The Old Puppet Masters: Content Moderation on Computer Bulletin Board Systems
As monopolistic digital platforms have seized enough power over speech to become the “new governors” of speech, a robust discourse surrounding the contemporary legal and market forces that shape content moderation has emerged. However, this discourse is missing solid historical roots in the earliest days of digitally mediated moderation on hobbyist computer bulletin board systems. Building off the work of Kevin Driscoll, using oral histories and archival research, I examined what regulatory forces impacted how system operators and BBS callers practiced content moderation. This research found that on hobbyist computer bulletin board systems, content moderation was viewed more as an act of community formation than through the lens of balancing censorship and free speech rights. SysOps were the puppet masters who had ultimate control over how code and normative forces could regulate the content and community that was allowed on their bulletin boards. Each BBS could be entirely different depending on the whims of the SysOp. but many BBSs treated the expectations of speech and civility as directly analogous to having real people in one’s home. Ultimately, this thesis endeavors to be part of the tide of new scholarship that aims to complicate existing narratives of networked histories so that we might begin to understand the contemporary regulatory forces shaping our digital world.
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