A Modem and BBS, Not Mark Zuckerberg, Created Social Media

Gene and Katie Hamilton

Tim Berners-Lee and researchers at the U. S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) are credited with the technology that launched  the World Wide Web leading to the Internet. That may be so, but I think the Smartmodem deserves credit for bringing the Internet into the lives of everyday people. In the 1990s the small black box connected a home computer to a telephone line allowing early adapters to download free software called “shareware” and send messages to others and subscribers to listservers connecting users across the globe.

As modems improved and increased their baud rate speed the bulletin board system (BBS) connected a community of early computer enthusiasts. These communities spurred software developers to create technical businesses and services that developed into commercial enterprises and social groups.

In 1991 we created HouseNet BBS, a special interest board distributed by modems and modestly supported by subscribers. The focus and content was based on our magazine articles, books and Do It Yourself or Not, a Tribune syndicated column that analyzed the cost difference between hiring a contractor compared with doing it yourself.

At BBS conferences sysops (system operators) like us learned about faster modems and developing software and shared advice, often surprising others that our board was about home improvements since many of the most profitable boards offered downloads of pornography.

It’s almost laughable that even today’s slowest Internet speed connection measured in micro seconds is light years faster than early connections measured in minutes.

When we launched HouseNet on the Internet we found our online content – words and pictures – had value. In a 1995 issue of Newsweek magazine we were featured in an article “Online on a Shoestring.” Not long after, the site became part of America Online as their home improvement channel with chatrooms hosted by contractors, who we offered free time on AOL. As part of AOL’s Greenhouse program we were in good company with early adapters like The Knot and The Motley Fool.  It was a frenetic time as special interest boards, led to website, led to the dot-com boom.

Early modems may have introduced people to the online world, but they’ve long been replaced by media companies to provide that link. The ability to talk to others about your passion, your life and challenges spurred countless niche sites  and the Internet became a part of all of our lives. Organizations of every ilk went online, manufacturers and publishers soon followed.  Many of their initial forays were unsuccessful because their initial return on investment was less than expected because their sites replicated their print content. Missing was a key ingredient – connecting potential site visitors with the real people behind their organization who could answer questions and allow them to voice their opinion.

And then social media and all its permeations evolved into what it is today and will become. The influence of the social network as a dynamic part of the online experience – where it’s been and where it’s going – makes me wonder if the early creators and adapters only saw the upside of that connection.  As we go forward and see the impact – good and bad – of that social encounter, it’s difficult to predict where we’re headed.

Gene and Katie Hamilton created HouseNet BBS with a 1200 baud smartmodem in 1991 and later sold to R.R. Donnelly & Sons.  Today they produce Do It Yourself or Not, a weekly column syndicated by Tribune Interactive and