Lee Felsenstein, as told to Bernard Aboba
As a result of the Free Speech Movement, tens of thousands of people realigned their idea of who they were and what they were doing, and as a side effect, it became legitimate for people to open up conversations with strangers. A lot of barriers disappeared, and they discovered matches and possiblities they didn't know existed. Haight-Ashbury and the "Summer of Love" were an offshoot of that.
In 1969, during the crisis of People's Park, a lot of energy went towards the construction of the park, but there was also an openness to experimentation. I was an engineering student at Berkeley during this period, and so I tried to use the technical skills I had in the service of this process. I started by working in the underground press, with the Berkeley Barb.
I saw the Berkeley Barb as a possible mechanism for nuturing a community, but it didn't stay that way. As it grew, the structure inherent in the print medium reasserted itself, and it became a paper whose purpose was to attract attention to itself, rather than to attract attention to other people.
In 1971 I dropped out of Berkeley and went to work at Ampex Corporation in Redwood City. I was sent to The Service Bureau Corporation to learn Basic; in those days minicomputers were brand new, and service bureaus were where they were used. We had selectric terminals, and the instructors were quite full of themselves, and would delight in telling us how the terminals were typing more slowly because they had turned off the computer in Los Angeles and were now using the system in Kansas City. From this I understood that this medium was independent of geography. The other thing they taught us was that you could make a file public to various degrees; a file could be made accessible to your account only, to other groups of users, or to everyone.
Putting the two capabilities together, I understood that you could create a system independent of geography where a number of interest groups could exist, and where people could join in ongoing conversations. This was the medium that could faciliate the kind of community self-building that I was interested in. All that remained was to facilitate access to the technology.
In 1969 there were many switchboards, which were people with index cards and telephones that were listed in the underground press. People would call them with resources that were available, and then other people would call looking for information. There was never much of a filing system, and so the people running the switchboards got burned out.
I had investigated the switchboards in Berkeley, such as the Free Church Switchboard, and so I wanted to see if my engineering skills could help the organization of the files. What I found was that the Free Church was more interested in being a church than a switchboard.
At that time, someone told me about a computer in San Francisco that people wanted to use for good things, and gave me the phone number. This was Resource 1, a non-profit corporation that was a splittoff of The San Francisco Switchboard. The other half of the split was The Haight Ashbury Switchboard, which only recently closed up shop.
Resource 1 was run by people who had left the Berkeley Computer Science department after the invasion of Cambodia: Pam Heartt, Cris Macie, and Chris Newstroup. They started out by soliciting donations of computer time on mainframes for use by community groups.
The Resource 1 people, because their organization started out as a Switchboard, decided to get a computer to act as a common file area for the switchboard. They began a process of fund raising, and solicited a donation of a Xerox Data Systems 940, serial number 4. Only 57 of these devices ever existed, and that one had previously served at SRI, and was owned by TransAmerica Leasing. Resource 1 then raised $20,000 for a 58 Mb drive the size of two refrigerators, and we built a hard disk controller for it.
I started hanging out at Resource 1 in the late fall/winter of 1971, and when I went back to school at Berkeley and finished my degree in June of 1972, I was put in charge of maintaining the mainframe. The person who was supposed to teach me how to do this disappeared on the day that it arrived, and showed up months later without an explanation.
We started writing an information retrieval system. I was stimulated by Abe Greenblatt, a legendary MIT hacker who passed through town and got us all fired up about writing a retrieval system in 24 hours. Thus was born the Resource One Generalized Retrieval System (ROGERS). By that time I had brought Efram Lipkin into the project. Efram was in Berkeley and was looking for something socially useful to do with his computer skills.
It took about a year to get the keyword indexing working, so that you could index things under any number of words. We then went back to the switchboards, and said "here is this powerful tool. All you have to do to connect to it is to rent teletypes for $150/month." Well, the people at the meeting had no knowledge of computers, and only one of them had even known that we were working on this. We hadn't talked to them in advance, and it turned out that the switchboards were not interested in doing the work to reconceptualize their card files, or paying for something so speculative.
We had built a tremendously powerful system and there was no one to use it, so we began to explore possible uses. One was facilitating libraries. We thought of becoming a library like the Bay Area Reference Council, a library of libraries. This is where you called to find out where something was if your library didn't have it. Today they call this interlibrary loan.
But when we took it to the librarians, they said "what you have is a library with no books on the shelves. Why don't you get some books and come back to us?" We were trying to sell shelves to libraries! This gave Efram the idea of putting terminals out on the street to see what information we could collect. We went to Berkeley and at that time Leopold's Records was owned by the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) and controlled by the student senate, with the goal of driving down record prices.
One of us had to be in the store at all times, standing next to the teletype, which was in front of a bulletin board used mostly by musicians. We would ask people "Would you like to use our Electronic Bulletin Board, which is on a computer?" Almost without exception the people who heard this brightened up, and said "can I use it?" This was a record store, so the people were mostly of student age, who were going to more receptive, and we targeted it that way.
Our assumption was that people would use it mostly for finding housing, cars, and jobs. However, since the system was located next to a musician's bulletin board, all the musician's information traffic moved over to the terminal, and music and musician's items became the largest identifiable group, which was a bit of a surprise. We also found that a much wider range of items was entered than we thought was possible. People were entering typewriter graphics, and poems. They were inputting little literary works, and selling and buying the strangest things. I could see that it was functioning as a kind of public place that otherwise didn't exist.
Like other similar systems, Community Memory stemmed from the EIES system, which was a conferencing system that had been set up at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. But there is a difference between conferencing systems and bulletin board systems. I believe that Community Memory was the first bulletin board system, and we developed our BBS software through an empirical process, one that could not have been done commercially.
It was clear that it was popular, and in January we changed over to Hazeltine 1500 CRT terminals, and moved it out of Leopold's Records to the Whole Earth Access store, which was then on Shattuck Ave. Whole Earth Access was at that time a catalog store for alternative cultures. You could get wooden stoves there, which you couldn't buy anywhere else.
These terminals didn't make noise, and didn't require anyone to stand next to them. We also opened a terminal at the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library, where we knew the librarian. There was a another terminal in Berkeley at our offices on Dwight Way, and one in the offices of Vocations for Social Change, so we had a four terminal network.
The system had a number of flaws. There was no clustering of items, and it was too easy to invent new keywords. There was no incentive to group items under a single keyword, so it began to be hard to find things.
Nevertheless some important things happened, such as a learning exchange item that turned up in the first month. We seeded the system with questions such as "Where can you get good bagels in the Bay Area?" In 1973 there were not good bagel shops in the Bay Area, as there are today. We got some expected answers, but one was unexpected. That was that one should call the following number, and an ex-bagel maker would teach you how to make bagels.
So here was a learning exchange being offered, where the person offering it wasn't asking for anything in return. This was the kind of exchange that had been postulated in Ivan Ilych's Deschooling Society, which discussed alternatives to institutional education. I don't know if anyone ever learned to make bagels, though.
Another thing was that someone started entering a lot of information on lock picking and how to cheat the newly opened BART system, and encouraged his friends to put their information on, using the common keyword OUTLAW. He would come in and use the system, prowl around, and attach comments to items, saying "see OUTLAW."
This had been predicted in 1971 in a paper by Chris Beaty, who had attempted to set up a computer bulletin board system in Los Angeles that was surpressed by the Los Angeles Times. There were government agencies that said that to advertise cars you had to have a car dealers license or own a newspaper, and they used this as a pretext to shut down the system. In his paper, Chris described the function of the gatekeeper or information sharer, and this person fit the description quite well.