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PLATO Notes released 40 years ago today

(I also posted this in a fancier presentation on Medium today.)

Things were getting out of control.

It was the summer of 1973 and the PLATO IV system was growing fast at the University of Illinois. Growing pains were rampant. The developers, both at the system level and at the application level, had a voracious appetite for documentation, information, support, and technical knowledge. Every day the system was changing, new programming features were released, new programs became available. Problems, bugs, and system crashes were frequent.

Since 1972, a text file (technically a TUTOR lesson file, in PLATO parlance) called “notes” had been set aside for the developer community to use as a public bulletin board to post questions and answers relating to the system, reliability, how something is done, something needing fixing, etc. Problem was, it was in essence an open text file that anyone could edit — and, if they so chose, delete. The honor system was in force, but sometimes an honor system is not enough to protect the text that others have posted.

Here’s an example of the old text-file “notes”:

105 *
106 *
107 1/22 I can’t get into charset mits without lesson errors.
108 On the lesson desired page I typed charset. The next page
109 asks which charset I’m in. I pressed NEXT. My
110 charset name is mits. The error message is labeled
111 mem err.
112 Mits
113 1/22 REMINDER
114 Before you request that a lesson be extended
115 to two parts, be sure there are at least 28 empty
116 words in block a of your lesson. —Bill Golden
117 *
118 J. Apter—Is it possible to have the apostrophe
119 straightened, or at least a left single quotation
120 mark added to the list of key characters? Either
121 one would be useful.
122 +++ The apostrophe has been designed to be straight
123 in the new character set to be used in future
124 PLATO IV terminals. See any of the many notes
125 regarding design of new chars—Rick Blomme
126 *
127 *
128 1/22 AUTHORS: Check “catalog” and “catalog1" before
129 starting a new lesson. Someone might already be
130 writing a lesson on the same subject. Consultation
131 with each other should help not hinder the pro-
132 duction of a good lesson! e.g. there are two
133 lessons on how to use the slide rule. T. Lyman
134 
135 1/22 To Bruce Sherwood— aid1 section E , time slice
136 exceeded in unit write line no 12 last command
137 join at 4:35 pm. Is it the new tutor? C.C. Cheng

Sure, it says “Bill Golden” wrote that bit about 28 empty words in your lesson block, but there was no guarantee that was really Bill Golden. No authentication, no security, growing risk.

The issue was getting particularly annoying in the spring and early summer of 1973. Paul Tenczar, one of the key system programmers, finally asked 17-year-old David Woolley to write a real Notes program to replace the notes text file. Paul Tenczar, circa 1973

It was Woolley’s first major programming project. He’d graduated high school just the year before, and while he was already being paid to work at the CERL (Computer-based Education Research Laboratory) lab where PLATO was being developed, he’d not yet done anything as monumental as Notes.

“The idea was that users would write notes and system people would respond to them,” Woolley told me. He had never seen an online bulletin board or conferencing forum application—other computer labs and projects around the country were also tinkering with very early forms of message boards but none of that was on PLATO’s or Woolley’s radar at the time. “I went off and used my imagination and wrote it the way it seemed natural to me, I didn’t have a thought to go on,” he said.

The new Notes had one very specific purpose: create a real program that provides the long-needed security and authentication to the old text-file “notes” so that the PLATO community could ask questions and get answers safely and reliably without having to rely on an honor system.

On August 7, 1973, the new PLATO Notes was released. There were three forums: Announce, Public Notes, and Helpnotes.

Here’s the very first note posted in Announce, by Paul Tenczar:

newnotes Note 1
 
8/7/73 11:07 pm CST         pjt / s
 
Since you got here, you will undoubtedly note that we now
have a new system of user/system notes. We hope that they
will greatly speed up your browsing…and provide us much
greater protection from note-destroyers!
 
Please direct any comments about these new notes to
Dave Woolley.
 
Old notes are obtainable by editing files -notes1- through
-notes19-.

The “pjt / s” is the PLATO signon, or account, of Paul Tenczar. He was in group “s”.

The Announce notesfile was read-only for most people, meaning, you couldn’t post comments (called “responses” in PLATO jargon) to any notes. It was the place for official announcements from the systems staff, and that’s that. Over time, a tradition would emerge that the system programmer who led the development of the new feature would post the announcement in Announce using his or her own signon.

Public Notes was, as its name suggests, a public forum for the PLATO community to share info, ask questions, and find out what’s new. Helpnotes was a place to get help not only on PLATO things but, in time, on anything: who was the best VW mechanic in town, what’s a good Chinese restaurant, where can I get this or that, etc. There was something special about Helpnotes: an unspoken karmic sense began to emerge whereby the more you answered others’ questions, the sooner others might answer your own. Helpnotes was so good that within a few minutes you might have multiple answers to your questions. All this, 30+ years before Yahoo! Answers and Quora.

The way Woolley designed Notes was significant. A Notes file consisted of Notes with optional Responses saved in linear, chronological order. If the author of a new note needed more room than the 20 or so lines that PLATO afforded, the note would be saved and then the author would simply post a “response” to the “base note” which would show up as “Response 1.” If the message needed even more space, the author could repeat the steps and add a “Response 2,” and so on.

If this was Public Notes or Help Notes, other users could come in and post replies to the note or to a response—but here’s where things got interesting. Unlike some online commenting systems and message boards of more recent vintage, responses to notes were not nested, they were flat and linear. That is, you couldn’t post a response to Response 18, say, and have it show up indented and clearly a comment to Response 18. Instead, everything was flat.

If a Note had 9 responses and what you read in Response 5 got you all hot and bothered and wanting to reply, your response would show up as Response 10. It was up to you to mention in the text of your message that you were commenting on what had been said in Response 5, so people didn’t think you were talking about what was said in Response 9.

This flat, linear style of message forums would be mimicked in PicoSpan, the software Marcus Watts created shortly after Woolley launched Notes. PicoSpan would, years later, be the underlying software that powered The WELL, which was launched in 1985.

Over the next few years, Woolley improved the Notes program and greatly expanded its functionality. In 1976, “Group Notes” was released, which enabled anyone to create a “notesfile” on any subject. The PLATO community had grown by leaps and bounds during the mid-70s, and when anyone could create a notesfile, seemingly everyone did so. Soon there was drugnotes, sexnotes, ipr (Inter-personal Relations), filmnotes, politics, booknotes, musicnotes, micronotes (for topics related to microcomputers), and hundreds of others.

In 1974, Kim Mast, a contemporary of Woolley’s and another CERL junior programmer, created Personal Notes, which was PLATO’s email program. It is notable that email came after message forums on PLATO: the community grew to be comfortable in the public, collaborative, group messaging environment of Notes before they had the ability to privately send messages to people. If only organizations in the past few decades had similar histories, message boards might be more widely used in organizations than email with gigantic cc: lists that tend to consume people’s time and kill productivity.

 

Learn more about the upcoming book:

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear

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