Community Memory, or what Craig’s List looked like in 1974

On: November 14, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here

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Notions of ‘virtual community’ and ‘virtual reality’ have been put to rest by locative aspects of the Web in recent years – from flickr maps to Facebook, from questions of legal jurisdiction to problems of national censorship. As much as we may have wanted to enter cyberspace, we now find ourselves clearly back in the here and now. But this move makes it easy to forget that virtual reality itself had to evolve out of previous ‘futures’ of digital media.

One of these was the Community Memory (CM) project held in Berkeley and San Francisco in the early 1970s:

COMMUNITY MEMORY is the name we give to this experimental information service. It is an attempt to harness the power of the computer in the service of the community. We hope to do this by providing a sort of super bulletin board where people can post notices of all sorts and can find the notices posted by others rapidly. (source, emphasis mine)

CM consisted of three public terminals in strategic locations in the Bay area. It worked somewhat like Craig’s List does today, and a lot of people used it to find housing, say, or fellow musicians. The most prominent CM image (as in, the only one I could find) says a lot as well – note the category ‘miscellaneous’ on the huge bulletin board:

A little further reading makes it clear that it is not only the ‘local’ aspect of CM that makes it relevant to today’s Web. One of the close observers of the project, counter-culturalist Michael Rossman, wrote that such a system could eventually be used to differentiate between ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ information. For example, he says, in addition to an advertisement for an alternative medicine store, one would also have access to what customers of the store have to say about it. Those accounts could be aggregated to improve decision-making and the efficiency of the system itself.

If Rossman’s ideas sound familiar, it is because he was outlining some of the essential elements of what we now call ‘recommender culture’ on the Web. In other words, his digital future was not so far off from current ones that give a central role to ‘tagging’ and ‘folksonomy’.

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