Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blogging's roots reach to the '70s

Back before the Internet even existed, Les Earnest created what would become the first proto-blogging tool.

Earnest, who is retired from Stanford University's computer science department with the title senior research scientist emeritus, invented the "finger" utility in the early 1970s. It let network users read a specific text file from another user's account, which frequently would be customized to include musings about politics, personal life, and professional activities.

The text file was called a ".plan," and it led to an early kind of blogging. In a 1990 retrospective, Earnest wrote: "The program was an instant hit. Some people asked for the Plan file feature so that they could explain their absence or how they could be reached at odd times, so I added it. I found it interesting that this feature evolved into a forum for social commentary and amusing observations."

As part of an article about who created the first blog--the 10-year anniversary of the term, at least, is this year--CNET News.com spoke with Earnest. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

On the concept of blog-like .plan files: "The concept, of course, goes back to bulletin boards; that's where it all started. That is, in my lab at Stanford for example, people would occasionally post something and then others would write in the margin a response to it, and then sometimes add another piece of paper so that they could say even more. They used to have battles on the bulletin board in this way.

"Shortly after we put up (a computer system), another such interchange was launched using an ordinary computer file that was accessible to everyone so that anyone could both read and write on it, and there was a big debate...The first one was about whether we should send men to space. That would've been around 1967 or 1968."

On how .plan files were used: "It was used in much the same way as blogs are now, that is, the .plan file was intended to be just a way to tell people where you were going to be. If you were going off on vacation or a trip or something, or were just going to sleep for a while, you could post that in your .plan file. But then people noticed that it could be used as a statement of personal views on things and they started doing that, and then still later it was used by quite a few people to post their public key for secure communications, so it got used in several ways. (For) expressing your personal views on things, it was very much like a blog, a personal blog. It of course did not allow others to post things on it."

On whether blogging-like uses were expected: "No, the intent was just to let people say when they were going to be back if they were going away, that sort of thing. These other uses people thought up on their own, it was not the plan."

On creating the finger program: "I put it in at the request of some of the people in my lab. The finger program was developed initially just as a way of keeping track of people in my lab.

"People work all hours, day and night, around the clock, so you wanted to be able to find out what phase a given person was in, so the finger program would first of all tell you real names instead of teletype numbers, and it would also tell you when they last logged out or if they're still logged in, how long their terminal has been idle...

"The .plan file was a different piece of information that was added subsequently. After it came into use (at my lab), other people kept using it, and then the idea came up to make it an Internet utility so you could ask about people at other sites.

"We actually have all of the files that describe finger and also all the plan files that were ever generated in our lab over 20 years. The public part is available now, the private part, we're in the process of making accessible to alumni under password control...That's going to take some time."

On people claiming to have invented blogs: "Everybody who comes into the field thinks that when they begin, it all begins. I believe the old bulletin board wars were really the origin of this idea."

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