Excavating online futures past

Cover of Kevin Driscoll's book, The Modem World.

The International Journal of Communication (IJOC) has just published my review of Kevin Driscoll’s The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media (Yale UP, 2022).

In The Modem World, Driscoll provides an engaging social history of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), an early, dial-up precursor to social media that predated the World Wide Web. You might have heard of the most famous BBSes—likely Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or the WELL—but, as Driscoll elaborates, there were many others. Indeed, thousands of decentralized, autonomous virtual communities thrived around the world in the decades before the Internet became accessible to the general public. Through Driscoll’s eyes, these communities offer a glimpse of a bygone sociotechnical era and that prefigured and shaped our own in numerous ways. The “modem world” also suggests some paths beyond our current moment of disenchantment with the venture-funded, surveillance capitalist, billionaire-backed platforms that dominate social media today.

The book, like everything of Driscoll’s that I’ve ever read, is both enjoyable and informative and I recommend it for a number of reasons. I also (more selfishly) recommend the book review, which was fun to write and is just a few pages long. I got helpful feedback along the way from Yibin Fan, Kaylea Champion, and Hannah Cutts.

Because IJOC is an open access journal that publishes under a CC-BY-NC-ND license, you can read the review without paywalls, proxies, piracy, etc. Please feel free to send along any comments or feedback! For example, at least one person (who I won’t name here) thinks I should have emphasized the importance of porn in Driscoll’s account more heavily! While porn was definitely an important part of the BBS universe, I didn’t think it was such a central component of The Modem World. Ymmv?

Shaw, A. (2023). Kevin Driscoll, The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. International Journal Of Communication, 17, 4. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/21215/4162

3 Replies to “Excavating online futures past”

  1. Just finished reading the book and found it great fun and quite stimulating. Well done on the review!

    I’d like to point out that the kids are on Instagram and TikTok, but many, especially the nerdy, are on Discord, which notably does not have an ad-based business and is similar to a BBS platform in several other ways.

    1. Great point! I was going off of this Pew survey result (and the picture looks pretty similar today). Pew didn’t ask about Discord, which may or may not mean much, but my guess is that the user base is still quite a lot smaller. Also, in terms of the organizational structure/form, there are some big differences between Discord servers and BBSes (ownership/federation/autonomy being probably the most crucial!).

  2. Agreed. It’s interesting how calling communities “servers” or offering a degree of customization through a powerful API suggest an inheritance from the modem world even as these are either largely symbolic or offer a limited form of autonomy

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