Where should a history of the Internet begin? If you asked this question to a Zoomer or one of the ever-growing groups of digital natives who can recall viral videos as vividly as awkward school dances, you might expect social media as an answer. Among millennials, a more common response might be the World Wide Web. This image-rich system of pages and hyperlinks—popularized by easy-to-use browsers like Mosaic in the 1990s and Google Chrome today—continues to shape the everyday experience of browsing the online environment.
In the 1970s, before the invention of Facebook and Twitter, millions of American computer hobbyists, activists, and entrepreneurs across the country connected with one another using electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs). This largely forgotten technology was central to the popularization of the Internet. In The Modem World, a new book by Kevin Driscoll, we encounter the diverse ecosystem of digital communities that sprung up in this wave of popular use. Using dial-up modems, personal computers, do-it-yourself microcomputer kits, and shared computer labs on college and high school campuses, BBS administrators and users created a remarkably open and collaborative online culture. In his history of these platforms, Driscoll offers a sober portrait of an older digital world whose warts will be familiar to any Twitter user today.
For inhabitants of an Internet designed to capture our full attention, where doomscrolling feels less like a leisure activity than a perverse metaphor for a never-ending kiddie ride into the metaverse, this book affords the odd experience of reading about the digital past and recognizing something worth rescuing for the digital future. I spoke to Driscoll about this phenomenon, the uniquely decentralized online social world of the 1980s, how technology shapes societal change, and the history of diversity in digital communities. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
And yet, despite disagreeing about the start date, these stories [all] tell a rather narrow version of Internet history. They each call back to the same family of experimental networks funded by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency: an office within the Department of Defense. This history is not wrong, but it is limited in its explanatory power. It can tell us about the protocols and policies that made the Internet of 1995 possible, but it can’t tell us how the Internet became a medium for everyday life.
To understand the popularization of the Internet, we need to look beyond Silicon Valley tech firms and US research institutions. The Internet that we use today grew out of countless pre-existing systems coming together. These pre-Internet networks included amateur bulletin boards, commercial telecom services, public data networks, and private e-mail providers. It was this process of convergence that made the Internet a “network of networks.”
JB: As you mention, your book recovers a history of communities built on electronic bulletin board systems—what you call “the modem world.” What was the modem world? Can you introduce us to some of the people who inhabited it and explain how it was created?
KD: The “modem world” refers to the universe of dial-up bulletin boards and online services that began in the late 1970s and flourished for nearly two decades. Initially, very few people had ever used a computer and hardly anyone owned a computer of their own. At universities and other large institutions, computing involved sharing access to a single powerful machine. Meanwhile, a growing number of electronics enthusiasts were rallying around DIY kits and early PCs. Computer clubs and magazines began to spring up around the US. This hobbyist community created the first grassroots bulletin board systems by connecting home-brewed machines to the telephone network.
JB: The connection between BBSs and the local telephone network tied these virtual communities to specific places. Why was this so, and how did this rootedness affect the evolution of specific BBSs and the modem world writ large?
KD: The practical explanation for the local focus of BBSs was the cost of dialing the telephone. Most Americans paid a flat monthly fee for unlimited local calls and a per-minute rate to call “long distance.” But the sense of place was about more than the cost of calling.
Most BBSs were hosted on regular PCs out of the homes of volunteers. When you connected to a BBS, you could be dialing directly into someone else’s bedroom. These were small-scale, intimate experiences. System operators customized their BBSs like a host decorating for a house party. This was not the cloud.
One side effect of the local focus of most BBSs is that the boundary between online and offline was quite blurry. The people you met online were likely to live close by. They could be classmates or neighbors. Many BBS communities organized local get-togethers for users to hang out in person.
The outcome of all this local activity was a different configuration of privacy and visibility than we later find on Internet services and cloud platforms. BBS users knew where their data was held. They could call the system administrator on the phone or meet them in person. Further, since each BBS operated independently, user data was not aggregated into vast storehouses to be aggregated and mined for targeted advertising. The trade-off was in a different form of privacy. Users could not easily hide. The modem world lacked the anonymity you might feel in a crowd.
JB: I think of John Madill and Tom Jennings, the founders of FidoNet—an important BBS network you describe that decentralized its administration and formed a model for what a BBS community could be. In many ways, Madill and Jennings are emblematic members of the modem world. How does your history account for the irreducible importance of the idiosyncratic minds of individuals without becoming a mere recounting of their actions?
KD: One of the goals of this book was to expand the stories we tell about the past. It’s not about myth-busting so much as myth-making. Unique individuals did amazing things. If we’re looking for more compelling stories about the past, there are great protagonists.
