The first public computerized bulletin board system predates the world wide web by nearly two decades, yet might exemplify just the type of “digital space” we still have too little of. With the help of co-creator Lee Felsenstein, we travel back to 1973 to understand why.

Josh Kramer of New Public then takes on a tour of what public digital spaces might look like in the future, and finally we sit down with Eugen Rochko, Founder of decentralized social media platform Mastodon, for a conversation about the decentralized web, restoring context online, and Mastodon’s unexpected success. 

Lee Felsenstein with a Community Memory terminal, 1984 (via computerhistory.org)

Episode Transcript

LEE FELSENSTEIN:

“people have always said to me, I don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Which I could accept. And I could never really explain it. It’s just it was always, “what till you. See, and then you’ll see.”

SCOTT HERMES:

In the early 1970s, computers were only used by well-funded scientists or the wealthy. Lee Felsenstein was neither.

Lee is a computer engineer, writer, activist, and co-creator of the first public computerized bulletin board system called Community Memory. It predates the world wide web by nearly two decades, and it was a computer in a time when most people had never encountered one, and yet might exemplify just the type of “digital space” we still have too little of.

Welcome to Look Both Ways: a podcast about what the often overlooked experiments of the past can teach us about problems of the present.

In this week’s episode: 

  • We talk with Lee Felsenstein about the Community Memory Project, the vision behind it, and what it means today. 
  • We’ll then hear from Josh Kramer of New Public about what parks and other public spaces can teach us about shaping a healthier, more accessible, and decentralized internet. 
  • We also talk with the founder of one of the most popular decentralized social media alternatives today. Mastodon Founder and Developer Eugen Rochko joins us for a fun conversation.

I’m Scott Hermes, a developer by trade, actor by other trade, and podcast host by clerical error. The show is made possible by my employer Kin + Carta, a digital transformation consultancy who exists to build a world that works better for everyone. As a quick shameless plug, we’re hiring for hundreds of positions right now in Chicago, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Columbia, and Denver, plus tons of fully remote opportunities. And by remote, we mean physically and not emotionally.

So if you’re an engineer, developer, designer, strategist, or researcher looking for your next step, you can learn more and see open roles at Kinandcarta.com/careers

A machine ahead of its time

The original Community Memory machine sat just inside the entrance of Leopold’s Records in Berkeley, California, next to a physical bulletin board for musicians looking for gigs or potential bandmates.

The original Community Memory terminal at Leopold’s Records (via computerhistory.org)

 In 1973, the word “digital” didn’t mean much besides….perhaps “pertaining to your fingers and toes.” So when Lee Felsenstein was tasked with explaining Community Memory, that very bulletin board became the best available frame of reference. 

The idea was simple enough: written messages could be recorded and entered into the machine, where they would be stored, categorized, and made discoverable by anyone through simple text searches. People would post information about events, attempts to organize, job opportunities, and other classified ads. Here’s Lee:

LEE:

One of the questions we entered as seeds was where can you find good bagels in the Bay Area? Now in 1973, there were very few sources of bagels that were of any quality at all, let alone good. And we got three responses to or what you might have expected. You know the names of places where you could get bagels, all right, but the third one was the winner. That said, if you call the following phone number and ask for the following person, an X bagel maker will teach you how to make bagels. This is Ivan Illich’s concept of the learning exchange, which occurred spontaneously.

SCOTT:

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich uses the idea of a “learning exchange” to argue that people learn most effectively when they’re able to seek the information they desire. 

Lee and the Community Memory team believed technology could help people find the information they’re interested in, connect with new people, and in turn, strengthen the Berkeley community. Here’s a passage from one of the group’s early brochures:

“Strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication–whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face–are the front line of reclaiming and revitalizing our communities.”

In a previous interview, Lee once described Community Memory as “sort of a noisy, sluggish craigslist.”

While some have called Community Memory the first form of digital social media, the important difference is where information went after it was entered. Or rather, where it didn’t go. Everything entered by the community was accessible by the community. 
Algorithms weren’t scouring vast data sets to predict what other breakfast-related content might keep you from remembering that you live in the physical world. Connecting people was about connecting people. Lee says the story about the Bagelmaker is often met with the same question.

LEE:

Now, people ask well what happened as a result, we don’t know what happened. We didn’t follow through, we weren’t doing a marketing study or sociological survey or anything. We were just making this tool available and seeing what happened.

SCOTT:

“What happened” was often surprising.

LEE:

We saw some people who we thought were on another plane of existence, doing some very competent searches there. 

And we thought that there would be three categories: jobs, cars and housing.

somebody entered a typewriter graphic of a sailboat. Now this is on a printing teletype at printing 10 characters per second ‘chunk chunk chunk chunk’, like that. Somebody say I actually entered on a keyboard the Terek characters for this illustration….We found a poet who would enter some sample verses and then at the bottom would be text ‘for more poetry, call the following number and ask for John.’

