The UK Facebook that could have been – 14 years before Zuckerberg

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No, we’re not talking about MySpace or My_____ as we should refer to it these days. We’re talking about Monochrome, a social network born in 90s Britain which helped people keep in touch with each other online.

Inspired by film The Social Network I started having a chat with @absinthecity about pre-Facebook facebooks and she mentioned Monochrome as something she’d used back in the 90s – a UK based Facebook that could have been.

With strong parallels to the story of Zuckerberg and Facebook, Monochrome was set up by a student David Brownlee at City University in London as as a way to keep in touch with friends and spread among students as a way of communicating with each other. Brownlee was just a little bit ahead of Zuckerberg – Monochrome hit the web in 1990, where Facebook launched 14 years later in 2004.

There were profiles, live chat forums and users had “diaries” instead of notes, “meets” instead of events..And as you can probably see from the Monochrome screengrab above, the conversations happening on there were pretty similiar to what everyone talks about on Facebook these days.

Monochrome was built up on a Bulletin Board System (BBS) and is Wikipedia’s prime example of a BBS.

So uh, given the 14 year lead time, why aren’t we Monochroming rather than Facebooking each other these days?

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Well, its fatal flaw was perhaps being too techie. Most commands have to be inputted with square brackets. And where Facebook’s strapline is “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Monochrome goes a bit more high-brow…

“Welcome to Monochrome, a sophisticated, highly interactive, multi user messaging and conferencing system. You can send messages to other users logged on, leave messages for those who aren’t, participate in a wide range of discussions, and communicate in real time using a talker.”

I think they probably lost the average web browser at “sophisticated”.

Then there was also the little question of images. Monochrome was almost proudly text based, but when the use of images grew on the web, places where you could share pictures became a lot more attractive. Images are just a bit more immediately engaging.

The boards are still alive and well, though usership must have dipped down to a dedicated hardcore by now..

Still, if you watch the Social Network, just remember Britain had its own

NB: the Wikipedia article on Monochrome BBS has been deleted, but is available to be viewed here

Anna Leach

7 comments

  • I know I’m a little late, but I read this and thought back to the mid 90’s – I remember alta vista, netscape, yahoo dominance and never finding anything on the web yet as most companies and people werent present yet!

    So the comment: “…the average web browser..” is an oxymoron as there wasn’t an average web-user at that stage, in the UK or anywhere else I’d bet.

    The truth is that the WWW needed to be in place before the masses started using the internet in earnest (I remember using the internet mostly for the useful applications like FTP, Telnet, ICQ etc) so that social networking for the masses (using an interface that is simple and accessible on multiple devices) could be a reality.

    I bet if monochrome was accessible and known by the internet population here when they were actually using the internet, it would have been popular until the web-based apps came out..

  • oh thanks Davoloid & the others for that bunch of new information – interesting.
    And oops sorry that bracket thing is WRONG, thanks for pointing it out

  • The technical problem with Mono was, for me, that by default it didn’t work behind any of the office security I found myself behind after c2000. To get it to work in my office in 2000 I had to get our sysadmins to make a hole in the firewall on one port. Not a very big deal, but by the time I left that unusually flexible start-up and started working at a larger company (c2004) I was glad to have Livejournal and, yes, eventually FB cos I didn’t have a prayer of getting Mono to work from there. I suspect the techie-heavy userbase was not only or even primarily because it was technically hard to use (it wasn’t, really) but that to use it from work one more-or-less had to be the person in charge of the work network.

    But it was a great service – ad-free, so much faster than any social network I use today it was effectively instant and it had both blogs (in the technically not-blog sense cos it wasn’t on the web) and IM which were great. And I still don’t know a better way of staging an online debate than the Three Chambers.

  • Your link to the website there is out of date – we launched a new site recently. The correct URL is simply http://www.mono.org/

    You can connect to Mono using the instructions on the Connect page. Have a look (-:

  • It’s interesting that this article appeared whilst Monochrome is trying to encourage new users.

    With apologies to the non-techies, it is worth understanding that the Monochrome BBS never “hit the web” – the whole point, and one of the reasons it’s text based, is that it uses a different protocol to websites (for the techies: telnet or SSH rather than HTTP or HTTPS). One advantage of this is that it’s actually pretty streamlined and it’s been usable from all sorts of devices from the dumb terminals that were still in use even a couple of decades ago to the most recent of smart phones, without having to mess about with a different mobile version.

    And, for what it’s worth, commands never had to be “inputted with square brackets” – you just press the letter for the option you want, it was just shown between square brackets to make it obvious what to press as if it were a letter on a keyboard.

    Still, 20 years old and still going strong is not to be sniffed at.

  • Great article, funnily enough, we’ve been having this conversation over the last few months on Mono!

    Actually, the mono userbase is still about the same since the mid-90’s, 30 people regularly logged on, and still a wide variety of discussions.

    Although it’s still text based, your recollection is a little confused: the brackets only indicated the keypresses for each file/menu, meaning navigation through the system is flexible, powerful and fast, all from a keyboard.

    Personally, I think that’s why it survives, because it allows users to keep track of several fairly deep conversations throughout the day, or skip easily to a previous point in the topic or discussion, even going back over years. In that way it performs better than chat or forums, effectively inhabiting some kind of space between them. New functionality has also been added by users including Twitter and RSS feeds, Calendar sync etc.

    @GlennPedgen did a talk at Barcamp London about the history of BBS’s and Monochrome in particular. Slides and handouts here: http://lanyrd.com/2010/barcamp-london-8/stbx/

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