At the same time, I see the modem world as a period of widespread experimentation, bigger than any one user or system. There were over 100,000 BBSs operating in North America at one time or another. From big cities to small towns, they reached millions of computer owners during a time when “the Internet” was still closed off to the general public. The sheer scale means that there are countless stories yet to be told.
Early on, the demographics of the modem world reflected the biases of other techie hobbies that overtly excluded others from participation. But by the late 1980s, BBS technology had been taken up by a more diverse population of people seeking to build alternative media systems. Other writers have dug even more deeply into these histories. For example, Charlton McIlwain writes about a network of Black-oriented BBSs (AfroNet). Avery Dame-Griff has mapped a network of transgender BBSs (TGnet), and Kathryn Brewster has explored the archives of [BBSs that provided] support to people affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
JB: You talk about the text file as a uniquely well-suited medium for sharing ideas on the early Internet. Using text files, groups like the Cult of the Dead Cow created a literary scene in the “computer underground.” In this case, or others you might pull from the book, how should we interpret the relationship between specific technologies and social change?
KD: Radio was another technology with a profound social influence on the modem world. In the 1970s, radio amateurs, or “hams,” were instrumental in reimagining the personal computer as a technology for communication. At the same time, the citizens band or CB radio brought telecommunications within reach of everyday people. The participants in these radio hobbies valued tinkering, experimentation, and play: values that echoed around the modem world of the 1980s.
But the generative culture of radio might not have survived into the 1970s were it not for telecom policy that protected the interests of amateurs and grassroots experimentation. When the government first stepped in to regulate the airwaves, amateur stations were included. As we puzzle out the regulatory demands of the present moment, I wonder if the same consideration is being extended to the amateurs of today’s Internet.
JB: How did privatization play out in the decentralized world of the BBS during the 1990s? Does the story of privatization in the modem world complicate the often critical narrative–exemplified in books as divergent as Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People and Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order–of telecom deregulation and corporate capture as a pivot in the Internet’s history?
KD: The modem world didn’t require privatization, because most dial-up BBSs were owned by individuals or organizations. Crucially, even the smallest BBS incurred costs, and sysops adopted a range of strategies to pay the bills. Some treated the BBS like an expensive hobby, comparable to restoring a vintage car. Others ran their systems like a social club or small business, charging membership dues or per-minute access fees. Absent, however, were the streams of speculative venture capital that pumped the dot-com bubble and became normalized during the social media era. The spirit of experimentation that drove BBS technical and social innovations also extended to its financial cultures.
Yet, from another perspective, the modem world is about a balance between public and private interests. After all, it was the public infrastructure of the telephone network that enabled the growth of these privately operated systems. Like the Minitel in France, the modem world is another model of a data infrastructure operating under different political economic conditions from the Internet we inhabit today.
Stories about the modem world reveal a path not taken in the history of the Internet. In the early 1990s, BBS enthusiasts could have reasonably expected greater public investment in telecom, an upgrade for the Information Age. They might have envisioned a fiber-optic common carrier providing reliable, high-bandwidth data communications to everyone with a phone number. We should try to imagine the kind of Internet that would have emerged in such an environment. Would problems of access and equity be different? Would we expect greater accountability from service providers? Would user surveillance and personalized advertising still be the predominant models for commercial media? How would we conceive of justice and equity differently?
JB: As we grapple with the radical diversity of digital cultures today, what can we learn from looking at the mosaic of the modem world?
KD: The continued diversity of services from the 1980s to the present demonstrate that there is nothing inherent in the technology that determines what people do with these spaces. [It] doesn’t matter if it’s a dial-up modem or the latest smartphone, we adopt the tools at hand to meet our needs for community, communication, and commerce. The challenges of cultivating community are persistent, especially when the people involved are pseudonymous strangers on a computer screen!
We see the same problems arise, time and [time] again. Governance and moderation are hard. We might value accountability, transparency, and participatory rule-making, but they don’t come for free. They require expertise, care, and experience.
A key difference [between now and] in the modem world was that authority and responsibility were distributed closer to the ground. Instead of a handful of global platforms governed by opaque terms-of-service agreements, every BBS was its own small platform. The system operator, or “sysop,” was the final authority. As the owner of the system, they were ultimately responsible for everything from vetting new users and mediating conflicts between users to writing software and paying the phone bills. Yet, despite this their total control, BBS sysops were also members of the community, accountable and accessible in ways that massive platform providers simply cannot be. Tech firms talk often about the value of “scaling up,” but the history of online communities demonstrates the importance of “‘scaling down.”