“We’re Using a Computer”: Was Social Media Invented in Berkeley?

By Coby McDonald

On August 8th, 1973, a small group of hackers and activists calling themselves the Community Memory Project, placed an unusual device just outside the entrance to student-owned cooperative Leopold’s Records.

Inside a cardboard box with two arm-sized holes was an electronic teletype machine—basically a remote-controlled typewriter. Beside the terminal sat a young man who called out to passersby, “Would you like to try our electronic bulletin board? We’re using a computer.”

In the early 70s most people had never seen a computer, much less laid hands on one. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and computers at the time were massive, room-filling devices conjuring unsavory thoughts of The Man.

“Computers were seen as something used by the government and corporations behind closed doors,” says computer historian Marc Weber. “Not in the interest of people.” Computers had helped send men to the moon, soldiers to Vietnam, and corporate profits soaring—but what could they do for the people?

The counterculture hackers of the Community Memory Project believed they knew the answer: They envisioned a future in which computers could connect every day folk, and empower them to change the world. And it would all start in Berkeley.

When a brave soul stepped up to try the alien device, they were prompted to enter a search term on the keypad—“sitar player” for example—and then hit “enter.” The machine would spring to life.

“It would go chung-chung-chung-chung-chung,” says Lee Felsenstein, UC Berkeley grad and one of the founders of Community Memory, describing the sound the machine made as it spat out sheet of paper. On the sheet would be printed any posts containing the search term—Google results decades before Google.

“It was sort of a noisy, sluggish craigslist,” Felsenstein says. He tells the story of the Community Memory project on the Telegraph Tour app, a free walking tour launched by the Telegraph Business Improvement District last year (full disclosure: I conducted interviews for that project, including an interview with Felsenstein).

And being a sort of primitive social media platform, it also inspired the usual range of online behavior. “Community Memory was the first point where spam showed up,” says Felsenstein, “the first point for trolling, the first place where people developed personas online.” But people put the device to positive use too. “There were people who had put jokes in, who would stimulate very quirky dialogues between strangers. And there were some running gags,” Felsenstein says. “There was even a poet who used it as a marketing device.”

Felsenstein and his colleagues hoped that Community Memory would spread around the country and perhaps the world, creating a communication network that could be used to foster positive causes. The team installed terminals in several other locations, but the project fizzled within a year. There were two more iterations of the Community Memory project with higher quality terminals. Despite attracting a small but enthusiastic community of users, they also ultimately failed—in large part because of the explosion of personal computers.

Had things turned out differently, would we all be logging into our Community Memory accounts to share our thoughts and feelings, post pictures of our pets, and spark the revolution?

“I can’t say that we could see the future from where we stood,” says Felsenstein, who would later design the first-ever portable computer, the Osborne-1. “But we could see paths to the future and we could help build those paths. I think we had a larger effect than we can prove we did have.”

The project has not been entirely forgotten. An original Community Memory terminal is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

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Only the first iteration of The Community Memory Project ended after the first year (it ran from Aug. 1973 to Jan. 1975). Two more versions were fielded - one in 1984 and a third in 1990. The project formed a nonprofit corporation in 1977. The wooden kiosk in the opening illustration is from the third system, which ran from 1990 to 1992. That system was based on “clone” PCs running as browsers on a Unix minicomputer (Plexus P-35) instead of the original mainframe, and represented a really modern architecture (we wrote a text browser and transferred data as packets). Much version of the story has recently been published in an anthology “Social Media - Archaeology and Poetics) Edie’s by Judy Malloy and published by MIT Press.
Thanks for the information, Lee. I’ve updated the caption on the top photo to more accurately represent it.
The 2nd photo shows Lee Felsenstein - in evangelism mode with a curious person.
I am not in the second picture - that is Robert Horvitz (I believe), who was volunteering with Resource One. I am in the first photo, taken in 1984 at s Bernal Heights street fair - we set up a couple of terminals there for the second generation system.
I definitely need to challenge myself to be quiet more. I have forte a lot better but there is surely room for improvement! I feel like an old lady shaking my cane at a young whippersnapper when I say this, but what I wouldn’t give to have people in my real, every day, non virtual life who make it necessary not to spend all my time plugged in.Laptop vs desktop pros and cons
Replying to Lisa, When I met Ivan Illich in the 1980’s he mocked me for supposedly interposing computers between people. “If you want to talk with Pearl over there you should just go and talk with her - why do you have people go “deet-deet-deet” with a computer?” I let him say his pierce, then asked “What if I didn’t know that it was Pearl I wanted to talk to?” He calmed down, and said “I see what you mean”. I went on, referring to Illich’s wish to return to society similar to that of Europe in the 13th century: “So you see - perhaps a bicycle society needs a computer.” I don’t think he said anything but his face told me that he did not disagree. I helped start Community Memory as a technology for empowering networks of community centers (the aim was to nucleate village structures within an urban area). We shut it down when we began to see demand for individual home use of CM - this would have limited its usership to the stratum of computer owners, which I did not want to see happen (it would tend to separate people just as you have implied). Much has changed in the 30 years that has ensued, and it would be possible to re-implement it using smart phones - It’s next on my to-do list if I can get there. For readers who are not familiar with Illich, he was a former Jesuit priest on the Catholic hierarchy’s fast track who left the order and retreated to Cuernivaca to study societies in Central America. He wrote a heretical book “Deschooling Society” (Harper & Row, 1970) in which he advocated the replacement of institutional education with “vernacular” person-to-person learning (in the coda he mentioned using computers to match learners with teachers). I had read a later essay of his, “Tools for Conviviality” (Harper & Row, 1973), which helped inform my approach to design of computer technology for use by the general public. I’m sure Ivan knew about that when we met.

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