Programmers created early ‘social network’ on mainframe computer at Kansas University in 1970s
First, it’s probably best that you picture the scene, and the people who came up with this.
It’s 1976 in the computer center at Kansas University’s Summerfield Hall. The computer is one of the few on campus, and it’s a pretty big computer — a Honeywell 635 mainframe computer, in fact. It uses punch cards.
It takes up a whole corner of Summerfield Hall in the basement, but it doesn’t have as much computing power as most of today’s smartphones.
It was used for administrative and academic functions of the university, but some students and other young people had access to it, too.
Two of them — Alexander Barket and John Borak — wrote a program in 1976 that served as something like today’s social media platforms. The program was called “Honk,” and it allowed users of the mainframe to post anonymous electronic messages that could be read by other users.
“Everybody who wanted to know anything about programming hung out at the Comp Center,” said Barket, who still lives in Lawrence and works as a research analyst for KU’s School of Social Welfare and other agencies.
Borak, an undergraduate student looking for a project, came to Barket, who had worked for the School of Business, but now was just sort of hanging around the center and buying computer time for his projects. Barket suggested they build a program that served as a sort of bulletin board for the programming community.
Borak today works in Bluetooth software engineering for Continental Tire and lives in Cary, Ill.
Honk is a kind of a retro-Twitter, without the character limitations — though many of the messages wound up being quite short, anyway.
Today, Barket and Borak, after stumbling on a printout of the old “honks” in storage, are planning to compile the material into book form.
Many of the “honks” are quite bawdy, as one might expect of younger, anonymous programmers. They’re all in capital letters because of the limits of the computers of the time. Many have dated references to pop culture (remember Perle Mesta?), but some still ring true today.
Honk from 1976, No. 52 — “AIR CONDITIONING? NO, NO WE NEVER NEED IT HERE IN KANSAS.”
Honk from 1976, No. 88 — “IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES; IT WAS THE PITS.”
Dave Nordlund, who worked as the assistant director of the computer center at the time, recalled the students, but not the program.
He described the culture of the place in today’s terms. Think about 19-year-olds who have spent their lives in front of a computer screen playing all sorts of games, who suddenly have access to the machine behind the games, he said.
These were incredibly smart people, he said, who were interested in soaking up as much as they could about programming. As for other social graces, well…
“These are people who probably didn’t even own a white shirt and tie,” said Nordlund, who is retired but still lives in Lawrence and works as a consultant.
And they were just as likely to be there at midnight as they were at noon, he said.
Barket guesses the number who used Honk was relatively small — he doubts if there were more than 25 total Honk authors.
Honk from 1977, No. 16 — “HE’D BE OKAY IF ONLY HE’D BATHE ONCE IN AWHILE.”
Honk from 1977, No. 24 — “THEY REALLY BRING OUT THE JUVENILE IN EACH ANOTHER.”
Barket and Borak aren’t sure if anyone would enjoy a book. The worst that could happen is that no one cares, Borak said.
But it’s still fun to look back through the old honks, they said. Some make fun of Jimmy Carter’s (“B’DEAH, B’DEAH, B’DEAH…. DUH?” one Honker summarized his acceptance speech), and others provide a window to the past — one joke about cocaine remarks that if the drug “isn’t fresh, then I’m outta business,” a reference to an old Wonder Bread commercial where a farmer (and a loaf of bread) say that line.
The community slowly died out, Barket said, but not before some people learned a lesson that’s still relevant today.
“Be careful what you write where everyone else can read it,” he said.