Lee Felsenstein’s work in tech and social organizing led to the creation of the Community Memory project, the first publicly available social media system and public computerized bulletin board system. Mr. Felsenstein was also a founding member of the Homebrew Computer Club, and he helped develop the personal computer.
So, what was the first publicly accessible computerized bulletin board like? Mr. Felsenstein was less concerned with metrics around volume and recalls more specifically the diversity of interactions that happened through Community Memory. “We found somebody who did some typewriter graphics on it, [using] the teletype to laboriously draw a picture of a sailboat. That was not anticipated. We found all manner of people asking questions and giving answers to questions.” (Go to 7:07 in the discussion to hear more.)
Mr. Felsentein also describes in great detail how he helped onboard people to Community Memory. Psychedelic posters, a cardboard box covering, and a person that stood near the terminal at all times who served as a promoter, tech support, and a bodyguard all helped people walking by Community Memory in its first home, a record store, use a virtual bulletin board for the first time.
There are many takeaways from this episode of Community Signal, but let’s start with one –– Community Memory’s approach to onboarding and tech education helped many take their first steps with computers and with virtual message boards. How can we carry this example forward, when for a lot of us, access to the internet comes by way of our mobile devises. Mr. Felsenstein is thinking about this and other community builders should, too.
Mr. Felsenstein and Patrick also discuss:
- The Free Speech Movement of the ’60s
- The origin and story of Community Memory
- Lee’s involvement with The WELL
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How would people react to a computer popping up in their record store in 1973? (5:25): “I thought we would have to [physically] defend the [Community Memory] machine. How dare you bring a computer into our record store? I like to say that we opened the door to cyberspace and determined that it was hospitable territory. Of course, it took more to open the door than just a greeting.” –@lfelsenstein
Who were the Community Memory early adopters? (6:27): “We saw a much broader diversity of uses [on Community Memory] than we had anticipated. We thought that there would be three categories: Jobs, cars, and housing. The first thing that happened, as far as I can tell, is that the traffic from the musicians’ paper bulletin board moved over to the machine. … The musicians were making their living from this and so they were very quick to recognize a better technology for what they needed.” –@lfelsenstein
The first question seeded on Community Memory (8:05): “We seeded the [Community Memory] system with a question, ‘Where could you get good bagels in the Bay area?’ … We got three answers; two of which were the expected lists of places where you could get bagels. The third was the kicker. That one said, if you call the following phone number and ask for the following name, an ex-bagel maker will teach you how to make bagels. This was validation of the concept of a learning exchange.” –@lfelsenstein
The tragedy of the commons (13:53): “Those who talk about the tragedy of the commons are blowing hot air, as far as I’m concerned, because they’re talking about a commons without regulation. Well, that’s a tragedy waiting to happen. Then they say any concept of commons is therefore illegitimate because it will obviously turn into a tragedy and fail. Well, no, the commons in which you do not have regulation will [fail]. We’ve seen a lot of this happen on online applications.” –@lfelsenstein
Moderation as a practice (19:32): “Having no gatekeepers [in a digital space] is a bad idea. We pretty much are all seeing what that results in. You have to work out how to involve the consent of the user in the gatekeeping process. You can’t just say, ‘Here is the gatekeeper.'” –@lfelsenstein
Facebook and the papyrus scroll method (34:11): “I think Facebook is a regression. I have to keep tearing myself away from it because it’s designed and built to feed the addiction of novelty. We need a lot more than novelty in organizing human society or software advancement.” –@lfelsenstein
About Lee Felsenstein
Lee Felsenstein has been both a witness and active participant in numerous historically significant moments for social justice and technology. In addition to his work on Community Memory, he was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club, designed the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1, as well as numerous other examples of pioneering computing technology, and advising in the creation of The WELL, one of the most popular examples of an early online community.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Lee Felsenstein’s website
- Lee Felsenstein’s Patreon
- Lee Felsenstein on Wikipedia
- Community Memory
- Community Memory overviews and promotional material
- Resource One: Technology for the People newsletter
- Artists and Hackers: Community Memory and the Computing Counterculture
- Community Memory: Precedents in Social Media and Movements
- Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy
- The Homebrew Computer Club
- The WELL
- Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich
- Free Speech Movement Archive
- Gail Ann Williams on Community Signal
- Howard Rheingold on Community Signal
- The Virtual Community, by Howard Rheingold
- Big Sky Telegraph
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. Today we’re talking with Lee Felsenstein. Back in 1973, Mr. Felsenstein was part of a group that launched Community Memory, which has been called the first public computerized bulletin board system and the first publicly available social media system.
