Community Memory: a social media terminal from 1973

Wired's gallery of the paleolithic antecedents of today's social media technologies is a bit mismatched (some really interesting insights into today's media lineage, but mixed with some silliness), but the lead item, the Community Memory terminal from 1973, is pure gold. I wrote half an unsuccessful novel about this thing when I was about 25, and it's never stopped haunting me.

Three decades before Yelp and Craigslist, there was the Community Memory Terminal.

In the early 1970s, Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski and Lee Felsenstein set up a series of these terminals around San Francisco and Berkeley, providing access to an electronic bulletin board housed by a XDS-940 mainframe computer.

This started out as a social experiment to see if people would be willing to share via computer -- a kind of "information flea market," a "communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interest," according to a brochure from the time.

What evolved was a proto-Facebook-Twitter-Yelp-Craigslist-esque database filled with searchable roommate-wanted and for-sale items ads, restaurant recommendations, and, well, status updates, complete with graphics and social commentary.

"This was really one of the very first attempts to give access to computers to ordinary people," says Marc Weber, the founding curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Holy shit, that is a thing of beauty.

Facebook?! Twitter?! Instagram?! We Did That 40 Years Ago [Daniela Hernandez/Wired]


  1. You mean like a BBS in the 70s-90s when personal computers were just getting popular?

    An modem back then costs about $300 bucks, about $800 bucks in today’s rates.  Imagine a small bank of them and the phone line costs.  And you’re still not on the internet.

    And then there’s other systems on the internet, via telnet.  Yea, telnet, remember there’s other ports besides port 80?


    1. Anyone running a server these days is morally obligated to park something on the telnet port. Any kind of curses based animation will work (there’s a nyancat one out there if you’re so inclined which is rather well done).

      Every time I encounter one I have to sit and watch for a while.

      Flat out blocking the port is so boring, and god forbid you actually accept a username and password these days.. that’s the computer equivalent of hiding a key under the doormat.

      1. Ha, I wish that would be the case.  Unfortunately most don’t due to so called “security reasons “and “uptake of resources”(yea, right).  Also I’m betting most admin running servers these days are not aware of such a setup.(I’m a 20 year MCSE and I need to install PCANYWHERE for remote desktop access)

        A public access UNIX system that I’m a proud member of, do still run telnet as it was traditionally intended.  Although most users stick to ssh.  Feel free to finger me, I think it still works, I don’t remember if it’s set right.

        BTW, I’m morally obligated to set your MCSE certs on fire if you’re claiming to be a MCSE vet. and have no idea what telnet is.

        +++ NO CARRIER

  2. Jason Scot’s BBS Documentary touches on these things as sortof a proto-BBS (I think they were just dumb terminals that dialed into a mainframe right?)

    The idea that these things represented was basically something that’d been on my mind since I first learned you could connect computer to phone and dial another box somewhere. This was before i knew BBS’s existed or anything.To see how far we’ve come in forty years. The equivilant of terminal payphones and now we have… Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, etc etc.

    Wrote a srt piece detailing what this might have grown into. Maybe. CommTel though this piece was more focused on minitel really could make an argument community memory is still relavent.

  3. Ouch!  Haven’t seen the Community Memory terminal since visits to CoOp market in Berkeley at Telegraph & Ashby.  (that community cooperative market now Whole Foods) 

    Lots of countercultural postings – craigslist and usenet rolled up with a dash of twitter.  Never did find the cheap apartments that were supposed to be on the Community Memory, nor did I buy that 10-speed bike whose ad was reposted daily.

    Original article also references the Plato computer – as a grad student, I programmed several orbit-calculating programs for these machines (using an obscure language called “Tutor”).  My programs only attracted other users after I turned it into a primitive game of hitting other planets.

  4. I’ve been trying to find any logs or records of what was posted through the Community Memory terminals.

    It’s ironic that the only record we have of these early electronic forms of communication seems to be in the form of physical photographs.

    I wonder how much of the content we are creating today on the Internet will be lost in another forty years? Will anything remain?

  5. The project may date from 1973, but surely not the unit pictured.  That’s an early 80’s keyboard, isn’t it?

    1. And the label above the screen (“Community Memory”) looks very much like it’s typeset in Zuzana Licko’s typeface Matrix, which wasn’t released until 1986.

  6. The terminal displayed is the third-generation CM kiosk (1990 – 1992), which was a basic PC with monochrome display and single floppy to reboot from. We added a keep-alive self-reset circuit. The software was a Linux client-server with a text browser written under Carl Farrington’s leadership. The baud rate was 2400 and didn’t have to be continuously connected – phone line charges were a design criterion.

    Contrary to Cliff’s assertion  no one needed to re-post anything daily like we still must do with Craig’s List – CM was data-based as opposed to the prevalent message-based systems. The third generation system used a dual indexed and networked database – you could attach index words after an item was posted (your words got higher status if you were the item author) and you could link to the item. Order of entry had very little meaning in a search.

    CM could have been a dial-in system (we had an experimental package for this kind of use) but our focus was on developing a tool for nucleating social-exchange centers (we were quite proud of our two laundromat installations). We specifically didn’t want CM to be something “for computer people only”. We failed at marketing and made the error of filling the system from the center rather than discovering and encouraging users to fill the system from the bottom up.

    CM started well before the Internet (we knew about ARPANET and its precursors) and the PC (we had contacts at Xerox PARC and got to see the Alto system in development). The hardware problems illuminated by CM caused me to start thinking about how computer technology could survive in a public hands-on environment. The M&R Pennywhistle-103 kit modem, which dropped the price of a 300-baud modem to $129, was designed in 1973 for CM and the prototype was used in the first CRT terminal installation.

    CM was the effort that opened the door to cyberspace and allowed us to experience it as friendly territory. Efrem deserves the credit for the hands-on public-access configuration – I had been exploring technological possibilities for enhancing many-to-many communication for several years and had joined the group (Resource One Inc.) that had a similar idea and had secured possession of the SDS-940 mainframe. Many others assisted.

    1.  Holy crap, I read about you and CM way back in the day in Steven Levy’s Hackers. Thanks for stopping by. Whatever its vintage, it’s a beautiful machine.

  7. Whatever else we do, we need to bring back the coin slot as standard equipment on all computing devices.

  8. When I worked in a Apple shop in the early to mid 80’s, about once a month someone would come in with their disk drives because a kid would put a quarter in them to play their game. 

  9. From 1978-1981, Community Memory’s partner organization, Village Design, published The Journal of Community Communications. Sandy Emerson was the original editor; I soon joined her as co-editor. If anyone has a good home for Volumes 3 and 4 of this journal, or would like to take a look, contact me.

  10. I also nostalgia hard for this. But it’s the ethic I miss, not so much the hardware. Back in the day,.  there was a powerful anti-commerce bias to the net, it was all gift economy. No one was trying to turn it into another kind of ad-sponsored television. And many of us thought that if you brought enough people together in a good way, we could change the world.

     The dream still lives, I suppose, if you can filter out all the kruft. I definitely have stopped idealizing on-line interactions over face to face. There’s got to be some kind of happy medium.

Comments are closed.