Messages from Commnunity Memory, 1975, (Courtesy Lee Felsenstein and the Computer History Museum, via alumni.berkeley.edu)

SCOTT:

For Lee, a particularly satisfying form of validation came through a chance encounter with Ivan Illich ( EYE-vin Ill-ick) himself, the philosopher whose thinking about learning exchanges was so influential early on.

LEE:

And I was able to talk too much about it when he came through town. Oh, great. He said, Why do you do what you do? Why do Why do you put a computer between people? You know, if I wanted to talk to Pearl over there at this party, I would just go over and talk to her. Why do you go “DDDDD” on keyboards and so forth? 

And I said, What if I didn’t know that it was Pearl that I wanted to talk to? And he stopped? He said, I think I see what you mean.

Context collapse

We first learned about Community Memory in the book How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by artist and Writer Jenny Odell. She argues that Community Memory can help us understand how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter contribute to what social scientists call “context collapse.”

Watch the full talk from Jenny Odell.

JENNY ODELL:

“Imagine if you went on vacation, and you came back, and you obviously would have a different version of the story for your friends, your family and your employer. And then imagine if someone threw you a surprise party and all of them were in the same room: What’s the version of the story you would tell them? It’s either going to be really boring or offend someone. 

SCOTT:

The way we consume information via social media is also all-too-easily void of context. Because providing context isn’t what platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to do. At the heart of any of the major social media platforms: including Facebook, Twitter,  TikTok, Linkedin, and Instagram is the same underlying, burning desire.

I want you to stay.

And the best way to make sure your eyeballs STAY put? Why something NEW, of course! 

Which means the idea of ingesting information with ANY sort of context becomes even more laughable. All it takes is a 5-second scroll through your feed to feel it in action: 

A debate about vaccines, photos of your cousin’s baby, an ad for KitKat, and a reminder that you went on a rollercoaster 7 years ago are all served up all at once, like a bad leftover stew that leaves you feeling mostly tired, bloated, and confused. As Jenny writes in How to Do Nothing, she imagines “different parts of her brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, foreclosing any possible understanding.”

She says Community Memory offers an example of technology designed to connect people while maintaining some sense of CONTEXT. In this case, a geographical location. 

Even when Community Memory installed new kiosks in new locations in the Bay Area, the content of the Community Memory terminal was unique to that location. Every message it held was entered by someone standing in the same place, on the same street, in the same neighborhood, in the same student-run record store. 

The context of community memory is not only its time and place but its original purpose. We asked Lee to tell us more about the inspiration for the project.

The free speech movement

LEE:

well, that goes back a little further than you might expect…

In 1964, I was a participant in the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, and that was a little revolution in its own right, it overthrew the existing order of in loco parenthesis in which the university administration got to control the university students bodies lives.

Lee at 21, in 1966 at Prof. Westheimer’s lab, UC Berkeley, via LeeFelsenstein.com

It went over a period of two months. And it was victorious. Although we had a sit in with it, something like 763 arrests, I was one of them. But the university after the faculty voted to support our position of basically no administrative restrictions on the content of speech on campus. The university administration backed off and essentially adopted that policy nowadays, they celebrate it. 

Activist Mario Savio was one of the prominent leaders of the movement. Here he is from the steps of Sproul Hall at Berkeley: 

MARIO SAVIO:

I’m confident, that the students, faculty and university of California WILL exercise their freedom with the same responsibility they’ve shown in earning that freedom. 

LEE:

An important thing about revolutions is they do overthrow existing borders. And they are mass events, which was true in this case. But the third characteristic is that they have unexpected consequences far beyond that, which was originally envisioned.

And that certainly happened here. It was basically the beginning of the counterculture, certainly in the Bay Area.

The Free Speech Movement was built as a kind of a communication organization, not using the mass media, and, but it developed its own lines of communication on campus, which really reached out to a lot of people.

This is really a feeling of liberation, I would say, some students started controversial magazines. Everybody was writing their own leaflets and handing them out…I came out of that saying, I want life to be like this all the time. And what can I do with the technology that I’m learning to make that possible? 

And I was looking for media that was not broadcast media. Now,  I have to explain that broadcast does not here imply, you know, transmission over the air, but rather emission of the same information from a centralized point.

Technology & The Free Speech Movement

The free speech movement introduced what were seen as radical ideas into the mainstream. But the means of communicating those ideas were still limited to word-of-mouth, print media, radio, and television. But what was next? 

That was the big question. 

After dropping out of Berkeley in 1967 to work as an engineer, Lee re-enrolled in 1971, seeking people who shared his curiosity about how to answer it. 

