For fifteen years before the graphical Web, thousands of personal computer owners encountered the pleasures, promises, and challenges of online community through networks of dial-up bulletin-board systems (BBS). While prevailing histories of the early internet tend to focus on state-sponsored experiments such as ARPANET, the history of bulletin-board systems reveals the popular origins of computer-mediated social life. From chatting and flirting to shopping and multiplayer games, it was on these locally-run systems that early modem users grappled with questions of trust, identity, anonymity, and sexuality. In this talk, Kevin Driscoll will map out the generative conditions that gave rise to amateur computer networking at the end of the 1970s and trace the diffusion of BBSing across diverse cultural and geographic terrain during the 1980s. This history provides lived examples of systems operated under vastly different social, technical, and political-economic conditions than the centralized platforms we inhabit today. Indeed, remembering the grassroots past of today’s internet creates new opportunities to imagine a more just, democratic tomorrow.
Kevin Driscoll (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research. His research concerns the popular and political cultures of networked personal computing with special attention to myths about internet history. Previously, he earned an M.S. in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught mathematics and computer science at Prospect Hill Academy.