Thank you to everyone who supports our show via Patreon including Maggie McGray, Jules Standen, and Marjorie Anderson. If you find value in our program, please consider joining them at communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Community Memory began as a single terminal in a record store near the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, California. It was free and you could access it and post messages that others would then be able to read via the same terminal. The uses ranged from local recommendations and help finding bagels to poetry and storytelling. UC Berkeley was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, a large student protest spanning the academic year of 1964 to ’65, aimed at the university’s ban of on-campus political activities in defense of free speech and the academic freedom of the students.
This culminated in the Sproul Hall sit-in of December 3rd and 4th 1964, with thousands of students participating. 768 were arrested, among them, Lee Felsenstein. Coming out of that moment in history, a time of the Civil Rights Movement, of greater social awareness and anti-war protest during the Vietnam War, Community Memory was founded on a hardcore free speech ethos as a new means of giving people a voice. “Computers out on the streets, liberating people to make their own connections” as Steven Levy put in his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of The Computer Revolution.
Mr. Felsenstein is a legend who has been both a witness and active participant in numerous historically significant moments for social justice and technology. In addition to his work on Community Memory, he was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club, designed the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1, as well as numerous other examples of pioneering computing technology, and advising in the creation of The WELL, one of the most popular examples of an early online community. Mr. Felsenstein, welcome to the show.
[00:02:22] Lee Felsenstein: Thank you.
[00:02:23] Patrick O’Keefe: When we first use new things, we tend to focus on the novelty of them and the fact that they exist at all, the Hello World type of moment. With Community Memory, you really had an entirely new means of communication for pretty much everyone who used it. How did you get past the novelty of it so that people could actually start to use it and to get the practical benefits out of it?
[00:02:44] Lee Felsenstein: Well, we had to station someone at the terminal because in those days, that terminal, which is what you use your computer for now, was a mechanical teleprinter or teletype, and would tend to get jammed at times. It was positioned, the first one in August of 1973, in the hallway basically, of a record store, a student-operated record store in Berkeley. On that wall in the hallway was a musician’s bulletin board that was well patronized. We would have our person say, “Would you like to use our electronic bulletin board, we’re using a computer?”
Quite contrary to my assumptions, pretty much all the people who were approaching, and these are people who would be using a student-operated record store in Berkeley, so they’re young, would brighten up when they heard that phrase and say, “Oh, can I use it?” Because the attendant was standing beside the terminal, not in front of it, and the terminal was mounted in a cardboard box that I built myself, which had two holes in the front where you could stick your hands in and they could see clearly, nobody had their hands on the keyboard and the holes were there, so they all asked, can I use it?
Using the proper metaphor is what you have to do under these circumstances. He didn’t say we have a way of exchanging information, et cetera, et cetera, working the very generalities down to the particular, we started saying, “It’s like a bulletin board,” only we were using a computer. In those days, the computer was not generally visible. Ours certainly wasn’t. It was in San Francisco and nobody had a computer at home. There might have been one or two, but that’s about it.
[00:04:29] Patrick O’Keefe: Would they have just walked by it thinking it wasn’t for them or it might for them to touch or just not knowing what it was had there not been a person there standing right next to it beckoning them to give it a shot?
[00:04:39] Lee Felsenstein: Well, yes, so we also had some posters that were done in the psychedelic style, which in fact, gave some instructions saying, “Push the green button.” We had the return key covered with some green tape. If you pushed the button, that would say null search with no keyword, so it gave you a prompt in response as to, think of a word, type it, and then press the green button, so we had that covered, but I would say the person-to-person approach was I think, highly effective.
[00:05:12] Patrick O’Keefe: From my reading, it seems like the person that was there was a split between a promoter, tech support, and a bodyguard for the terminal because you weren’t sure if people would take kindly to the machine showing up?
[00:05:25] Lee Felsenstein: Yes, I thought that we would have to defend the machine. How dare you bring a computer into our record store? I like to say that we opened the door to cyberspace and determined that it was hospitable territory and, of course, it took more to open the door than just a greeting.
[00:05:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Did you find that people built up routines rather quickly in those early days? Like did people, I don’t want to say addiction because that’s what Facebook wants, that’s a bad word, but did people build routines around coming back. Like Susan would come every day after work or someone would come in the morning and it became a part of their daily routine?
