I recently finished reading a book from 1996 called The Internet Instant Reference.
One thing in particular stuck out to me. Throughout many of the entries in the book Unix servers were mentioned. This book was written in a time when access to the internet was as simple (?) as dialing a phone number that connected your modem to a Unix server running somewhere like a University or business. This server was connected to the Internet's backbone and from there you could use a variety of programs--telnet, elm, www, gopher, ftp--and access the rest of the world.
In order to connect to one of these Unix servers you needed a user account. Accompanying this account was a personal space for files (like
/home/<username>, some information about yourself (accessed via
finger <username>, and an email address (like
Once logged in a user shared a server with many other people: perhaps hundreds. One could see who else was logged in (
who -a), send them a local email (
mail <username>), and even instant message with other users (
But what of users on other Unix servers? How did you know who was where? Using the
whois command one could search for users on other machines. Once located, they could use
telnet to access that machine (if allowed) and chat with them; or send them email.
This is reminiscent of our 21st century social networks like Facebook and Myspace as well as our late 20th century super-BBSs like AOL or CompuServe. Yet there are some key differences:
- Decentralized. The structure of this pre-web social network was the very structure of the internet itself. This is a pleasing a kind of homoiconicity.
- Federated. With telnet, jumping in between servers was trivial.
- Not monetized. While some of the Unix servers in use was most certainly part of commercial organizations, the access itself and the social interactions was not the product. Further, the users were not a product. The trend so perfected by Twitter, Facebook and friends began with AOL.
- Unpoliced. This has, obviously, an upside and a downside. On the upside, there were no onerous terms of service or privacy policies weaponized for use in advertising nor any copyright legal play1. On the downside, there was basically zero security besides what users set up for themselves (this is arguably an upside compared to the illusion of safety one's Facebook password confers).
So what is there to learn from this historical delving? Most glaringly, I feel it exposes a number of lies that we have as a society been accepting for over a decade now: that the Web is the only way to interact with the Internet; that social activities require centralization; that advertising is necessary to support Internet/Web activities; and that only corporations know best how to govern human interaction online.
This is not much of a conspiracy theory. As my father taught me when considering such things, one must only "follow the money" to deduce reasonable motivations for similar situations. For corporations, centralized and web-based social networking means they can commoditize private information and sesll it to advertising firms. For users, web-based social networking simply means convenience and perceived ease-of-use.
I posit that by taking the lessons from pre-web social networking we can build simpler Unix-style networking tools that provide all of the non-corporate social networking advantages enumerated above but with a friendlier user interface by leveraging the Web as little more than a GUI toolkit.