Like any parable of Jesus or fable of Aesop, the story of the internet is not very long, but it is quite dense. Here are a few need-to-know terms for anyone interested in the history of the web.
What is it? A bulletin board system (BBS) is a software system where users are able to connect and log in using a terminal program. These were the first dial-up services that allowed users to upload and download data, read news and communicate with other users through email, public message boards and chat.
How does it work? Originally, BBSs were accessed only over a phone line using a modem, piggybacking on preexisting public telecommunication networks via personal computers and ordinary telephone lines. But by the early 1990s, some BBSs allowed access via alternate means, such as Telnet, packet switched networks and packet radio connections.
When was it used? The first public dial-up BBS was developed by Ward Chistensen and Randy Suessm, motivated in part by the Great Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago. BBS popularity peaked in the mid-’90s but experienced a rapid decline with the advent of mainstream internet usage in 1996.
What is it? A multi-user dungeon (MUD) is an imaginary world in cyberspace where people use words and programming languages to build worlds, go on adventures, improvise melodrama and seek out text-mediated sex, among other things.
How does it work? It’s a text-based communication protocol, sometimes accompanied with a map of the world and character stats, for users to interact with their virtual environment and the other characters within it. Sometimes these are non-playable characters, NPCs, and other times they are fellow users who can work for or against each other on their own self-determined quests.
When was it used? Colossal Cave Adventure was the first mainstream adventure game, created by Will Crowther in 1975. From there, MUDs evolved from traditional hack-and-slash mechanics, to player-versus-player, roleplaying, socializing and educational mediums. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, are the most popular modern-day equivalents of early MUDs.
What is it? The Whole ‘Lectronic Link, WELL, is one of the longest-running virtual communities on the web, which advertises itself as “a cherished watering hole for articulate and playful thinkers from all walks of life.” Most of the insights on the function and dynamics of virtual communities have come from long-term members of the WELL, such as Howard Rheingold, a social critic who is attributed to coining the term “virtual community.”
How does it work? Discussion threads are divided into general subject areas known as conferences, where topics are discussed in as far-ranging as parenting, sports, politics and software. Supervisors guide the discussions, and ensure that conference rules are being followed, both in terms of the civility and the appropriateness of the given topic. One could think of it as a general purpose internet forum, the main difference being that it requires a paid subscription and the use of one’s real name.
When was it used? Launched in 1985, the WELL started as a dial-up BBS and evolved with the medium. All the content now exists on the cloud, which can now be accessed via its website at http://well.com. It still requires a membership fee but, with the vast collection of discussion threads that have accrued in its 30-year history, there’s an immense warehouse of information to be gained along with the username and password, meaning that it is still a popular destination for many.