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The On-Line Community

The sense of an on-line community began to emerge on PLATO in 1973-74, as Notes, Talkomatic, "term-talk", and Personal Notes were introduced in quick succession. People met and got acquainted in Talkomatic, and carried on romances via "term-talk" and Personal Notes. The release of Group Notes in 1976 gave the community fertile new ground for growth, but by that time it was already well established. The community had been building its own additions to the software infrastructure in the form of multiplayer games and alternative on-line communications. One such program was Pad, an on-line bulletin board where people could post graffiti or random musings. Another was Newsreport, a lighthearted on-line newspaper published periodically by Bruce Parello, aka The Red Sweater.

With the abundance of special interest notesfiles made possible by Group Notes, many on-line personalities developed. One of the best known was Dr. Graper (actually a student at the University of Delaware named David J. Graper). He began posting wild, surrealistic stories in a public notesfile where they were not exactly appropriate, but they were so hilariously entertaining that people clamored for more, and eventually someone created a notesfile called Grapenotes as a platform for his ravings.

The early PLATO community was concentrated in Illinois and consisted mostly of people in academia: educators turned instructional designers, and students hired as programmers. Later it grew to include more people from business, government, and the military as Control Data marketed PLATO as a general-purpose tool for training. It also grew geographically, spreading across the United States and around the world. The building that housed CERL became something of a Mecca to the far-flung PLATO community. Many people traveled to Urbana to see the lab and meet those of us who worked there. It was odd to meet people face to face after getting to know them on-line. My images of people based on their postings in Notes sometimes turned out to diverge wildly from reality.

The growing PLATO community also developed all of the problems that are now well known in on-line communities, such as flaming, men impersonating women as a prank, etc. Free speech was the general rule, but there were a few much-discussed incidents in which political postings in notesfiles were officially quashed for fear of jeopardizing PLATO's funding. Nobody on PLATO had ever experienced an on-line community before, so there was a lot of fumbling in the dark as social norms were established.

Over the years, PLATO has affected many lives in profound ways. So many real-life marriages have resulted from on-line encounters that such stories no longer seem remarkable.

Copyright © 1994 by David R. Woolley

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Copyright (c) 1996 - 2006 Elizabeth Mattijsen
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