My first foray into online communities was in the mid- to late-1980s, when the organization I worked for got some of its online services through UCLA. We got limited access to email and access to the Usenet discussion system. If you’re not familiar with Usenet — which went live in 1980 — surprise! It’s still around. I read threaded discussions on technical topics, but I don’t remember actively participating.
My real introduction to active participation in online communities was CompuServe, which went live in its first incarnation in 1969. I got my CompuServe account in 1988. One dialed in using a modem (I still remember my first 24K baud modem) and signed up for what was a set of topical bulletin boards. I know that I participated in a gardening board, a board dedicated to mystery books, one for science fiction, and I don’t remember what all else. These were active and lively discussions, and private messaging between members. In fact, my first real email address came through CompuServe in the late 80s, when they activated accounts that could send and receive email to any host.
I have a friend who has been a member of The Well for more years than I can remember. That was an acronym for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, and launched in 1985 as a companion service to the Whole Earth Review and the Whole Earth Catalog. Want another surprise? The Well is still alive and running, and a version of the Whole Earth Review is still online for its members.
In the 2000s I was part of a vibrant online community called Readerville, dedicated (mostly) to discussions about books across all genres. I met many people who remain my friends today. I miss it every day.
And, of course, there is a lengthy history of online community bulletin board systems (or BBS) — starting in the late 1970s — that have come and gone over the years. And that mostly, they have gone. These BBS’s often play an important role in researching and documenting computing history, or for cultural historians studying underground culture, or studying the history of computer game development and game play, or even documenting the development of a RL (Real Life) community.
If you want to learn about BBS’s, their history, and the role they have played in various communities, you could not do better than to watch the documentary BBS. The film’s director, Jason Scott, is also the founder of textfiles.com, dedicated to the preservation of BBS content. We interviewed Jason for the Signal, and his ArchiveTeam web archiving effort has just been announced as a 2013 NDSA Innovation Award winner. ArchiveTeam has been a key participant in the preservation of many web communities as well. Separate from these communities serving as source of documentation for research or technology preservation, the participants in BBS’s and online communities often have little opportunity to document their participation and contributions when a service needs to shut down out of economic necessity or corporate decision. These communities have become a highly visible digital preservation target.
As a sidebar, in the late 1990s I needed to gather my personal records related to my seven years on the board of the Museum Computer Network, and much of my early official email was through my CompuServe account. I still had my application floppy for CompuServe Navigator, which I was able to launch on a older Mac, retrieve my account, export my mail as text, and add to my records archive. And I have been migrating that data forward across media ever since.