Between PLATO and the Social Media Revolution

Copyright © 1983 by David R. Woolley

Explanatory note, May, 2008:

In 1983 I was living in San Diego with Jim Bowery and Steve Freyder, two friends from my PLATO days. We had this plan to start a series of online community networks based on dial-up bulletin boards. We had a great idea, but no money, and we were totally naive about starting a business. As a result, our partnership fell apart and our plans never got off the ground.

But this article laying out our concept is still kind of interesting. It's a snapshot, taken 25 years ago, of my vision of the future.

It all started with PLATO. In the early 1970’s this oddball of a computer system, built by an unlikely crowd of non-computer scientists at the University of Illinois, gave birth to a strange new subculture. College students stayed glued to PLATO terminals until all hours of the night, fighting it out with players across the room or across the country in "moonwar" or "dogfight", or feverishly programming their own idea of the ultimate game. Romances blossomed in locked channels of "talk-o- matic" and through "personal notes." And through the PLATO "group notes" feature, people held long-term discussions on just about any subject imaginable: science fiction, women’s rights, football, the defense budget, rock ’n roll. People swapped chili secrets in "Recipes", wrote film reviews in "Movies", debated theology in "Religion", and anonymously advised each other on personal problems in "Interpersonal Relationships." The poetically inclined left their latest works in "Poetry", and almost everyone read "Grapenotes" now and then for the latest in a series of bizarre stories by the mysterious "Dr. Graper."

They were heady times for those of us at the center of it all, and especially for me, since I had written the group notes program that made much of this activity possible. As a teenage college kid I found myself elevated to demigod status by the users simply for having stumbled into a part-time job as a PLATO systems programmer. In 1973 I had been assigned to come up with something - anything - that would facilitate communication via the computer. At that time, it was perceived mainly as a two-way medium to allow us, the almighty system staff, to talk to the lowly users. Consequently, I built three notes categories into the program: "System Announcements", "Help Notes", for users to ask us questions, and "Public Notes" for everything else. "Public Notes" especially was an immediate hit. Lo and behold, the users were talking mainly to each other. And despite attempts to limit discussion to PLATO-related topics, it quickly became a forum where people talked about everything under the sun.

It soon became obvious that three categories was absurdly few, and I began plans for an expanded system that could handle up to 60 categories, to be defined by the system staff. But the critical breakthrough came when I noticed that users were writing their own notes programs. Some were clumsy to use; others were better in many ways than the system-provided notes feature. Some were set up for public access, while others were created only for notes between members of a group working on a particular development project. But they were all responding to the pressures inherent in a system where the topics of discussion were tightly controlled by a select group of systems programmers. When I realized this, I generalized my program so that anyone could set up a "notes file" in a minute or two, declaring the topic of discussion and its accessibility to other users however they wanted. I also incorporated many of the nice features I had seen in the notes programs other people had developed. The result was an explosion of creativity none of us had foreseen. Suddenly everyone was free to express themselves about literally anything, and whether you were asking a question about photographic technique in notes file "Cameras" or just scribbling some graffiti in "Pad", you could be sure that other people who shared your interests would read your note and respond. The sense of community it engendered was truly magical, and I was as entranced as anyone.

Looking back, it’s clear that "group notes" was an idea that was floating around in the ether at the time, and I was merely the instrument of its expression on PLATO. I can no more claim credit for its invention than Thomas Jefferson’s quill pen could claim to have produced the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence. From the beginning, the program I wrote and all its enhancements were either suggested directly by users or were made obvious to me by the contortions they were going through to use the system in a way that hadn’t occurred to me. Not only that, but the same ideas were simultaneously finding expression on systems other than PLATO. Programmers elsewhere were independently creating similar computer conferencing programs, and subcultures like the PLATO community were springing up around them.

Many of us who spent our college years with PLATO have gone on to various careers in the computer industry. We have always dreamed of recreating the magic of the PLATO community on a larger scale. In fact, PLATO and some of the other communities like it still exist, but they are mostly small enclaves, unknown and inaccessible to the public at large. They are based on large mainframe computers at fixed central locations, which makes both communications costs and hourly usage charges prohibitively expensive for the average citizen. We PLATO folk generally had access under the auspices of government-funded research programs (or were able to wangle access privileges from friends who did.) But our experience left us with the conviction that there was some universal principle at work which produced the PLATO phenomenon. Because of its function as an education system, PLATO drew in people from all walks of life, from grade school children to physics professors, from medical students to prison inmates. And everyone was fascinated by group notes.