LEE:

I went to work as a junior engineer, and was sent to learn computer programming, at least the basic language, which is a pretty simple language, and learned about computer networks, learned about file systems and classification and realized that a network of computers could be a decentralized and non broadcast medium. Which could be available widely. Now this is 1970 when I had that realization, and I remember sitting up and saying, but where am I going to get a computer?

Now within a year, I had found the answer to that a group of people had in 1970, left the University of California and set up to bring computer power to the counterculture.

SCOTT:

The group Lee is talking about was called Resource One, a collective sometimes described as a “technological commune” that convened in the warehouse of an abandoned candy factory. [sweet, sweet, candy]. It was home to students, technologists, artists, filmmakers – anyone looking to experiment, build things, and learn from one another.

LEE

They didn’t know quite how but they were able to perform an impressive hustling effort. And they actually got on long term loan, which really means don’t bother sending it back, the same mainframe computer that had been used by Doug Engelbart for his mother of all demos in 1968. And that’s that was one that revolutionized computing and created the concept of the personal computer.

SCOTT:

At Resource 1, Lee joined forces with Effrem Lipkin, Ken Colstad, Jude Milhon and Mark Szpakowski to form The Community Memory Project. Lee recalls an important early source of inspiration.

Community Memory group photograph with terminal, 1984, Lee Felsenstein Collection, Digital Archive, Catalog 102702620. From left to right, Carl Farrington, Michael Rossman, Phil Kohn, Lee Felsenstein, Karen Paulsell, unknown woman, Ken Constad. (via computerhistory.org)

LEE:

The original concept I had for community memory would be it was taken from a paper that was produced around in 1969, by a group of architects who call themselves peoples architects and his plan for Berkeley. And they envisioned a series of, a network in effect, of what they called Life Houses. And these were houses of people who were sort of naturals with community organizing, who would make a front room available during some hours for as a community information center. They didn’t talk about computers. But I did.

So the idea all along was to create and enable a network of communication at the neighborhood level, person to person.

SCOTT:

Their philosophy was clear, but knowing exactly how they’d bring it all together was less so. But for Lee and the community memory team, that was part of the fun. The need for experimentation… meant the need for play. Something Lee has always taken quite seriously. 

The importance of play

It took me a while in my career until I finally realized that I was a jock. In the sphere of engineering. I had always, you know, grown up thinking that, you know, the jocks were all just about the body, you know, and it’s superficial. It’s, you know, so it’s something they talk about endlessly

But as I went forward, and got involved in the personal computer industry’s formation, I saw firsthand people putting resources in so that they could play with the equipment in effect. Play means to use without really having a preordained outcome in mind.

I finally realized that yes, I take visceral pride and extend joy, when I can really let my mind work on a problem and create something that’s never been created before. It doesn’t happen all the time, but you alway try to keep getting there. 

And people did that. In the Homebrew Computer Club.

Lee & The Osborne 1, via The Retro Hour

The Homebrew Computer Club holds a special place in Silicon Valley Lore. It started as a hobbyist group, but if you were interested in how computers could change the world, it was the place to be. Lee was one of its original members. The Homebrew Computer Club boasts an impressive list of former members and contributors. Most notably, Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The Homebrew Computer club is actually where the Apple 1 was first debuted in 1976. Steve Wozniak was Apple’s leading engineering mind, and a personal computing legend in his own right. To Lee, Steve Wozniak was a friend and peer. Wozniak even played a role in advancing the reach of Community Memory.

LEE:

it wasn’t until 1984. With assistance from Steve Wozniak, who contributed to us, that we were able to open the second system. And this was located in most of the co op markets.

SCOTT:

Several Community Memory terminals would come and go over the years across the bay area. The last was shut down in 1992.

Today, nearly 50 years after Community Memory made its debut at Leopold’s Records, Lee is very much still at it….building, experimenting, playing, and writing about his every adventure, and there are many. 

A legacy still in the making

Beyond Community Memory and the Homebrew Computer Club, Lee is recognized as a true pioneer in personal computing. He is often best known as the designer of the first-ever mass-produced portable computer called “The Osborne 1”. Now, I never used the Osborne 1, but we did have a DEC Rainbow 100 at my first job. It ran both CP/M (the operating system that was on the Osborne) as well as a version of DOS. What made it really popular was that it had dual floppy drives. NERD FUN FACT: You put the lower floppy in upside down.

You can read more about what Lee is up to at LeeFelsenstein.com. You can even check out his Patreon at Patreon.com/LFelsenstein.

Huge thank you to Lee Felsenstein for talking with us.

LEE:

I like to say that the project itself, opened the door to cyberspace and proved that it was hospitable territory.

The concept of community memory, I think, is still quite valid.

Part 2 Transcript coming soon!