[00:06:00] Lee Felsenstein: No. First of all, people don’t go to record stores or frequent record stores that much, even students. We also were not keeping those kinds of metrics, statistics, but we did see personas develop online, particularly people signing their entries and adopting various approaches. Like I said, personas, which was not necessarily the person in question.
We saw a much broader diversity of uses than we had anticipated. We thought that there would be three categories, jobs, cars, and housing. The first thing that happened as far as I can tell is that the traffic from the musicians’ paper bulletin board moved over to the machine. We weren’t doing the kind of studies you’d need to do to find out if they used both at the same time or simply switched. I’m going to assume they switched and of course, the musicians were making their living from this and so they were very quick to recognize a better technology for what they needed.
As far as who used it for what? Well, we found somebody did some typewriter graphics on it. Used the teletype to laboriously draw a picture of a sailboat, that was not anticipated. We found all manner of people asking questions and giving answers to questions. Of course, nobody could really verify just like today, as to whether their answers were correct or not. We found one example of something that’s very significant.
One of the people who influenced my thinking in this regard was a philosopher named Ivan Illich. He had written the book three years before called Deschooling Society, a very radical book that advocated basically turning off the official schooling system and relying on what Illich called the vernacular exchange of knowledge as he had observed in Central America where he did research.
We seeded the system with a question. One is, “Where could you get good bagels in the Bay area?” Now that might be a ridiculous question today. The good part would probably qualify as a valid question, but bagels were not common in 1973 in West Coast, at least in the Bay area. We got three answers to it, two of which were the expected lists of places where you could get bagels. The third was the kicker. That one said, if you call the following phone number and ask for the following name, an ex-bagel maker will teach you how to make bagels.
Now, this was validation of the concept of a learning exchange, which is what Illich had basically proposed at the end of this book. He even suggested that maybe computers would be useful in this. It was very clear from the writing that that was an afterthought, but we found out that it cropped up spontaneously. We never did find out if anybody called the number or learned to make bagels. It’s one of those things you had to do if you a research project but we were not a research project, we were a development project.
[00:09:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Sounds like something my mom would appreciate because I was homeschooled and I’ve heard the term unschooling a fair number of times, [chuckles] so it sounds like she’d appreciate that as well.
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I want to talk about free speech a little bit because coming out of Berkeley in the 1970s, following the Free Speech Movement which, of course, you participated in, and greater social awareness. Community Memory was founded with, from my research, a heavy freedom of speech ethos. There was a desire to encourage free expression and to reject the gatekeepers of the day. I’m sure that those ideals were challenged at times by user complaints and possibly misuse of Community Memory.
Looking to today, this year, the sitting president of the United States was banned from Twitter. You’re on a podcast listened to by people who are, even though they might reject the term, kind of gatekeepers, by definition in the dictionary anyway, and who do the work of online community management, trust and safety. Often telling people what they can and cannot do and say in these social spaces online. I was just curious, generally, what’s your take on where we started with the freedom of speech ideals of Community Memory versus where we’ve ended up now?
[00:10:40] Lee Felsenstein: My entire interest in the field of non-hierarchical communication originated with my experience with the Free Speech Movement. The observation that a community was formed out of disconnected individuals, the student body, by the crisis and this was manifested by the legitimacy of opening conversation with strangers around that topic, for instance. All manner of good things flowed out of that.
I consider the Free Speech Movement to have been a revolution in my definition, which is, number one, a mass event. It was not a tiny clique of people. Everybody was participating. Number two, it overthrows an existing order, and that was the order of in loco parentis, which is a legal term under which the university acted as the parent of the minor and students. The third characteristic of revolutions is that they have consequences far beyond those that are anticipated.
That was certainly the case with the Free Speech Movement. The goals of the Free Speech Movement were limited to opening the campus, to all manner of expression that was not prohibited elsewhere, protected by the Constitution. When they won that with the vote of the faculty on December 10th, this was in 1964, they cleaned up and it disbanded in January of 1965. However, at that time, as a result of this, the counterculture began to come into existence. Opening up the campus like that was an amazing experience that you could do or say anything.
Some students started a magazine. That they could talk at their table in Sproul Plaza and didn’t have to worry about interference. Everybody was publishing little manifestos and so forth. A lot of people were changing their self-images and their directions. I took my first political science course. I was an electrical engineering student and began to write. My guess is that somewhere around 5,000 students dropped out at that point or within the next six months and many, I guess most, that’s still a guess, migrated to San Francisco, where they coalesced and formed the Haight-Ashbury eventually.
