Before Facebook, there was Echo.
Stacy Horn thought of it back in 1988. Back then, there were no VCs throwing money at dotcoms, because the Web as we know it didn’t exist. You could use it to chat in real-time, send emails to friends, and debate in threads about everything from politics to music. There was no slick interface, photos, or even colors — it was text only. You connected with a telnet client and entered text commands to navigate around. Still, by 1990, it got so popular, the phone company had to dig up her street to install a dedicated phone line to her Greenwich Village apartment.
Echo, or East Coast Hang Out, still exists. Claire Evans joined it while writing her book, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. You might know her pop group YACHT. Or recognize her bylines from Motherboard or WIRED.
Earlier this month, Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg were flogged in public, so it seemed an appropriate time to ruminate on Echo and social media’s past — and what it might look like in the future.
“Early online communities always struggled with self-governance, but they were also constantly negotiating how to determine their own rules and they had a sense of public life and sense of collective identity,” Evans said in an interview.
That changed with Facebook.
“It becomes harder and harder to have a sense of community when you have a platform that’s so large, and that’s a problem,” she said.
Social networks today talk a lot about “community,” as if they were quaint New England town squares instead of massive ad delivery systems. But Echo really was one. It was full of New Yorkers who drank together at Art Bar and played softball in the park.
Of course, that’s easier when you’re a BBS with 46,000 users, compared to Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily active users. But maybe there are advantages to being smaller. Horn actively reached out to new members and took steps to make sure Echo was a safe space for women.
“She made sure there were female moderators and male moderators for every thread, so that when women jumped into the fray of the conversation, they wouldn’t feel intimidated,” she said. “That’s a simple thing, but those kind of little decisions end up having a huge impact.”
Does anything else feel comparable today?
“In terms of places that feel friendly to women … I don’t know where they are,” she said.
Evans — like a lot of people — is struggling with what to do with her Facebook account. Few users like the tech giant’s invasive ads, data collection policies, and role in spreading propaganda and misinformation. But giving it up isn’t that easy, especially for musicians and artists, who rely on the platform to promote and find out about events.
“That’s the thing about Facebook,” she said. “It’s so insidiously integrated into different aspects of our lives, if we don’t use it for one thing, we may need it for another, or we have people in our lives who depend on it and communicate only through it.”
Broad Band isn’t solely, or even mostly, about social media. It also tells the story of early tech pioneers, including Grace Hopper, who pushed the idea of common programming languages in the 1950s, and Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, who organized the ARPANET (the precursor to the modern internet) in the 1970s and is responsible for the system that gave us .com, .gov, and other domains.
(A depressing pattern described in the book: women being paid little for doing administrative work that later became the very foundation of the internet, which of course, became lucrative once men started doing it.)
It was a time when anything seemed possible on the internet. That utopian counter-culture has been replaced by the Silicon Valley of, well… Silicon Valley. We’ve come to accept Facebook as inevitable.
But it’s not. There could be another Stacy Horn around the corner, cooking up something cool that might make social media exciting again.
“Maybe that’s the future — constellations of smaller social media platforms, instead of one giant toxic one,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of smart, young interesting people who are trying to build alternative platforms.”
She gave a few examples: Are.na, an ad-free, member-supported social network, and Beaker Browser, a peer-to-peer web browser. Yes, Facebook and Google are now entrenched in our lives. But the code behind those platforms could be used to build something that will replace them.
“The technology is infinitely mutable, you can do all kinds of things with it,” she said. Creating something better is “just about the will, the knowledge, and the effort.”
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