Watergate Was the World’s First Hashtag

The forgotten computing system PLATO gave us the first digital public forum—and the first time a president threatened to censor online speech.

A photo of Richard Nixon pixelated as if it was downloading in the 1970s.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Excerpted from The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture by Brian Dear. Out now from Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Contrary to what Silicon Valley would like you to believe, the rise of social computing—using computers to connect people and enable them to interact, collaborate, and communicate—not only happened long before the personal computer era even got underway, but it happened far from California. The PLATO computer system, launched in 1960 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was designed to be a platform for online learning, but by the early 1970s it had evolved into something much more, thanks to a growing, enthusiastic user community, many of whom were high school and college students. Within one 12-month stretch between 1973–74, PLATO’s users created online message forums, chat rooms, graphical multiplayer games, instant messaging, email, and even early forms of emoji. Why have these early innovations—which disrupt the generally accepted computer history timeline—been largely forgotten? The fact is, they were not forgotten. The world simply did not pay attention in the first place. Despite the enthusiasm of PLATO’s user community, who viewed the system as a revolution in collaboration, communication, and productivity, the creators and marketers of PLATO insisted on positioning the system as an educational, not general, solution. As a result, historians, the media, and the tech industry dismissed PLATO as not being of any consequence. PLATO became the computer revolution that the world ignored.

Two Illinois graduate students, Valarie Lamont and Stuart Umpleby, explored ways that PLATO might be used beyond education and instead as a digital public commons for civic discussion. By 1972, the two managed to scrounge up a grant of $26,110 from the National Science Foundation to investigate “the use of PLATO to create a new mass communications medium for the discussion of long range community planning.”

“The purpose of the research,” Umpleby explained in a press release, “will be to find the most effective ways of presenting issues on the new medium. We will also try to determine whether patterns of communication and methods of making community decisions change as a result of the availability of the new communications medium.”

By March 1973 Umpleby was penning articles in local papers, advocating for the “community use” of PLATO, fearing that soon the system was going to be swallowed up by corporations. “Try to think how you would like this system to be used,” he wrote. “In a few years PLATO is going to be big. But so far the majority of programs in the computer are just normal course material—there doesn’t seem to be any movement toward general citizen use. As this new federally funded resource comes into existence citizens should challenge any trend toward exclusive use. It should be a public resource. We must compete for a say in its use and set an early precedent of using it to serve our interests as members of the community.”

He soon figured out a new way to set this precedent. Earlier in 1973 Umpleby started experimenting with a simple conferencing program on PLATO called Discuss that enabled people to post up to 10 lines of text as a message, which others could then read and, if they chose to, respond to with their own one- to 10-line messages. If you needed more than 10 lines to make your statement, you had to post the first 10 lines in a message, then reply to your own message with another, and so on. While other groups of PLATO users were discovering and quickly becoming addicted to live-chat applications, Umpleby was more interested in message boards. Live chat was synchronous—you literally had to be there, participating with the other participants in real time. Message boards, forums, conferencing systems were asynchronous—you could post your thoughts at 2 a.m. and not expect, nor care, when others would eventually see them, let alone post replies. Forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and email work the same today.

The ARPANET—the precursor to today’s internet—also had a message board program called FORUM, but content could not be shared with PLATO, and thus, participants in the two systems did not see messages posted on the other system. By 1973 the ARPA network and PLATO network reached sites all over the country, but the networks remained isolated from each other, one of the great tragedies in PLATO’s history. PLATO would remain separate from the technical trajectory of today’s internet until the 1990s, when later generations of the system finally were accessible through personal computers, but by then it was too late.

Umpleby, savvy to PR and maximum coverage, offered to transfer, by hand if necessary, postings from PLATO’s Discuss over into FORUM, so ARPA users would see them there. Likewise, he’d retype FORUM postings into PLATO’s Discuss. “There was a labor-intensive connection,” he says. “It was just an offhand proposal, and it was assuming very low traffic. Back in those days there were many systems and they didn’t overlap much, it was not at all like the current [internet].”

Then came Watergate.

In the summer and fall of 1973, the Watergate scandal was the national preoccupation. It would also become the first cyber community preoccupation. New, ever-more-shocking revelations emerged each day, and on Oct. 20, 1973, a date that quickly became known in the media as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Umpleby opened up a new topic in Discuss at 10:58 p.m.:

A news bulletin tonight reported that Nixon had fired Special Prosecutor Cox. Attorney General Richardson resigned. Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus then became acting attorney general. Nixon gave Ruckelshaus an order which he refused, so Nixon then fired Ruckelshaus. That made the solicitor general the acting attorney general. These events seem certain to produce a serious move for impeachment in the House with the only reservation being the war in the Middle East.

Then, what started out as a fairly factual opening statement suddenly veered in a different direction. Umpleby continued with a series of paragraphs offering a long set of citations linking the Watergate scandal to the JFK assassination. He finished with a question:

What do the participants in this discussion think about all of this: the firing of Cox, the chances of impeachment, and the possibility of connections between Watergate and political assassinations?

Umpleby’s post was no different, in format if not in content, from any typical online message board posting over the past 40 years. Except in 1973, this kind of computer-mediated group conversation was exotic and new. Very few people in the world had any idea what it would mean to have a “discussion” with other people online on a computer. Yet even at the very dawn of computer conferencing, conspiracy theories were alive and kicking.

A variety of PLATO users, mostly students working at or around the PLATO laboratory called CERL at the University of Illinois, read Umpleby’s post and responded into the night and the next day. “The firing of Cox was a bad move,” said John David Eisenberg in the first response that night. “Any connection of Watergate and political assassinations is at best very tenuous and, quite frankly, a highly dangerous item of discussion.”

