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History and Future of Public Access Unix Systems

cmccabe AT sdf.org (also right here @tilde.town)

I have been writing a paper on the history of a type of online social space called public access Unix systems, and I'm posting a summary here in case anyone in the ~town is interested. If you enjoy this and want to read more (like 10+ pages more) look at the bottom of this post for a link to the main paper.

I wrote this because a summary didn't exist; researching and writing it was a way for me to learn about the history. It was not written with the intent of commercial publication, but I'd still love to share it around and get more feedback, especially if that would help me further develop the description of this history and these ideas. If you have any thoughts about this, please let me know. I would also be happy to see this paper somehow be used to support non-commercial, online communities like tilde.town, SDF.org or others like them.

What are Public Access Unix Systems?

When the general public thinks of the Unix operating system (if it does at all), it probably isn't thinking about a social club. But at its core, Unix has a social architecture, and as tilde.town users may know, there is a large subculture of people who have been using Unix and Unix-like operating systems this way for a long time.

Public access Unix systems are multi-user systems that provide shell accounts to the general public for free or low cost. The shell account typically provides users with an email account, text-based web browsers, file storage space, a directory for hosting website files, software compilers and interpreters, and a number of tools for socializing with others on the system. The social tools usually include the well-known IRC (Internet Relay Chat), various flavors of bulletin-board systems, often a number of homegrown communication tools, and a set of classic Unix commands for finding information about or communicating with other system users.

But more than just mere shell providers, public access Unix systems have always had a focus on the social community of users that develops within them. Some current systems have been online for several decades and many users have developed long-standing friendships and even business partnerships through them. i.e. they're a lot of fun and useful too.

Likely of interest to tilde readers is that public access Unix systems have for the most part been non-commercial. Some take donations or charge membership fees for certain tiers of access (some in the U.S. are registered 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(7) non profits). They almost invariably do not take advertising revenue, do not sell user profile data, and the user bases within them maintain a fairly strong culture of concern about the state of the modern commercial Internet.

This concept of a non-commercial, socially aware, creative space is what really got me interested in the history of these systems. Further, the fact that you have this socially aware, technically competent group of people using and maintaining a medium of electronic communication seems particularly important in the midst of the current corporate takeover of Internet media.

History

Public access Unix systems have been around since the early 1980's, back when most of the general public did not have home computers, before there was a commercial Internet, and long before the World Wide Web. Users of the early systems dialed in directly to a Unix server using a modem, and simultaneous user connections were limited by the number of modems a system had. If a system had just one modem, you might have to dial in repeatedly until the previous user logged off and the line opened up.

These early systems were mostly used for bulletin-board functionality, in which users interacted with each other by leaving and reading text messages on the system. During this same time in the early 80's, other dial-in systems existed that were more definitively labeled "BBSes". Their history has been thoroughly documented in film (The BBS Documentary by Jason Scott) and in a great Wikipedia article. These other systems (pure BBSes) did not run the Unix OS and many advanced computer hobbyists turned up their noses at what they saw as toyish alternatives to the Unix OS.

Access to early dial-in public access Unix systems was mostly constrained by prohibitively expensive long-distance phone charges, so the user bases drew from local calling areas. The consequence was that people might meet each other online, but there was a chance they could end up meeting in person too because they might literally be living just down the street from each other.

The first two public access Unix systems were M-Net (in Ann Arbor, MI) and Chinet (in Chicago, IL), both started in 1982. By the late 1980's, there were more than 70 such systems online. And at their peak in the early 1990's, a list of public access Unix systems shared on Usenet contained well over 100 entries.

Throughout the 1980's, modem speeds and computer power increased rapidly, and so did the functionality and number of users on these systems. But the 1990's were a time of major change for public access Unix systems. In 1991, the Linux operating system was first released, ushering in a new era of hobbyist system admins and programmers. And new commercial services like AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe brought hordes of new people online.

The massive influx of new people online had two big impacts on public access Unix systems. For one, as access became easier, online time became less precious and people were less careful and thoughtful about their behavior online. Many still describe their disappointment with this period and their memory of the time when thoughtful and interesting interactions on public access Unix systems degraded to LOLCAT memes. In Usenet (newsgroups) history, the analogous impact is what is referred to as "The Eternal September".

The second impact of this period was from the massive increase of computer hobbyists online. Within this group were a small but high-impact number of "script kiddies" and blackhat hackers that abused the openness of public access Unix systems for their own purposes (e.g. sending spam, hacking other systems, sharing illegal files). Because of this type of behavior, many public access Unix systems had to lock down previously open services, including outbound network connections and even email in some cases.

For the next decade or so, public access Unix systems continued to evolve with the times, but usership leveled off or even decreased. The few systems that remained seemed to gain a particular sense of self-awareness in response to the growing cacophony and questionable ethics of the commercial World Wide Web. This awareness and sense of identity continues to this day, and I'll describe it more below because I think it is really important.

