Lessons from Community Memory, the First Publicly Available Social Media System

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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Big Quotes

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.

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