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OPINION -- Santa Monica's PEN Blazed a Digital Trail

By Kevin McKeown

Few knew what to make of it. No one tweeted about it. There wasn’t a single Facebook mention.

Thirty years ago, in February of 1989, Santa Monica opened the first municipal computer teleconferencing system in the world. The Public Electronic Network, or PEN, was initially intended to link residents to City Hall, providing information and answering questions.

Something else happened.

Within two weeks, over 500 residents signed up. Eventually, about 6,000 Santa Monicans had accounts on PEN. They didn’t all want to talk to City Hall. They wanted to communicate with one another, too, and turned PEN into an unexpected resident-to-resident phenomenon.

Remember, this was 1989. Social media didn’t exist yet. The world-wide web as we know it was at least five years away. Very few people had email accounts. PEN access was text-only, painfully slow over old-fashioned telephone wires.

And yet, PEN exploded. The City database and mailroom saw some usage, but by far the majority of PEN activity was in the interactive public conferences, run on a software package aptly named “Participate.”

PEN reached far beyond the fortunate few with home computers and the even more rare dial-up modem, which in 1989 was how a computer was forced to connect. The City put 19 PEN terminals in public places, including libraries, and 20 to 25 percent of PEN usage came from those public terminals.

A study of PEN by USC’s Annenberg of Communications at the time concluded, “. . . the use of PEN is not related to the traditional socio-economic characteristics that have predicted computer usage in past research. Age, income, and education are unrelated to the frequency of PEN use. . .”

PENners were required to use real names, but there were no obvious social or status cues. On PEN, individuals became equals, judged on the strength of their ideas. When face-to-face meetups eventually occurred, and users saw their PENpals in person, surprise was often the order of the day.

For perhaps the first time, the voices of the otherwise disenfranchised -- including the homeless -- were being heard by the community. Using those public terminals in libraries, homeless individuals made a strong case for what they needed to break the cycle of joblessness and homelessness.

Within a year, a PEN Action Group formed, composed of housed and unhoused PENners working together.

Determining that showers, clean clothing, and storage space were essential to homeless job-seekers, they approached the City Council in May of 1990 proposing a centralized homeless services center with showers, washers, and lockers.

The Council said yes. “SHWASHLOCK” was built and is still in use near the Big Blue Bus yards in downtown Santa Monica.

Most of those 1990 City Councilmembers knew PEN well. Chris Reed, David Finkel, Judy Abdo, Denny Zane, Bob Holbrook, and Ken Genser all participated regularly. City staff also made themselves available on PEN.

Discussions of local issues thrived, and new bonds were formed among activists and with City officials.

Our schools became involved, with PEN connections at Olympic High School and Samohi.

By 1991, PEN had connected with international youth empowerment activists for an event at the 18th Street Art Center’s Electronic Café that connected kids from New Zealand to Lithuania.

PEN was an unexpected, exuberant success. What could go wrong?

The relative anonymity of online communication empowered participation without prejudice, but it also disabled the social feedback on behavioral norms that usually shapes and enforces community civility.

Flamers and trolls are not new to today’s social media. Deliberately disruptive behavior first appeared in the 70s on the federal government’s ARPANET system, precursor to the internet, and was documented in the 1978 book “The Network Nation” by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff.

When some users began to post distasteful messages incorporating PEN women into the writers’ dark sexual fantasies, a group called PENFemmes tried to unite the 35 percent of PEN users who were women, systematically ignoring the attackers and working to create more woman-related discussion on PEN.

Meanwhile, though, the same personal nastiness began to permeate other parts of PEN, with ad hominem attacks aimed at fellow users and the City Councilmembers who had initially embraced PEN.

What had begun as productive discussions devolved, and the most positive participants were the first to leave in dismay.

Why, you might ask, did the City not step in to maintain civility?

Santa Monica faced an inescapable problem with having any government agency host a community conversation: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits governmental interference with free speech.

If a few users wanted to turn the wondrous public forum of PEN into a sewer, the City could not stop them.

By the mid-90s, PEN began to wane. In 1995, a City staffer convened excited PEN activists in a back room at the Midnight Special Bookstore on the Promenade to show something new the City would be rolling out: A website! With pictures!

No longer was PEN the only place to aim one’s computer. The new internet was blooming.

More and more people had email, supplanting the rare communication ability PEN had pioneered. In 1998, PEN opened an email gateway to the outside world so Santa Monicans now had a free international email account.

Those of us who were privileged to enjoy PEN in its heyday have probably never since found an online community that was so engaging and so local. PEN the way it existed was a phenomenon of its time.

Today, we know that a public forum hosted by government is unsustainable so long as even a few disruptors choose to exploit their constitutional free speech, making participation unwelcome for many others.

We’ve also learned that online participation by the majority of an elected body is prohibited by California’s Brown Act, lest policy decisions be reached outside of noticed public hearings.

PEN cannot be recreated. But never should it be forgotten.

Kevin McKeown chaired the PEN Users’ Group, served on the Santa Monica Telecommunications Task Force, and has been a City Councilmember since 1998.

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