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Chattering masses began with a bright idea in a blizzard that changed world; Social networking celebrates a landmark birthday today, as David Williamson explains.

Byline: David Williamson

THIRTY years ago today two friends staged a revolution in human communication.

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess were members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists Exchange.

This was a monthly gathering of technology fans who had built their own computers.

The two enthusiasts discussed the idea of having an electronic bulletin board for the club. They were fascinated by the notion that instead of having to pin up notices on a board it might be possible to leave messages on a computer that could be accessed using a telephone.

A blizzard hit Chicago and the men were snowbound. Their isolation gave Christensen the time he needed to write the programs which could make their concept a reality. Meanwhile, Suess went to work on the hardware.

On February 16, 1978, the Computerised Bulletin Board System (CBBS) was launched. According to the legend which surrounds this event, the first message had been successfully posted a fortnight earlier, but the friends were embarrassed to admit they had pulled off a technological triumph in just two weeks.

Anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone could dial the CBBS number. The phone wouldring for a few seconds while the floppy disk drive was turned on, and then the user could read messages and post new ones.

It was a slow business. Text was transferred at a rate of just five words a second.

The idea that in less than three decades teenagers would be downloading Hollywood movies would never have entered the minds of the first users, but Christensen and Suess were the Wright Brothers of online networking.

Face book and My Space are the latest wonders in an evolutionary journey which started one February in Chicago.

The bulletin board had been intended for club members, people who were fascinated by computers which inmost cases were glorified calculators. But within months the significance of their invention was clear.

By 1980 11,000 people around the world were using the board.

Most would not have even shaken hands in "real" life, but this was a genuine community of people who could grasp the potential of microchips to define the closing decades of the 20th century.

These pioneers needed patience.

The line was frequently engaged, and users in Europe and Australia faced terrifying bills, but a transformation in communication was taking place.

Sharing software had previously involved saving a program onto a disk and - literally - giving it someone else. It gradually became possible to swap files on the bulletin board.

Countless boards were quickly launched around the world. It was a social phenomenon and also a demonstration of the best and worst of human nature.

Academics were suddenly able to casually discuss complex ideas without having to travel to a conference or post their ideas to the letters page of a scholarly magazine; colleagues on different continents could now collaborate.

Real-time relationships were no longer bound by geographic borders.

But people running what were now known as BBSs soon found that torrents of abusive messages could quickly appear. Many bulletin boards became repositories of pornography, foreshadowing the dark side of the internet familiar to anyone who has opened their "spam" folder.

Stilianos Vidalis, a senior lecturer in information security at the University of Wales, Newport, is fascinated by the potential for the online world to offer both utopia and catastrophe. Though he describes the continent-crossing communications as "the greatest thing that ever happened" he fears aspects of the present social networking craze represents "a time-bomb waiting to explode".

Never before in history has such detailed data about so many people been instantly accessible to so great a number of fraudsters.

While young people are increasingly educated in the dangers of revealing too much personal information, he fears older users will be exploited.

He said, "The average user will have his name, date of birth and all sorts of data someone can use."

The power of networking is something to worry about and marvel at. If a snowstorm had not locked indoors a pair of friends with grand imaginations and a simple vision we might still live in a less wired world.


LEARNING TO SHARE A father and son using an early home computer in January 1980, left, and a child on a modern laptop
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 16, 2008
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