The San Francisco CommuniTree
In Memory of Dean Gengle

Curtis Spangler - The CommuniTree's First Fairwitness - Photograph: FlyingSnail
Curtis Spangler - The CommuniTree's First Fairwitness

Dia (CommuniTree genealogical chart)

Let's look at some of the earliest electronic virtual communities. This kinship chart shows the origins of the first computer bulletin boards (BBSs) that supported social interaction. Prior to this moment, BBSs messages were organized by alphabetical order, or by date. BBSs were metaphors for physical bulletin boards... objects for the exchange of simple messages, not conversations. Now, in 1978 a group of people in Northern California designed a BBS that used message attachment protocols that facilitated conversations. As a metaphor for this structure they used a tree, firstly because it was based on a principle of computer science called binary tree protocol, and secondly because Northern California near Silicon Valley was a land of hot tubs, Eastern mysticism, and computer hackers, and the organicity that the word "tree" suggested was important to those hackers' worldview.

The story of the life and death of the first CommuniTree tells us how and why the later virtual community systems were designed. The original CommuniTree was designed with the idea that the community it facilitated would be completely free. Anyone could enter any sort of message. In fact, censorship was completely prohibited at the level of the code, of the Tree's program. It worked this way: First, the system operator was prevented from reading messages as they arrived. Second, messages were hard to remove once they were entered. Third, anything could be entered into the system, including so-called control characters, which are not part of the standard alphanumeric set and which can be used to control the operation of the host computer. Lastly, to make sure that no system operator could tamper with the system, the code was written in language called Forth, and not documented. Now Forth is a religion unto itself, and if you know anything about Forth you recognize that this makes the system a total black box -- it's impossible to know anything about how the code works.

CommuniTree went online in 1978. The kinds of conversations they had in there were of a high intellectual and spiritual character. They talked about new philosophies and new religions for post-Enlightenment humanity, the first time such conversations had taken place online.

Now, at the same moment Apple Computer had reached an agreement with the U. S. Government that in return for a tax break, Apple put computers into primary and secondary schools in the U.S., and some of those computers had modems. This meant that quite suddenly a lot of kids could get online. At first both boys and girls had access, but the boys quickly elbowed the girls out of the way -- high tech was men's work. The boys quickly found out CommuniTree's phone number and logged on. They were clearly unimpressed with the high intellectual level of the discourse on CommuniTree, and they expressed their dissatisfaction in ways that were appropriate to their age and linguistic abilities. Now, the hardware of the Tree was the best that Apple had to offer in 1978, it had two floppy disk drives with a combined total of 300 kilobytes of storage. At the time, the folks who designed the Tree said "300K -- we can go on forever. We'll never fill this up." A common BBS today would have at least 100 megabytes of storage, many orders of magnitude greater than the Tree. So it didn't take long for the kids to fill every byte of disk space with every word they could think of that meant shitting or fucking, and then they'd add control characters on top of that, characters that could mess with the program or stop the floppy drives. The sysops couldn't see the messages arriving and couldn't remove them afterward. The Tree was doomed.

One of the participants in the Tree discourse said "Well, the barbarian hordes mowed us down." And the people who were on the Tree ran away, just like the population of a village during a sack. It was a kind of scattering of the tribes. Some of those people went off and designed BBSs of their own that had built into them the elements of control and surveillance that appeared to be necessary to ensure the BBS's survival in a real world that included roaming barbarians. That kind of surveillance and control continues to the present day, built right into the software; we don't think about it much any more. And that's how, back at the beginning of virtual time, the first virtual community left the Magic Garden and entered the "real" virtual world in which good had to find ways to coexist with evil.

Source: moved to:

Image 01 - Binder & Graphic

Image 02 - Opening Page & Autograph

Image/Text 03 - Copyright

Image/Text 04 - Dedication

Image/Text 05 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 06 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 07 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 08 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 09 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 10 - Table of Contents

Image/Text 11 - Operator's Manual

Image/Text 12 - The Planting, Care and Feeding of CommuniTrees

Image/Text 13 - The Planting, Care and Feeding of CommuniTrees

Image/Text 14 - The Planting, Care and Feeding of CommuniTrees

Image/Text 15 - Fairwitnessing

Image/Text 16 - Fairwitnessing

Image/Text 17 - Fairwitnessing

Image/Text 18 - Fairwitnessing

Image/Text 19 - Curtis Spangler - The CommuniTree's First Fairwitness

Image/Text 20 - Toward An Electronic Bill of Rights - Dean Gengle - 1981 - Page 1

Image/Text 21 - Toward An Electronic Bill of Rights - Dean Gengle - 1981 - Page 2

Image/Text 22 - Toward An Electronic Bill of Rights - Dean Gengle - 1981 - Page 3

Image/Text 23 - Toward An Electronic Bill of Rights - Dean Gengle - 1981 - Page 4

Image/Text 24 - Toward An Electronic Bill of Rights - Dean Gengle - 1981 - Page 5

Selections from the CommuniTree - Amateur Radio Branch - Early '80s

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Selections from the CommuniTree - Project Starquest & L.A.S.E.R.

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