A Brief History of How Public Chat Forums Went to Shit

The Modem Era
In the 1980s, one of the earliest uses for modems was simple user-to-user chat
over long distances. A modem allowed any person with a computer and a telephone
line to dial someone else's computer, and converse with them in front of a glowing
monitor. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) eventually replaced user-to-user chat
with public forums where many different people could dial-in, post a few messages,
play games, and download files.

USENET Newsgroups
Around that same time, people in universities and government offices were having
conversations over the Internet, on a network called USENET. Since 1980, USENET
has been a collection of public forums where everyday people join, create and
manage their own social communities. This began to change in the late 90s, as
USENET became flooded with spam and massive binary files that overwhelmed
newsgroups, and made reading miserable. Meanwhile, there was a massive influx of
new Internet users with modest technical skills, who found USENET too cumbersome to
access. These users knew only of the World Wide Web and web pages. But they wanted
to have group conversations just like everyone before them. They had very few
choices, aside from live chat rooms and VRML worlds.

The Web Forum Era
In the early 2000's, that conversational void was filled by Web forum software
like phpBB and vBulletin. Web forums were easy to install on the average web
server, and was easy enough for new Internet users to learn how to use. This web
software - owned and operated by everyday people renting server space on a monthly
basis - became ubiquitous for over ten years. Many people who cut their teeth on
a copy of phpBB, went on to become web developers in adulthood.

Broadband and Social Media
In the mid 2000s, another massive wave of Internet users arrived with even fewer
technical skills than their forebears. These users were not interested in learning
PHP and HTML, but still had a desire to converse and share photos. In response,
sites like MySpace and Facebook began to pop up. These simplified social networks
let users build tiny personal profiles by filling in a few boxes with personal
information. Users no longer needed to run their own web server software and
were no longer stewards of their own communities, because they didn't own them.
For the first time in a long time, the entire experience was governed by a single,
central, source: a massive for-profit company.

Over a decade later, as web forums continued to wither away, Reddit appeared as a
genuinely useful replacement. Once again, users could create their own forums,
without learning programming languages or how to use web servers. They could just
hammer out a quick message, attach a farting cat video, and click send. It was
liked for its simplicity and user-friendliness. That was, until early 2023, when
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced that the company was now going to demand
massive payments from developers who made the apps people used to visit the site.
Suddenly, Reddit was conscious it was a for-profit corporation again, and
users and moderators (who worked for free), began asking themselves: who really
owns all this hard work we post here daily? Why aren't moderators paid to do
what amounts to massive, free, labour?

We're long overdue for a re-imagining of what the Internet was, and could have been,
in the late 1990s. Users should have always owned and operated the network as a
public good, and had the opportunity to safeguard their most paradoxically
personal-yet-public information themselves. BBSes, USENET Newsgroups, Web Forums,
Facebook pages, and subReddits were always about the same thing: talking about
things you care about, with other people who care about the same things.

Now let's go do that.