You didn’t have that kind of intentional community formation before the Free Speech Movement. The FSM as we call it, and you can look up things at www.fsm-a.org. That’s our Free Speech Movement archives online. Different lots and lots of documentary material, there it is. The unexpected outcome of the Free Speech Movement was the counterculture. It meant that people began experimenting with new ways of living in which there were fewer constraints, certainly, constraints imposed by others like parents and like institutions, and people had to discover ways in which they could regulate this, what I call the commons of information, but any commons requires regulation.
Those who talk about the tragedy of the commons are blowing hot air as far as I’m concerned because they’re talking about a commons without regulation. Well, that’s a tragedy waiting to happen. Then they say any concept of commons is therefore illegitimate because it will obviously turn it into a tragedy and fail. Well, no, the commons in which you do not have regulation will. We’ve seen a lot of this happen on online applications.
From the beginning, in a way, from before the beginning, we understood there would need to be some kind of regulation, self-regulation, but we didn’t know quite how it would be done. There was a paper that we read written by some people who had in 1971 attempted to set up a computer classified ads section or service in Los Angeles and they got jumped on by the Los Angeles Times who used all of the legal restrictions and so forth available to them to shut this thing down. For instance, you couldn’t advertise a car unless you had a dealer’s license or something, except for a newspaper who can advertise a car. Things like that. All right, well, that’s clearly over-regulation, again by the state ultimately. They had to close down.
Someone named Chris Beatty, B-E-A-T-T-Y published a paper he called the Journal of the Beatty Company, play on his name, in which he recited the history of this and said that they had come to the conclusion that we’d need to be gatekeepers, they used that term, in the system, where people could go and either resolve disputes or ask questions or be directed to various sources of information.
We adopted that idea that we didn’t really create such a, I’d say, institution, but we knew that it had to be done eventually. We just wanted to see how it would develop and get there. First of all, we didn’t even know if people would take to it at all. Now, we saw a lot of flaming, spamming, and similar work, especially in the second generation of systems. The first generation was 1973, August, to about January of 1975, that ran on the mainframe.
Our group split off from Resource One, which was the parent company, a nonprofit, which actually had the computer, and we decided to go out and rather than tie ourselves down to a previous generation computer which had lots of difficulties, believe me, I was the engineer in charge of setting it up and you think you can just plug your computer into the wall, not with that machine. You have put wires in from three-phase AC, you have to install air conditioning, 20 tons of it, so forth, and so on.
We wanted to go with mini computers, which were then the leading edge of computer marketing, I guess. It took us until 1984, from ’75, to write a lot of software and to raise the money, and so forth. We started with a Plexus P40 Core mini-computer, which today you would think of as the full computer. We opened that with four terminals, most of them in co-op supermarkets. We found that a number of kids were flaming away. You didn’t know the phenomenon. It’s just outrageous rhetoric and that sort of thing. Plus, they were in effect spamming by overutilizing keywords, index words.
We had limits on the number of index words that you could use, the software could all keep it straight. That, by the way, was I think a critical element of success in the first system. We just said, think of the word and post it under that word and if anything, we had a problem with having far too broad and thin a distribution of index words, we needed something that would help point people back to some clustering of index words.
We tried to encourage that in the second system. There’s a fellow, I think this the theatre critic on the San Francisco Chronicle, Sam Hurwitt, he learned to write as a teenager on that 1984 system. His father was a theater critic for the same paper. It’s quite interesting, someday I must talk with him. He learned to write by signing the limits of braggadocio and whatever, and he did it all there so we could all look at it.
Whatever it was, we tried to experiment with limiting the number of keywords we could use or index words, and then trying a list of suggested index words, anything to try to coalesce around certain groups of index words. We weren’t too successful, we knew it had to be done. In the background, we have to do something such that in my concept, you could have a service, you could in effect, hire a gatekeeper, or we put a coin box on the terminal. We never implemented it though but we wanted to use that to make it a little more expensive than free to enter an item. People would think about it and so forth.
I would’ve been interested to see the results of that but we never got around to the software for that. With the revenue from that, in theory, you would be able to make it viable for people to spend a lot of their time as gatekeepers advising people. You’d have to have a means of rating them and people finding out who the better or the gatekeepers were who they wanted to deal with, but that’s the sort of thing you’d need. We knew that and we just never got around to being able to do it.
