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Downtown Blacksburg
Virginia Tech/Jim Stroup

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What happened to the most-wired town of the 1990s?

An experimental online community was ahead of its time, then the internet passed it by

In August 2015, residents of Blacksburg, Virginia, received a message announcing that the end of their digital community was imminent. For over two decades, people had chatted, checked store hours, shared memories, and emailed each other using the Blacksburg Electronic Village — an early community network widely referred to as the BEV. The announcement was met without fanfare: while the BEV was an important early experiment in online community, it had long been rendered obsolete by a proliferation of Wi-Fi networks and social networking platforms. At the time of the announcement, the once vibrant network had dwindled to roughly 65 customers. The internet had passed it by.

But when the BEV launched, it was state of the art. Starting in 1991, Virginia Tech, the town government of Blacksburg, and Bell Atlantic's Virginia subsidiary, known as Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone, came together to plan the network. It was touted as a way of connecting the university community to Blacksburg, thus improving town-and-gown relations. Bell Atlantic, interested in changing the structure of telecommunications and overtaking foreign competitors, also viewed the BEV as a commercial investment.

Before the BEV could launch, infrastructure needed to be built. Virginia Tech set up protocols for registering users and connected campus dorm rooms to Ethernet. Bell Atlantic laid massive amounts of fiber optic cable, and Blacksburg offered courses on computing, with residents learning to navigate the early internet at the local Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library.

The BEV's homepage in June 1996, with links to the Village Mall, community events, and Usenet News groups.
John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson's "Developing the Blacksburg Electronic Village."

The earliest incarnation of the BEV was rudimentary. It contained an email system, file transfer protocol (FTP), Gopher application, and a pre-RSS feed reader, but no chat program. In 1994, the early web browser Mosaic became part of the BEV package, which allowed local groups — including churches, arts organizations and clubs, and nonprofits — to create their own pages.

That same year, Jack Carroll moved to Blacksburg to head the Computer Science Department at Virginia Tech and started incorporating the BEV into his academic work. His team’s extensive research on the BEV spans many books and articles, and he continues to write about community computing today. Carroll says the BEV changes our conception of what an electronic community can do and who it can serve; the BEV was about “learning a new way of life,” and the Blacksburg residents’ experience was a microcosm of the broader cultural shifts brought by the internet.

Members of the BEV were some of the first people to encounter problems that are common today, such as reputation management. Carroll recounted the story of a garage mechanic who called him to ask how to access the BEV so he could respond to complaints made against his business in a newsgroup about auto repair. There were also challenges about getting everyone online. In the BEV’s first days, new users experienced a great deal of frustration and had to acclimate before they could effectively participate. And yet, despite these hurdles, the BEV reached over 1,000 community members by the end of 1994.

In 1995, most Blacksburg businesses were part of the BEV's Village Mall, where local businesses added their store hours and contact information. Commerce was also digitized, through an early e-commerce service called Biz Net Technologies, a Blacksburg-based company. Consumers could look at images of items and buy them with the click of a mouse. Now this kind of convenience is taken for granted, but in 1995, it was newsworthy. By 1996, the BEV had a hundred or more community groups, 200 local businesses, news groups on different subjects, various list-servs, and a chat room. After the network’s initial success, a number of new startups and private sector companies opened in the Blacksburg area.

The BEV focused not only on commerce but also on civic engagement. Blacksburg teachers and Virginia Tech faculty created a virtual school, prefiguring today’s MOOCs and class blogs. The virtual school had many elements that are now familiar but were then cutting edge. It incorporated multimedia, email, a chat system, and a class notebook where Blacksburg middle school and high school students could collaboratively contribute content. Students at different schools could work together and older students could effectively mentor younger ones.

An image of the virtual school project, a collaboration between Virginia Tech and Montgomery County teachers. Students communicated with each other via an interactive science notebook application, video conferencing, and an email system.
From John M. Carroll's "The Blacksburg Electronic Village: A Study in Community Computing."

Even the way the BEV was archived was revolutionary. Researchers developed the HistoryBase to trace the BEV’s rise as it happened, creating a community archive of meeting minutes and other ephemera. At the time, only the people directly involved with researching the BEV were documenting it; Carroll’s personal photographs represent the majority of those that remain.

The BEV’s innovations earned it widespread media attention. Publications like The New York Times ran stories about the community network, and it was featured on NBC. In 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records dubbed Blacksburg the “Most Wired Community.” According to the BEV’s website, it boasted the “highest per capita use of the Internet in the world, with more than 87% of Blacksburg residents online,” was the first place in the US to offer “residential Ethernet service as an amenity in apartments and townhomes,” and allowed Montgomery to become the first “county in the United States to have every school directly connected to the Internet.”

Unlike the youth-focused origins of platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, senior citizens were at the heart of BEV’s rise. Rather than a fresh-faced teenager, the iconic image of Blacksburg’s digital life would feature a septuagenarian surfing the web at her local library.