2014 and Beyond

In 2014, Paul Ford casually initiated a new phase in the history of public access Unix systems. He registered a URL for tilde.club (http://tilde.club) and pointed it at a relatively unmodified Linux server. After announcing via Twitter that anyone could sign up for a free shell account, Ford rapidly saw hundreds of new users sign up. Somehow this idea had caught the interest of a new generation. The system became really active and the model of offering a relatively unmodified *NIX server for public use (a public access Unix system under a different name) became a "thing".

Tilde.club inspired many others to open similar systems, including tilde.town (as you well know), tilde.team* and others which are still active and growing today. The ecosystem of these tilde servers is sometimes called the tilde.verse. These systems maintain the same weariness of the commercial WWW that other public access Unix systems do, but they also have a much more active focus on building a "radically inclusive" and highly interactive community revolving around learning and teaching Unix and programming. These communities are much, much smaller than even small commercial social networks, but that is probably part of their charm. (* full disclosure, I wield sudo on ~team.)

These tilde.boxes aren't the only public access Unix systems online today though. Many others have started up in the past several years, and others have carried on from older roots. One of the most well known systems alive today is the Super Dimension Fortress (SDF.org) that has been going strong for over three decades. Grex.org and Nyx.net have been online for nearly as long too. And Devio.us is another great system, with a community focused around the Unix OS, particularly OpenBSD. Not all these systems label themselves as "public access Unix systems", but they all share the same fundamental spirit.

One system that I find particularly interesting is Hashbang (aka #!, https://hashbang.sh). Hashbang is a Debian server run and used by a number of IT professionals who are dedicated to the concept of an online hackerspace and training ground for sysadmins. The system itself is undergoing continual development, managed in a git repository, and users can interact to learn everything from basic shell scripting to devops automation tooling.

Why is Hashbang so cool? Because it is community oriented system in which users can learn proficiency in the infrastructural skills that can keep electronic communications in the hands of the people. When you use Facebook, you don't learn how to run a Facebook. But when you use Hashbang (and by "use", I mean pour blood, sweat and tears into learning through doing), you can learn the skills to run your own system.

Societal role

If you've read other things I've written, or if you've interacted with me online, then you know that I feel corporate control of media is a huge, huge concern (like Herman and Chomsky type concern). Public access Unix systems are valuable here too because they are focused on person-to-person connections that are not mediated by a corporate-owned infrastructure, and they are typically non-profit organizations that do not track and sell user data.

You're no doubt aware of the recent repeal of Net Neutrality laws in the U.S., and you're probably aware of what The Economist magazine calls "BAADD" tech companies (big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy). One of the most important concerns underlying all of this is that corporations are increasingly in control of our news media and other means of communication. They have little incentive to provide us with important and unbiased information. Instead, they have incentive to dazzle us with vapid clickbait so that we can be corralled past advertisements.

Public access Unix systems are not the solution to this problem, but they can be part of a broader solution. These systems are populated by independently minded users who are skeptical of the corporate mainstream media, and importantly, they teach about and control the medium of communication and social interaction itself.

Unix as a social medium

So what is it that makes public access Unix systems different? I find this to be a particularly interesting question. My argument is partly that Unix itself is a social and communication medium and that the structure of this medium filters out low-effort participation. In addition to this, public access Unix systems tend to have user bases with a common sense of purpose (Unix and programming), so users can expect to find others with shared interests.

In contrast to modern social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, you have to put in some effort to use Unix. You have to learn to connect, typically over ssh; you have to learn to navigate a command line shell; and you have to learn the commands and options to run various utilities. And to really use Unix, you have to learn a bit of programming. It's not incredibly hard in the end, but it takes significantly more effort than registering for a Facebook or Twitter account and permitting them to scan your email address book. Once you get over the learning curve, it is powerful and fun.

This effortful medium does two things. For one, it weeds out people who aren't willing to put in effort. And for two, it provides learned users with a diverse palette of tools and utilities for building and sharing creative output.

Public access Unix systems are all about active _creation_ of content to be enjoyed and shared with others, and not about passive media consumption. They are about the community that develops around this purpose and not around the profit that can be squeezed out of users' attention.

Future of public access Unix systems

Public access Unix systems have been around for nearly four decades now. They have seen ups and downs in popularity, and they have been humming along in the background as computing has gone from the ARPANET to the spectacle of the commercial World Wide Web. Early public access Unix systems were largely about the novelty of socializing with other hobbyists through a computer, and that interest is evolving into the learning, doing and teaching model of an online hackerspace today.

These systems are not huge, they are _not_ coasting on advertising revenue, and they get by purely on the contributions, volunteer effort, and enthusiastic participation of their users. But as a contrast to commercial social network sites, they are an example of what online socializing can be when individuals put effort, thought, and compassion into their interactions with others. And just as importantly, they pass on the very skills that can independently maintain this social and communication medium for future generations of users.

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As promised in the intro, if you're interested in reading a much more in-depth version of this article, here's the longer copy: https://cmccabe.sdf.org/files/pubax_unix_v01.pdf