Timeline: The evolution of online communities

E-mail discussion lists, chat rooms, BBSs, Usenet groups and more all played a role in the development of online communities as we know them today.

July 15, 2009 (Computerworld) In the hyperactive online venues of today, it's easy to forget that online communities got started back when ABBA was cranking out hits. True, these early efforts didn't much resemble Facebook or Ning, but they were communities nonetheless. Here's how online communities have evolved.

Time spans of various types of online services

Group chat

Most people were introduced to real-time online chat with something like CompuServe's CB Simulator (introduced in 1980), Internet Relay Chat (1988) or AOL's chat rooms (1989). But text-based group chat started much earlier, with 1973's Talkomatic for the PLATO time-sharing system.

E-mail discussion lists

E-mail's roots go back to the mid-'60s when people at System Development Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were leaving messages for each other on time-shared mainframes, and features were added steadily over the following decade. It's hard to pinpoint when the first electronic mailing lists for sending messages to large groups of subscribers appeared -- MSGGROUP, launched in 1975, may have been the first -- but there's no doubt that managing such lists became much easier with the release of LISTSERV, the first e-mail list management software, in 1986.

With some mailing lists, a small group of administrators sends announcement messages to subscribers (the popular online classifieds site Craigslist got its start this way in 1995). Discussion lists, on the other hand, allow an ongoing conversation among all subscribers -- every reply to the list is sent to all the subscribers. Like Usenet discussion groups, e-mail discussion lists have been formed for every topic under the sun. They may not have the cool cachet of Web 2.0 technologies, but mailing lists are still an active and vibrant form of group discussion today.

Multiuser dungeons/Massively multiplayer online games/Virtual worlds

Playing games is always more fun against worthy opponents, so it's natural that computer gamers would look for ways to get together online. multiuser dungeons (MUDs), such as 1975's Adventure, featured a large number of players working with and against each other in text-based virtual worlds. (Some MUDs featured what were called "text-based graphics" -- ASCII characters arranged to create crude maps, for instance.) Commercial online services were instrumental in spreading graphics-based massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as Air Warrior (launched on GEnie in 1986) and Neverwinter Nights (launched on AOL in 1991). Today's Internet-accessible MMOGs, such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft, are direct descendants.

More recently, less game-oriented virtual worlds such as Second Life (launched in 2003) have made a small splash, but they haven't developed the widespread following of more user-friendly social networks like Facebook.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs)

Chicago's great blizzard of early 1978 spawned a new means of virtual communication for literal shut-ins: The computer bulletin board system, or BBS. Unlike commercial online services aimed at a national audience, many BBSs were local affairs run by hobbyists, often limited to just one user at a time. But they provided downloadable files and applications as well as a forum to post messages for other members, and some of the larger BBSs grew to rival the commercial online services in size and scope, either separately or in BBS networks such as FidoNet.

In those days, BBSs and commercial online services were the only online communities available outside of academic, government, or corporate networks, and they enjoyed massive popularity until the Web revolution stole their thunder and turned many of them into ISPs.

Commercial online services

Strictly speaking, the first commercial online services for consumers began in the '70s with CompuServe Information Service and The Source. But their golden age spanned the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, with leapfrogging competition propelling CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online and others into outdoing each other. As Web mania hit in 1995, these services began to transform into "onramps to the Information Superhighway" instead of destinations in their own right.


Inspired by BBSs, a group of academics dreamed up a distributed database that would look and act like a BBS's threaded discussion group -- but not be tied to a single BBS server. Conceived in 1979 and launched in 1980, Usenet created a hierarchy of newsgroups covering all kinds of interests, which could be tapped and read through aggregating newsreaders such as Deja News. The system thrived until the mid-'90s, when floods of newbies from AOL and other commercial online services, the first widespread spam, and competition from the Web drove many users away. Newsgroups still exist and can be followed through Deja News' direct descendent, Google Groups.

Web-based communities

"Community" was the watchword of early commercial Web sites. It's hard to establish where this began, but one early example was Salon.com (launched in 1995), which had its Table Talk forum and bought the WELL with its legacy community from the old Bay Area BBS days.

Social networks

Web-based communities were all about exploring ideas and sharing interests, and as such they differ subtly from social networks, which came along soon after. Social networks are all about me and my friends and what we're doing -- and who their other friends are, and whether they'd like to be my friend too.

Some early Web-based social networks, such as 1997's SixDegrees.com and 2002's Friendster, fell by the wayside, but they inspired the rash of social networking sites we see now, starting with MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn in 2003 and spiraling upward to the hundreds if not thousands of hopefuls that exist today.

Build-your-own social networks

What's the next step beyond cookie-cutter social network sites? Give the people what they want by letting them make their own network. There are several hosted BYO network services (pioneer Ning is probably the most well known) and dozens more that integrate social networking into existing Web sites. Build-your-own networks are far more personal and salon-like than the huge social barns that are Facebook and MySpace -- like renting a meeting room in a hotel near Grand Central Station rather than trying to hold your conversations in the station itself.

Return to main story: CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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