2021 Walt Fisher Lecture: Sharing files with strangers: The amateur origins of social media

Thursday, February 25, 2021

5 p.m. PT


Today, the internet mediates all aspects of social life, from the most intimate to the most mundane. Yet, the social internet is short on social history. Well-worn stories about Cold War researchers and dot-com millionaires can tell us why our phones run certain software but not why we carry them. Instead, we should turn to the work of hobbyists, educators, activists, and entrepreneurs of the 1980s. For fifteen years prior to the commercialization of Internet access, amateurs across North America created more than 100,000 small-scale online systems. It was on these dial-up bulletin-board systems, or BBSs, that personal computer owners first confronted the challenges of making community with strangers. Their experiments with identity, privacy, sexuality, and play were later reproduced by Silicon Valley as commercial social media. Lost in the transition, however, were the norms of accountability and trust. Social media platforms are poor stewards of our communities and culture. To imagine a better future, we need new stories about our past. A more just, equitable, inclusive internet is possible.

Kevin Driscoll is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia where he specializes in technology, culture, and communication. His recent research traces alternative histories of the internet and examines the politics of amateur telecommunications. He holds a PhD from USC Annenberg and an MS in comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently a 2020–21 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.