Unfortunately, there has been no clear path to making this kind of communication generally available. But in the last three or four years developments in technology have begun to open up some new possibilities. Millions of people have purchased personal computers, and guess what? Hundreds of tiny bulletin board systems have popped up spontaneously all over the country, which personal computer owners can dial into and use to exchange messages and software. These bulletin boards are generally run by computer hobbyists as a free service out of their homes. It’s fantastic to see people taking the initiative to maintain these things at their own expense, often in complete anonymity. It shows what a tremendous amount of creativity and enthusiasm exists among these computer pioneers. And it shows the powerful desire people have to connect with others who share their interests.

Of course, by their very nature as a free service these bulletin boards tend to be a little flakey. They aren’t well advertised, so it takes some sleuthing to find ones you’re interested in, and they are liable to quit working for long periods or disappear entirely without notice. And since they are limited to one user at a time, it’s hard to get into the more popular bulletin boards. But there is a growing community of computer users out there, and the bulletin boards are the attempts of its members to reach out and find each other.

The electronicizing of America is happening. We aren’t far from the day when home computers will be as common as televisions, and most of them will eventually be linked into some sort of network. The only question is what form the networks will take. A lot of large institutions are becoming aware that there is some kind of lucrative market here and they are groping around in the dark trying to find it. They would all like to squeeze it into the mold of the services they are used to providing: newspapers believe that electronic news delivery is the wave of the future, while department store chains think it is "teleshopping", and banks are getting excited about home banking services. And just about everybody thinks they can attract people with access to on-line encyclopedias and humongous databases.

To us, the answer is clear: people want access to other people. All that other stuff is fine, but it’s secondary. The bulletin boards have broken the ground, but the field is still in a pretty chaotic state. To those of us who were around PLATO seven or eight years ago, this situation seems very familiar. We’ve seen this happen before, and we know how it all came out. The bulletin board phenomenon is an exuberant expression of peoples’ need to communicate, and it’s not something to be controlled. But it does need some organization, and that’s what we hope to provide.

By running bulletin boards as a business we can afford to offer a broader, more reliable service. We can support many simultaneous users, so you won’t get a busy signal when you dial in, and we’ll be able to provide interterminal games and talk-o- matic (a CB radio simulator.) There will be plenty of space for people to start up group discussions on any topics they wish. By setting up small systems in each city we can get by with a low monthly subscription charge, and users can access the system via a local phone call. Subscribers will be able to send personal notes to other people on the same system for free, or to people in other cities for a nominal charge. They won’t need much in the way of equipment to be able to hook into our system, either. Any personal computer - even a $40 Sinclair - will work, along with a modem, which can be purchased for $80 or so.

The local nature of these systems will have some other benefits, as well. We expect people will use them to post want ads, organize gatherings, discuss local issues, review local restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to ask questions like "Where’s the best place around here to get my VW fixed" and get answers from people who know. In short, it will foster a real sense of community.

We are starting out with very little money, and in a way that’s an advantage, because it means that ownership and control of the business will be decentralized. Rather than looking for money from a few big investors, we would rather grow by finding people willing to invest their time and small amounts of money, and we’ve designed an organizational structure that will encourage this.

We hope to to gather together old friends from our PLATO days, the new independent bulletin board operators, and anyone else who shares our vision and is able to help.

The institutions trying to get into this market see themselves as information providers, and their customers as simply consumers. But we know that the most valuable resource on a computer network is not its databases, it is the users themselves. Given the chance, people would rather take an active role and talk to each other instead of sitting back to be spoon-fed. We believe this is a concept that will take off on its own, given a minimum amount of structure and a little spark to get it started. Our role is simply to organize people and technology in a way that will enhance human communication and increase human options.

We don’t have to recreate the magic of PLATO. It’s already there. We just have to let it grow.

David R. Woolley is a consultant, software designer, and writer in Minneapolis. He also maintains a well-known Guide to Web Conferencing Software & Services.

For a more detailed history of PLATO’s development, see PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community.

PLATO® is a registered trademark of PLATO Learning, Inc.