How a nosy bureaucrat accidentally created the first social networking and blogging service
Les Earnest (les at cs.stanford.edu), former Executive Officer of SAIL
Many people seem to think that computerized social networking is a recent phenomenon, but it actually blossomed first in1975 aided by a program called Finger that was written for a different purpose, namely snooping on computer users. As sometimes happens when computer programs get into the hands of users, they flipped it over and used it for a different purpose, in this case for social networking and blogging, though those two terms did not come into general use until about 25 years later.
Finger was created to deal with a project management problem at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), a computer research facility that I designed, got built, named and managed for a number of years, working in collaboration with Prof. John McCarthy. We built a sizable timesharing system using DEC PDP-10 computers and, since computer time was very valuable then, it was used full time day and night and people generally worked long hours with unpredictable schedules. That put me in an awkward position because I needed to do planning with everyone from time to time but many of them were out of phase with traditional office hours.
Time shifting. I tried coping with this problem for a while by shifting my office hours. Each day I would go to bed one hour later and get up one hour later so that over a 24 day period my office hours shifted around the clock. However, that was a bit awkward in that I sometimes found myself bicycling to work at 2 AM on a cold and rainy night and once had to wake up early to attend a dinner party, which felt odd. I also seemed to be perpetually jet-lagged.
After a couple of cycles, I went back to normal office hours and, as usual, often worked into the night and on weekends and tried to keep track of people using the SAIL computer, which had a program called WHO that showed login IDs and terminal line numbers for people who were online as well as what programs they were running. However, there was no information on people who were not online. I often saw people running a finger down the WHO display saying things like "There's Don and that's Pattie but I don't know when Tom was last seen" or "Who in hell is VVK and where does line 63 go?"
One thing that made things work well at SAIL was that in 1971 we put bitmap computer workstations on everyone's desk and were evidently the first facility to do that anywhere in the world. Those displays also allowed users to view television either from cameras in the Lab or from broadcast television, which was popular among our sports fans who were thus able to work while keeping track of a game by listening to the audio and returning to live action with two keystrokes.
Beginning in 1973 our neighbors at Xerox PARC, including several people who had migrated from SAIL such as Alan Kay and Larry Tesler, provided their users with more elegant bitmap displays but without television service. However, whereas our workstations cost about $500 each, their Altos cost somewhere in the range of $30,000 to $40,000 each but were nevertheless acclaimed as a great advance.
Whereas email service, which we started doing in 1972, served some communication needs it was not very useful for serious negotiations, which are better handled on the phone or, better still, face to face. Having both a workstation in my office and a computer terminal at home, I was able to snoop on people in my lab day or night but often needed more information in order to figure out when I could talk to them, so in 1974 I wrote Finger and developed the supporting database to provide this information in traditional human terms – real names and places. Because I preferred to talk face to face rather than through the computer or telephone, I put in a feature that told how long their workstation had been idle, so that I could assess the likelihood that I would find them there if I walked to their office. Finger was named for the act of pointing because it bypassed the need to point to a user ID and ask, “Who is that?”.
Finger also let you ask about lists of people who might or might not be online, identifying them by either their login ID, first name, last name or both. If not online it told when they last logged out, which provided a clue to when they might reappear. Using that feature I could find out which members of a given research group were online and when their colleagues might reappear.
I and others also began using Finger to figure out whether there were enough volleyball players present to start a game – we often began playing late on weekday afternoons or at any time on weekends. After using it to verify that there was a quorum present someone would dial into the public-address system and announce “Bounce! Bounce” which set off the migration outside.
Even though Finger was created to snoop on people it was an instant hit. Some people asked for a file to be added in which they could explain their absence or how they could be reached at odd times, so I put in that feature, linked to each person's email address. It was called their Plan file, which Finger would show if that person was not online. However, I soon noticed that Plan files began being used as what we now call blogs in that people began posting statements on any topic, including technical proposals and politics.
The idea of posting public commentaries of course goes back to bulletin boards. For example, early on I had put up a bulletin board for official notices put up in the main hallway of our lab but people started occasionally posting some kind of position paper there and others would then write responses in the margin or sometimes add another piece of paper so that they could say more. A number of lively bulletin board battles developed in this way.
Others used their Plan files to coordinate development projects. For example, Linus Torvalds reportedly used his Plan file to coordinate the many volunteers who helped him develop the Linux operating system, which is now widely used. Others today use their Plan file to distribute their Public Key to enable secure email communications.
Shortly after the SAIL computer system started working we set up an electronic bulletin board consisting of an ordinary text file that was accessible to everyone, so that they could both read and write on it. Some big debates followed, the first one being about whether we should send men into space. (Women were out of the question then.) That debate idea was then transplanted to Finger's Plan files. For more on this see Blogging's roots go back to the '70s
As with all our software, the Finger program was placed in a public file area so that anyone with access to Arpanet could take a copy. It was picked up and adopted by a number of groups around the world using DEC-10 or DEC-20 computers. A short time later some asked that it be modified so as to permit people to be Fingered at other sites on the network so, with some help from a network wizard, I added that feature, which turned it into a social networking and blogging service in that it allowed anyone to see which of their friends were currently online, to facilitate email exchanges or texting.
Some other anxious people wanted to be able to verify that their mail was delivered to specific addressees, so the Mail feature was also added to Finger.
Amusingly, though Carnegie Mellon University found Finger useful, an administrator there reportedly decided that “Finger” was a dirty word and insisted that it be called something else.
One big difference between Finger and modern social networks is that Finger's personal data files are decentralized, so there was no central collection of personal data that could be mined for commercial exploitation and each site could control what information was released about their people. One issue that arose at SAIL, for example, was that Prof. Donald Knuth, who had become well known because of his authorship of a series of textbooks on The Art of Computer Programming, used SAIL as his primary computer and Finger showed everyone when he was online and revealed his login ID (DEK), which could be used to send him email, with the result that he started receiving a lot of unwanted inquiries. We fixed that by giving him a private pseudonymous email address while continuing to show his real login ID in Finger.
How a worm ate some Fingers. The U.C. Berkeley group who developed BSD Un*x subsequently added a version of Finger to their system, which became widely used. Unfortunately, there was a security loophole in their Finger server that was exploited on November 2, 1988 by a computer worm introduced through MIT by Cornell student Robert Morris which resulted in widespread denial of service and that caused more attention to be given to network security matters.
How social networking became perverted. Around 2002 a friend invited me to join him on a social networking site called Friendster. I thought about that briefly, then politely declined on the grounds that I didn't want to put personal information into a central database where it could be exploited.
However, many people evidently are either not worried about being exploited or didn't think it through, with the result that there are now many exploitative social networks in operation such as Facebook. I have a plan to destroy the abominable Facebook but it has not yet ben implemented..