When the Town Square Shatters

Once again, science fiction fandom shows us how to use the internet.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readJul 23


An undated early flier for GEnie’s Science Fiction Round Table.

When it comes to the social internet, chances are that science fiction fans got there first. The first non-technical discussion forums on the internet — ancient mailing lists — were devoted to sf. The original high-traffic non-technical Usenet groups? Also sftnal. (This isn’t always something to be proud of — long before Donald Trump’s dank meme army, before Gamergate, sf’s “Rabid Puppies” and “Sad Puppies” were figuring out how to combine pop culture, the internet and far-right conspiratorialism into a vicious harassment machine).

Sf’s mix of technophilia, subculture, and its long tradition of gluing together a distributed community with written materials made it a natural for digital, networked communications.

Long before Twitter created — and then destroyed — a single, unified conversation that linked practitioners with the people who normally lived far downstream of their work, science fiction had created a single, unified “town square.”

And decades before a mediocre billionaire uncaringly smashed that unified conversation into a million flinders, sf fans and writers were living through their own Anatevka moment.

Twitter users bemoaning the end of the “unified conversation,” I am here from your future to tell you what happens next.

In 1985, engineers at General Electric realized that they had a vastly underutilized, incredibly expensive resource and resolved to find a way to press it into service and grab a piece of the future in the bargain.

That resource was GEIS, the General Electric Information Service, a commercial, time-sharing mainframe network that GE marketed to its blue-chip clients as a turnkey way to coordinate inter-office memos and data-sharing between branch offices.

GEIS combined multi-million-dollar computers with modem-banks that could be reached via local dialup from most of the USA. In other words, it looked a lot like Compuserve, AOL, or other online services — but GEIS was much older than either. Built for intracompany business, GEIS nevertheless ended up hosting an ever-growing, stubbornly unkillable quantity of conversational socializing. Once you connect…