Right from the beginning, having no gatekeepers is a bad idea. We pretty much are all seeing what that results in. Then you have to work out how to involve the consent of the user in the gatekeeping process. You can’t just say here is the gatekeeper. You do what he says or whatever. No, it’s not going to work. I thought over the idea of the, I called it the Zen Inspectorate, which would have the power to report but not enforce, and that would have needed some additional cultural substrate on which to work, for why should I pay attention to what anybody says that I don’t want to listen to?
Now going back, the original concept of Community Memory, which I’ll take credit for coming up with that concept, was as a facilitating technology for a network of, I’m going to use Illich’s term here for vernacular, community centers. This was a concept that was proposed by a group of architects who in 1969, in the wake of People’s Park, I put forth their counterculture plan for Berkeley and they had this concept, they called it life houses, which is certain people are inclined to be community- I don’t want to use the word leaders, I want to use the word community facilitators. Again, looking at, as an architect would look, that’s all physical.
They would be encouraged to make the front room of their house an open room for members of their community, not for just anybody, and how are you going to enforce that remains to be seen. That would be used for an information exchange point like bulletin boards. Here we were with a far superior bulletin board technology and I was very interested in trying to facilitate that.
Unfortunately, keeping the machine running and so forth took enough doing that and we never got to try to implement that. We should have, there’s a very strong neighborhood organization structure in Berkeley, and we should have gone to them and worked with them to work out how to use this kind of system for assumption that was otherwise served by their meeting structure. Again, an opportunity that was never taken, but people who are listening might think about this.
It takes more than simply a technology and more than an application, it takes a situating of that technology within the culture and social structure of the environment. That’s process that engineers aren’t too good at that. I would say I’m not that good at it either, but it’s the thing you need.
The other point is the local focus, I think was always on our radar. We started out with one computer and the network was all started into that computer. We knew that wasn’t a viable final structure. With only one computer what can you do? But when we began to get smaller computers to use, we could think about a network and we had been planning to make use of packet switching networks as they became available and that became the internet. Now, we never used the internet per se for various reasons. One of which is, and I like to launch into my Carl Sagan voice when I talk about, “The worldwide web, rule everything everywhere.”
You’d have a problem searching for things there because you need to limit your search to what’s relevant to you in terms of geography. We wanted to take an approach whereby we grew that web out and as you went further out on the web, further and further away from you, the response would get slower. If you’re relaying search requests and the results back, that’s what normally will happen.
We anticipated that the fast responses would come from the local information points, and the nearby ones, which could be checking in periodically. We wanted to maintain a local focus, but not rule out anything beyond the local area. That’s another thing that has to be approached I would say, whereas design has to be done with that in mind.
We want to have, I would imagine the networks I’m interested in would yield the fastest response, the best response for the most local responses, because it’s the aim is to develop community and to support the development and the re-development of community, because it needs to be constantly refreshed. You will be aiming toward supporting community that had a significant face-to-face component.
I am certainly not one, never was one to advocate that we replace all face-to-face person-to-person interactions with interactions through computers. That was the reason why in 1992 when we had developed our third system which had 10 terminals, and those terminals were basically a network of really bottom variety IBM PCs, no name clones, one floppy this drive and monochrome monitors, the very lowest level you can get. 4.77-megahertz processor, with 2,400 broad modems but with packet data transmission and the local browsers.
We designed a text browser for the PC that was on that floppy disc. When the thing powered up, it would boot up off of that, and it only transmitted information when there was take data requested data coming back to the mini-computer which by now had shrunk to tabletop size and become more powerful Plexus P35, and which could have been replaced by a 386 PC. I think they were in existence then, running a version of what became Linux. That would have been the fourth version. We also made a dial-in disk that we were experimenting with, so that anybody could put that on their PC and they could be part of the system. They would dial in.
Now, I had always supported this concept I called rust never sleeps which is if it’s communication between people then the characteristics of people limit how fast you can go and how broadly you can go. If it’s communication between computers, the person with the fastest, biggest computer can win. We didn’t want people winning, not as individuals over others. You could, of course, need I say, set up a computer so it would do searches by itself and agglomerate all kinds of responses, and sift them out and so forth, and take advantage of them. You couldn’t do that as an individual.
I enforced the policy that said that we don’t support connection of other computers to the system. People yes, computers no. I basically shut down the effort on the dial-in desk. People were just coming up and getting online, 1992, in other word the beginning of the internet, that was really ’93. There were people using the web board in the Bay Area. I was too. They saw this as another such bulletin board. However, I had to think about how people outside of the system, people who didn’t use computers at all would think of it.
