Picture Derek, a computer nerd in the mid-1980s. He's pecking away on his Apple IIe and surfing the precursor to the Internet. He's using a 1200-baud modem over his phone line to connect to a bulletin board system (BBS), a hobbyist-run mini-network. Derek occasionally posts a message. But he mostly spends time downloading cracked software and erotic pictures at an excruciatingly slow three kilobytes per second.

One is the loneliest number. Right?

Now for the real picture. The early BBSs were actually very social. They were often hyperlocal—specific to a particular offline neighborhood or community—and offered a way to exchange messages and a full menu of text-based online games and computer programs. Users logged ...

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