Umpleby was back the next day, asking Eisenberg, “How do you mean dangerous? Surely not knowing what is going on is more dangerous than knowing.” And so it went the rest of the day and into the night, with more postings about Nixon and Watergate and impeachment—the first online message board debate about a national event unfolding in real time.

Umpleby also decided to see how he could use PLATO and ARPANET not just to debate the issues, but to accelerate the impeachment process by consolidating the political power of geographically separate activist groups. With PLATO and ARPANET, he imagined reaching hundreds, perhaps in time thousands of people. Online was the inevitable future for activism.

“The Undergraduate Student Association on the Urbana campus is engaging in a major effort to lobby Congress in favor of impeachment,” Umpleby posted in Discuss on Monday, Oct.
22. “They have been circulating petitions in the student union, dorms, etc. They have set up tables where students can write letters to their congressmen. … What are other campuses doing on impeachment? Would people on other campuses please tell your student government and student press that these programs exist and can be used to coordinate actions if necessary or to pass around bright ideas.”

It didn’t take long before someone in ARPA’s office at the Pentagon came across the FORUM postings on ARPANET—after all, it was funding not only ARPANET itself, but also this experimental FORUM project. Nor did it take long for word to cross the Potomac and reach the people in Nixon’s besieged White House.

It was right around this time that the White House was making efforts, on Nixon’s orders, to cancel Federal Communications Commission applications by Washington Post–owned television stations in retaliation for their reporting of Watergate. This was not a good time for Nixon’s people to learn of talk of impeachment and political mobilization going on over the wires of some Defense Department–funded computer network. This was an era when activism on college campuses was taken very seriously: Buildings were often occupied, demonstrations often turned violent, campuses were sometimes completely shut down, and sometimes people were killed, as at Kent State and Jackson State just a few years earlier.

It is certainly possible to imagine that some of these concerns might have entered the minds of the government officials. If the Nixon administration had no misgivings about abusing its governmental power to go after activists and the Washington Post for its coverage of Watergate, it does not require a stretch of imagination to see how it’d have no problem shutting down obscure, government-funded computer networks over which anti-Nixon opinions were being expressed. The White House’s reaction to this is significant in that this may be the first time in history (and certainly not the last) that a government threatened to shut down people communicating over a computer network because it did not like what they were saying.

It didn’t take long for both the National Science Foundation and the Pentagon to track down and call Don Bitzer, the founder of PLATO and director of CERL. The NSF called Bitzer to tell him that its funding of PLATO had been threatened by the White House and soon afterward, Bitzer learned funding for ARPANET was threatened as well. He found himself reassuring a Pentagon official that he was aware that it might seem like there was a PLATO effort to bring down the head of the executive branch but that he would make sure that the education-only standards of PLATO were being observed. Bitzer asked Umpleby to add a disclaimer to the opening screen users would see as they entered Discuss. That night a page was added:

PLATO in its present implementation within the University of Illinois is essentially an extension of the classroom. While discussion of current topics is as legitimate on PLATO as in the classroom, it is not permissible in the classroom or on PLATO to organize political mobilization. For this reason, CERL cannot at this time permit the use of the PLATO system for organizing political activities.

The next day, Saturday, Nov. 3, Umpleby updated the Discuss participants with more news:

The situation is apparently more serious than I thought yesterday afternoon. The Institute for the Future’s program forum on the ARPA network is no longer available. … Continuation of their work seems to be endangered. … It is hard to believe that a few comments in one program could cause such a reaction. What is also interesting, however, is that apparently on the basis of only one comment, the Pentagon understood the importance of computer-based communications media. Months and even years of talking and attempting to persuade social scientists had produced at best indifference. Such differences in reaction testify far more eloquently than a scientific article why those who are the establishment are there and why social science has been so ineffective.

Participants were quick to thank Bitzer for stepping in and taking a stand. “Professor Bitzer deserves considerable praise for allowing programs like this to exist,” said one user. “The response to Pentagon ‘suggestions’ by other University of Illinois administrators would have almost certainly been to simply delete the program to avoid a hassle, especially one with a funding agency.”

The trouble for Umpleby, however, was not over yet. He happened to mention in passing to a friend “a little bit of a flap with the Pentagon a few months ago,” who mentioned the story to a reporter at Businessweek. An article titled “No Computer Talk on Impeachment” appeared in Businessweek on March 16, 1974:

The Pentagon is picking a fight with top universities by refusing to let its Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network be used for a study of impeachment. The network, located at civilian campuses but funded by the Pentagon, is being adapted to provide a nationwide “teleconferencing” system. By using a designated code number, scholars could tap in at any time to contribute data and ideas to an ongoing conference on almost any subject. Some subjects apparently are taboo. Political science professor Stuart Umpleby of the University of Illinois says that the contractor for the network, Institute for the Future, turned him down when he proposed a study of impeachment and now is barring him from any access. “They were just scared they’d lose the contract and knuckled under to anything the Pentagon said,” he charges.

In 1973, the Nixon administration came this close to killing not only the PLATO project but the ARPANET as well, simply because people were using these networks to talk politics—a politics that the White House did not agree with. Even in the earliest days of online communities, the threat of online censorship was real and tangible.

Nearly 50 years later, practically everyone in the world is communicating over computer networks, living the “online life” that PLATO users pioneered. Long before Apple and Microsoft were founded, decades before America Online and the web existed, the worldwide PLATO community—which remained larger than the entire ARPANET user community into the early 1980s—thrived on a platform that most personal computer users would not begin to recognize until the 1990s, its users already hard at work trying to figure out how to take advantage this strange new public resource without breaking civilization in the process.

The cover of The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.