To me, I thought a big problem was that we would become one more assistant for computer people, people who had computers. A lot of them said, “Well, everybody has a computer.” Well, they didn’t. They still don’t. Now, one might say if I wanted to restart Community Memory, which I do, but there’s many other things I have to do first, I’m going to look at phones. I would do it on mobile phones for reasons that you can’t just hack into a mobile phone with another computer, or just turn that into it, or whatever. The phone companies say a lot about that. They only permit certain programs to run and access their phones. You have to go through a lot for that.
We don’t think of people using mobile phones as computer people, and they’re built so that you don’t have to be. In ’92 that was not the case. If you had a computer, you were a computer person. You had to in order to make it work. That was stated from the beginning use of personal computers. The cultural identification of the system is really important. This particular aspect of computer people versus non-computer people is a lot less today. As I’ve said, it’s still there I think. Much less so for phones.
[00:27:52] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned The WELL a moment ago, and I’ve read on your Patreon that you had advised Stewart Brand on the formation of The WELL. I’d love to hear about your involvement with the start of The WELL.
[00:28:03] Lee Felsenstein: They almost started out with WELL.
[00:28:07] Patrick O’Keefe: They got the domain name eventually.
[00:28:09] Lee Felsenstein: In 1984, book was published called, Hackers, subtitle, Heroes of the Computer Revolution. I had 46 references in it. I was actually credited with helping the author develop his concept of the hacker ethic. The book actually was published somewhat earlier. We saw manuscripts of it and so forth. It’s a big deal. Stewart Brand came up with the idea to hold a book party, I’d say the book party for that publication, and to go through the book, take everybody who is listed in it, try and get them to come to the party.
Whole Earth Enterprises I guess, had previously done a new games event at this former army base in Marin County just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. They rented it again. It’s run by the National Park Service. It’s a little conference center using old army barracks and so forth. A lot of us who were prominent in the book were invited to help plan it with Stewart and his wife Patty Phelan. We sat around on their converted tug boats many weekends and afternoons, and thought of names, and who might or might not be appropriate.
This was held in October. I don’t remember exactly the month, but it was in the fall of 1984. It was a very interesting event. There is a videotape of it. I was much younger then as we all were. During the organization of that, we had used the EIES, Electronic Information Exchange System, which had been– Actually we’d used it at Community Memory before that. That was one of the very first literal bulletin board systems. Well, it was a conferencing system. It was run out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology by Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz, H-I-L-T-Z, Turoff and Hiltz. It was available to academics and so forth. Turoff was using that at that time so all of us, first of all, we knew a lot about computers. Secondly, we had this conferencing system to use. We began talking about, why don’t we set up our own conferencing system. I remember that I was invited to come and meet with Stewart and a couple of other people who played forth the idea of having a Whole Earth-centered in the sense of Whole Earth catalog. I call it the Whole Earth Empire, but they don’t, bulletin board on all topics.
I thought about it, figured it probably would work. I apparently didn’t realize this until later, I got the third ID in the system and I still have free access to it. I was named the post of the hackers’ section of it but there were a lot of other sections, a really very big one was the Grateful Dead section. Anything that was attracting a community was fair game for this. It was a good place. Once again, we don’t want to substitute completely person-to-person interactions with computer interactions. You want to use the computer interactions to facilitate those person-to-person interactions.
Well, obviously, the Grateful Dead gang had the concerts, which if they weren’t face-to-face, nothing was, then with all this voluminous discussion about anything and everything, lots of training tapes and so forth and so on. Probably, the best example of a rich community bulletin board system. They did kind of be insular but it leaked out into other conferences. We began that in 1985. I was significant on it. It began to fade away sometime in the ’90s, but in the meantime, I met the person I would marry on it, and interestingly enough, we started out just discussing back and forth, and I knew nothing about her except her name.
She knew how to do it, which is look up .plan file, and type of span and see what they had said about themselves. I just went on the basis of what I had found out about them. After 30 days of conversation, back and forth, we’re ready to have our first date, that would’ve been December 1991. I suddenly said, how will I know you? I had an image of her as tall, statuesque, and blonde. She said, “I am short and very, very round.” She had blonde hair. She had seen me at Hollerith events occasionally. They had a party every month or so, and I had never known who she was.
