Imagine it’s 1992. Personal computers have been around for almost two decades, but they have only recently become widely available and more affordable. Still, computers were not as cheap as they were today. The nascent World Wide Web was recently announced, but most people who owned computers at the time participated in small local nets on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), a kind of local network that offered useful tools like email, message boards, forums, and games.
One such BBS conceived in 1992, the Seattle Community Network, hosted in Seattle, Washington, is still online today and can be accessed via telnet at the address <scn.org:23>. The Seattle Community Network (SCN) was originally a project of the Seattle Chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and it went live in 1994 and branched off from the CPSR to become a separate non-profit organization in 1995. It’s goal was to provide a network committed to free and public access, reliable service, participation in government and public dialog, and future improvement of the SCN.
The Seattle Community Network seems a little different from most other BBS, which tended to host games, chat rooms, or forums for specific hobbies. The lofty principles of the SCN promote democratic discussion and free access for a geographical community, rather than a virtual one. At the time, computers like the IBM ThinkPad and portable computers ranged in price from $1,995 to $7,599 (about $3,800 to $13,900 now). Renting a computer at a café could cost up to $12/hour. To provide open access to more people, the SCN partnered with the Seattle Public Library, where one could use a computer there to access the network. SCN’s founder, Douglas Schuler, believed that the community could help break down economic barriers and encourage more people to become involved with their libraries to get free internet access and expand their knowledge. Even now, the BBS and large parts of the site remain primary text-based to allow those with text-only access to view information more easily.
So what kinds of people participated in the Seattle Community Network? Today, information on the BBS seems limited to email access and a collection of outbound links and pages on topics ranging from activism to housing to transportation specifically for the Seattle area. The website is mainly populated by links to government agencies, support programs, and grassroots community websites. One can imagine the kind of person who was interested in joining the discussions on the Seattle Community Network.
Some people likely used the SCN as a sort of “Yellow Pages” directory to find local interest groups. In a May 12, 1996 article written by Paul Andrews published by the Seattle Times titled “Author Suggests Way To connect Communities”, the author writes:
How important is SCN to Seattle? It’s one of the first places people go to find out about grassroots activism and community-based services. […] The network has helped organize protests against censorship and government interference in cyberspace and given the homeless access to an identity and environment they might otherwise be unable to afford.
Perhaps there were activists interested in learning about community projects or legislature in their neighborhoods. The Associated Press writes in a January 1994 article in The Oregonian:
Those who have signed up with the Seattle Community Network range from Metro, the area transit and sewage agency, to promoters of ethical investing. The network also will offer dozens of computer bulletin boards where people can post messages and discuss ideas on topics of common interest. “It really empowers all the little neighborhood organizations by giving them access to information that would otherwise be hard to find and enabling them to communicate with each other,” said David Kinne of Washington Ceasefire. It is a Seattle coalition that will provide anti-crime information on the network.
Finally, the SCN probably helped a group of people who were too poor to afford personal computers get access to information and helped them identify services for self-help or to reach out for assistance. The SCN even allowed anyone to get a free email account on the network by printing out a form and mailing to the network’s PO box, and the user’s email access information would be mailed back to them within a few weeks.
The Seattle Community Network seems to have played an important role in shaping Seattle’s early internet culture. BBSs like the SCN probably helped people connect and empowered communities to act online and to use the network as a tool. Compared to other BBSs of the time, where users may have converged from different locations to discuss common interests, the members of the Seattle Community Network likely just saw themselves as members of the same geographical community, but in cyberspace. In modern times, BBS-like tools such as Facebook Groups or location-based subreddits may have taken over the function that BBSs provided. Many of the organizations and people who created pages on the SCN seem to have “graduated” to their own websites and are now just a link on the SCN website. It’s fun to think that many of these communities may have started their life as a text snippet on a terminal.
Featured image taken from: http://www.scn.org/scna/history.html