[See the Vlog at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gAwkORb6d0 ]
My own experience with what we now call social networking actually goes back to the early 1990's, long before the term meant anything special. In the days before the web, one of the ways like-minded people formed online community was through mailing lists, which were similar to today's forums, except a list of public postings and responses were emailed to subscribed members.
While researching a project on kids at risk, I posted a message on a mailing list focusing on social issues, and soon received a private email from an individual answering my question, and providing information on what just might be one of the most powerful applications of online social interaction, and the power of the individual using communications technology to make a difference - even more than twenty years later.
"Teen Outreach Through Technology," or TOTT, created a supervised program allowing kids in Fresno County Juvenile Hall to connect to a private computer bulletin board system and post messages, interacting with volunteers in the community. With interaction essentially anonymous (no real names, only "handles" (approved nicknames), participants felt free to express themselves more honestly, and were encouraged to do so by TOTT volunteers. Some simply interacted with others, others wrote stories and even a bit of poetry - and still others offered advice to other kids. For some kids, it was their first opportunity to become a positive part of a community.
At the end of my latest vlog, and in more detail in my upcoming follow-up, you'll meet "Small Fry," a particularly prolific contributor to TOTT. At the time I interviewed him, he was far from the TOTT program in Fresno, locked up in Sacramento in a facility of the California Youth Authority - the state prison for juveniles. Almost two years before, however, he began participating in the program. This was his very first message:
Date: 08-27-90 20:28
From: Small Fry
HI everyone.I'm Small Fry.Yes I am new in this program but thats allright I wont bight untill I know you better ok?I guess I should tell you a little abought myself but I wount.Yes I am locked up but dont let that wory you I'm a pussycat!
I was thinking does any one out there like HEARD ROCK ? If so right back soon because I'd like to get to know you . I havent benn out for five mo.
Over the next couple of days, I'll share some of "Small Fry's" messages on the TOTT system, and those who interacted with him - we'll take a look, first-hand, at an early online community.