It’s one of those things where after 30 days I knew enough about how she thought to know that that was the important feature and it still is. We got together at the end of ’91, been together ever since. There’s a good example of what I call secondary information exchange leading to primary information exchange. Because primary is just face-to-face discussion or on the phone or by mail. You might even say electronic mail. The point of it is you are expected in primary information exchange to discuss what you want to discuss, the details of it, and so forth.
Hopefully, neither party is in charge of that discussion. It’s by definition a non-hierarchical exchange, and the technology is non-hierarchical. Secondary information is who you want to talk to and why want to talk to them and then how you’ll get in touch with them. That to me is where online systems, bulletin boards, and so forth are very important in community development.
[00:33:33] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting. You’re on Facebook. I was on your Facebook profile. We have a mutual friend, Gail Ann Williams, who used to run The WELL once upon a time, one of my favorite community thinkers. You’re a Facebook user now. You obviously started Community Memory. You were there at the formation of The WELL. You’ve seen a lot of cycles of the same or similar concepts around online communication. When you’re on Facebook as a user, do you feel like that’s a natural kind of progression? Do you see Facebook as a good thing that built on this history of digital communities or are you just on Facebook because it’s that place other people are, or does that even matter?
[00:34:09] Lee Felsenstein: It matters a lot. I think Facebook is a regression. I have to keep tearing myself away from it because it’s designed and built to feed the addiction of novelty. We need a lot more than novelty in organizing human society or software advancement. I’m there basically because it seems like most other people are there and it’s a little too much work to have multiple venues keep track of them.
In the early ’70s in Berkeley, the town was completely full, certainly, in the student area, of meetings. All kinds of groups were forming and they were holding meetings. I would run into some people who I’d met in that Free Speech Movement or something, enthusing about the meetings they had just had. Well, the meetings, what did they lead to? That wasn’t what they were talking about. It’s the process of the meetings.
Okay, they’re getting something out of that, but it didn’t seem very complete to me. Facebook is like that. It’s the most continuous meeting where there’s a continual available flow of novel items and you can spend your whole life saying what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next? I found myself doing that from time to time. I’m not proud of that, it doesn’t really support much in the way of conversation. In fact, it’s straight using what I call the papyrus scroll model of communication, which is the same as what the EIES system is doing.
It goes back to the idea of files on a computer and you had the capability of appending stuff to the end of a file easily enough. There’s somebody in building the system that EIES used, okay, we’ll just make every discussion a file and every time you want to enter something, it gets appended at the end. Well, that’s basically a papyrus scroll. If you want to write something on it you go to the end, and you add it there, you can’t add it anywhere else.
If you wanted to find out why somebody wrote something, you just have to go back unscroll it far enough and start reading the sequential access information. Sequential access in the ’70s got replaced by random access and computer chips. I can hold a long lecture on that, but I won’t, and made a difference. That is to say, I guess I’m going to give you part of a lecture here. The Apple I was designed by Steve Wozniak in 1976, but it used a little terminal circuit, which just does the display of text in this case, the keyboard part is the triviality.
It is a type of server called a TV Typewriter, where you could just type on a keyboard and you would see things go up on your TV and that’s it. It didn’t go anywhere. He designed one of these. On his first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in March of 1975, he mentioned it in this little item that I asked everybody to enter secondary information about what they’re interested in and what they want to do. He had that circuit and a year later, he put it in on a board with a microprocessor. The trouble is that the technology he used in that design for the memory was the normal technology for use in the computer terminals of the day. It was sequential access, bucket brigade shift register memory.
If you want to put something in there, you waited until your turn came around and wrote that byte in, and then it was circulated around and not be available until it came back around. It came back around in synchronization with the vertical sweep of the cathode ray tube of the TV, and that’s happening at 60 times a second. You got to enter a character only once every 60th of a second, on average. It could display text at a speed fast enough to read comfortably, a little faster but that’s it. You couldn’t do graphics on it, you couldn’t position things randomly. You’ll just be waiting forever.
Now when I design the video display module, again in 1975. I had done the original work in ’74 conceptually, we had just begun to have random access memory chips, where you put something in wherever you said for it to go, like an address, and took it out the same way. The Apple-1 is actually a computer with a terminal. It is small and cheap. It’s a computer with a terminal. Every day, all it was ever doing was reading at the rate no more than 600.
The video display module I did with shared memory, you could enter stuff as fast as the memory works. As fast as the computer bus worked, which was really fast. Somebody once asked me to estimate and I said 875,000 which is so fast as to be ridiculous. You wouldn’t ever measure it. You could make images, you could make computer games, you could make things happen apparently simultaneously all over the screen. I say that’s what you need for a personal computer. I said random accessibility made the personal computer possible.
