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Was the First Digital Social Media Network Launched at Duke?

At the beginning of each semester, I start my social marketing course in Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative by asking students the following question:

“Where was the world’s first digital social network launched? Hint: it was at a university.”

“Was it Stanford?” is usually the first guess.

“Nope,” I respond. “Not Stanford. Come farther east.”

“MIT?” another student always guesses next.

“Not MIT, either,” I say. “Go south.”

Despite my numerous hints, nobody ever guesses correctly. Instead, after naming another half dozen schools, I finally sigh, shake my head in feigned disappointment, and reveal the answer: “The first digital social network was launched at Duke University in 1979.”

That’s right. For all the press Harvard gets for Mark Zuckerberg having launched Facebook in his dorm room, Facebook didn’t start until 2004. Facebook’s well-known predecessor, MySpace, only launched a few months earlier in 2003.

Some people point to Friendster as the first social network, which began in 2002. And, before that, back in 1997, there was a website called Six Degrees. Its creator actually filed the first patents for social networking. However, I argue that even Six Degrees wasn’t the first digital social network.

Before all those websites, well before Tim Berners Lee even launched the World Wide Web, and before the modern Internet actually existed, two graduate students at Duke University released a piece of software that would connect people and communities around the world via computers and their modems. That software was called Usenet, and it was the world’s first globally popular, digital social network.

I had the chance to interview one of Usenet’s two creators, Tom Truscott, for Web Masters, my podcast about the history of Internet entrepreneurship. It’s a story too few people know, including — as proven by my class — Duke people. I wanted to share the Usenet story with the rest of the Duke community as a reminder of this important contribution Duke innovators have made to the world.

* Tom’s quotes and story are based on a podcast and interview I conducted with him on November 16, 2020.

The Origins of Usenet

Jim Ellis mounting a magtape on the Duke CS department minicomputer; photo courtesy of Tom Truscott

Some of you reading this might have been members of the Usenet community. Technically, since Usenet still exists, some of you might even be current users. However, since the heyday of Usenet was more than thirty years ago, it’s worth taking a moment to explain the platform.

Back before the public Internet existed, the vast majority of computer networks were local networks within businesses or organizations. The main interconnected network of computers across different organizations was ARPANET, predecessor of the Internet. It was created and operated by the US Government. According to Tom, getting access to ARPANET wasn’t easy:

“The reason that Usenet came about was because Duke was not… on the ARPANET nor were any of the universities in North Carolina that I know of that I can remember. It was generally felt that to be on the ARPANET, you needed political connections and at least $100,000, and hooking up to it was non trivial.”

It was in this context that Tom Truscott and his fellow Duke grad student, James Ellis, came up with the idea for Usenet. Tom had been working a summer job at Bell Labs, and he wanted a way to keep in touch with his former colleagues while at school. However, since there wasn’t a network connecting the two institutions, Tom and James decided to create one using a new technology recently added to their Unix computer. As Tom explains:

“We had this new Unix to Unix communication program. And, coincidentally, we had a local bulletin board system called Items. It was a way for anyone in the department to post a note… And I was talking to James Ellis, the administrator of the mini computer, and we were just out in the hallway or something and talking about what can we do about this program and we wanted to stay in touch with Bell Labs. And, by golly, we had all the pieces. We just had to write a little program and we were done. And it actually was quite small.”

That small program was Usenet. Users could post messages inside topic threads on their local computers. Later, using modems, one computer would call another computer, and the two would exchange new messages, leaving identical copies on each machine. Those computers would then call other computers, exchange messages again, and that would keep happening until every machine with the Usenet software had the same messages and users could read what others had written.

The result was basically Reddit without the pictures. It was a global, distributed network of threaded discussions anyone could both read and respond to.

Duke-Carolina Helps Usenet Spread Around the World

Stephen Daniel, then a Duke CS grad student, who wrote the first released version of Usenet software; photo courtesy of Tom Truscott

Yes, Duke was the birthplace of modern, digital social networks. But a social network isn’t a network unless it connects to other people, so, in order to test their software beyond Duke, Tom and James needed someone else with access to a computer. That someone else was a UNC computer science graduate student named Steven Bellovin. As a result, the first connection on a digital social network took place between Duke and UNC.

In a way, the fact that the first social network connection took place within the context of the Duke-UNC rivalry seems like a fitting start to social networking considering all the sniping and antagonism that takes place online these days. At the same time, it’s a good reminder that, when the people involved in social networks put aside their differences to collaborate, they can accomplish amazing things.

After proving their software via the Duke-UNC link, Tom and Jim shared it with other computer science departments around the country. Adoption was fast. Within a few years, Usenet nodes had spread around the world, eventually even breaking the frosty barriers between the USA and Soviet Union when computers in Moscow began joining the network.

But it wasn’t just the reach of Usenet that made it so unique. The scope of content was like nothing that had come before. Usenet categories covered everything from literature, art, and music to games, celebrity gossip, and yes, even pornography. In other words, the first digital social network was filled with exactly the same kinds of content that’s appeared on every social network since.

The breadth of Usenet’s content was a shock to Tom. When he created Usenet, he never imagined it would become the world’s place for sharing information about anything and everything. But that’s not what he’d intended. According to Tom:

“We were hoping to connect every computer science department in the country… and this is where I am a failed entrepreneur. It took off in a way that I was not expecting, and then I actually didn’t appreciate the social dimension. People wanted to talk about all kinds of things besides computer science, and the latest programming standards, or floating point arithmetic. They wanted to share recipes.”

In other words, while Tom and James intended to build a network to enable communication between computer science departments so they could discuss topics related to computer science, those intentions didn’t matter. Once people had access to Usenet, they chose to use it in ways that Tom had never considered. And although he didn’t appreciate it much at the time, when he reflects back, Tom can see the value in having built the world’s first digital social network:

“It pains me. But but yes. I’m sure social networks are important. And that is absolutely what [Usenet] became… I would say my specific interest was to communicate with people on topics of interest to me, and that was a bit narrow. I was certainly willing to generalize that to topics of interest to computer science departments, and it was a failing not to realize that it would be best to encompass the entire range of human interests with the understanding that not all of those interests are benign and good. But that said, there aren’t many that are actually evil. And I think some inventions can be sort of more bad than good, too, in a sense, in the sense that it’s easier to exploit them for bad things. But I don’t think Usenet is actually in that category.”

Tom is right that some great inventions can and are used more for bad than good. But Usenet certainly isn’t one of them. In fact, among Usenet’s many contributions to the world, it was the place where Linus Torvalds announced the Linux operating system, Tim Berns Lee shared the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreesen introduced the Mosaic web browser.

All those inventions would go on to forever change our world, and they did it by leveraging the social network created by Duke graduate students Tom Truscott and James Ellis. It wasn’t what they set out to accomplish, but that sometimes happens in entrepreneurship. As I often remind my students, as entrepreneurs, we can control what we create, but we can’t control how people use it.

Aaron Dinin headshot

Aaron Dinin teaches in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University and is the creator of Social Media Studies @Duke, a collaboration of faculty, staff, and students at Duke studying the emergence of social media and its impact on the world.

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