The Ruins of Dead Social Networks

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It was about 20 years ago that I first discovered what a telephone line and a computer could do when they came together. They made a virtual world. While stumbling through the manual for our old Zenith, I'd found a telephone number for a local bulletin board system and figured out how to dial into it. I found a world much more interesting than anything I could generate by typing commands at the C:/ prompt.

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Bulletin board systems were one forerunner to today's social networks. You could post messages and photos, play games, and download all kinds of apps. On the small ones I knew, one or two of us could dial in at a time, and most were from the same area code and prefix as you were because otherwise you had to pay long distance charges. (This now sounds as strange as a description of handcranking a car to start it.) So, the BBS was actually a hyperlocal social network.

I messed around with Los Angeles BBSs, but I had other things to attend to like catching lizards and playing street hockey with the neighborhood homies. But then in '92, my family moved to rural Washington state. Suddenly I was stranded way out at the end of a gravel road in a drizzly little city. I had friends, but they were miles away, so at home, it was just me and Wired Magazine and our new 14.4 modem.

I began to religiously dial in to Keith Buckbee's Country Computing, where I posted messages, played Legend of the Red Dragon, and generally whiled away valuable time I could have spent reading Wittgenstein or something.

The network was local, but I rarely tried to meet up with the denizens of Country Computing. Once, my mom drove me in our Mercury Sable station wagon to a barbecue for the users of the BBS. Everyone was shocked that out in the physical world, I was 11 and had nothing in common with any of them. Online, we were friends.

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Another time, my dad drove me out to Keith Buckbee's house outside of La Center, Washington. He let me look at the banks of modems. I don't remember much of what Keith looked like, but I remember his house had a big antenna and a whole bank of modems. I was mesmerized by all those blinking lights. My parents were aware that I was out tromping around the wilds of cyberspace, but I liked to talk about growing up to run a technology company in those days, so they must have thought it was productive. I was learning! And even though I was far from Seattle, the whiff of Microsoft money had floated all the way down the I-5 corridor to us. (My big idea was to create a secure link between doctors and pharmacies, so you didn't have to wait for prescriptions.)

A year or two after the star-crossed BBQ, the local ISP, Pacifier Online, came along and my early-adopter dad purchased access to the Real Internet. The same hisses-and-pops that once connected me to a computer in La Center, Washington suddenly connected me to the world. I forgot all about Country Computing.

I wasn't there to see its numbers of dials-ins dwindle, its board messages go unreplied to, and its community wither away. Keith, the old ham radio operator, must have sat in his basement, trying to decide when he'd pull the plug. Was one single user a day enough to keep the BBS alive? Two? Ten? When did he take the dog out back and put it out of its misery? I'm reminded of Clive Thompson piece from a few years ago detailing the end of massively multiplayer online game, Asheron's Call 2. "At one point, a non-player character assigned me a quest of killing all the burrowing beasts in a nearby canyon, to save her town," Thompson wrote. "I'm like, save the town? Lady, the whole damn world is about to end!"

While people from AC2 saved screenshots and probably posted them to Flickr along with tributes and memorials, the ruins from my first virtual town have been washed away, lost like all the other electronic communities from the pre-Internet era.

Unindexed, they must wander the phone lines like ghosts, knocking packets astray, crashing your browser just when your post was finished, shutting down Tumblr. They are caught between the old, tangible world of books and things, where legacy systems kept on keeping records in that Dewey-Decimal, county-records way and the new Internet indexed world where anything that is typed into a box can be found. They flowered for a brief moment in the space between in real life and on the Internet, offering hope they'd be united. Now, only this tiny community of people know they existed. They are kept alive by the weak force of casual remembrance, flickering into and out of existence like Marty's parents in the Polaroid from Back to the Future.

Only a single webpage will testify that the Country Computing was real. Appropriately enough, all the "BBSes through history" page gives you is a pay-by-the-letter obituary of each board, an electronic headstone in a foggy graveyard that always extends to just beyond the short distance the eye can see.

Rest in Peace, Country Computing. Rest in Peace.

  • Country Computing
  • 360-263-1117
  • Keith Buckbee
  • 1990-1996

In recent years, Jason Scott (@textfiles) has been documenting the history of the BBS. He's got a new project, too, called ArchiveTeam, which seeks to archive all kinds of digital artifacts (mostly websites) before they pass away into obscurity. Digital seems like it's forever because it's infinitely reproducible, but someone has to think to make that canonical copy or it's gone-gone.

Looking at the desolation that is Friendster or MySpace, I wonder how it's possible that digital objects can end up looking like ruins. But they do. Perhaps more interesting questions than "Will Facebook fade out like MySpace?" are "What would the ruins of Facebook look like? What would we put on its tombstone?"

Image: Textfiles.org
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This essay was adapted from a post I originally wrote for my personal blog

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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