Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA
On a cold and grey Chicago morning..
It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin when discussing the history of online social networking and communication, but in terms of nice, round numbers, it may be noted that the earliest Public Bulletin Board Service (PBBS) was invented exactly 30 years ago in 1978 by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in a Chicago blizzard, apparently.
This then becomes the starting point for our journey.
In contrast to the closed academic networks previously available, these public access bulletin boards allowed users to dial into the system via a telephone line and use a terminal program to upload and download software, play games, and read news but above all – to connect socially with other users in discussions using message boards. The system was envisaged as a computerised version of the cork notice board where users pin notices, requests for information, assistance and so forth. Initially, PBBS were purely locally based due to the prohibitive expensive of long-distance call charges.
The popularity of these systems began to wane with the rise of the Internet in 1996, although some bulletin boards did subsequently connect to the Internet, providing email and Usenet3 newsgroups and services and attracting users from a wider geographical area. Bulletin Board Services are still active today, although they now serve more of a niche market.
CIX (Collaborative Information Xchange) Conferencing began as a Fidonet Bulletin Board Service in 1983 but was relaunched commercially as CIX in 1987. CIX was able to offer a nation-wide service in the UK by providing multiple PoPs (Points of Presence) situated in major metropolitan areas to allow the majority of subscribers a local-rate connection. At its heart were ‘conferences’ of subscribers connecting to discuss a wide range of topics using an offline reader AMEOL Again, social interaction proved to be the main attraction for the users. This service was funded by a monthly subscription and in 1988, CIX provided its users with the first commercial email and Internet access in the UK.
Between 1989 and 1993, the WorldWideWeb program was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee on a NeXT workstation and the idea grew rapidly in popularity due to its exciting new graphical nature. In 1993, the NCSA Mosaic browser (developed by Marc Andreessen) was launched across multiple platforms and captured the public imagination.
During the same period, (1989-93) CIX grew rapidly, reaching a peak of more than 16,000 users in 1994, before starting to lose customers to the newly-formed Internet Service Providers that provided free access to the Internet and the burgeoning World Wide Web using 0845 Dial-up, companies such as Demon, Pipex, AOL and Freeserve.
CIX has re-invented itself over the years and now, as with bulletin boards, also serves a niche, mostly business-oriented, conferencing market. It remains very popular with its loyal private users however, for whom the offline reader (OLR) is its main attraction, as this extract from a testimonial on the CIX website demonstrates:
“My main source of interest, discussion, information, and friendship is a BBS called CiX. It’s a conferencing system with several thousand active
members, based in the UK but with users in many countries. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve used it: it’s something like Usenet news, and a little like a blog, but far better than either. There are hundreds of conferences ranging from the technical to the whimsical, the supportive, the political, the humorous, the fascinating, the commercial, and the instructive, each with its own membership and style – and anyone can set up new ones. The Windows OLR is called Ameol, and is a great email and news client, but there are many other OLRs for many platforms. I do all my Cixing on my Psion, for example – I can collect hundreds of new messages over my mobile phone and then sit reading them on the train! (Try that with a web site :)”.
The majority of these new companies merely provided a conduit with no services of their own. It was Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web – combined with the Mosaic browser – that drew the attention of the masses to the potential of the Internet, so much so that the World Wide Web has now become synonymous with the Internet.
AOL (America Online) was different from the other ISPs mentioned above, in that it began as a company providing interactive online gaming and chat services to subscribers through its own client software that featured a graphical user interface in the days when everyone else was still using terminals. AOL (like CIX in the UK) also emphasised communication among its members as a feature. The proprietary nature of the AOL software and the fact that it delivered content to subscribers only in what has been termed a ‘walled garden’, has had an adverse affect on its popularity over the years, beginning with its merger with Time-Warner in 2001 and resulting in the sale of many of its subsidiary companies world-wide (AOL UK was sold to Carphone Warehouse in 2006) and substantial employee layoffs at the end of 2007.
The other big name of that early period – CompuServe – (founded in 1969) was a major information and networking services company by the mid-1980s. The CompuServe Information Service (CIS) was the first commercial online service in the US, offering a limited email service to commercial customers from 1989 and enormously popular online forums during the 1990s. These were used initially by technical computer companies offering customer support but soon broadened to include the general public in areas such as entertainment. With the growth of the World Wide Web, these support forums gradually closed as companies and users migrated to company websites instead and CompuServe began converting its forums from its own proprietary software to html in 1997.
CompuServe was subsequently split into two parts with its networking sold to Verizon and the Information Service to AOL.
Another method of online communication that has been in use for many years is Internet Relay Chat (IRC) which is a form of ‘synchronous conferencing’ – to use the more technical term for online chat technologies. It requires the use of client software to connect to ‘channels’ or ‘real time discussion forums’ which can be easily created by users on a variety of topics. Individual private messaging is also supported. A range of cross-platform IRC Clients is now readily available, including add-ons for web browsers and Instant Messaging Clients. The IRC is particularly popular with the online gaming community as it can be used in conjunction with many multi-player online games.
Read the next article in the series:
Evolution to the Web.
Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA