Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 47 — The WELL

A “Random Access” item in the last episode discussed a 1985 bill introduced in the United States Senate, S.1305, which proposed to prohibit anyone from “knowingly entering or transmitting by means of a computer” any content related to child pornography. Although similar legislation is now on the federal statute books, this particular bill never made it out of the Senate despite enthusiastic support from then-President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

There was substantial resistance to S.1305 from civil liberties advocates and the tech industry, who feared the legislation would stifle the nascent computer bulletin board system (BBS) market. In a February 1986 Baltimore Sun column, David H. Rothman cited one BBS operator–who happened to be a lawyer–who said, “Just word of one prosecution would be enough to frighten some board operators” into shutting down completely. The problem, Rothman explained, was that the word “knowingly” in S. 1305 could implicate honest BBS operators who were simply too overwhelmed to monitor their users’ posts 24 hours a day. For example, another operator he spoke to said that he made a diligent effort to prevent users from illegally posting people’s credit card numbers, yet “[n]umbers went up [] before he could zap them, and authorities subjected him to a legal battle.”

A decade later, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which included the famous Section 230, a provision that largely immunized providers of “interactive computer services” from any legal liability for posts made by their users. But in these earlier, pre-Internet days, BBS operators were still viewed with a good deal of skepticism by many lawmakers and perhaps the public at-large.

This next Computer Chronicles episode from October 1985 discussed the growing legal issues surrounding bulletin board systems. It also provided a broader overview of the growing impact of modem technology on computer usage. There was even a demonstration of a specific BBS that grew into one of the earliest–and still active–online communities.

“Missing Half the Fun of Owning a Computer”

Stewart Cheifet did his cold open seated at a desk using an Apple IIc hooked up to a modem. He said that if you owned a computer and a telephone, but you didn’t own a modem, you were missing half the fun of owning a computer.

George Morrow was back this week as co-host. In the studio, Cheifet worked at another, unidentified computer, which he used as a terminal thanks to a modem. Cheifet asked Morrow to explain what a modem was and what it did. Morrow said that the information stored in a computer was commonly identified as “0s and 1s,” which typically represented electric voltage levels. At the same time, information that went over the telephone line was represented by tones. The modem represented an “agreement” over how to turn the computer’s voltage levels into telephone tones. “Modem” meant modulator-demodulator: Modulating turned the voltage levels into tones; demodulating did the reverse.

First-Time Parents Turned to Apple-Funded Daycare BBS

Wendy Woods presented her first remote segment from Parents Place, a daycare center and preschool in San Francisco. Woods explained how Parents Place recently added a computer BBS–funded by a grant from Apple–to help parents who were too busy to visit the center personally for support services. The BBS was available every day from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. It offered up-to-date articles on child rearing and answered questions on typical childhood events, such as temper tantrums and toilet training.

Woods said one of the most popular aspects of the BBS was the interactive sharing of experience between new (and often unsure) parents. Parents Place still kept an open telephone line for voice communication, but the popularity of the BBS was growing steadily. First-time parents could get answers to questions that might be difficult to ask face-to-face.

Woods noted the BBS had also been used a “survey taker,” a trading post, a teacher, and a referral guide. But mostly, it was a quiet place for parents to share their common fears and feelings about parenthood.

Would Computers Eventually Outnumber Typewriters in American Homes?

The first of two studio round tables featured Ezra Shapiro and Rory O’Connor. George Morrow opened by noting he had “a heck of a time” working with modems. But he said that Shapiro and O’Connor, who were both tech journalists, probably used modems an awful lot, so maybe they could explain how they worked with bulletin board systems. O’Connor, the news editor for InfoWorld, said they’d been using modems and telecommunications for a number of years. The most common uses were to gather stories from journalists in the field and communicate internally through an electronic mail system. He said these systems made it possible to easily share stories and notes with other bureaus, and even other publications owned by his publication’s parent company. For example, O’Connor could ask someone in Europe to do an interview for him and send the transcript electronically.

Morrow asked if this was done frequently. O’Connor said absolutely, noting that a recent front page story in InfoWorld required two interviews done in Europe and sent to him via electronic mail a few hours later. Cheifet asked why this was better than simply calling the reporter in Europe on the telephone. O’Connor replied that one problem when dealing with Europe or Asia was the time-zone difference. If you picked up the phone in the middle of the day in San Francisco, it was 3 a.m. in Paris. Another reason was that if he simply spoke to the local reporter in Europe, he would still need to have a third person transcribe the conversation onto a local computer.

Cheifet turned to Shapiro, the west coast editor for Byte (a presenting sponsor of Computer Chronicles), who also ran his own BBS. Cheifet asked Shapiro to explain how his BBS, which was based on software known as Fido, worked. Shapiro said he’d been “sort of a nut” about bulletin board systems for the past three years. So he set up his own BBS, which ran off his personal computer even when he wasn’t using the machine. He described it as a “community chat center” and source of public domain software programs.

Morrow asked about the type of programs available on the BBS. Shapiro said it was basically stuff that he was interested in, such as software for TRS-80 Model 100 computer, fairly technical programs for the IBM PC, and even an area for the BBS software itself. This meant someone could call Shapiro’s BBS and download the software to start their own bulletin board.

Morrow asked about the costs and complexity of starting your own BBS. Shapiro said that with respect to complexity, all this stuff was confusing and required reading through manuals to figure it out. And because most bulletin boards ran off of public domain software, these programs were not very well documented, so a new operator should plan to spend a good of deal of time in the setup process. As for the costs, purchasing a computer, modem, and a second phone line could run you between $600 and $700.

Cheifet asked O’Connor how the average computer could decide which was the best modem for them. O’Connor said it depended on what the user wanted to do, i.e., what kind of information they wanted to get on the other end. Shapiro said he recommended joining a local computer club or users group. There was always someone in these groups who had already paved the way a few months earlier. Morrow agreed that one of the best resources available for computing were users groups.

Cheifet turned to the issue of how people behaved on a bulletin board. What were O’Connor and Shapiro’s observations about the social and psychological aspects of communicating via modem? O’Connor said it certainly was different than communicating via telephone, because to a certain degree you were insulated. You could choose to back out of a conversation and listen, similar to a telephone party line.

Morrow asked if people were more or less “adventuresome” in this online environment. O’Connor noted there were the equivalent of personal ads and computer dating on bulletin boards. He said there were also boards that focused on specialty interests ranging from the unusual, like survivalists, to more outrageous topics like pornography.

Cheifet asked Shapiro if he behaved differently on his own BBS. Shapiro said that as the board operator he was more of a “puppetmaster” working behind the scenes. But when he logged onto another BBS or a larger service like Compuserve or The Source, he’d seen quite a few things that indicated people were dealing with online communication differently. When people typed letters and numbers on a keyboard, they disappeared quickly, and they could be anything they wanted to be behind those letters. He noted there had been a number of romances started online that had led to marriage. (Morrow expressed surprise at this.) On the other side, there was a woman who attempted suicide while logged into an online service. Fortunately, another user saw this was serious and intervened.

Cheifet asked if bulletin boards were a fad, similar to CB radios back in the 1970s. Or was this a new, permanent way for people to communicate with each other? O’Connor said that according to a market research study recently cited in InfoWorld, by the end of the 1980s a majority of the American white-collar workforce would have the opportunity to use modems and computers to work from home–what they called telecommuting. So O’Connor saw bulletin boards gradually increasing in popularity, although the complexities still had to be addressed.

Morrow went off on kind of a weird tangent here, asking how we could ever expect to see more computers in homes than typewriters. He estimated that no more than 60 percent of American homes currently had typewriters. So why would more homes have computers? O’Connor said many corporations might one day provide their workers with low-cost communications terminals. Morrow joked the IRS would probably find a way to tax that as income.

Pacific Bell Launched Pilot “Telecommuting” Program

Speaking of telecommuting, Wendy Woods presented her second remote segment, this time focused on Pacific Bell. The San Francisco-based telephone company was now experimenting with its own telecommuting program. Woods narrated some B-roll footage of Steve Renten, one of 75 Pacific Bell employees who were part of the pilot program. Renten spent 20 hours per week compiling data for Pacific Bell’s marketing department from his home computer. Renten then sent his reports via modem to the company’s timesharing network.

Renten told Woods that telecommuting was wonderful. He was more productive, experienced greater clarity of thought, and produced more consistent work. And it saved him the cost and hassle of commuting. Woods noted, however, that those involved in the test spent some time at the office as “human interaction” was still considered a vital part of doing business.

Telecommuting also had benefits for the employer, Woods noted. Lynda Aanpol, the manager in charge of Pacific Bell’s telecommuting program, told Woods there was reduced overhead from office space savings, improved recruiting of new employees, and even reductions in time-sharing costs, as employees could access mainframes during off-peak hours.

Woods said that Pacific Bell estimated there were 7.2 million Americans who could be working at home. For its part, Pacific Bell expected to increase the number of telecommuters at its company to about 100 over the next few months. Woods noted it was appropriate that one of the first companies to embrace telecommuting was, in fact, a telephone company.

Should BBS Operators Be Held Legally Responsible for Criminal Posts by Users?

Back in the studio, Matthew McClure and Don Ingraham joined Cheifet and Morrow for the second and final round table. McClure was a systems operator with The WELL, a recently launched BBS service. McClure told Morrow that anyone with a computer and a modem could access The WELL and its hundreds of other users. Morrow asked why someone would use The WELL instead of a telephone. McClure said when you posted a question to a BBS, you reached 100 or 200 people and might get an answer back within roughly 24 hours. It would take you far longer to call that many people individually.

McClure than demonstrated The WELL running on a Macintosh attached to a modem. He explained there were a number of user groups active on the service, so if you had a technical question about a computer, you could post a question. There was also public domain software available. But he said the more interesting stuff was with a variety of real-world topic areas–which The WELL called “conferences,” on topics such as spirituality and legal issues.

Morrow asked about a conference simply called “the pub.” McClure said that was a “corner pub” where users went to relax. (The users had to provide their own liquor.) McClure also showed off a legal conference discussing S.1305. One user had posted the full text of the bill.

Cheifet then turned to Ingraham, an assistant district attorney for Alameda County–where they kept the nuclear wessels–who specialized in prosecuting computer crimes. Cheifet asked Ingraham how the law currently viewed bulletin boards. Were they like newspapers with First Amendment rights or were they considered utilities subject to government regulation? Ingraham said federal and state lawmakers were currently struggling with that question. And even if laws were eventually passed to regulate bulletin boards, the courts would still need to decide which First Amendment protections applied to this kind of online communication.

Ingraham noted that conversations on BBS services could take place over a long period of time. So who was responsible for what any particular person said? A newspaper would not publish someone’s personal credit card number. Indeed, you could sue a newspaper that did that. But people did post credit card numbers on bulletin boards.

Ingraham noted that S.1305 was specifically targeted at child pornography and child abuse on bulletin boards. He said there were boards targeting people were interested in–and in fact obsessed with–committing sexual attacks on children. A BBS afforded an advantage of anonymity that did not exist with paper.

Morrow asked McClure if there was any way to know where a call made to The WELL originated. McClure said not really, noting that anyone could sign up. Cheifet noted that a systems operator like McClure might be liable under S.1305, so what kind of control did he have–or ought to have–over what people put on a BBS? McClure said it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there was the issue of control. On the other hand, there was the privacy of users. He said most BBS operators, including himself, erred on the side of privacy, especially when it came to private electronic mail. If he were legally responsible for every word that anyone put on The WELL, it would be a burdensome task and most people wouldn’t bother running a BBS.

Morrow asked McClure if it was practical for him to edit a problematic post in real time, say someone who had posted a credit card number. McClure said it would be impossible for him to know that it had even happened. The WELL was a multi-user system with about 30 people logged on at once. So he couldn’t keep track of when every individual user was typing something. Morrow lamented this was a real problem.

Cheifet asked Ingraham if it was a mistake for BBS operators like McClure to err on the side of privacy. Ingraham said it was probably the right approach if we were talking about the legal issue. He said the last thing any legislator wanted was to destroy something with the potential for national communications that a BBS afforded. “There will always be snakes in Eden,” he said. He saw the problem as one of some BBS services actually encouraging criminal activity. Every BBS prosecuted by his office had actively provided information on committing crimes, such as how to hack into a computer system or rip off the telephone company. But Ingraham said the typical BBS operator like McClure would be no more criminally responsible for someone posting a credit card number than a supermarket manager would be if someone did the same thing on a physical bulletin board.

Cheifet asked if that still didn’t put pressure on BBS operators to make certain judgments or close calls, such as someone who simply wanted to talk about their child pornography addiction. Ingraham said that was a risk we had to run with a new technology. Morrow added that when it came to social problems there were two attitudes to take: just fix the problem, or be careful about fixing it because maybe you’ll make it worse.

Finally, Cheifet asked McClure if he found himself getting more conservative due to pending legislation. McClure said it was a growing concern, noting that Pacific Bell recently raided a BBS and seized $6,000 worth of equipment because of posts containing credit card numbers. The next day, McClure said a number of bulletin boards started requiring registrations, passwords, and even user fees.

Paul Schindler provided his customary closing commentary, which focused on the issue of online etiquette. He noted that bulletin boards were still “primitive,” not technically but socially. He saw an opportunity in someone trying to be the Emily Post or Miss Manners of the BBS world, as some boards desperately needed such help.

Intel Launched 386 Processor

Stewart Cheifet presented this episode’s “Random Access,” which included news from October 1985.

  • IBM launched its new local area network system, a token-ring system that was not compatible with Ethernet and would not work with mainframes or minicomputers. The software and hardware cards to operate the new LAN would cost about $800 per workstation. IBM claimed the system could link up to 200 computers and peripherals. Cheifet said other vendors were expected to “hop on board” the IBM standard to develop compatible networking products. (IBM’s token ring system will be the subject of the next Chronicles episode.)
  • Intel unveiled its new 32-bit microprocessor, the 80386, which was “essentially a mainframe on a chip.” IBM would reportedly use the 386 in its planned successor to the PC-AT, which was expected to be out in 1987. Cheifet noted the 80386 could access 250 times more data than a 16-bit chip.
  • Kaypro cut the prices of two of its PC compatibles, the 16e and the 16/2e, by about 20 percent.
  • Swedish manufacturer Ericsson said it would exit the U.S. desktop computer market and focus on telecommunications and networking products instead.
  • Digital Equipment Corporation announced a new CD-ROM drive for its DEC Rainbow 100 computer as well as the IBM PC. The company would also sell databsaes on Laserdisc.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed NFL Challenge (Xor Software, $99), a NFL-licensed computer football game that portrayed the action using X-and-O diagrams. Schindler was particularly happy that the game was not copy protected so it could be run from a hard disk drive.
  • Tsuneo Tanaka, the president of Hitachi America Ltd., backed out of a planned appearance before a U.S. Senate committee looking into allegations that the Japanese company was “dumping” computer chips onto the American market at “predatory” prices.
  • Cheifet said the computer industry was “up in arms” about a proposal before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that would “drastically” reduce tax breaks for high-tech research and development. A Hewlett-Packard executive claimed the cuts would cost his company $100 million a year.
  • Soviet spies were reportedly using Dialog, an online database created by defense contractor Lockheed, to research U.S. military technology projects.
  • Ziff-Davis planned to close Creative Computing, one of the original computer magazines, by the end of 1985.
  • The 1985 North American Computer Chess Championship recently opened in Denver. The favorite was HiTech, a computer created at Carnegie Mellon University. Cheifet said that HiTech’s designer predicted that a computer would one day be the world’s best chess player.
  • ThoughtWare released the Jingle Disk, which Cheifet described as the “ultimate high-tech Christmas card.” The program ran color holiday scenes and played Christmas carols. (Clint Basinger of the YouTube channel LGR did an extended review of Jingle Disk and the company behind it in a 2014 video, which I’ve embedded below.)

The First Social Network?

If you ask Google, “What was the first social media platform?”, most of the responses direct you to SixDegrees.com, a web-based service launched in 1997. But I think there’s a case to be made that The WELL could be considered the first social media network. Although The WELL never achieved a critical mass of users–especially when compared to other early online services–it proved to be quite influential within the technology press itself and helped to spawn a number of institutions that remain prominent today.

Now, The WELL was not the first BBS. Back in 1978, a Chicago-based duo, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, developed the first BBS software–known as CBBS–to help their computer club stay in touch following a blizzard. By the early 1980s there was a wide number of BBS programs available, including Fido, which Ezra Shapiro mentioned powered his own self-hosted board. For its part, The WELL relied on a proprietary “computer conferencing” tool called PicoSpan, first developed in 1982 by Marcus D. Watts.

Watts, however, was not the person behind The WELL. That honor belonged to two other men, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Brand is a figure whose prior work has been indirectly mentioned on the Chronicles before. He was behind the Whole Earth Software Catalog, the publication that briefly employed Paul Schindler. The Software Catalog, in turn, was a spin-off of the Whole Earth Catalog, which Brand launched back in 1968. As Fred Turner, a Stanford University professor, described in a 2005 paper on the origins of The WELL, Brand was “a former Merry Prankster and coproducer of the Trips Festival that helped spark the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic scene.”

Basically, Brand was a young white man who had inherited some money and decided to fund a hippie commune. The Whole Earth Catalog was part of this communal movement. The Catalog did not actually sell products. Rather, Turner said it “presented reviews of hand tools, books, and magazines arrayed in seven thematic categories”–kind of a Yelp for commune members. Although Brand intended the Catalog to be a one-time affair, its popularity led him to publish a number of quarterly “supplements,” which later spawned a separate magazine, the Whole Earth Review. In 1983, Turner said Doubleday offered Brand a $1.3 million advance–which the publisher would never earn back–to produce the Whole Earth Software Catalog.

It was around this time that Larry Brilliant entered the picture. Katie Hafner, whose history of The WELL was the cover story in the May 1997 issue of Wired (and which led to a whole book on the subject), described Brilliant as a “physician whose career had been a mix of good works and business ventures.” Brilliant, who also once belonged to a commune, had purchased a Michigan-based company called Network Technologies International (NETI), which happened to employ Marcus Watts part-time. NETI purchased the rights to PicoSpan from Watts, and Brilliant wanted Brand to use the software to create a “computer conferencing” network built around the existing Whole Earth community. Hafner said Brilliant’s goal was simple: “take a group of interesting people, give them the means to stay in continuous communication with one another, stand back, and see what happens.”

In its initial form, The WELL was little more than a DEC VAX compute provided by NETI and a rack of modems running out of the existing Whole Earth Review office. (The WELL itself stood for “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link.”) The system went online internally in March 1985 and opened to the public on April 1.

Matthew McClure was The WELL’s first employee. McClure previously belonged to a Tennessee commune called The Farm. After leaving the commune in 1983, McClure joined the Whole Earth Software Catalog as an assistant editor. Brand decided that McClure’s experience living on a commune–and presumably with UNIX, the VAX’s operating system–made him an ideal candidate to lead his new online community as director. McClure himself did not stay on the job very long. He left The WELL in 1986. His successor was John Choate, another veteran of The Farm, whom McClure initially hired as his marketing director. McClure would bounce around a number of software engineering jobs during the 1980s and 1990s, most notably a decade-long stint with enterprise software company Sybase. His last major job was with Kibo Software, from where he retired in 2016.

As for The WELL, at the time this Chronicles episode aired, the service only had a few hundred users. Even at its height in the mid-1990s, The WELL never exceeded 10,000 members, according to Hafner. Still, Hafner noted that The WELL “had become a force whose influence was wildly disproportionate to its size.” Many journalists, including Hafner, belonged to the service–Brand offered them free memberships–which prompted a good deal of coverage.

Still, press buzz did not translate into rapid growth. Indeed, The WELL struggled to keep up with what users it did have. As Hafner explained, the choice of the VAX to run the whole system “had probably been Stewart Brand’s biggest mistake.” The command-line UNIX interface behind PicoSpan also created a significant barrier to entry for non-technical users. And Brand’s desire to keep the service as close to free as possible meant The WELL lost money in its early days. By 1986, Hafner said that Larry Brilliant’s board advised him to “dump the hippies” and write-off NETI’s $400,000 investment in the project.

NETI would actually hold on to its 50-percent stake in The WELL until 1994, which it then sold to Bruce Katz, who is best known as the founder of the Rockport Shoe Company. (The nonprofit Point Foundation, which published the Whole Earth Review, owned the other 50 percent.) Katz moved The Well onto the Internet and ultimately decided to split the business into three separate entities: the original service containing all of the user-generated content; an Internet access provider; and a software company that would market a graphical, web-based conferencing system.

Katz would sell the core WELL service to the Salon Media Group, publishers of Salon, in April 1999. Salon’s founders were themselves members of The WELL and had actually “planned their business in a private forum” on the service, according to ZD Net. Salon continued to run The WELL for 13 years until it sold the service to a “group of long-time members” who paid $400,000, according to The Guardian, which noted there were about 2,700 members as of 2012. Ten years later, The WELL continues to operate as an independent company. As for legacy, in addition to Salon, there are two other notable ventures that can trace their lineage to member conferences on The WELL are the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Craigslist.

And as I suggested earlier, The WELL can be thought of as the first social media network. One reason for this is Stewart Brand’s early credo for the service, “You own your own words.” No doubt, this was party a self-serving move designed to shift any potential legal liability away from Brand and onto the users. But it also established a clear policy that content generated by the users belonged to them, not the service. For example, users had the right to delete (or “scribble”) any or all of their posts to a conference. This reflected a clear shift from other online services like Compuserve or The Source, which were largely proprietary databases of information that users could access but not directly control.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of October 22, 1985.
  • Donald Ingraham (1937 - 2008) spent nearly 35 years with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. The United States Army drafted Ingraham shortly after he passed the California bar exam and he spent four years in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, rising to the rank of captain. Following his discharge in 1967, Ingraham joined the district attorney’s office and remained there until his retirement in 2001. Ingraham died in 2008 following a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, according to an obituary published by his son, Lawrence Graham.
  • Don Ingraham was also an accomplished puppeteer. I found a number of newspaper clippings advertising shows that he performed for children in the Oakland area during the 1980s. According to his son, Ingraham happened to be a high school classmate of Frank Oz, the legendary puppeteer and director who worked with Jim Henson on the Muppets.
  • I couldn’t find much on Ezra Shapiro. He taught journalism for a number of years at California State University, Northridge, but he does not appear to be active in journalism or academia anymore.
  • Rory O’Connor remained with InfoWorld until 1987. He continued to work as a journalist for various publications until 2001, when he moved into corporate communications. Since 2015, he’s worked as a self-employed communications consultant based in San Francisco.
  • Carnegie Mellon’s HiTech did in fact triumph at the 1985 North American Computer Chess Championship. Thimichas was the 16th annual event sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery, whose president at the time was recent Chronicles guest Dr. Adele Goldberg. And just as one of HiTech’s designers predicted, a computer would defeat the world chess champion. IBM’s Deep Blue–originally developed at Carnegie Mellon–defeated Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in May 1997.
  • Ericsson’s foray into the U.S. computer market seemed to consist of a single product, the Ericsson Portable PC, an IBM PC clone that came with an optional thermal printer and modem.
  • Compaq ended up beating IBM to market in releasing the first 80386-based PC. The Compaq Deskpro 386 debuted in September 1986. The 80386 itself ended up enjoying a very long lifespan–Intel continued producing variations of the 32-bit chip up until 2007.
  • That DEC CD-ROM drive initially sold for around $2,300, according to contemporary news reports.
  • Creative Computing launched in October 1974. Its founder and editor was David H. Ahl, who previously worked for DEC. Ahl sold Creative Computing to Ziff-Davis but continued to serve as editor until its final issue in December 1985.
  • NFL Challenge generated a good deal of positive press upon its release. One reviewer, Rick Teverbaugh of Computer Gaming World, noted the game was “so extensive that it takes up nearly all of the 256K [of memory] available on the IBM.” He also compared the Xs-and-Os display (see the example below) to John Madden’s famous television chalkboard–which was prescient, given that Electronic Arts would release John Madden Football a little over three years later.