SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Works in Progress: Why does the Study of How Communities are Formed Matter to the History of Computing?

Name: Ramesh Subramanian

Institutional Affiliation: Quinnipiac University

Email Address:

Paper Type: Work in Progress

Paper Title: Murray Turoff and the Birth of Computer Mediated Communications



Paper Abstract: Social Media and Web 2.0 technologies are enjoying tremendous popularity at present. Increased network bandwidth and computer processing power have enabled the introduction of smaller communications devices aimed at the end user – be they smart mobile phones, net-books, or tablet computing devices. Applications such as wikis, mobile chat, blogs, audio and video sharing have emerged over the past five years. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube have made it easier than ever for anybody to communicate anywhere. Social media have even become the digital tool of choice to activists, dissenters, and even terrorists to organize and communicate with each other. In this scenario, it is easy to forget that these technologies are all based on one simple foundation: computer-mediated communication (CMC).

In 1971, just a few years after the “birth” of the Internet, Murray Turoff, a physicist-turned computer scientist working in the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness, was tasked with developing an electronic information and communication system to aid the U.S. government’s response to emergencies. The resulting system EMISARI (Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index) is considered to be the first computer-mediated, multi-machine communications and conferencing system and an early precursor to many of today’s Web 2.0 systems.

Throughout the nineteen-seventies, sociologists, noticing the promise of social transformations emanating from networked communities, started actively studying the phenomenon.  Of the many works of this period, perhaps none has so comprehensively and presciently cataloged the coming network society as “The Network Nation” authored by Murray Turoff and his collaborator, sociologist Roxanne Hiltz. Even in 1978, they were able to see well into the future that is today – a world where everything is connected, where computers and computing devices are ubiquitous, where a bulk of the world’s commerce is conducted online, where a majority of interactions among people are through emails, computer conferencing, online “chats,” SMS (text messaging systems) and social networks.

I explore the birth and evolution of CMC by profiling the “father” of CMC, Murray Turoff. The technology he invented in the early 1970s forms the basis of much of social media today. The paper thus aims to provide the historical context to today’s social media applications and provide further light on a very important part of computing history. For this project, I conducted detailed interviews with Turoff and Hiltz, and researched secondary data such as published literature, manuals and technical documents, and interviews with colleagues.