Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Road to Secondlife: Part 1

It began in homes across America.

No one had really considered the possibility of using the new micro-computers as a platform for communication or communities, but as more and more people bought home computers and modems, our natural inclination to assemble together moved into the digital age.

Bulletin Board Systems:
The modem was the key. It connected individual home computers with others using the telephone lines, and in the late seventies, this ability lead to the development of what became known as "bulletin board" systems.

The concept was simple: person A used his computer and modem to call computer B and leave a message. Person C then also called computer B, read the message and comment on it, then person A would call back and read the comment and write a response to it and so on.

Pretty soon, all this messaging back and forth took the form of a conversation, and these conversations became the proteus of a community.

For technological reasons these bulletin board communities remained small. Most of them used local telephone numbers to connect so most of them centered around a local physical community, and most of them were operated as a hobby out of someones home.

The seeds of the digital age were there, though, and many of these early bulletin board users are still friends today.

In 1980, H&R Block purchased Ohio-based, Compu-Serve. A financial products company, Block primarily wanted Compuserve so their customers would dial in with a modem and get up-to-date stock quotes.

Pretty soon, banks and brokerage houses all over the world had Compuserve modems in them allowing local computer users to dial into what became the world's largest bulletin board system. Block allowed Compuserve to develop the bulletin board side of the business, even though they had little interest in it.

CB Simulator:
In 1980, Compuserve also began experimenting with a concept that would radically change the way people used home computers. Called "CB Simulator" and modeled after the popular Citizen Band Radios used by commuters and truckers, CB Simulator introduced the concept of live conversations using a computer. These conversations became known as computer "chat", and the name stuck.

A text-only system, CB simulator allowed users to post sentences to a common screen or post private messages readable only by one specific user.

CB Simulator had 40 common areas like the 40 channels available on CB radios. Soon, the different channels became known for different areas of interest. Channel 1 became the default or open chat area, but the other channels soon broke down into specific interests.

CB Simulator initiated another feature common in nearly all its descendants: the practice of using false names. Like the CB radio, users went by "handles" rather than their real name and this element of anonymity became an important part of online socialization ever since. My handle on CB-Simulator was "Mongo", a nick-name I picked up in high school (where I was still a student) and taken from the film Blazing Saddles.

Sex On-Line:
Compuserve did something else nobody expected. The social aspect of Compuserve attracted female users and soon some 30% of Compuserve subscribers were female and many of them were regular users of CB Simulator.

With women in the room, the private message feature of CB Simulator allowed nature to take its course, and soon male and female users were pairing up, either for casual sex or fully-developed romances online. Several of the channels on CB Simulator soon became known as gathering places for people of similar sexual interests. Channel 10 became the BDSM channel and channel 17, a meeting place for transgendered people.

The advent of women as computer users fundamentally changed the nature of online socialization, and in 1991, Compuserve hosted the first online wedding between users known only as Miles Teg and Cinderella. Although held online, the marriage was fully sanctioned by the state of Nevada.

The Compuserve era wouldn't last long. Soon competitors like Genie, Prodigy and finally AOL would use their concepts and crowd their market. H&R Block never saw themselves in the computer business so they sold the company and it was eventually acquired by AOL, who had no interest in maintaining the brand.

CB Simulator started something though. The concept of live communication and communities online would be a significant part in the next big step in computer development: The Internet.


  1. Thanks for the history Boyd...just thinking, so many that we know here in Secondlife {likely most} weren't born in 1980.
    Gosh, I remember when there was no TV. Well, TV invented 1928...but no broadcast facilities 'til late 40's/early 50's.

  2. I remember Miles Teg & Cinders. T-Bunny, Pam, Alise, Dark Knight, Isle Blazer, Ulysses. Jeez was it that long ago.


Vendors and Creators