s that people had a sense of ownership of — and participation in — their community.

Money was sometimes exchanged, resources were shared, people were told off for using more than their fair share. The costs of these operations were fairly transparent.

Because of the nature of these systems, people had be a little technical to participate, but on the other side, they generally had a clear idea about how the whole thing held together. They owned their own stuff.

At no point were the users the product.