On Facebook, you’re still using the papyrus method. Now we can append comments to people’s items but basically, the only weird part of it, you have to read through, it’s not much of an improvement. We did this on Community Members, we had random accessibility of items with the keywording to begin with, the index words, then later with network database. For the third system, we had a combination of index words and networks.
Every item had an identifier on it, the alphabetic string, and you could follow that string, see what was pointing to it and you could use that string as a keyword and index word and it would send the person who saw your item back to that item. That will create a network effect. This was all possible then and we did some of it. I’m waiting for it to get around to online systems today. Of course, that’s not the point of Facebook. The point of Facebook is you’re either product, your attention is being sold and they’ll do whatever they can to keep your attention.
I have to, now that I’m through the pandemic, I got used to spending hours on Facebook and Quora because you could be an expert on Quora and I’m told I’m famous in India as an expert.
[00:40:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Those are powerful messages. The most writer in internet today are–
[00:40:21] Lee Felsenstein: I became a top writer from one item that I’ve got a huge response, having since been listed as a top-writer, whatever, is very addictive and that is it.
[00:40:33] Patrick O’Keefe: I agree with you. It’s funny, you brought up a few things I wanted to talk about before I talked about them, like the coin box on the machines, like EIES, for example. We talked about The WELL too before I brought The WELL up. The WELL has a foundational place in the history of digital communities. Howard Rheingold, an early member of The WELL. Another previous guest of the show who also is not fond of Facebook who said some very similar things in a different way.
He wrote a book in ’93, called The Virtual Community. In that book, he mentioned EIES, which spelled E-I-E-S for anyone listening, and everything we talked about on the show today we’ll link to in the show notes. It stands for the Electronic Information Exchange System. He called it “The lively great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities.” That’s what he called it in his book, but he says in the book, I don’t know if this is accurate, but he says it wasn’t operational until 1976. Community Memory obviously is that incorrect?
[00:41:26] Lee Felsenstein: That is incorrect. In 1973 we were using it.
[00:41:30] Patrick O’Keefe: On Community Memory.
[00:41:31] Lee Felsenstein: Not on, but as we were developing Community Memory.
[00:41:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Got you. Sort of inspiration.
[00:41:36] Lee Felsenstein: We were using it to communicate among a network of people that we knew about who were on there, we had read some of their stuff. We actually developed an online community there specifically for the purpose of talking about technology for online communities.
[00:41:50] Patrick O’Keefe: It still happens today. My question there is really like if EIES is the lively great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities and we accept that description from Mr. Rheingold, what do you think that makes Community Memory? Where do you think Community Memory sits in the legacy of digital communities?
[00:42:06] Lee Felsenstein: That’s very tough.
[00:42:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Is it the other great-grandmother, maybe? You have two obviously, or more. [chuckles]
[00:42:11] Lee Felsenstein: I’ll find the metaphors interesting to play with here. It’s like a black sheep family member who wandered away from what everyone else was doing and got a lot of attention doing that and eventually just disappeared. We can’t trace a lot of direct lineage from Community Memory. I think that’s okay because we provide an inspiration to some people. For instance, Frank Odasz, O-D-A-S-Z who created Big Sky Telegraph in Montana, he was inspired by Community Memory. We didn’t recreate it and we weren’t in a position to give them a full package to work with.
Montana is a really difficult place to work with in regards to connectivity, but he saw what happened with us and he wanted to do something like that. I don’t know how many such people there were. Then you gain some secondhand and third-hand following that you’ll never hear about. Essentially, we set out to do things our own way and did things that way. We became, I don’t want to use the word disreputable but I would say the slightly errant relation who’s over there with this group of people, and they come back back and forward and say very interesting.
It’s hard to say what that metaphor is. It’s the black sheep family member, I think. I would be proud to be considered that and I would suggest that those people should look into this, people who are a bit more literary in their outlook than I am.
[00:43:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Well, Mr. Felsenstein, it has been an honor to chat with you today. Thank you so much for making time for us.
[00:43:47] Lee Felsenstein: Thanks for the opportunity. I think we’ve had a very good discussion here.
[00:43:50] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Lee Felsenstein, co-creator of Community Memory. Mr. Felsenstein has a Patreon where you can support his continuing adventures. Visit patreon.com/lfelsenstein. You can also find him at leefelsenstein.com. We’ll have both links in the show notes.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.