How We Talk Online: A History of Online Forums, From Cavemen Days To The Present
Let’s take a step back and think about the wonders of modern technology for one second. The web has made it possible to participate in near-instant communication on a global scale. In almost every corner of the Internet, you have people talking to one another: news sites, blogs, Facebook, Youtube, email, forums, and more. But how did we get to where we are now?
Our Internet today has roots that reach back all the way to the late 1960s. That means it only took around 40 years to go from postage-based mail to instant communication with anyone in the world. And throughout those 40 years, the Internet as we know it has gone through a considerable number of shifts.
Join me as I explore the evolution of online communication. How did all of this begin? Why did things become the way they are? The answers may surprise you.
In terms of the first historical milestone for online communication, there’s really no better place to start than with the old-school bulletin board system, commonly known as BBS. It was the first time in Internet history where user-generated content became a fundamental aspect of a service.
What is BBS? Think of a typical bulletin board, like the kinds you’d find in most offices. People come up to the board and look at what’s already been posted to find something that interests them. If they have something valuable to contribute, they take a pin and post it to the board. If you’ve been curious where forum terminology like “posts” and “pinned” come from, there you go.
A BBS is an online adaptation of the bulletin board. Using a terminal program, like Telnet , you could log onto a particular bulletin board and upload/download data. Some features of the BBS included public message boards, direct messages between users, and interactive games.
The first BBS, called Computerized Bulletin Board System, was developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss. It went live in 1978. BBSs remained popular until the mid-1990s when other forms of online user interaction took over.
Usenet is an international system used primarily for topical discussions. The network is built in a hierarchical fashion where each step within the hierarchy corresponds to a particular topic, or newsgroups. Using a news client, users can subscribe to these different newsgroups based on their interests.
If you’re having a hard time grasping the concept of Usenet, try this. Imagine a long email thread in your inbox. There are multiple participants and each thread is related to a certain topic of discussion. A participant can reply to a thread, and then all of the other participants will receive that person’s reply. So in this sense, Usenet is like a modern-day forum.
However, there are some fundamental differences. Unlike a forum, which is stationed on a primary server run by a set administrative team, Usenet is distributed across many servers in a peer-to-peer fashion. When a post is made to a thread, that server will send updates to all the other servers in the network. In this sense, no one owns Usenet. It’s a constantly evolving network with servers joining and leaving over time.
Usenet differs from email, too. With an email, the thread is sent to a list of recipients. If you’re not on that list, you won’t receive the email. With Usenet, anyone who subscribes to a newsgroup is able to participate in the threads.
Usenet, which was first established in 1980, predates what we know as the World Wide Web. It had a strong influence on the way Internet technology would evolve. And unlike most Internet-based technology from back then, Usenet is still alive and kicking.
In 1988, popularized real-time online communication becomes a reality with IRC, or Internet relay chat. IRC is basically a glorified chatroom system that started off as a way to have live chatting between multiple users, but eventually evolved into a powerful network for data transfers and file sharing.
With IRC, multiple users can connect to a specific server and join multiple chatrooms on that server, though the technical term would be channels. Over time, certain IRC networks grew to specialize in particular fields (e.g., GameSurge, QuakeNET, Freenode, etc.) while others became open grounds for anything (e.g., Undernet, EFnet, etc.).
IRC is still very much alive today, though it has recently gone down in popularity due to the continued advancement of Internet-based user interaction. If you’re interested in IRC, check out some of the best IRC clients available.
Forums, also known as message boards, are one of the reasons why the Internet is so large. They act as centralized locations for topical discussion, similar to BBS and Usenet but on a much larger scale and in more specialized ways. You can find forums dedicated to anything from paintballing to sports cars, from video games to anime, from fashion to technology.
The very first software dedicated to forum protocol was WIT, which was developed by the W3 Consortium in 1994. Since then, there have been hundreds of forum software packages, including phpBB, Invision, vBulletin, MyBB, and others. And as you might’ve guessed, forums are still extremely popular.
Don’t believe me?has a listing of thousands of online forums which can be sorted by size and popularity. There are dozens of individual forums that each have membership counts over one million. Impressive, to say the least.
Blogs find their roots in what once began as the online journal which came into existence sometime around 1994. Back then, an online journal was a place where individuals could write about their day-to-day life, chronicling various events and musing over whatever came to their minds that day.
As online journals grew in popularity, Webrings began to pop up around the Internet. These Webrings were collections of online journals typically organized around a specific theme or purpose. Webrings were useful for finding online journals related to personal interests.
Over the years, online journals evolved into something more social–a web log, or blog. With new features like comments, feed subscriptions, blogrolls, blogging became a social activity that helped form topical communities. Unlike forums, however, blogs often took the form of a single person initiating discussion followed by an audience’s response to that person.
By the mid-2000s, blogs outgrew their “diary-esque” roots and transformed into something greater–platforms on which people could voice their thoughts to the world. As advanced software packages like WordPress hit the scene, blogs became a powerful way to relay thoughts and news to a global audience.
According to NM Incite, there were over 173 million blogs on the Internet at the end of 2011.
The latest trend in online communication is social media, a term that defines a set of online services that are intended to facilitate human communication. Did that sound confusing? Just think of websites like Facebook and Twitter. If you want to go further back, there’s MySpace, Xanga, LiveJournal, and more.
In retrospect, social media is nothing more than the natural baby of forums and blogs. Forums provide a centralized location for people to discuss whatever it is they want to discuss. Blogs provide a personal platform for people to discuss whatever it is they want to discuss. What happens when you have a centralized location where each individual has their own platform for voicing their thoughts?
Well, you’d probably get something like Facebook, and it’s no wonder why social media has been such a hit. Thanks to social media, people are more connected than ever–especially with the prevalence of mobile technology. Now we can participate in online communication from anywhere.
And that’s how we’ve come to where we are now. Where will we be in another five years? To be honest, I have no idea. I’ve never been very good at predicting trends. However, you might be able to extrapolate the future by analyzing the past. Look at how we got here and you’ll likely see where we’re heading.
Image Credit: Forum Via Shutterstock
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