“It was so cool in 1994 that the seniors were providing PC classes to the high school kids, and seeing their role in the community’s project as one of leadership,” Carroll says. Carroll and Professor Mary Beth Rosson, Carroll’s longtime colleague and wife, were involved with a project called "Blacksburg Nostalgia," an online forum where local seniors archived their memories of Blacksburg in the 1960s, when the town was more rural. Carroll said that seniors themselves “started the Nostalgia project, and we helped with details. Their vision was that the internet could provide a way to share oral histories.” Nostalgia featured photographs of Blacksburg in the 1960s, while members shared their memories of major snowstorms and the best places in town to get T-bone steaks.

Blacksburg Nostalgia, a forum where seniors archived their memories of Blacksburg in the 1960s.
(Carroll 2005)

Andrea Kavanaugh, who served as the BEV’s director of research and is now the director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech, says the seniors who were part of Nostalgia were already getting together at the local community center and actively teaching each other how to use computers. An article from 1998 describes a monthly meeting of BEV seniors at the Blacksburg Community Center. “Does Dr. Kervorkian have a home page?” the article recalls one senior joking, as the group discussed health related sites.

As the BEV grew and changed, researchers began to ask, what is it that users actually want? Kavanaugh laughs remembering the priorities of Blacksburg residents. Researchers and designers originally believed that users would be thrilled to virtually explore the Louvre and other remote, exotic cultural phenomena, but many BEV users instead connected to church groups and soccer clubs. They wanted to know about local events that were immediately relevant to them. “Things that seem obvious to us today,” Kavanaugh says. Users were happy to connect to global cities and educational material, but they were just as concerned about dry cleaning hours in town. In a departure from many other early electronic communities which facilitated interactions between people in distant locations, the BEV was very much tied to a specific place. Blacksburg residents felt more connected to one another in addition to the outside world.

Andrew Cohill, the director of the BEV, brought up this disconnect between average users and technologists’ commercial interests in a 1997 New York Times article: "There's an incredible mismatch between what's coming out of Silicon Valley these days and the ways normal people are using the Net. There are two completely different realities in the world."

Eventually, as connectivity became commonplace, the spotlight moved away from the BEV. But projects and innovations continued, fomenting new ways of involving community members and integrating the web with Blacksburg’s geography. Today, the interactive Virtual Town Square project, led by Kavanaugh, aggregates local news reports from a variety of sources alongside relevant material from Facebook discussions, blog posts, and tweets in order to support civic participation.

When it came to the BEV’s role in fostering civic engagement, however, there were some major bumps along the way. As media scholar David Silver noted in his critique of the BEV, race, gender, and sexuality-based groups were not represented and remained largely invisible. According to Silver, BEV developers did not link to identity-based communities and even routed around them, while they dedicated online space to local sports teams and other white, heteronormative, male-centered groups. Thus, Blacksburg’s diversity was not necessarily reflected in the BEV’s links. In 1996, Blacksburg residents who were not part of Virginia Tech were eventually removed from the BEV and had to subscribe to internet services from commercial providers. Virginia Tech was providing services for free when other providers would charge money and was therefore, according to the state, undermining Virginia’s economy. Many community members who were not part of the university felt excluded as a result.

Today, various platforms invoke the concept of community. Technologists appear more aware of users’ desires to connect to friends, family, and local interests in addition to world news. After the launch of Facebook Live, Mark Zuckerberg called for the formation of a 21st century “global community” through technology. Meanwhile, on sites like Reddit and Tumblr, subcommunities and fandoms flourish.

MOOSburg, a form of multi-user domain, was created as an addition to the BEV. It provided real-time, situated, place-based information to community members, relying on the actual geography of Blacksburg. It was designed to make the BEV more interactive and to help users feel like it was a "real" place.
John M. Carroll's "The Blacksburg Electronic Village: A Study in Community Computing."

In many ways, the BEV foreshadowed these later platforms, though, unlike the BEV, these platforms are owned and run by large corporations. While billions of people around the world flock to corporate-owned platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the democratic promise of early community networks — which were rooted in specific geographic locations and had direct connections with the communities they served — has largely been forgotten.

But the BEV’s local and civic-minded orientation lives on in small programs like the Detroit Community Technology Project, which is teaching residents how to create their own wireless mesh communications infrastructure. As the DCTP states on their website: “On the Intranet, neighbors can communicate and share information without the internet, using the mesh network to house community radio apps, an offline searchable version of wikipedia, store music and movies for people to share, have a local chat and phone service. Together we can decide what we need!” DCTP sets up local infrastructures and teaches new users how to get the most out of the network. In Detroit, seniors and others who have never had computer access or training are learning to use computers in order to find jobs. For places on the wrong side of the digital divide, the BEV’s lessons are still relevant.

The BEV’s URL still exists, a reminder of static HTML pages from the web’s more stilted past. As the transition notice indicates, the network’s legacy also persists: “Our commitment to foster the virtual community lives on.” While it is not the robust community network it once was, the BEV still provides the latest information about the Blacksburg farmer’s market, the Blacksburg Market Square Jam, where musicians play bluegrass on Wednesday evenings.

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