When Ann Bishop asked me in 1992 whether I wanted to start a Free-Net, I said I thought it would be too much work.
By Greg Newby Member since 1993.

My Prairienet Story

By Greg Newby

Copyright (C) 2004

Sometime in early 1992, Dr. Ann Bishop and I were in the hallways of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC. We were new faculty, and enthusiastic about getting involved with projects of all types. Ann said, "Hey, Greg - do you want to start a Free-Net?"

A Free-Net(tm) was a new way for people to communicate with each other online, using the power of the Internet. Dr. Tom Grundner thought up Free-Nets, and started one at Case Western Reserve University. Back in those days, connecting to the Internet was hard, and there were few options for people outside of the academic world. Free-Nets, more generically called "community computing systems," brought email, discussion groups and the fledging World Wide Web to anyone with access to a computer and modem. They provided an electronic soapbox for different community members and groups to get online to share their talents and ideas, and to reach out to one another.

Ann and I, like most newly graduated students, were regular users of all these neat tools of the electronic sphere, and wanted to help the rest of the world jump on the cyber-bandwagon. The community computing concept was just what Urbana-Champaign needed, and we could join dozens of Free-Nets around North America.

So, I told Ann that I thought it would probably be too much work to run a Free-Net, but I was willing to give it a try. We approached our boss, Dean Leigh Estabrook, with the idea. She was supportive, but blanched at the $20,000 in equipment it would take to get the Free-Net started. She encouraged us to find support from different possible community and University organizations, and to work to find people in the community interested in a Free-Net.

We got to work, and discovered immediately that there was a lot of interest from the community. Many people were already Internet users, or using online bulletin-board systems. Others had heard about the Internet, but didn't know how to get connected (this was years before AOL or even Windows 95). We also found many community organizations and businesses that wanted to get a non-commercial message out to their community.

It was all very encouraging, and after a long series of community meetings, input from many people, lots of technology and infrastructure support from CSO and NCSA, and many long hours from key volunteers and a few part-time employees, we had our grand opening celebration in 1994. We called our community computing system Prairienet.

Prairienet was a tremendous success. In the mid-1990s, many people had realized what a wonderful communications medium their computer was, and had started to rely on the Internet's many features for all kinds of things. We had members of all ages, from all backgrounds. We worked hard with partners like the libraries and the convention and visitor's bureau to place public access computers around town. We ran training classes, and presented papers at conferences.

I worked hard on Prairienet, but was not the only one. My main activities were behind the scenes, keeping the systems running, planning for new capacity and new features, and interacting with many volunteers and potential donors. With Ann, I worked to develop new partnerships in the community, and between communities such as Danville and Rantoul.

Prairienet had 14,000 active members in late 1996, with hundreds of information providers representing all types of organizations and their content. Prairienet was the first taste that many thousands of people had of the Internet, and offered a springboard to the many new opportunities for commercial dial-in services, Web hosting, and so on.

When I look back from 2004 to 1994, I see that we managed to seize great opportunities. Many lives were changed for the better, by using Prairienet to communicate across time and space with other people of similar interests. Today's online world is pretty different -- at first, the Internet looks like a huge flashy shopping mall. But when you dive a little deeper, the same types of communities are still there in great profusion. Just as Ann and I realized in 1992, it's the power of instant, cheap and only slightly-mediated communication that brings people to the Internet.

I'm proud of Prairienet, of the past and the present. The many thousands of hours invested by thousands of people over the span of a decade have built a powerful example of how technology can be humanizing, entertaining and informative. In the future, we will certainly see new technologies and fancier ways to communicate, but it will be the sense of community and human involvement that makes the electronic world go 'round.

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